"I don't know who that is," says manic Howie Mandel, host of "Howie Do It," debuting Jan. 9, at 8 p.m., on NBC.
With a show like "Howie Do It" ... C'mon, Howie, are you punking me? Wouldn't be the first time that Mandel would pull a prank; after all, this is the guy who played the punkish Fiscus on "St. Elsewhere" and has gone on to claim that he almost starved to death fasting on Yom Kippur -- because no one told him to stop.
Stop, you're killing me, Howie. And the Canadian carpet-salesman-cum-comedian loves to pull the rug out from under audiences -- or, in the case of his ever-popular "Deal or No Deal," a metallic case containing big bucks.
What's the deal with Howie Mandel?
It's Howie's duty -- prank or be pranked: At 54, he's a boomer with a bang -- and the noises he's making now are on behalf of the candidly apprised update of "Candid Camera": "Howie Do It" does confrontational comedy with the late Allen Funt a font of inspiration.
The show shows off Howie's wild side: Contestants are convinced they're auditioning for TV/movie roles and are asked to partake in outlandish out-there happenings; or deal with a demented director doing a sex scene; or, maybe, a restaurant server giving them the finger.
Mandel? Deal him in. Oh, waiter, is that a Howie in my soup?
Ah, the scene in which Mandel -- posing with a wig -- wigs out an unsuspecting customer he's serving by sticking his fingers in a suddenly unappetizing appetizer.
Mandel's fears had a hand in staging this shtick. Known for his obsessive-compulsive disorder, he handles the patron's order stemming from his own mania and mishugas.
A hand-bumper long before there was Obama is afraid not so much of things that go bump in the night -- well, just as long as they don't bump into him.
"Just because that was my horror," he concedes of the touching tale that plagues many of those who suffer OCD -- having to shake hands -- "I thought it would be interesting to see how people react if I was a waiter who had their finger in more than they should."
Mandel's not exactly all thumbs since starting a comedy career on a dare at an open mic night more than 30 years ago, yanking legs as the Yukon of yuks at the Yuk Yuk club up north in Canada.
But then, he relates, before "Howie Do It" was a done deal, Mandel had only himself to turn to for inspiration. "I got thrown out of school [in 10th grade] for hiring a contractor to put an addition onto the library; obviously, I didn't have the authority to do so."
Dewey wins! It's a prank with an extended shelf life: "People were out there measuring, and they had the survey thing. And the principal went out and asked what they were doing, and he said, 'Who authorized this?' "
Smart-ass kid, but not too smart, that hardy-har-har Howie. "I had given my name."
And then, his first shout-out, and he knew it wasn't for "The Price Is Right": " 'Would Howard Mandel please come down to the audience ... the office' ... I always get those two things mixed up."
He was about to mix it up with the principal, who wanted to know, "What do you think you're doing?"
"I said, 'Well, I thought I was being responsible.' "After all, he told the principal, "I wasn't going to just take the first bid."
A contract killing at a price that would have had Tony Soprano kvelling: high-school hijinks -- the punch line principle. So began Mandel's bid for fun and fame, which has carried him through many a club, many a commitment to late-night talk shows, and to take on the occasional movie.
A Jewish gremlin with a gimmick: He voiced the character of Gizmo in "Gremlins" 25 years ago.
It's Howie's world and welcome to it -- and he was a welcome source of kid TV for his Emmy Award-nominated "Bobby's World."
Mandel as actor? It's not so much a stretch as the gig he's got with a latex glove, pulling it over his head, breathing through his nose until the glove becomes an airborne Glad bag and soars into the stratosphere.
If it don't fit you, must acquit -- but it suited Mandel just fine, and Mandel acquitted himself riotously as the act served as a source of his comedy album, "Fits Like a Glove."
Give the man a hand -- but not a handshake. How hard must that be on his kids? Middle-child of three Alex, 19, aids and abets his dad these days, betting it'll be more than fun -- it'll land great ratings.
The college student is getting quite an education -- and quite a kick -- serving as sidekick to his father's silly shenanigans on the NBC show. But growing up ... did Alex ever feel he had to apologize for his apoplectic father when his friends came over?
"Yeah," he says. "A lot."
Dad seems taken aback; how so, asks Howie: "Was I embarrassing?"
The son will come out tomorrow, but the father's on all the time. "All my friends loved him. I felt embarrassed for him."
Well, then, reasons Howie with a twisted Talmudic logic that would send Tevye for the Tylenol, he raised his kid properly. "Dads should be embarrassing, and I filled the role."
Like the time he filled the pool with a chocolate bar -- and watched everyone evacuate the premises.
But the best cons could very well be not the one Howie pulls off himself but watching as his scion signs off on his own prank. "Watching him, the next generation, my baby boy, prank somebody else ...," says Papa proudly of "my shining moment."
"I don't know if any other father would feel the pride that I felt that he was able to prank a perfect stranger, but it was just a wonderfully, emotionally, funny, great moment."
With or without the latex.