Hidden Camera Gags, OCD Fuel Mandel’s Reality Fun

Bravo may have found the key to the evolving hybrid reality-show genre: Make it funny.

In Hidden Howie: The Private Life of a Public Nuisance, the network combines the spontaneity of reality with improvisational bits in a format that works. Having a hidden camera follow the talented stand-up comic Howie Mandel in his “real” life, shows how his everyday, mundane situations evolve into nationally televised segments on programs like The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

Julie Warner (Family Law, Nip/Tuck) plays Howie’s wife, while Estelle Harris (Seinfeld) stars as Howie’s mother Nana. The show also prominently features guest star Leno, plus appearances by Marlee Matlin, Jillian Barberie and John Mendoza.

The best moments are inappropriately funny and induce laughter traced with guilt and gasp, because Mandel can get away with humor that is wrong on so many levels. The hidden camera glasses provide a clever disguise and excuse to have his victims look him in the eyes and show their faces clearly, though one has to wonder how even a clean-shaven Mandel can get away with undercover gags in his hometown Los Angeles suburb.

His obsessive-compulsive behavior — especially his germ phobia — also serves as an ever-present character, though not as loudly as one might expect, given the show’s opening. Still, the OCD does manage to rear its ugly head when he’s in public places, enclosed spaces or before a houseguest with a cold sore.

Some of the improvised scenes are funny enough to stand alone and make the show worth watching, but Mandel’s comedic background gives reason for the videotaped segments to play into the script without necessitating a drum roll.

Bravo executives may be hoping this little comedic gem will attract viewers not interested in the slow motion train wreck that is Being Bobby Brown or Battle of the Network Reality Stars, a revival of the 1970s TV celebrity competition, whose updated version mainly extends the 15 minutes for personalities better stopped at 10 minutes of fame. Hidden Howie targets an audience who can laugh at a joke that’s not meant to be taken seriously, by a guy who has yet to grow up.

Hidden Howie: The Private Life of a Public Nuisance premieres Thursday, Aug. 18 at 11 p.m. ET/PT, then relocates to its regular 11 p.m. timeslot on Mondays, beginning Aug. 22.