Less than a month into his new gig as a daytime talk-show host, Howie Mandel is a happy man.

Not that the ratings have been so great. (They've been decent but nothing spectacular.) Not that the reviews have been so great. (They've been mixed.)But the guy who has been a comedian, an actor (he played Wayne Fiscus on "St. Elsewhere" for five seasons) and the creator, producer and voice of an animated boy in "Bobby's World" finally feels like he can be just plain Howie.

"For 20 years, I've been in this business in some form or another . . . but I have never had the opportunity to be myself. And I am a real person - a real, three-dimensional person who has been married for 20 years and has three kids," he said. "It's comforting to finally just be Howie. The person you're watching on `The Howie Mandel Show' is just me. It's not a character I'm playing.

"But it's actually scarier. I've never been more scared career-wise than I am now with this. Because this is like being naked out there in front of the world. I've always been able to hide behind a character, behind a performance, behind jokes, behind a costume, behind a voice. Now I'm just me."

And that removes any insulation he had between himself and any criticism he might receive.

"Which also makes it the scariest thing for me, because if you don't like it and write something negative, it hurts. I could always chalk up (bad reviews) to, hey, they don't like the character, they don't like the project, they don't like the jokes," he said. "Now, it's just me."

Mandel did admit that he agreed to alter his appearance a bit for the talk show, which airs weekdays at 3 p.m. on KUTV-Ch. 2, but that only required a razor to remove his goatee.

"Focus groups told me they don't trust guys with facial hair," he said. "I shaved and I took off the earrings. But, ultimately, I'm still me."

And he admits that just plain Howie is still learning how to be a talk-show host. But he does feel pretty comfortable.

"Because I have so much preparation and because I'm so comfortable in my preparation, I have the ability to go off of the plan," Mandel said. "I'm somewhat unpredictable. I like to have fun. I like to do things that maybe other people wouldn't do and go off the beaten path."

His most notable moment to this point came when he violated - sort of - an agreement not to talk to guest Jennifer Aniston about her relationship with Brad Pitt. With a bit of a gleam in his eye, Mandel told the "Friends" star about how he and his wife had been watching videos like "Legends of the Fall" and "Thelma & Louise" - films Pitt starred in.

Aniston, meanwhile, sat there and looked rather uncomfortable. Not that it was exactly mean.

"Even though I'm playful, I don't mean anybody any harm and I don't want to embarrass anybody. I really want it to be a place where people can have a good time and just feel relaxed," Mandel said. "I'm not trying to bury somebody and I'm just trying to have fun. And it's good-natured. . . . But I think that it's a real conversation. It's not just an interview. I want people to sit down, like I would have them in my house, and have a conversation with them."

Mandel sounds like sort of the proverbial kid in the candy store as he discusses his new job. "There's a golf cart with my name on it!" he said. "I'm so thrilled by everything."

And he can't get over the fact that he's occupying the studio at NBC in Burbank where Johnny Carson reigned as king of late-night for so long.

"That's the most amazing thing," Mandel said. "I walked in the room and I thought my heart was going to break through my chest just thinking about how this room is mine."

And he's also both amazed and somewhat intimidated by the size of the staff required to produce the show every day - a whopping 102 people. Mandel maintains that after he first became aware of all those people, "I went home and I was in a cold sweat. I didn't sleep all night."

Instead, he was trying to call Michael Rotenberg, his manager and an executive producer of the show.

"I was trying to call him in the middle of the night and say, `You've got to get me out of this! This is so big! There's 102 people!' " Mandel said.

It's not that he has stage fright, but the thought of having 102 people whose jobs depend on his performance was rather un-nerving.

"There's no words to describe how thrilling it is. How scary it is. It's unbelievable," Mandel said. "I can't even fathom that all these people are working on `The Howie Mandel Show.' "

Scary or not, he's happy with the gig. And he's hoping it lasts for a while.

"My goals are to be able to sit here in front of you 20 years from now still talking about this show," Mandel said.

HE'S A NATURAL: Joe Mantegna, commenting on his upcoming gig as the host of a History Channel documentary about the Roman Empire, deadpanned, "It's remarkable you chose me, considering my obvious Scandinavian background."

IT'S SHORTER: David Frost, commenting on his upcoming two-hour documentary about the Cold War as compared to the 24-hour documentary series on the same subject coming from CNN, said. "Ours is the concise one, probably."

HAIR TODAY: Marianne Curan, host of a couple of viewer-interactive shows on the Game Show Network, pointed out she's different from most of her colleagues.

"No, I'm not your typical game-show host," she said. "I don't wear a toupee."

GOOD ANSWER: Tom Arnold, who's starring in an upcoming movie for the Fox Family Channel, was asked what he thought the chances are for his ex-wife, Roseanne, achieving success as a talk-show host.

"Who?" he replied.