Sebastian Maniscalco: Nobody does this…
We could all use a little bit of humour these days, so who better to turn to than the king of observational comedy, Sebastian Maniscalco.
Have you ever heard of Uncle Luigi? If you’re not familiar with him, stand-up comedian Sebastian Maniscalco will make it his mission to make sure you know all about him, from the seating chart at his fifth wedding to how he can negotiate a deal on anything. Yes, Maniscalco’s could be described as “old-school” comedy, but his reliance on family situations and physical comedy might be the sort of things that transcend trends and fads. The total command of his body language he displays to illustrate his jokes may very well be the best in the business. His rise during the last five years has been remarkable. He has released five comedy specials. He is fifth-highest earning comedian in America, earning an average of $26 million a year. He regularly sells out arenas. Jerry Seinfeld is a friend and admirer.
Maniscalco will be the first to say that comedy can’t be learned, it must be earned. It took him nearly 20 years to develop his “Can you believe this?” style of humour. “You don’t become a bodybuilder the first day you start lifting weights,” he explains. “Same thing with comedy. You gotta flesh out your joke, your bit. You add and subtract. You see what works.”
After going to college and getting a degree in communication studies, he moved to Los Angeles in 1998. Maniscalco performed at open mics in bars and bowling alleys, while working as a waiter for seven years. Like Uncle Luigi would probably say, “If you don’t win, work harder.” While running to gigs at the famed Comedy Store, home to legends like Robin Williams and David Letterman, his persistence paid off: then-massive comic Andrew Dice Clay saw him onstage one night and took a young Maniscalco on the road with him. Soon after, Vince Vaughn enlisted him for his “Wild West Comedy Show.” From there, things started to snowball. One of the reasons for Maniscalco’s upward climb is that he’s not content to rest in his little section of the industry and likes to challenge himself. His hosting gig at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2019 was seen as a feat of bravery: he made jokes about millennials in front of an audience full of them. But that’s Maniscalco in a nutshell: he’s not going to change what he does for you; he’ll do the same routine no matter who’s listening. His developing acting career includes roles in Green Book and The Irishman. In 2018, he published his bestselling memoir, Stay Hungry. We couldn’t pass up the chance to sit down with Sebastian to find out what makes him laugh.
Q: How do you think your family’s Sicilian background informed your life growing up in Illinois?
A: My father was born and raised in Sicily and came to the United States when he was 15 years old. My mother was born and raised in Chicago, and so I had an interesting dynamic growing up where my father kind of brought this old-school, Old-World mentality to the United States and kind of kept that. Then, I also had a mother who was born and raised in the United States and was obviously more Americanized than my father.
You know, most immigrants, especially in the Italian community, they would either own a restaurant, or they’re in construction and they do certain things career-wise, and it’s just odd that I have a straight hairdresser father… I had an immigrant father and a native mother who grew up in the United States. And that was kind of odd, too, because a lot of the friends whom I had growing up, they had both immigrant parents from the old country. We didn’t live in our basement; we didn’t have plastic on our furniture. We went on vacations a lot; we went out to dinner a lot. And that wasn’t the case for some of my friends who had Italian parents from the old country, where they stayed at home, they made all their meals at home, they didn’t really go on vacations. I felt like I had the best of both worlds when it came to that.
Q: Do you believe that comedy is ultimately just observing the commonplace aspects of everyday life? What is your personal definition of comedy?
A: Comedy has a lot of different sources. Mine tends to come from everyday life and relatability. Some comedians sit at their desk and write funny jokes and come up with scenarios. I typically like to draw from real-life situations. A lot of people are like, “Oh, the pandemic must’ve given you a lot of material.” And it didn’t really give me a lot of material, because I wasn’t out doing a lot of things. I was inside. I have to live my life, I have to go on ski trips, or I have to go to soccer practice with my son to draw from those experiences. If I’m just stagnant, I feel it’s not the best as far as drawing comedy. I feel like you have to be out in the world and doing things that other people do that are relatable. I’ve always loved that type of comedy. I’ll watch a comedian and go, “Oh my God, I do that” or “That’s so funny, because my father’s like that.” I feel like comedy is about relationships, about familiarity, and that’s kind of where I like to play.
Q: Other than comedy, you obviously are known for your love for food. What was it like filming Well Done?
A: My passion for food, I think, stems from my childhood. My grandmother, my mother, obviously, being really really good cooks and experiencing different foods at such a young age and then subsequently meeting my wife and her enjoying food and wine. We got married in Napa, Calif. Her family introduced me to a whole world of wine, and I just thought food always brought people together. And I got that from my family when we sat down at the dinner table. It was kind of a conduit to all of us coming together. As an adult, I enjoyed having people at the house, either cooking or partying and hospitality. I’m really big on hospitality. I used to work at the Four Seasons Hotel, which actually started in Canada, in Toronto, and I worked there for seven years in Beverly Hills, Calif. I really got a bird’s-eye view on high-end food, high-end wine, how to decant a bottle of wine. I was exposed to a lot of these things I would never have been exposed to growing up. You know, we didn’t have the money to stay at the Four Seasons growing up, and so I got a really good education on anticipating people’s needs. That’s what I like. When my father comes to visit, I like to get his favourite bread or nice cured meats or cheeses. I like seeing people get happy with food.
“If You Don’t Have Family, To Me, You Don’t Have Anything”
The Well Done show basically stemmed from the pandemic. I was helping my buddy who’s a chef, and he’s also a guy who provides a lot of product to restaurants. And he was kind of struggling, so we did a dinner, a virtual dinner over Zoom, where he prepared the food, and I was the comedic part of the supper. It was called “Sunday Supper.” And I was like, “Wow, I really enjoy this. This is nice.” And I was like, “How do we make a TV show out of it?” I was interested in a lot of aspects of food. Like, “How do you make sushi?” to these crafted cocktails now. It’s not just a cranberry vodka anymore — it’s seven or eight different ingredients. How do you source all the ingredients to make cocktails? I was interested in all these different things in the food space. So, we took 13 of my favourite things that I wanted to learn more about and made a TV show about it. It was good. I had fun doing it. It’s something I would’ve never done before, but I think it was a good way of marrying my two passions of comedy and culinary arts.
Q: In 2018, you made your feature film debut, as Johnny Venere, in the Academy Award-winning film Green Book, and in November 2019, you appeared in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman playing “Crazy” Joe Gallo alongside Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. What was that like?
A: In those two movies, I have small parts in those movies, so the time required on set wasn’t long. It was maybe five to seven days. In both of those movies, I’m working with arguably some of the finest actors of our time. I couldn’t have planned working with De Niro, Pesci and Mahershala Ali, and it just doesn’t happen, even for actors who do this full time. Even they don’t get these opportunities, and I get back-to-back movies working with some of the best. I had a lot of anxiety, because that’s something I don’t do on a day-to-day basis, and so there was a lot of doubt. “Can I do this? Am I good enough? Can I pull this off?”
I just did a movie that I co-wrote and it basically centres around my real life. It’s a love story between a father and son, and it’s loosely based on my life. The father is played by De Niro, and that was six weeks of shooting in Alabama, where I was in practically every scene. It was a comedy. And the difference is, in stand-up, obviously, you do something onstage and people laugh. In a movie, no one’s laughing, because you’re shooting a movie. For me, it was an adjustment because the whole validation of what I’m doing onstage is to hear people laugh. But with a movie, when you don’t get the laugh, at least for me, I was like, “Is this funny? Is this working?” That was a big adjustment for me. And the amount of time, 12 to 13 hours a day on set, there’s a lot of adjustments and lighting, and so it’s a lot of repetition. And for me, I like excitement, and the movie business is not exciting — it’s not stand-up, I’ll tell you that.
I guess someone said that 90 per cent of the movie business is not glamour, but the 10 per cent that is so above and beyond that that’s why people keep coming back … I like acting, but I wouldn’t do it full time. My true passion is stand-up comedy.
Q: You’re known for your “nostalgia” type of humour. That being said, what is a topic that you feel you could work on comedically time and time again and never get tired of?
A: Probably personal family experiences. Anything with my father tends to be very fruitful when it comes to comedy. My wife is a good place for me to live when it comes to stand-up. Now that my kids are growing up, four and a half and two and a half, I’m going into a lot of scenarios and experiences that are new to me, like dropping them off at school, other parents, birthday parties. My comedy kind of parallels my life and what stage I am in my life and I’ve been talking a lot more about raising kids. I think the kid thing is definitely something I could dive into more in the future.
Q: Has cancel culture changed the way you work in any way? Do you feel you have to be more conservative?
A: No, it doesn’t. As soon as I start not being who I am, then it’s not funny anymore. So, if I have to edit myself because I think someone is going to get bent out of shape, then I may as well just not be doing comedy anymore. I think people lost their sense of humour along the way. I think the sensitivity has gotten way way out of hand. None of what I’m saying onstage is malicious or mean. I’m pointing out the obvious, making fun of my family, or what I see, but I’m also making fun of myself. If you can’t have a good laugh about stuff like that, you shouldn’t be watching stand-up comedy at all.
Q: What has been the proudest moment throughout your career thus far?
A: There are so many good things that have happened to me in the last six to seven years. It’s hard to really pinpoint one. I mean, selling out four shows at Madison Square Garden is pretty monumental for me. It’s something that I never really thought would happen. When I got into this business in 1998, all I wanted to do was make people laugh, and do it for a living. I didn’t have a goal on my vision board to sell out arenas, or anything like that, it just kind of happened. But, for me, going to New York City I brought my father onstage, my mother, my sister. I actually brought my wife and daughter onstage in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre, and so I guess sharing the moments with the people I love are most important to me. I brought my four best friends from college with me onstage in Chicago, took a photo. So, I guess to have people very close to you in your life share your accomplishments, I think, really means a lot to me, rather than me doing it alone. It’s no fun. Sharing is the proudest thing I get to do, but Madison Square Garden is the pinnacle for me.
Q: What are some of the lessons you hope to teach your children? How has having children shaped your work comedically?
A: Well, it’s a different environment than when I grew up. I grew up working middle class. I had jobs. I had my own lawn-cutting service when I was 12 years old. I was cutting lawns with another kid in the neighbourhood. I always worked really really hard, and now, you have to kind of create adversity for your kids because they’re living in a world where we’re not hungry. We’re living a very nice life, so you have to be mindful as a parent to not over-give or make it too easy for them. They have to grow up with some type of work ethic, and so that’s my biggest fear. I take it very seriously that my kids have a sense of, or understanding, that this life that we’re living is not a life that a lot of people have and that we’re very fortunate to be where we’re at, but that you make your own bed. You know, nobody gave me anything that I have. I worked really really hard for it. And so I just want to transfer that, like my father transferred it to me, I want to transfer that into them. I want my kids to be a lot more successful than I am, but I’m not going to give it to them. They’re going to have to work for it.
“My Comedy Kind Of Parallels My Life And What Stage I Am In My Life … ”
Q: In 2016, you and your wife set up Tag You’re It! Foundation to give back to causes that you’re passionate about, including U.S. veterans, Alzheimer’s disease and children’s education. Can you speak on why it’s important for you to give back and your philanthropic work?
A: There are three things we like to give to: Alzheimer’s research is one, because my grandfather had Alzheimer’s and it took a toll, not only on him, but also our family. Children, ever since I’ve had kids. We gave to Children’s Hospital last year here in Los Angeles, and another one is veterans. My father was in the army, and I have a strong affinity to the military, and so those are the three main things. But we give to other organizations, especially during COVID. We gave to an organization that provides food for those struggling during COVID. When you reach a certain level of success and you make a certain amount of money, you want to give back and do your part and solve some of the world’s problems, or help in some way, shape or form. Charity, for me, was ingrained as a young kid. We used to adopt a family every year during Christmas. My mother would say, “Hey, there’s this family. We’re putting together a basket of toys and pants and socks.” And that showed me that, even though we live in a middle-class family, there are people out there struggling and need help. My wife’s family is also big on charity and they do a huge charity event in Naples, Florida, every year for the kids in the south of Florida. It’s always been around me, and I always want to do my part.
Q: Who makes you laugh the most?
A: My friend George. He’s probably the funniest guy I’ve ever met or known. He’s a buddy I went to college with. He lives in Chicago. We talk pretty much every day, and he’s a guy who has my funny bone. He’s extremely, extremely funny.
Q: Which famous person in history would you want to spend the day with?
A: Frank Sinatra. Everything that he did was fascinating to me. Just a class act.
Q: What does la dolce vita mean to you?
A: Family. I guess that’s the biggest thing in my life that really really brings me happiness. There’s nothing better than having my family around me during the holidays, or a random Sunday. I think family, to me, is the best. If you don’t have family, to me, you don’t have anything.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Interview by Estelle Zentil