Sebastian Maniscalco Stays Hungry

Sebastian Maniscalco
Brian Samuelson
– Sebastian Maniscalco
Sebastian Maniscalco performs at one of four sold-out Madison Square Garden shows in January.

Sebastian Maniscalco is backstage at Madison Square Garden, wearing blue jeans, a white hoodie and a surprisingly zen expression for someone who’ll soon perform to a crowd of 18,000 people for the fourth time in just over 24 hours. He’s about to do a meet-and-greet with some fans who have bought VIP packages, but he has a slight problem.

“I look at [my shows] like I’m hosting, and I’m really happy that you came out and, when you leave my party, I’m going to say goodbye to you,” the massively popular comic tells Pollstar shortly before taking the stage for his fourth and final sold-out show at the New York arena in January. “Obviously, I can’t do it for 20,000 people. But when I was doing the clubs, that was kind of the method to the madness.”

For the last decade, Maniscalco and his manager, comedy world power player and Levity Live partner Judi Marmel, have honed a strategy that revolves around the grassroots.

“The early days were him spending more time outside of a comedy club than he did inside, thanking people, taking pictures, getting cakes and quilts, getting rosaries,” Marmel says. “This guy did the work.”

Not every element of that approach scales to arenas. But the 45-year-old comedian wouldn’t be headlining Madison Square Garden – four times over, no less – without the patient, dedicated approach he’s taken.

Kevin Mazur
– Striking A Pose
Maniscalco shows off his signature physicality to illustrate a joke at Madison Square Garden.
“To play to 73,000 people over the weekend at the most iconic arena in the world, to me, is the kind of pinnacle of my career,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of nice things happen to me, but this weekend in particular has been really special.”

That also applies to Maniscalco’s bottom line. The comic’s four-show run at Madison Square Garden Jan. 19-20 – two shows per night – sold 72,960 tickets and grossed a whopping $8.28 million.

For perspective, the few comedians who headline the Garden play one show, maybe two, at the hallowed arena. In November, the crass Bill Burr sold 17,532 tickets and grossed $863,443. In October 2016, the even crasser Amy Schumer sold 11,814 tickets for a gross of $1,063,992.

Though Maniscalco can clearly call the tri-state area a stronghold – nine months before his run at the Garden he sold 27,941 tickets over five shows at Radio City Music Hall for a gross of $3.39 million – his appeal seems to know no geographic region. In 2018, he was one of a handful of comedians to make Pollstar’s Year End Top 100 Worldwide Tours chart, selling 266,244 tickets for a gross of $21.5 million; only Kevin Hart ($51.5 million), Jeff Dunham ($24.8 million) and Steve Martin and Martin Short ($24.6 million) grossed more. Maniscalco even surpassed Jerry Seinfeld ($19.8 million), who has lent the younger comic additional cred by inviting Maniscalco to open for him and featuring him on the series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” 

The comic stands at the vanguard of a live comedy revolution that began in the late ’90s and early ’00s as basic cable and niche programming offered comedians more creative avenues, and that accelerated over the last decade with the advent of social media and platforms including Netflix and YouTube. In 2014, Billboard estimated the live comedy sphere’s revenue at $300 million, and the number keeps growing. In essence, it’s easier than ever for people to keep up with the comedy world, and that engagement has translated to the box office.

But who the hell is Maniscalco? Born in 1973 to Italian immigrants in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, Maniscalco moved to Los Angeles in the late ’90s, where he spent years building his name. In 2005, he appeared on the bill of Vince Vaughn’s traveling Wild West Comedy Show, which a documentary chronicled the following year.

Todd Rosenberg
– International Powerhouse
Maniscalco and manager Judi Marmel outside Scotiabank Arena (formerly Air Canada Centre), where the comic sold 18,458 tickets and grossed $1.16 million in March 2018.
“I ain’t gonna lie to you,” says Maniscalco, recalling those years with fondness. “The best place to do a show, for me, is at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard [in West Hollywood]. Packed, sweating, you can smell the chicken nuggets in the front row. Those are the shows I really like.”

Soon after, Maniscalco and Marmel’s paths crossed for the first time. Marmel, a native of Colorado Springs, Colo., had spent the ’80s establishing a comedy circuit in the mountain and plains states – “Everybody that was coming from L.A. and New York would basically work this circuit, because it was a way for them to get across the country,” she says – and landed at HBO as a talent scout in the mid-’90s.

In 2007, Budweiser was plotting an ill-fated foray into the content business as and filmed a special with Maniscalco in preparation. Marmel produced and they “became friendly.” But that didn’t seal the deal. An integral element of Maniscalco’s style today is his physicality, which he had yet to perfect.

“With an artist, it’s about it being the right time in their career, the right time in your career,” says Marmel, explaining that after shooting Maniscalco’s spot she caught wind that his craft had developed. “He came out and we met with him and I remember seeing his act and feeling like it absolutely had evolved and that he was not the same guy that I had shot a special with.”

As Netflix and YouTube became dominant comedy players, Maniscalco and Marmel 

took another route, recording three specials for Showtime. “What’s Wrong With People?” (2012), “Aren’t You Embarrassed?” (2014) and “Why Would You Do That?” (2016) introduced Maniscalco and his brand of observational, apolitical and family-rooted comedy to a broad viewership.

“It was an audience that by and large had been forgotten by a lot of comedians,” Marmel says. “People really gravitated toward somebody that was relatable and that was clean, so we got a multi-generational fanbase.”

Where many comics lauded today are stylistically acerbic or politically controversial, Maniscalco built a big tent. And his buzz grew from a more old-fashioned type of viral video: Marmel recollects hearing from fans who would go to card night at their neighbors’ houses with Maniscalco’s latest DVD in tow.

“You walk in the door and he takes you into his world,” Marmel says. “That world is a world that anybody can relate to with their parents, their kids, their upbringing. He takes you away from what’s happening out in the world and takes you to this nostalgic place that everybody has incredibly fond memories of. To me, that’s the very best of what stand-up comedy could represent.”

All the while, Maniscalco and Marmel have carefully built his audience in every market. “It’s always been about having a really smart, well-thought strategy and building his fanbase and playing the right-sized room for the right market,” Marmel says. “If you look at our tour schedule, we’re in a variety of different size rooms in different markets. He’s not happy unless he has a 100 percent sellout in every room, no matter what the size of it is.”

Brian Samuelson
– Arena Arrival
Billows of smoke accompanied Maniscalco as he took the in-the-round stage at Madison Square Garden.

To wit: Last September, Maniscalco filled Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Arena, selling 16,136 tickets for a gross of $1.22 million. The next night, he played two shows at the F.M. Kirby Center for Performing Arts in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., selling 3,555 tickets at the 1,808-capacity venue and grossing $241,952. The night after that, he filled all 5,433 seats at the Palace Theatre in Albany, N.Y., grossing $347,547.

But his days at smaller venues may be numbered. Last year, Maniscalco published his best-selling memoir “Stay Hungry” and, in January, he joined Netflix’s comedy monolith, releasing a stand-up special of the same name. And he’s expanded to the silver screen. He had a small role in the Oscar-winning “Green Book” – that’s him as Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga’s brother-in-law – and will appear alongside Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and more in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” set to arrive later this year. Explains Marmel: “It’s always about the material. It’s always about working with the best people.”

For his part, Maniscalco remains committed to his audience, even as his star continues to rise. “It’s not like I did it because I had to do it or it was a business move,” he says of the long hours logged with supporters. “I really genuinely felt like these people took the time out, they paid for parking, they bought the tickets, bought drinks, babysitter. It’s tough to go out and if they’re taking a night out to spend with me, I take a lot of pride in giving these people a great time.”

He just might not be able to shake every fan’s hand much longer.