The Work Of Art: Sebastian Maniscalco Is Building A Superstar Career

With a major tour, film with Robert De Niro, TV show, podcast and an indefatigable work ethic, the wildly popular comic is hitting another gear…the old school way.
Sebastian Maniscalco
Peggy Sirota
– Sebastian Maniscalco
Cover of June 14, 2021 issue
It’s 6:25 p.m., and Sebastian Maniscalco has an 8:45 set at the Comedy Store scheduled. He did the same thing the night before. As America returns to life closer to pre-pandemic shutdown, the comic, who sold out Madison Square Garden for four shows over two nights, is gearing up for what he loves: giving his singular take on the odd ways people live to the people who get the dissonance.
During his formative comedy years in LA, the Chicago-born 47-year-old used to hit the Store for sets while holding down the bar at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills. The hard-working, first generation Italian-American wasn’t hobnobbing, but mixing drinks. His seven years bartending was inspiration, fueling his resolve. He recalls, “The Katzenbergs and Spielbergs, those kinds of people, all the press junkets stayed there, and they’d come down to the bar with their per diem.

“I’m waiting on Sean Penn on a regular basis, Nicole Kidman. Shaquille O’Neal would come in alone on a Sunday, have a cup of coffee and a plate of fruit, leave me $100 under the plate. It was really motivating, being so close to it.”
Where most people would become bitter, Maniscalco burned with the will to make it, plus a work ethic second to none. Looking back, he remembers, “If there was a set in Modesto paying $100, I’d get someone to cover my shift, get in the car and do it.”
She’s The Boss:
Kevin Mazur
– She’s The Boss:
Sebastian Maniscalco with manager Judi Marmel. The two will lead a keynote discussion at Pollstar Live!
“His work ethic’s unlike anyone,” longtime manager Judi Marmel marvels. “He never gave himself an option of it not working; there was no Plan B. He’d leave his shift at the Four Seasons, go to the Store. In the comedy club days, he’d go out and do the pictures, talk to all the older Italian ladies who’d bring him cookies.
“When it was starting to happen, I remember him saying, ‘I’ll do the 12, 13 shows…’ because he knew the people wanted it,” Marmel continues. “Even now, he’s so hands on: ‘What are the ticket counts? What are we doing to make sure we’re selling out?’ Every single radio interview, whatever was needed, he’s a good partner to the promoter and the building.”
Understand, Maniscalco now does massive rock star business. But he hasn’t done these numbers off a hit movie franchise (Kevin Hart), a massive tv series (Robin Williams, Steve Carell, Tina Fey) or a even T-shirt worthy catch phrase (“Excuuuuuuuuse me”). A pure 100% stand-up proposition, even more startling, he works clean – and keeps politics out of it.
“He’s looking to vent,” Marmel explains, “but also the assurance it’s not just him. His journey is seeking excellence in life, so much of what he talks about is stuff that doesn’t make sense to him, observational things about family, culture.”
“CBS This Morning” anchor, author and journalist Gayle King sums it up perfectly: “Instead of making someone the joke, he brings them in on it. It’s recognition, not belittling.”
In New York, they parlayed strings of doubles at the comedy clubs into a residency at the Count Basie Theater, a weeklong run at the Beacon, multiple nights at Radio City, then four shows at Madison Square Garden. 
Nick Nuciforo, UTA’s head of comedy, knew holding back was key. “We kept the Beacon to seven sold-out shows, even though we knew he could do more. Same thing at Radio City; we stopped at five shows, 30,000 people. 
“The growth was phenomenal, because we didn’t play (the demand) out.”
Part of the physically fluid comic’s appeal is his ability to synthesize family dynamics. Yes, he’s Italian – and he brings that brio, the sense of “how it is” that marks first-generation families. But he transcends his ethnicity. In some ways, Maniscalco’s comedy is a more full-frontal Norman Rockwell take on classic American values.
“I always grew up with a playbook of how to behave,” he says, trying to ground his face-palming truth-telling. “What you do, don’t do, please, thank you, opening the door, never show up empty-handed … We still do. It’s just the way. 
“So, this (comedy) is looking at the world in a bewildered state. A ‘What the Hell,’ because it’s so out of sync with how I was raised.” 

Nobody Does This:
Kevin Mazur
– Nobody Does This:
Sebastian Maniscalco , who famously sold out MSG four times in two days, is heading back out on the road.
His break-out bit, alternately referred to as “The Doorbell” or “Company” by fans, turned on the difference in how we respond to that unexpected ring 20 years ago versus today.
Working the excitement of someone dropping in, instead of hiding from the unexpected, Maniscalco creates a festival of small details (Entenmann’s coffee cake, kids sliding in their socks) that puts the audience not just in the room, but in their own tactile memories.
The names of his tours (and specials) – Aren’t You Embarrassed? What’s Wrong With People? Why Would You Do That? – reflects his high dignity common sense. But there’s also the basic coping skills inherent in a highly emotional Italian family. “We were either laughing or crying, there’s no grey area. And any time it got uncomfortable, we brought out the humor to break the sadness. You know, a moment of laughter to deal with pain.”
Expressing shock when he hears people say they hate their parents, he admits his nuclear family had no drama. His father, who owned a hair salon, was his biggest fan; his mother, a school secretary, has been there every step of the way. “We all met up at our house before going out to the bars, ‘cause everyone loved my family…”
It’s what everyone craves, few have. Somehow it gets lost in translation. For Maniscalco, whose observational storytelling is marked by physically embodying his bits, his truth-tell ing reminds people of their own families, their own youth, their own moments of feeling perplexed.
“As you’re talking, your thoughts are being validated by the laughter,” he says. He also offers, “I saw that talking to people after the shows, a lot of people didn’t like comedy, they were coming with a friend. They thought comedy was too dark, too sexual. So, I was hitting a fan-base who’d maybe given up on comedy.
“They’d thought, ‘Does this guy live with me? He’s talking our language. Does he live on my street?’ But this is how you make talking about going to Chipotle a bonding experience.”
Sebastian Maniscalco
– Sebastian Maniscalco
Marmel cites her client’s work habits, as well as his launch during the age of DVDs. Beyond seeing him on Showtime, “People would take the DVDs to their card games, family nights, gatherings – and play them. He’s clean, but he was also Italian – though not the ‘Baddabing, Baddaboom’ stuff. Pretty quickly, the Greeks, the Armenians, the Filipinos were all in, anyone with an immigrant parent.
“And they were coming eight, 10 tickets strong,” she says. “The people from church, or the block, or the bowling alley, groups of people who came as a group. Even now, when he plays at the Forum in LA, you see it. You see people like Leonardo DiCaprio, the Weeknd, John Legend all coming with people all different ages.”
In a world of uber-fame, Maniscalco is confounding. The people who know are wildly passionate. Then there are the ones who haven’t plugged into the Netflix specials, the sold-out shows. They may’ve missed his New York Times best-selling memoir “Stay Hungry”; wondered about the guy hosting the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards; perhaps thought the period perfect Italian brother in the 2018 Best Picture Academy Award winner “The Green Book” was a helluva character actor. 
For the quietly intense comic, it’s about the work, not the fame; the fans, not flogging the franchise. Marmel cites the craft to his bits, “there are no extra words, at all.” Nuciforo talks about the immersion in his stories, “the facial expressions that say everything.”
Still, it takes timing and skill to hold one’s own with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci as he did, playing the outrageous gangster “Crazy Joe” Gallo in the Best Picture Oscar nominee “The Irishman.” Though acting wasn’t initially part of his dream, Maniscalco took the opportunity to work with Martin Scorsese seriously.
When the casting director came back uncertain, he dug in with his acting coach – and not only earned a part, he devoured his role. “I live in my head as far as pining over stuff. I’m not as positive as I should be and I doubt myself, so I work as hard as possible. When I get there, I hopefully won’t blow it.”
As the flamboyant Gallo, all swagger and ZFG, Maniscalco brought a surprising intensity. It impressed De Niro enough, he came to the set and told the comic, “I hear you’re doing good things.” 
De Niro agreed to consider playing his dad in “About My Father,” a comedy based loosely on Maniscalco’s life, shooting later this year. Written by Maniscalco and Austen Earl, it’s “two fish out of water, two Italian guys going into a very WASPy, very country-clubby kind of environment. My father’s going to give me my grandmother’s ring if the girl gets his approval.” 
The two-time Oscar winner asked for a table read before agreeing. 
“We’re talking ‘Casino,’ ‘Godfather II,’ and now he’s playing my father. We’re kind of secretive people, my Dad’s not walking around, saying, ‘De Niro’s playing me,’ but he’s excited.”
During the quarantine, he’s dug into his “Pete and Sebastian Show” podcast with fellow comic Pete Correale. He’s talked to his fans through social media. He’s also taken “What’s Eating Sebastian Maniscalco” from development to 13 episodes on the Discovery Channel, ultimately living on the Food Network; the reality show – inspired by his digital Sunday Suppers – like his comedy, deep dives into the food questions that live in his head.
You Lookin’ at Me?
Courtesy Levity Live
– You Lookin’ at Me?
Maniscalco pictured with the legendary Robert De Niro, who is playing Sebastian’s father in his upcoming feature film.
“I’ve always had a passion for cooking and food, so that’s where it comes from. I always wanted to learn to make bread, so it’s a very Nancy Silverton kind of experience,” he explains. “I eat a lot of sushi, so we decided to go fishing – and I got sick. It’s a whole experience.”
But really, he’s fired up about the Nobody Does This Tour, which brings him to Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater, the Wynn in Vegas, a residency over three weekends at the Borgata in Atlantic City. He also plays some unexpected venues: the opening weekend of San Diego’s Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, two nights at the Santa Barbara Bowl, a Sunday at Knoxville’s Civic Auditorium, a double at New Orleans’ Saenger Theater, two doubles at Baltimore’s Lyric heater and the tour launching double at Nashville’s iconic Ryman Auditorium.
“Comedy is therapeutic. I walk around with these thoughts in my head all day. Then to get onstage and dispose of them? It’s surreal what that feels like, and it took a toll on me those first few months… 
“When I was starting out at the Store, I remember they’d have to hold the show a lot of nights, because it was empty. 1998 to 2005, it was older comedians holding on and younger comics coming up. I feel unbelievably comfortable there, because you can do stuff on that stage that you can’t do anywhere else. I don’t know if it’s in the walls, but my mind runs free. I don’t even plan on what I’m saying (down to the word), I just let it come out.
“Judi and I often talk about it, how I never wanted to do anything other than stand-up. How I put it all in that basket, because that was my dream. 
“When I’d go outside after every show and take those photos, sign the DVDs or whatever, I felt like it was my house.  I wanted to walk them to the door, make that personal connection so when I’d come back, they would, too.”
It’s an old-school way of building it, but it’s working. As the world opens up, Nuciforo reports ticket sales aren’t just strong, they’re selling more and faster than before the pandemic. Perhaps it’s the need to feel better, or maybe in a world of faster, harder, meaner, Maniscalco represents someone who feels like a lot of people do right now.
“To just laugh about life,” says the comic. “It’s one thing people really enjoy doing. You need to forget what’s going on, let go and feel good. That’s everything, and it’s everything I’m trying to do.”