Make ‘Em Laugh: Sebastian Maniscalco & Judi Marmel Keynote Q&A At Pollstar Live!
– Sebastian Maniscalco and manager Judi Marmel
take part in a Keynote Q&A with moderator Gail Mitchell of Billboard at Pollstar Live! on June 16, 2021.
Sebastian Maniscalco prides himself on avoiding politics and current events, as well as overtly sexual or mean-spirited jokes in his routine. Asked about what the comedian/actor hopes that audiences take away from his shows, the answer is pretty simple and sincere.
“What I’m providing for the audience is a little escapism from everyday life, to not only laugh at my experiences with my family but things from their life,” Maniscalco said during a Keynote Q&A at Pollstar Live! June 16. “I keep it very personal, I don’t get into current events or politics, that’s nauseating to me. Whatever a president who is in office is doing is not funnier than what my father is doing. When you get bombarded with politics all day long, I think the last thing you want to hear is some comedian saying what he thinks about the situation. I just want people to leave with a smile.”
He adds, “I just want to make people laugh. For me to make a group of strangers laugh – you don’t even know what it does for the performer. I just want to make people happy.”
Maniscalco, who appeared on the cover of Pollstar’s June 14 issue, has certainly been making lots of people laugh. The funnyman’s ticket sales earned him a spot on Pollstar‘s Year End Top 100 Worldwide Tours chart in 2018, 2019 and 2020 and Maniscalco also won the award for Comedy Tour of the Year (which was box office weighted) at last year’s Pollstar Awards for his “Stay Hungry Tour” and “You Bother Me Tour.” He was previously on the cover of the magazine in 2019 after he played four shows in two nights at New York’s Madison Square Garden, grossing $8.3 million.
After the pandemic brought touring to a halt the comedian returned to the road last week to kick off the “Nobody Does This Tour” with a June 12 show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Before heading to Las Vegas to play the Encore Theatre at Wynn June 18 Maniscalco stopped by the Pollstar Live! conference at the Beverly Hilton in Beverely Hills, Calif., to take part in a Keynote Q&A with his manager, Judi Mamel, partner and president of talent at Levity Live. The discussion was moderated by Gail Mitchell, executive director or R&B/hip-hop at Billboard.
On Knowing What You Wanted To Do
Sebastian Maniscalco: “I knew at a young age. In second grade [my teacher] asked everyone what they wanted to do when they grew up and I said stand-up comedy. I was immersed. I used to go to my uncle’s house. I didn’t have cable. He’d record ‘Showtime at the Apollo’ … I was fascinated by how these guys memorized the material. I come from the northwest suburbs of Illinois. Hollywood seemed so far away. I’d watch TV and think ‘Where does this happen?’”
Judi Marmel: “I worked checking tickets and taking coats in Colorado Springs, Colo., a billion miles away from Hollywood as well. You took tickets and checked coats and as soon as you did that you could go watch the comedians for free. And that was the best thing in the world. Roseanne Barr was a waitress and would drive down and do open mic mic. I watched that transformation happen.
“[Barr] did ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ and then [Tom] Werner made her a TV deal after Carson. I asked when she was coming back [to the club] and they told me she’s never coming back. I [thought to myself] ‘I don’t know how that transformation just happened but that’s what I want to do.’”
On Working Together 13 Years (Or as Gail Mitchell put it ‘You guys have lasted longer than most marriages or relationships’)
Maniscalco: “Judi has an unbelievable work ethic. When I came out here in ‘98 I was doing a bunch of different jobs. I related to her tireless dedication. We had a connection in a way that we both loved comedy, we loved the movie ‘The Idolmaker.’ Found out that was her favorite movie. Where do you find that manager who cultivates a career? When you know, you know. And each year has gotten progressively better. She pushes me to do things I might not have done if I was alone or with another manager. Sometimes she presents things and I’m like ‘I don’t know if I want to do it,’ and then afterward I’m like ‘Thank God.’”
Marmel: “I think for me it was just the fact that he was doing material that was relatable to multi-generations. It didn’t matter if you were Italian, if you had a close-knit family you could relate. Moody disinterested comics who were too cool for school were popular. That’s very niche but what’s for the general masses?
“Starting out in Colorado, I thought, ‘What is commercially viable? And that’s him. I always look for a client who matches my work ethic. I always thought they have to want it more than i do for it to happen. He will match your energy from dawn to dusk. If we have tickets left to sell he’ll get up at the crack of dawn and do morning radio to sell those tickets. If we’re at 95% he’ll work until we’re at 100.”
On Moving Up From Clubs To Theatres:
Maniscalco: “I didn’t want to go into theatres because I was initially adding shows at clubs. I was up to 14 shows at the Gotham Comedy Club; I wasn’t confident I could make the jump. With higher ticket prices, are these people going to come out to theatres? … You ask, is this possible? We gave it a shot and the tickets flew out the door. This seems to be working.
“The whole thing with my career, if you’re going to come to my show at a comedy club, I treat it like you’re coming to my house, I take a picture, sign whatever you want me to sign. If you came to my house and you were going to leave, I’d walk you to the door. Very hospitable. I know people have to pay for parking, the tickets aren’t cheap, they have to pay for a babysitter. I want to take care of people.
“I wanted to do it for my theatre shows. I said ‘Judi, I want to go outside and say goodbye to everyone. She said ‘You do?’ There wasn’t a meet and greet line, this was in the lobby and I’m like ‘Thanks for coming out!’ After that I’m like, (laughs) I don’t know if this is going to be possible.”
It’s All About Your Attitude
Marmel: “It’s about checking your fear and saying I’m not going to be fearful of failure. If I’m fearful he’ll be as well. So it was about taking those leaps. I never wanted to have that conversation of ‘We’re going back to a comedy club’ if it didn’t work.”
On Expanding From Theatres To Arenas And Then Film & TV
Marmel: “The other thing is I never wanted him to be niche. Didn’t want him to be the Italian stereotype guy. Publicity and branding was incredibly important to me, broadening out the fanbase, figuring out where we could put him. Comedians often can’t play morning or daytime programming because they’re too dirty to be there. But they put him on “The Today Show,” with Gayle King. He grew a lot of fans with women at home who’d then say ‘I wanna see that guy [live].’
“And then it was how can we stay relevant with a younger audience? That was having Sebastian host the VMAs.”
On The Process Of Coming Up With Jokes
Maniscalco: “For me, I’m performing at The Comedy Store, which is like my gym. That’s where I go to workout. My workouts consist of things that struck me as funny that day. Or things I’m working on — I went to the DMV to get my license renewed, I went to a hipster coffee joint in Brooklyn that bothered me, or something will happen with my wife and her family. It’s therapeutic to go on stage and share these things with strangers to see if they’re funny. I’ll record the set, and I’ll listen to it on the way home. I was doing the hipster coffee bit and it occured to me, how do I describe a hipster coffee place? The best way I could describe it is as the place where people have stickers on their laptops. That to me created a visual for the audience. That would all happen by listening to the recording.
“As far as sitting in a room, pen to paper, that’s not my style. My style basically comes from talking to my mother about my wife’s side of the family. And her telling me, ‘You should use that!’ (laughs) and it becomes the act. And then I’m disinvited to Thanksgiving. (laughs)”
On Playing Four Nights In Two Days At Madison Square Garden
Marmel: “You don’t know if you’ll ever accomplish that in your career so for that to happen you think about your past. My entire family has passed away already so for me, there’s a moment where you’re like, ‘I know you’re all watching this and I can’t believe it but we’re all experiencing it together.’”
Maniscalco: “This is one of my problems. I don’t enjoy these things like you should. No matter what career you’re in, you really have to step back and enjoy the moment. Sometimes you get caught up in doing a big event like MSG and then you’re like what’s next?
“Especially over the pandemic, reflecting back … [And then] when I was at the Ryman [June 12], just relishing those moments. Sometimes you take it for granted, going to this show, going to that show. And then when it gets taken away …
“[At Madison Square Garden] My family was there, my friends were there. I got off stage and felt like it was a wedding, shaking everyone’s hands. I wish I would have smelled the roses a bit more.”
On The Best Post-Show Comment Sebastian’s Ever Received:
Maniscalco: “I get a lot of comments from people who are going through a hard time, cancer, their kid is sick. [They say] “I went to a show and laughed and forgot about it for an hour. For me that’s the highest compliment I could get, taking someone out of their misery or mood and making them happy.”
On The Comfort-Level Of Being Back On Stage Post-Pandemic:
Maniscalco: “I’m vaccinated and I feel like Superman. (laughs) So I’m not worried one bit. I’m very comfortable in this environment. I was comfortable over the weekend. The thirst for live entertainment is abundant. People are dying to go out. I’m very comfortable.”