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Sebastian Maniscalco Celebrates 20 Years in Comedy

Developing a rapport with hotel staff members is not uncommon for celebrities, especially those who travel frequently enough because of work or press opportunities to have multiple encounters with folks who carry their luggage, make up their rooms and serve them food. But when comedian Sebastian Maniscalco warmly greets the Four Seasons Los Angeles server who’s about to take his order, he’s not just commemorating the umpteenth time he’s popped in for a Cobb salad; rather, it’s because they worked side by side almost two decades ago while Maniscalco was quietly building what has become a comedy empire.

It’s that tireless, immediate man-of-the-people relatability that has helped him connect with one audience after another, and eventually, carried him from one side of the table to the other where he is celebrating 20 years in comedy.

Maniscalco might be an under-the-radar performer to many among the teen and young adult demographic that worships at the altar of such iconoclasts as Hasan Minhaj, Hannah Gadsby and John Mulaney. But, after winning Billboard’s 2018 Comedian of the Year, in part for selling out five shows at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, Maniscalco continued his streak with four sold-out shows in January at Madison Square Garden, setting a new record for the highest-grossing comedy event ever in North America. He was also recently announced as the host of the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards. By all accounts, it’s been a wild run of success for the Chicago native, whose industry inroads were largely self-forged while he served his idols and the industry gatekeepers he now counts as peers.

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“I always wanted to get into comedy as a young kid growing up,” Maniscalco tells Variety over a salad (the Contadina, not the Cobb). “I was fascinated with all of the stuff around standup comedy, from the clubs to the specials. Every time we turned on the TV, there would be some type of standup show.”

After a few failed attempts to make a name for himself in Chicago (“I did standup once at Northern Illinois University. That’s where I got booed”), he headed west to Los Angeles, determined — perhaps without knowing it — to be the fabled busboy or bartender who would eventually headline shows instead of cleaning up after them.

“I came out here shortly after graduating college in 1998 and got a job in the Four Seasons’ Windows Lounge waiting tables on every celebrity that you could possibly imagine.”

Bruce Hills, president and COO of the Just for Laughs Group, recalls, “I actually was having a drink at the Four Seasons with Dom Irrera, a very funny comedian friend of mine and now Sebastian’s, and Sebastian was our waiter. Dom was very complimentary and said he was a really nice guy, and we all had a nice chat.”

That was a few years before Maniscalco would make his first appearance at Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, but the comedian never set any early thresholds for how long to pursue the career he wanted before giving up his dream.

“I never gave a time limit on how long I was going to spend out here,” Maniscalco says. “If I gave myself a time limit, five, 10, 15 years, I would be setting myself up for failure. So it was a slow process of learning the ins and outs going up on stage, failing, trying new material, and then meeting people after the shows, shaking hands, taking photos, selling my DVDs. It was all just myself in the beginning.”

Hills, who went on to recruit Maniscalco for the fest six times between 2008 and 2016, says the way he leveled up with each performance — resonating with bigger and broader audiences — was something that he’d seen few other comedians do, even at a showcase that regularly features the industry’s best and brightest.

“At first we put him on the Relationship Show, and then we had a show called the Ethnic Comedy Show where he played the Italian — big surprise,” he says. “Obviously he connected with Italians, but what we saw automatically was that he was able to somehow connect with everyone in the room from all standpoints demographically.”

Even at Radio City Music Hall, the comic wants the audience to feel like family.
Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

Still, Maniscalco says it took him a while to figure out who he was as a performer, even if he found a lot of inspiration from the kinds of observations that made Jerry Seinfeld, Johnny Carson, Brian Regan and others into industry luminaries.

“In the beginning I was extremely angry and not really likable, but I think I had a point of view really early on. I was really disgusted with human behavior,” he says. “So it was how do you take that point of view and make yourself likable to the audience.” He eventually resorted to taking comedy classes, which helped him hone that onstage persona. “A comedy class is actually frowned upon amongst a lot of comedians, but it helped me because it was a supportive environment.

“I had like 12 classmates that would come in with new material every week and we would help each other out and it gave me a nice little foundation of what comedy was all about,” he continues. “It’s trial and error for you to get up there and figure it out, and the physicality and the expression came on later on where I started to really feel comfortable on stage and started really getting into the story as opposed to just telling it.”

Like his heroes, Maniscalco’s standup routines addressed everyday subjects such as restaurant etiquette, going to the gym and dealing with in-laws, but his are filtered through an oversized Italian American persona that has become both a beloved, quotable character, and a universal adapter for his eclectic fan base’s own cultural idiosyncrasies.

If you look at his early work, it’s pretty straight monology,” says Levity Live partner Judi Marmel, who has managed Maniscalco for over a decade. “Now he doesn’t just tell the joke, he shows you the joke. But he’s also talking about something that’s a touchpoint in your life. And we saw that explosion go from just being something that Italian Americans could relate to, to an immigrant experience that could apply to just about anybody.

“Here’s this guy who’s clean, who makes you laugh with the physicality of what he does with his face and his body,” Marmel adds. “He’s that guy the whole family can relate to: ‘our family’s favorite comedian.’ And you see it with the teenagers, the grandparents and the parents.” Maniscalco credits his own personal growth — inspired by being exposed to Los Angeles’ cultural diversity — as a reason he was able to refine that youthful anger into something accessible, not to mention humorous, to multiple generations.

“I was 24 years old when I first came out here and it took some maturing when I came out here to kind of shed that kind of narrow-minded view I had growing up in Chicago,” he admits. “Living in L.A., you come in contact with a lot of different people, and you open your eyes to whatever it might be, fashion, food.

“It was growing up with a lot of angst and negativity, and sometimes you’ve got to step out of that to grow. There’s something about pursuing your dream, coming out to a foreign place, not knowing anybody and trying to get something started that takes a different personality to do that.”

Although he frequently touches on his own family’s cultural specificities, Maniscalco avoids talking directly about religion or politics, a shrewd decision in an era of instant social media “cancellation” over a casually insensitive remark or liking the wrong tweet.

“I don’t think people want to hear it, to be honest with you,” he says. “They’re beat over the head with it all day long, and I just like to give people kind of a little break from the day-in, day-out and share my slice of life with them and hopefully they relate to it in a way where they go, ‘Oh, my family does that’ or, ‘I’ve seen this.’”

The comic counts Howard Stern and Gayle King among his supporters.
Courtesy of Johany Jutras

At the same time, he sometimes chooses to be the heel as a storyteller in order to get at larger observations about how language and culture evolves — especially when not everybody has been alerted to, or is ready for the changes. “You’re writing for a character for the sake of the act,” he continues. “These jokes are meant to be absorbing life and then putting it into your act so it works for what you need.”

Marmel suggests that it creates an empathy between the comedian and his audience, which helps young and old fans identify with one another when they come to see his shows together, multiple times.

“He’s hitting a sweet spot in a lot of consumers because they’re dealing with the same thing — they’ve got aging parents, but then they’ve got children of their own,” Marmel says. “And they come together as a family as two or three generations. The 14-year-old boys love him because they love how he contorts himself. The older people like it because there’s some nostalgia to it. Middle-aged people like it because they can relate to a few different areas. But when he sells tickets, it’s four, six, eight, ten at a time — groups of people that are coming to experience that together.”

Hills says: “He seems to have this incredible ability to not only kill in a room, but get people to come back and back again. They want to see him time after time, and it’s something that’s really rare. I haven’t seen this level of growth in terms of the audience very few times in my career that’s well over 30 years now in the comedy business.”

Madison Square Garden Live executive vice president Darren Pfeffer echoed their observations about the sharp and intimate relatability of Maniscalco’s shows, a significant accomplishment especially in venues that hold tens of thousands of people. “When he plays the Garden, at Radio City Music Hall and the Beacon theater, it’s almost like you’re family when he’s describing these moments,” Pfeffer says. “It really feels relatable, especially in New York. You get that sense of a relationship with Sebastian.”

Over five shows at Radio City Music Hall, Maniscalco performed for more than 28,000 fans; less than a year later, he sold out four shows in two days at Madison Square Garden, selling more than 72,000 tickets. “That’s a big statement for a comedian to be in the center of that venue and have the spotlight.”

“I mean, he owned that night, and not many comedians have done it,” Pfeffer continues. “To come in for two nights and do four concerts, that’s something that I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again in our lifetime.”

Among his ever-growing, fiercely devoted fan base, Maniscalco counts fellow comedians including Jerry Seinfeld as big supporters, as well as such celebrities as Howard Stern. But what “CBS This Morning” chief anchor Gayle King says intrigues her most about him is the everyday relatability — even anonymity — that he seems to enjoy despite nationwide tours and sellout crowds.

“As soon as they announce the VMAs, 3 million teenagers are gonna search ‘who the hell is Sebastian Maniscalco?’” Maniscalco himself joked with Jimmy Fallon after announcing his hosting gig at the VMAs.

“It’s interesting to me because he’s certainly a star, but there’s still a lot of people that don’t know who I’m talking about when I say, ‘Oh my God, Sebastian’s coming,’” King says. “I went to a charity event that Jessica Seinfeld was having, and she said, ‘Jerry thinks he’s the funniest person he’s ever met.’ I thought that was a pretty good recommendation. But when it was over, it didn’t feel like I was sitting there with a gazillion other people. I felt that he was just sort of performing in the basement and we were all just sort of along for the ride.”

Exactly how an elaborate one-man show in front of 18,000 people can feel like a breezy, intimate routine for friends and locals speaks to Maniscalco’s unique gifts as a performer.

But in a career in which he exerts absolute and meticulous control over every aspect, his understated but irrepressible success makes perfect sense. He has become exceptionally talented at multitasking without sacrificing quality,

“I just don’t want to do anything just to do it,” he says. “I want to do quality stuff, and do projects that I feel that I could give 110%.” His upcoming projects not only include a fall tour, “You Bother Me,” starting just weeks after the end of his current tour, “Stay Hungry,” but a featured role in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” his second stab at acting after taking a supporting part in 2019 best picture winner “Green Book.”

Marmel, his manager, envisions a path similar to that of a CEO, business magnate or visionary before her client as his opportunities continue to mount.

“He knows every detail of his business intimately, and it’s kind of hard to argue with the success of people that get up and live and breathe it and are intimately involved with every aspect, there aren’t any surprises.”

But for Maniscalco, it all relates back to that first job he had when he moved to Los Angeles, taking care and pride in representing something bigger than himself in order to satisfy his customers, whether at a four top or in front of 40,000.

“When I used to work at the Four Seasons, everything was very particular. If you put down a coaster, that tree branch needs to be facing the customer. Everything that was done service-wise was a reflection of the brand of the hotel. And if you left the Four Seasons and you said ‘the service sucks,’ that would spread and people might not come back to the Four Seasons. That’s kind of the way I look at my career.

“People coming to the show are paying top dollar, they’re paying for parking and getting a babysitter,” Maniscalco says. “So when they come, I want to give them a great experience, not only on stage, but I bring in these nice screens so the people up in mezzanine three can see what the hell is going on. All of it is well thought out and well curated. So I feel like if you’re going to do it, why not do it right, or just don’t do it at all.”

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