Career wise, I would just like to be known for really giving 150 percent every time I go onstage and giving people their money’s worth when they come out and see my stand up shows”
The scope of entertainment is one of those things where, just like technology, it is constantly evolving. As it stands, thanks to the advent of social media and reality T.V., we are in an era that’s fascinated with the phrase ‘overnight sensation’, and those who are inflicted onto us because of it.
Sebastian Maniscalco, however, sits at the opposing end of the spectrum. Here’s someone who spent years in the clubs, juggling various odd jobs, including a job serving at the Four Seasons and leaving to go do a quick set on his break. Now Sebastian is one of the top names in comedy, selling out theaters, and being touted by Jerry Seinfeld as his favorite comedian. Hell, he even made the Forbes list last year of the top 10 highest grossing comics in the country.
Sebastian Maniscalco is living proof that hard work and patience will stay pay off in the long run.
We recently spoke to Sebastian about fame, his upbringing, being on Seinfeld’s radar, and his new book, Stay Hungry which is out in stores now.
What made you want to do a book at this point in your career?
I never wanted to do a book in the first place. I even say it in the book, “I’m not a politician, I’m not a sports figure, I didn’t overcome some accident or disease where I have this amazing story to tell.” I always looked at people who wrote books as people who have amazing stories. Who am I to put a book together? But my manager and I were talking about possible book deals and I started meeting writers and what have you. And after talking to some of these writers, they were telling me “Everybody’s got a story to tell.” And my story was basically a combination of what had happened to me over the last 20 years, being a stand-up comedian and the ups and downs that I went through, the odd jobs that I had to take, how I met my wife, how it is being a parent. There were a lot of funny stories that I had that I wouldn’t say I forgot, but once reminded of “Oh yeah…” Like when I first came out to Los Angeles, I moved into a place called the St. James Apartments on Hollywood Boulevard and Fuller Avenue. I opened up the shades on the first morning I was there, I faced a building, and the guy in the apartment directly across from me was naked having sex with his couch. So there’s that story about how I couldn’t open my drapes for a year, because every time I did, this guy would be sitting there having fun. So it was one of these things where after you start talking about this stuff, going “Man, I used to run around Chicago for extra money being Captain Morgan and passing out rum shots at Baha Beach Club Acapoco Bar dressed up in full regalia, with the fake parrot on my shoulder, the hook, the mustache, the whole Ahoy Matey! [I did it] just to kind of save up enough money to come out to Los Angeles.” All of those stories in there I really can’t tell onstage, because they’re really long in the sense that they need a little set up and the beginning, middle, and end. And I felt that those stories would really kind of shine in a book forum.
I not only wrote the book, but I did an audio version of the book where I read the entire book. And myself, when I buy an audio book, I’m always disappointed if the author did not kind of do the voice behind the story. Because I feel that the story would have a lot more life and a lot more personal punch, and that’s what I wanted in my book is making these stories come out by myself kind of talking them out. It was a challenge to read a 300 page book out loud in a room and give it life was a challenge for me. I never did anything like that before. But I’m very proud of what came out of it.
You’re known for having a very distinct voice onstage. Did you always know what sort of comedian you wanted to be or did it evolve over time?
When I first started out, I was very angry. I wasn’t likable at all. And it wasn’t something that I was really kind of aware of. I was just kind of “Look at this guy. Look at what this guy is doing.” If people weren’t in on the joke, it looked like a guy up there just raging as far as I was concerned. And I look back at old tapes and I’m like “God, this is terrible.” I didn’t really have a person I wanted to be onstage. I can’t really explain it. It happens over time when you begin to really feel comfortable onstage, and kind of let down some walls and barriers maybe that you have built to protect yourself onstage. And as you peel the layers of that onion back, you start to really show your true shelf. And it happened for me when I started talking about my family. I had never really talked about anything in regards to my mother, my father, my sister, any of my upbringing. It was all broad strokes. It was all “going on a date, and this is what happened on my date.” It was these very broad type of experiences that I’d have, which is relatable, but once I started getting into how I was raised and how my father behaved and the relationships I had within my own family, then I started to see a definite switch in audience and their behavior towards what they were hearing. It was like sharable. Like someone would come and go “Oh my God, this guy is talking about how we grew up.” Or “He’s so relatable. His father is like my father,” and kind of word spread that way. So that kind of happened organically over time. It wasn’t a choice I made where I’m going to start talking about my family. It was one of those things where I just felt comfortable onstage talking about something that was really personal to me, rather than the first time I got up onstage where I’d never talk about anything in regards to my father, my mother, or any personal relationship we had.
Had stand-up comedy always been your life long goal as a kid growing up in Arlington Heights, Illinois? What were your comedy influences like as a kid?
Growing up, I always used to go to my cousin’s house and watch stand-up comedy on VHS tapes because he was a fan of it, and he would record HBO and An Evening at the Improv. I didn’t have cable, so when he would record those shows, I would basically spend my Saturday mornings in his basement just going over tape after tape after tape of each comedian. 4 hours just watching the tapes and taking the tapes home, fascinated about how these comedians would be able to sit there and make a room full of strangers laugh. And also I’m like “How the hell do they memorize this stuff? Man it sounds like the first time they’re saying this stuff.” To say an act over and over and over again as if it was the first time you were telling somebody I always thought was completely fascinating. That you’d have that much commitment to the material to make it sound like this was just coming off of the top of your head. And I fell in love with it as a young kid and I remember telling my 2nd grade teacher that I wanted to be a stand-up comedian when I grew up when we went around the table for career day. I watched Johnny Carson growing up. My father would let me stay up with him. I used to really get excited. At the beginning of Johnny Carson, they used to tell you who was going to be on the show. And if a comedian was going to be on the show, I couldn’t wait til end to watch a guy do his 7 or 8 minutes back then. For me, it happened at a young age and I became extremely, extremely interested in it. I didn’t know when or where it was going to happen, but I knew it was always in the back of my head that “This is something that I want to definitely pursue.” And I made that choice when I was 23 years old and I never kind of looked back.
So do you feel your Midwest background contributed to your comic sensibility?
I think it was a variety of different things. Number one, first and foremost, I think my family kind of shaped my humor growing up. Coming from an immigrant family, with my father being an Italian from Sicily, coming to the United States when he was 15 years old and bringing those old world values with him kind of shaped my personality and who I sort of was. And also that Midwest… I don’t know what you call it. People generally in the Midwest are very friendly and nice and laid back. I get a lot of people telling me, when I say I’m from Chicago, that they love the city and love the people. But, on the flip side of that, I think Chicagoians have a definite sarcasm about how they behave. Maybe it’s just where I grew up. I grew up around a bunch of guys that constantly kind of ripped on each other and it was all in good fun. But there was a definite critique. If you were to come out with a new shirt on, and nobody liked the shirt, you would be ripped upon all night. So having that thick skin and growing up in that environment and being observational in general. You know, my friends and my family were always keen on kind of watching people behave and that kind of observational skill set that I had early on as a young kid kind of translated into my act when I talk about a variety of different thing, from just going to Chipotle or going on an airplane or talking about my father.
As someone who’s known as being incredibly hard working as a comedian. Do you feel like that also was installed in you as a kid from your family?
Yeah, I grew up with my father working his ass off, 12-15 hours a day. He ran his own business and he was very, very strict about us kind of making our own wage and paying our own way. Anytime I had some time off from school, whether it be spring break or Christmas break, my father was always like, “You’ve got work lined up? Where you working these next 2 weeks off when you’re off for Christmas?” So any time there was downtime, I was working and that type of work ethic kind of parlayed itself into comedy where I was doing 3, 4, 5 sets a night, trying to hone in my craft, and any way that would take me I’d do stand-up comedy. And I told my agent “Whatever it is, whether it be 7 shows over a course of 4 days in Dallas, Texas, or 8 shows Monday to Monday in Las Vegas, just book me because I want to do stage time.” So yeah, I guess all that stage time kind of paid off in the end because comedy is about repetition and kind of learning as you go. There’s no real substitute when it comes to the job training when it comes to stand-up comedy, and I had plenty of it.
Everyone talks about how you worked at The Four Seasons as you were struggling, and how you held onto it as you did stand-up early on. So that must have been weird when you’d hear comics saying “Oh, I haven’t made it yet” after only a few years. Meanwhile you’re over there still busting your ass with both a day job and stand up.
Yeah, you know, you’re not going to become the president of the company over night. You’ve got put the work in. And then comedians sometimes wonder “Why am I not at A,B,C point of my career yet?” The thing with stand-up comedy is it takes a while to kind of find your voice onstage and feel comfortable enough to actually be yourself onstage and not some made up version of it. It also takes a while to develop a fanbase. I did it from kind of the ground up. I didn’t have a T.V. show or film to support any of my popularity. It was all going on the road for 10 years, going into a comedy club, going in on a Wednesday night and performing in front of 27 people, and then at the end of the show stand outside and shake everybody’s hand and take pictures and hopefully they would buy a DVD and share it with a couple of friends, and the next time I came back a year later, hopefully there would be 54 people in the crowd. And subsequently that kind of happened over 10 years where by the end of the week I was selling out 5 shows and just basically doing grassroots kind of marketing where I didn’t have a T.V. show to rely on where it’d bring in people. Listen, I’m guilty of it myself, where after 5 years I’d say “Why am I not headlining?” And I didn’t know back then that A) I wasn’t ready, and B) This is a business. The comedy club is not going to hire you to come in and perform and you’re going to put 4 people in the seats. So it takes a while to kind of realize where you’re at in your career. It’s okay to be ambitious and want to succeed, but I think it happens at a different time for each individually. Andrew Dice Clay, when I had opened up for him for a couple of years, told me not to really look at anybody else’s career, just to look at your own. You only have control over what you’re doing onstage and your own material. So whatever happens outside of that you really have no control on. So just keep working and keep writing material and your time will come. It might come 5 years, 10 years, 15 years down the road. Who knows, but it’s going to come and you can’t really compare your road to anyone else’s. So I put that in the back of my head, and that’s kind of how I live my life when it comes to the career. It’s great when somebody gets a T.V. show or a T.V. role or a Netflix special or what have you, but you can’t really let that down.
How did you first get on Jerry Seinfeld’s radar? He’s someone that’s really gone out there and talked about you a lot.
Actually, a guy by the name of Chris Mazzilli – who was on my management team and also owns Gotham Comedy Club in New York City – knew Jerry for the last 12 to 15 years. Jerry used to pop into the comedy club and do sets and he knew Chris from him owning the club. Chris started chirping in Seinfeld’s ear, say maybe 5 years ago, “This guy that comes in, his name is Sebastian. I think you’d really like him. You should check him out.” So one night by chance, I happened to be at Gotham Comedy Club in New York, headlining a weekend there. And Seinfeld wanted to pop in and do 15 or 20 minutes that he was working on. I met him at the club and it was very like, “Hey, nice to meet you. I’ve been a very big fan for quite some time.” He went onstage and then I went onstage, and he wound up watching my set after he got off. And he enjoyed it so much where he sent his wife the next night to come check me out with her friends. It started from there.
We saw each other again at the comedy club, we exchanged numbers and started communicating back and forth. We got together in Los Angeles for a dinner when he was out here. And then I went out to New York and we went out to dinner. And before all the dinners and whatnot, he had asked me, “Hey man, I’ve got this Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee show. Would you like to do it?” I was like, “Absolutely.” We arranged it here in Los Angeles and that was kind of how that all unfolded. And it was surreal for me. Here I am, just a little guy from the Northwest Suburbs, Arlington Heights. I grew up watching Seinfeld the show, and I grew up watching Jerry do stand-up on The Jerry Lewis Telethon, and a variety of different comedy shows on T.V. And fast forward 18 years and here we are, in a car, whipping around L.A. getting a cup of coffee and a glass of wine. So, for me, that was kind of my Carson moment, where Seinfeld is kind of like a comedy snob. I always look at Jerry Seinfeld, and I told him this either on the show or privately, I told him from a distance that Jerry Seinfeld was a tough guy to get to know. He seemed like he was a tough nut to crack, similar to my own outer shell. I kind of put on a tough… I wouldn’t say not friendly, but a tough outer shell, then when you get to know me, I let down my guard. And I told him that always was the perception I had of Jerry was that he was one of these guys that comes off stand offish and whatnot, but I was completely wrong. He was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met and I’m still in contact to this day. It’s strange. As you go through a career, who you kind of meet and who you run into. I wanted to do Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee when it first came out. But you can’t plan this stuff. You can will it to happen but it happens at the most unexpected times. So if I had any advice to give to people, it’s the same type of advice that Dice gave me. Just be funny and things will happen.
Do you still feel like you have that constant need where, at a moment’s notice, you need to just go and do a bunch of sets? Is there still that impulse?
Yeah, always. It’s always going to be there. Like tonight I’m going to The Comedy Store to do a 15 minute set working on some new stuff. So it’s always eating you up. Am I doing 5 sets a night? No. But I took a hell of a lot of work on last year, and what I realized is, after doing this for 19 years kind of head down and hitting the pavement hard, I’m in a different kind of chapter in my life where I’ve got a baby and I want to have some type of balance where, yeah I can work hard but also take the same amount of time off to raise my daughter, have a family, have kind of the normal type of life where it’s not all about work, work, work. So I kind of realized that last year. When the year was over, I was beat out. I was dead tired and kind of worn out from going on the road so much. So I made a conscious decision this year to kind of take it back a notch, enjoying a couple vacations, and enjoying my family.
Sebastian Maniscalco’s new book, Stay Hungry is available now.