by Loretta di Vita
The titles of stand-up comedian Sebastian Maniscalco’s shows are loud, unfiltered exasperations aimed at the obnoxiousness of modern human behaviour: What’s Wrong With People? Why Would You Do That? Aren’t You Embarrassed? His current North American tour, taking him to Nov. 15 and to Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre on Nov. 16, is called You Bother Me. I ask Maniscalco in an interview, with the sort of awkward glee only a starry-eyed fan can demonstrate, if he’ll be entertaining me with jokes. He replies he actually finds such expectations to be funny all the time “annoying.”
Uh-oh. Have I bothered him? Thankfully not. As he explains, “When I’m not performing, I’m organically funny—in the moment. I’m not trying to make people laugh.” Regardless, he has me chuckling throughout our conversation. Polite to a tee, he doesn’t miss a beat when a “thank-you” or “appreciate-that” is warranted and steers clear of the “hey, bro” sarcasm of his acts. It’s certainly hard to reconcile this congenial, almost Zen person with the stage persona who has made a career (literally) out of shaming first-world-problem sufferers. “When I first started stand-up comedy 21 years ago, I wasn’t really likeable,” says the 46-year-old Chicagoan transplanted to Los Angeles. “I had a lot of disgust and angst about human behaviour. The challenge was how do I describe that without preaching to the audience,” he continues. “So now I give the audience a smile, wink and nod to make them feel like we’re all in on the joke together.”
Today his fans don’t just like him—they are head-over-heels in love with the wild jester who leaps, squats and mimes his way through hilariously on-point observations with the physical spryness of a young Mick Jagger.
The son of a Sicilian-born father and Italian-American mother, his inner-Italian has blossomed since visiting Italy several times, “I definitely felt a connection, particularly in Cefalù, my father’s small fishing town. It really piped me into the Italian culture,” he says.
Though much of his material focuses on the complexities of growing up in a traditional household ruled by old-world Italian customs and new-immigrant frugality (“You’re eight years old—start a business!”), he appeals to a diverse audience simply by exposing “the other guy’s” indiscretions. True, his fan base is comprised of lots of Italians who recognize themselves or their relatives in his straight talk, but his comedy breaks the culture barrier, resonating with anyone perplexed by the banality (and pretensions) of life in this day and age. “My comedy really took off when I started talking more about my upbringing and my immigrant father,” he reveals. “It wasn’t just Italians who could relate, but anyone else. I feel that talking about family in the comedy space is underserved, so when you do, it broadens your base.”
With four Madison Square Garden sold-out shows under his belt, and enough star-quality to fill other major venues, Maniscalco—if he had a bigger head—might struggle to recall his early-career “bringer shows.” Playing bars and bowling alleys, he sometimes had to recruit his own audience members to ensure enough bar tabs. These days, if he brings anyone to his shows, it’s out of his own accord (his father is regularly in the wings “evaluating” his performance.)
Gifted with alpine cheekbones, a palpable rat-pack swagger and legit acting talent, he’s—not surprisingly—landed in the movies. He modestly waves off the term “movie star,” (told you he’s nice!) preferring to leave it at he’s “done a couple of movies.” Right, but one of those movies happens to be Academy Award-winning Green Book.
The other is Martin Scorsese’s Netflix mob story The Irishman, in which he plays real-life gangster “Crazy” Joe Gallo alongside heavyweight triad Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. I really enjoy doing dramatic movies, but my stand-up comedy ain’t going anywhere,” he says. “Acting gives my comedy breadth.” But how does he stay humble? “I don’t have yes-people around me. When I go back to Chicago to see friends, it’s a rip fest,” he laughs. “And my father never holds back.” Does his dad, a longtime hair stylist, like his son’s shorter haircut? “No,” Maniscalco replies. “He tells me, ‘You don’t look so good with short hair.’” Now how’s that for a reality check?