Sebastian Maniscalco: the record-breaking comic who impressed Scorsese

The world’s fifth highest-earning comedian talks about going from serving Robert De Niro drinks to co-starring with him on screen

It’s an early Thursday morning in Los Angeles and Sebastian Maniscalco sounds weary, but for good reason. Not only is he enjoying time with a new baby (his son, Caruso Jack, was born Father’s Day weekend), he’s also juggling a blockbuster list of sold-out standup dates nationwide. As evidence of his current stature, he’s also tackling the coveted gig as master of ceremonies for the upcoming MTV Video Music awards (VMAs). It’s a curious choice for the 46-year-old comedian known for family humor who readily admits he’s not totally familiar with today’s pop music landscape.

“This is one of those things I took I because it’s a challenge for me,” says Maniscalco, with a grog in his voice. “I grew up on MTV watching Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson. For me to be hosting is kind of surreal. Also, my father keeps on asking me what he should wear. He’s like: ‘I’m gonna wear a suit.’ I said: ‘Dad, this isn’t a wedding. It’s a music show. Get some sequins or something.’”

Sequins or not, MTV’s faith in Maniscalco to helm the fledgling show (it has been hemorrhaging viewers in recent years) is a clear indicator of the hot streak he has been on, both on stage and off. Forbes recently named Maniscalco the fifth-highest earning comedian of the year, with $26m over the last 12 months, making him the only newcomer on a list that includes Dave Chappelle and Jerry Seinfeld (who invited him to be in an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee). Like Seinfeld, the bulk of Maniscalco’s income comes from standup – he recently sold out two shows back-to-back at Madison Square Garden (which reportedly was the highest grossing comedy event in North America of all time). In addition, despite embarking on a film career a mere two years ago, he has already appeared in best picture winner Green Book and is starring alongside Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Netflix drama The Irishman. That’s also not to mention a bestselling memoir and a series of blockbuster standup specials for Showtime and Netflix.

“I don’t really think of what’s happened to me in the past two or three years until I talk to people like yourself,” Maniscalco says, reflecting on his career during our interview. “I told my wife that I don’t stop to smell the roses. When I’m in it, I’m doing it and then I’m onto the next thing. Maybe I haven’t been taking the time out to pump the breaks a bit and see where I’m at. It’s been a definite goal of mine to be a little more present. I want to enjoy the moments a little bit more than I have in the past.”

That includes the VMA gig; one he has taken seriously, spending whatever free time he’s had this past summer polishing his opening monologue. “I like when an awards show has a host; to be a through-line, keep things moving and have some energy in between acts,” says Maniscalco, alluding to the current trend of going hostless, whether this past Oscars or next month’s Emmy broadcast. While he knows he will have a monologue off top, don’t expect him to roast the likes of VMA pop icons like the Jonas Brothers or Taylor Swift. “With my style of comedy, I’m not the type of guy to pick on people in the audience,” he notes. “No 1, I don’t know them and you run the risk of being harsh when you don’t know somebody and you’re roasting them. I’m customizing my VMA act to what I normally do on stage, so it’ll all be from my point of view.”

Maniscalco’s perch will mark a departure recent VMA host history; the show last featured a comedian host in 2012 with Kevin Hart, with recent hosts including Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry. “It takes awhile to feel comfortable on stage and navigate an audience and be in an environment where people aren’t paying attention and you’re up there telling jokes. There’s a lot of nuance in standup comedy and if you have a non standup host a show, sometimes it can be a little rough. There’s a reason why standups are at it 20 years before they make a splash.”

“It’s been a definite goal of mine to be a little more present,” said comic Sebastian Maniscalco.
“It’s been a definite goal of mine to be a little more present,” said comic Sebastian Maniscalco. Photograph: Brian Higby

For Maniscalco, his reference to 20 years wasn’t an arbitrary one. It personally took him around that span of time in the trenches to rise to his current perch. Born outside of Chicago, Illinois, into an Italian family (his father, the frequent target of his jokes both in his act and colloquially, emigrated to the United States from Sicily), Maniscalco moved to Los Angeles in 1998 with dreams of a career in standup. Instead, he made ends meet for the next seven years as a waiter at a restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel while running to gigs at the famed Comedy Store. “My interests were obviously outside of the Four Seasons, so working there was just a way to supplement my income while I was doing standup,” says Maniscalco, who’s frank about the rough beginnings of his career. “I was kicking around for 15 years auditioning for TV and film and not landing a damn thing. I used to go into work on my days off and sit by the time clock and ask people if they wanted to go home. In LA, the percentage of someone wanting to go home was very high, so I’d pick up a shit-ton of shifts.”

While at the Four Seasons, he would also have brushes with future collaborators, including his Irishman co-stars. “I remember exactly where Robert De Niro sat when he came in. We’d put mixed nuts plates on the table and he devoured the almonds and kind of mumbled he wanted more. I also waited on Al Pacino, who was alone in the backroom having tea.” A mere decade later, Maniscalco went from waiting on the Hollywood heavyweights to acting alongside them. In The Irishman, which examines the disappearance of union boss Jimmy Hoffa, Maniscalco plays gangster “Crazy” Joe Gallo, a member of the Colombo crime family.

“This movie has the Italian superheroes of entertainment and it was one of the highlights of my career, if not the highlight,” he says of the shoot. “Scorsese was such a sweet man. I remember one day he took about an hour out sitting with us talking about how he grew up in New York. He’s just very pleasant and knows what he wants.”

Oddly enough, it was the explosion of his stand-up career that eventually made his acting aspirations click. “Acting is basically all confidence and it’s easier to feel more at ease when you walk into a casting director’s office and they say, ‘Oh, my God, we love your doorbell bit’,” says Maniscalco of his viral routine of the differences between household reactions when the doorbell rang from when he was growing up to modern day. “When they’re familiar with you, automatically you feel like you’re in the driver’s seat. As opposed from when I first moved out here. I’d walk in and they’d say: ‘Alright? ... Go ahead.’”

With Maniscalco already deep in prep for the VMAs at New Jersey’s Prudential Center, and the impending release of The Irishman (the movie is set to have its premiere at the New York film festival in September), he’s still trying to take every moment as it comes.

“Sometimes I feel that if I’m enjoying what’s happening to me, I might lose focus,” he says. “But it’s a good feeling to be on the other side of the table. When I was waiting on people, I would sometimes think it’d be nice to sit down at the table and have a glass of chardonnay, rather than going back into the kitchen to pick up an order of chicken satay.”


Rob LeDonne

The GuardianTramp

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