Q&A: Sebastian Maniscalco
Sebastian Maniscalco left his native Chicago for L.A. to become a stand-up comedian, He’d serve thousands of drinks at Four Seasons Los Angeles before becoming one of the top comics in the industry, but he’s still a neighborhood guy at heart. Maniscalco, who returns to the Colosseum at Caesars Palace April 15, spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen about life in the wake of breakout success.
You’re in Chicago right now?
Yeah, I’m in Chicago. I’ve got some shows this weekend and I did shows last weekend, so I decided to stay the week and kind of hang out with family.
How often do you get to do that nowadays?
I go to Chicago at least once a year for shows but then I come periodically throughout the year, probably two or three times. My father still lives here so I like to come to town every once in a while to visit him, but this time we made it a longer trip because I have a 10-month-old and my wife and I wanted to kind of take her out and see family and friends.
Your dad must be loving that.
Oh yeah, he can’t get enough of it.
How has the dynamic between you and him changed since you became the 10th richest comedian in the world, according to Forbes?
There’s no difference. I was just talking about this to somebody. My friends and family, there has been no change really in our relationships. We kind of solidified those relationships early on. My family and friends are the first ones to tell me … I mean, they’re constantly ripping me to shreds, especially when I come home to Chicago. My friends are always the ones kind of making fun of me, or what have you. It hasn’t changed the dynamic at all. That kind of information being out there is a little uncomfortable for me, to be honest with you, especially coming from the family I came from, where you couldn’t tell anybody anything. You don’t tell anybody you’re going on vacation or they’re going to rob the house.
I imagine you look forward to coming back home and being grounded with a little bit of burns from your friends.
Oh yeah. It’s great. It’s nothing better. We just pick up where we left off. There’s been no change whatsoever. Everybody is … it’s the same friends I went to college with. It’s ripfest, as usual.
Right now it’s all about your book, Stay Hungry, which came out at the end of February. Are you reading the reviews? What kind of feedback are you getting from the folks in the old neighborhood?
It’s funny, when you write a book you don’t know the reaction until you put it out and people stop reading it. With stand-up comedy it’s immediate. You say something and they laugh and you know it’s funny, but with a book you don’t know until people start reading it. The book kind of gives an insight into the ups and downs of being a stand-up comedian, and a lot of failures, a lot of successes and everything in between. A lot of people didn’t know about my career or my life. I’m getting really good positive feedback. People are saying it’s inspirational because they didn’t know the path I took as a comedian. It’s been good. It’s nice to have that kind of out there. I’m very proud of everything in the book. There’s nothing that I feel I would want to take back, everything from my father loaning me 10,000 bucks to going through a miscarriage, two miscarriages with my wife. Everything in there is pretty honest and forthright. I’m pleased with the response.
When I first saw your act, I felt some Bill Burr and Dice Clay influence pretty quickly. You write about how your relationship to Bill Burr dates back to when you both lived at St. James Apartments near the Laugh Factory.
Yeah, I met him, literally, on my first day in Hollywood and it was literally a slap in the face. Hollywood seems so far away when you live in Chicago and you don’t know the ins and outs of the business. Next thing you know you’re living in Hollywood sharing an elevator with one of the comedians that you watched on TV, so for me it was a surreal moment. We became friends over the course of the last 20 years. My wife and baby just went to his daughter’s first birthday party, so that relationship has kind of flourished over the years.
You have an entire chapter on Andrew Dice Clay.
I don’t even know if he knows I wrote about him in the book. I don’t even know if he knows or not, but that was a big part of my career opening up for him. It was a big learning experience, and that was a big part of me getting introduced to the larger end of show business as far as stand-up comedians go, and me kind of picking his brain about how it was to be the biggest comedian in the world at one point, selling out all these arenas. I kind of soaked it all in like a sponge, learning from a guy who’s been there, done that, so I can apply those lessons later on in life, and sure enough, here I am. I just played my first arena last week in Toronto. It was one of those surreal moments where I was talking about arena shows with Dice Clay in Las Vegas in 2003 or ’04, whenever that was, and then 15 years later I’m doing it myself.
And now you’re playing the Palace. That’s Seinfeld level.
This is my second time. I played it last year, I think it was Columbus Day, one of those weekends. I remember when (the Colosseum at Caesars Palace) was built, looking at the construction of it when I visited Las Vegas and thinking, “Wow, what a cool place,” and subsequently going to see Celine Dion there with my mother and sister, sitting up in that upper balcony going “Wow, this would be a cool place to play someday.” Las Vegas is a market where there’s so much competition, and for people to come out to see a show there, there’s a lot of options. I have a good local fan base there. Over the years I’ve played many different showrooms and the locals have definitely come out to support me. Really, really enjoy going to Las Vegas and playing a prestigious theater like the Colosseum. Again, it’s one of those dreams come true.
It’s huge not just as far as career landmarks, but it’s a big space. You have the physicality to do that. When you were at Celine Dion, did you picture yourself onstage, how you’d handle it?
At the time I saw the room I wasn’t that physical onstage, so that’s something I didn’t really think about, but over the course of time as I started to play these venues and look at the size of the stage and all the elements around, I then begin to think that my comedy lends itself to a bigger stage. I’m not the kind of guy who sits behind the microphone and is telling set-up punch jokes. I’m talking as well as kind of acting it out. To utilize the stage for me is something I feel I do pretty well. Not that I’m flying left to center or right to center. If I need the stage it’s there. The facial expressions and mannerisms are so elaborate and over-the-top that a big stage suits my act more than a smaller one. Yeah, that is a big stage, and I’m playing Radio City April 1, which is 100 feet from east to west, so that’s a pretty large stage as well. It’s actually a city block wide. So yeah, these larger stages and these arenas are kind of tailor made for what I’ve been doing.
Your physicality comes across pretty quickly. It’s cool that you give some credit to John Ritter, who was one of the most underappreciated comic actors of his generation. Eddie Murphy, too.
John Ritter, I had to have watched every episode of Three’s Company 20 times over, and his comedy in there … he would do these looks at the camera, like he was stunned. He could really express feelings through his facial expression or his physical movements, and there’s one episode that sticks out in my head where he was trying to sit on a hammock and he kept getting flipped off, and when he flips off he not only falls but he gives a quick jolt of his head. His head movements are very quick and concise. I’ve often incorporated that look of bewilderment in my face, or it could be a quick movement where I catch the audience a little bit off guard. I thought he was a real master at that. Eddie Murphy was kind of the ultimate showman. He was up there in a leather onesy performing his stand-up comedy, and I thought that was just such a ballsy thing to do not only have a funny act but also have the clothing to go with it. I always thought you kind of have to stand out up there, not only with what you’re saying but kind of how you look, how you move. I think he really did that well.
Your daughter turns one in May. How has being a father changed you?
Being a parent, for me, kind of coming later on in life, I’m 44 years old and always kind of wanted to be stable in my career and to have some kind of success before I started a family, to have the time and energy you need as a father to raise kids, which I have now. Early on I was on the road 52 weeks out of the year, Wednesday to Sunday, and to be honest with you couldn’t really fathom having a baby back then because I don’t want to be the dad who was never home.
Is publishing a book comparable to becoming a parent?
The book for me was a long process. It took about three years. I never knew I was going to write a book. It’s not something I came out to Los Angeles in 1998 saying it was one of my goals, to write a memoir of my life. It’s something that was presented to me three or four years ago by my manager, and I’m like, “I don’t want to write a book. What am I going to write about?” But then I looked at my career and my life, and I’m like, “There are some stories I’d really like to sink my teeth into.” And it turned out pretty well. Things are humming in all aspects of my life professionally and personally. It’s been really fun to be in it all.
How long have you been doing The Pete and Sebastian Show podcast now? Did you just add video?
No, that was actually a one-off. I’ve been doing the podcast I’d say for five years now. We do it on a phone line where we hook up though Sirius. I’m in Los Angeles and Pete’s in New York. We were all in New York for some reason and we decided to do video at Sirius XM. The podcast is also something that had a bit of an underground following. It’s not one of the most popular podcasts on the iTunes 200 or whatever. It slips in and out of there, but we have a very loyal fan base, and we’re kind of flying under the radar. It’s just about Pete Correale and myself talking about our personal/professional lives once a week. It’s like eavesdropping on a phone call between two buddies. … It’s another creative outlet for us. Nothing’s really planned out.
Your NBC sitcom that would have cast Tony Danza as your dad did not get optioned, but you play Joey in Martin Scorsese’s next movie The Irishman.
Sometimes things happen for a reason. The sitcom allowed me to get my feet wet with acting, something that I hadn’t really done to that extent at all. I mean, I was producer, I was writer, I was actor. Wardobe, set design, all that stuff. Soup to nuts, and I really got my confidence as an actor kind of built up on that show. Tony Danza was a guy I grew up watching. Here I am on a set, and he’s playing my father. Surreal moment for me. Sometimes those setbacks, you don’t know what they mean at the time, but sometimes they open other doors that you can never really imagine. I’m in a movie directed by Martin Scorsese starring De Niro, Pecsi and Pacino, all guys I grew up watching, and here I am in a movie with them. So yeah, a surreal experience for me, and something that I would definitely love to do again. Not so much TV, but I think I really like doing dramatic movie roles.