I’ve spent a lot of time with superstar stand-up comedian Sebastian Maniscalco on his rise to comedy’s upper echelons (the newest example being his brand new Netflix special “Is It Me?”), and through his jump into acting in dramatic films such as “The Irishman,” “Green Book,” and his own, upcoming
autobiographical movie “About My Father.”
Before his last five years of fame and fortune, Maniscalco was the capable opening act for top-tier tours from stand-comedian pals such as Bill Burr and Andrew Dice Clay, as well as a sell-out comic on smaller stage comedy clubs. But the Chicago-born Maniscalco jumped into the big time (inclusion on Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid comedians) courtesy of his best-selling autobiography (“Stay Hungry”), a role in 2019’s Martin Scorsese return-to-Mob-movie-making as Joey Gallo (“The Irishman” for Netflix), and constantly delivering live sets that consistently played on his strengths. That meant having very exaggerated, Italian physical signatures– a constant twitch of his feet, a nervous twerk in his hind quarters, wide eyes, big wobbly mouth — and family-oriented jokes. Maniscalco knows what works. (And for the record, a name such as Amorosi? Yeah, I can comment of what it means to act and sound in fashion that could be construed as ‘Italian.’)
“I wasn’t so animated or so physical when I started – those bits were not so honed as they are now,” Maniscalco told me on the occasion of his last arena tour right before the pandemic. “That was very trial and error. The goal for me, what I wanted was to be as natural with my audience of 3,000 people, as I am talking to my family.”
In his new stand-up special, “Is It Me?” Maniscalco does so with, physically with the graceful ease of a ballet dancer and the ethnography of a Joe Pesci. This means jokes about his wife being different from him when ordering in restaurants, taking his two kids to school and dealing with non-Italian parents, and looking in on his elderly father and his tics.
Reminiscing about his mom and dad in the Chicago neighborhood of his youth (versus the Los Angeles of his present where he hangs with his kids in playgrounds with swings, basketball nets and heroin), Maniscalco hones in on the physical manifestations of what it means to come up Italian with the demonstrations of birthday party games like “Gagootz” where kids get two-foot-long zucchini stalks between their knees with the goal of passing it on to other children without using their hands.
“To get there to such a goal, you must go through almost a transformation of losing your inhabitations. You don’t want to look stupid. It doesn’t fit inside of your skin. It doesn’t feel right or comfortable. And with that, it takes many, many times of being on stage, and just letting go, to develop your stage presence – which is not so very far from who you are as a person. Just bigger. Fifteen years into a 20-year career is when I felt more comfortable, especially talking about my family, as opposed to the more observational humor I started with.”
Continuing on with his though, Maniscalco noted that “when I began to pinpoint how I grew up, and what my relationships to my family were like, I found audiences gravitating to those shared experiences. People would come in droves. And then they brought their friends, as I was speaking all of their collective languages.”
Then Maniscalco hit upon the money shot, the thing that makes what he does as a stand-up comedian seem impromptu and improvised – be it on a large arena stage or via a smaller comedy club’s intimate environment.
“How I write my material: it’s not writing,” Maniscalco told me. “It’s like telling your buddy or your wife a story, and you go through the beats of how you lived it. The way I do it just happens to be funnier.”
Indeed. It. Is.
Along with looking back to his father and mother and how their Italian-American roots infiltrate everything about who Sebastian Maniscalco is now, his new retro vibe-ing, Rat Pack-inspired “Is It Me?” – his fourth Netflix stand-up special, filmed in Las Vegas at the Wynn Resort and Casino with the comic sporting a “too tight” tux for the occasion – looks at the jaundice of cancel culture through the lens of his family, and the parents and teachers who fill his life in the present day.
“Look around. It sucks,” he yells during “Is It Me?” and its quest for a return to old world values and language.
Rather than directly dog the PC-titles that exist, Maniscalco metaphorically rips into the classmate of his 5-year-old daughter wants to identify as a lion while savaging the role of weak parents who applaud and allow their kid’s every move. Maniscalco is embarrassed for a world where you can’t sit “Indian-style” and must instead, use the phrase “criss-cross-applesauce” (he jokes that he does not speak to his young son like a child, but rather a hard-boiled Union member) and rues that “you can’t even mention someone’s background in describing them” when discussing Asian-American parents and who might be their children.
Offended? Why bother in Maniscalco’s viewpoint throughout “Is It Me?” His retro vibe is more toward what life used to be like when he was growing up as opposed to just putting on a tux and play-acting being Sinatra, Sammy and Dino – all of this based on his upbringing.
“I do remember coming home after school and recapping the day, whether it was what happened at recess or lunchtime or in class,” Maniscalco told me. “All of us did that, sharing our experiences. My father was a hairdresser and he would tell us his stories from the beauty salon, My mother was a secretary, and she told us about what she had encountered at the elementary school where she worked. Growing up in the late ’70s and the early ’80s it was common in my neighborhood to sit outside and talk at night before going to bed or watching television. We’d finish dinner and go outside, pull up a couple of lawn chairs, and sit on our driveway. We’d talk late in to the evening; just commenting on who would walk by – human behavior you know – and how the houses looked. All of that is with me every time I plan a joke or hit the stage.”