When it comes to raunchy punchlines and political mockery, comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, 45, bypasses that sort of material in exchange for empathetic and observational performances. Known for colloquial bits about bizarre exchanges with Uber drivers and caring for aging parents — or in Maniscalco’s case his Sicilian-born father, Salvatore — the star is a master of the relatable.
Twenty years after leaving Chicago for L.A. to pursue comedy, Maniscalco is making a name for himself beyond standup. Aside from his current “Stay Hungry” tour (stopping in Peoria and Rockford in February), the father of one tapped into his Italian ancestry in the role of Johnny Venere in the Golden Globe-winning film “Green Book.”
Congratulations on three wins for “Green Book.” How are you feeling? It’s crazy. I don’t do a lot of movies. I dip my toe in filmmaking and one of the first real roles that I have, the movie gets nominated for five awards. It’s unbelievable.
You’ve become a household name over the last few years. To what do you credit your success? I think it’s been a culmination of things … anything from having Showtime specials to Netflix exposure. People are really receptive to what I’m talking about. It’s family oriented [and] deeply rooted in the relationship I have with my father and an old-school, Old World upbringing in the northwest suburbs. People in Chicago [don’t mind] ripping people to shreds — not in a bad way, that’s just how [they] grew up. I was made fun of constantly by not only my friends, but my own family. And I gave it right back to them. I think that Chicago style of humor is really resonating.
Chicago has a noteworthy comedy reputation. Why try to make it in L.A.? I felt like if you want to get into the entertainment business, you move to L.A. I didn’t know any better. I wasn’t aware that to start in L.A. is pretty difficult just because there’s so many people out here and limited spots. You’re right; in Chicago, you can bounce around and develop your chops in the city and then maybe move. It just wasn’t in the cards for me.
Your father is a familiar character in your acts. How has his life changed since your career took off? He loves it and feels like he’s a comedian a lot of the time. When he goes to the shows, he gets recognized. He downplays it, but I know deep inside he’s eating it up. My parents are 110 percent behind me. A lot of the times when you go into the arts, the family might not approve, just because you don’t know when your next paycheck is coming. It was nice to have that family support.
Comedians can find themselves in hot water so quickly these days. How do you manage your reputation? It’s just whatever feels right. Twenty years ago, you didn’t really think about what you were going to say onstage. [Now], you want to push the envelope, but you also want to be mindful of what you’re talking about in the world we’re living in. You want to bring some degree of levity to some of these situations, but you also have to look five steps down the road. That’s why I just keep it to my family. You can’t write that. That’s so rich and relatable. I don’t tackle controversial topics. Is it really worth it doing a joke and possibly getting backlash from it? You have to weigh the pros and cons.
Photo by Peggy Sirota