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Sebastian Maniscalco

The standup, 47, on finding success late, facing off with Robert De Niro, and steering clear of Trump jokes

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke
Illustration: Kathryn Rathke

When the pandemic started, it took me about six weeks to get out of my funk. Comedy is very therapeutic for me — it’s almost like a drug — so to suddenly not do it anymore took a toll on me. I was disappointed. I was angry. I was frustrated. I was scared. I’m at peace with it now. But the void is still there.

I’ve been getting a lot of comments and emails that say, “Why don’t you do a standup show on Zoom?” But standup really doesn’t work on Zoom. You need the energy of a crowd to play off. I’m not going to be a Zoomedian.

Success was a slow burn. I’ve been doing standup night in and night out since 1998, and it got stronger and stronger as time progressed. I had time to cultivate my act and develop a point of view and feel really comfortable onstage. So when my career gained momentum, I was completely prepared to give people a show that they deserved.

When I was growing up in Arlington Heights, Hollywood seemed like another planet. I knew I had an ability to make people laugh, but it was a mystery how I was going to build on that talent. In school I wasn’t really a class clown. I was shy and more of an observer. But I really enjoyed getting up in front of the class to do book reports.

I had to go through tough times. I fell into $10,000 of credit card debt at one point, and my dad bailed me out. Then I paid him back every cent. Because he required it. It was a loan, not a gift. But those moments prepare you for what’s next.

Five years ago, Jerry Seinfeld popped in to do a set at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York City. He stayed to watch a little of my set and ended up watching almost the whole thing. The next time he came to L.A., we went out to dinner. Jerry is kind of like the modern-day Johnny Carson. He’s got a reputation in the industry where if he likes you, if you make him laugh, you’ve got to be good.

For me, the motivation to write new material is completely fear-based. Because if people hear the same thing the next time I come to a city, they ain’t gonna come back.

First day on the set of The Irishman, I’m doing a scene with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. I had waited on De Niro 15 years earlier at the Four Seasons in Chicago, so it was surreal. There was a point where he and I were standing face to face as they were adjusting the lighting. He was just looking at me and I was looking at him, thinking, “I cannot believe this is happening.” You’re there to work, but if you have any pulse, you go, “This is crazy.”

I get annoyed by the stupidest things. It could be someone eating a bag of chips or popping a Coke can on an airplane or listening to music without headphones. FaceTiming in public kills me. I don’t confront people. I just think about how I can’t wait to get onstage and tell a group of strangers about it.

I’ve always liked clothes. I like to dress up. I like to look nice, especially if I’m doing a performance. I don’t like to go up there and look like the audience. There’s a reason Elvis Presley wore what he wore. You’re getting paid to do something not a lot of people can do, so why not dress the part?

I have extreme confidence in what I do for a living. But outside of that, I don’t have any confidence at all.

I’ve always said there’s nothing Trump can do that’s funnier than what my father did, so why even bother touching it? Plus, it’s very polarizing, and I’m not really passionate about politics to begin with. And to be honest, I don’t think people even want to hear it. I know I don’t. I just want to detach and be entertained. I don’t want to be preached to.

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