How Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco Stays True to His Chicago Roots

Maniscalco’s new book “Stay Hungry” is available February 27

Sebastian Maniscalco
Gallery Books

“Are you from the Midwest?” It was something about the way I pronounced “Sebastian” that stand up comedian Sebastian Maniscalco picked up on my roots immediately. In fact, Maniscalco and I are both from the Northwestern suburbs of Chicago, each with a large, extended Italian family and an eye and ear for other expats of the region.

Maniscalco’s comedy is all about finding ways to relate to others. The material that launched him to viral fame was about how at Italian weddings, everyone just gives envelopes of cash rather than a toaster. If the chicken was dry, take out a hundred from the envelope. Since then his best routines are the ones where he shares stories about his family and his upbringing in Chicago, with his exuberant stage presence and his animated hand gestures just an extension of performing for his parents around the dinner table.

“I noticed people really started to resonate with the material, because in a way, shape and form, it was like I grew up in their house, talking directly about their lives. That’s where it all turned for me,” Maniscalco told me in a phone interview. “People started coming out to the shows, and you would see people come, and the next time I would come to town they would bring their family, then they would bring the neighborhood.”

Maniscalco has a new book arriving on February 27 from Gallery Books called “Stay Hungry.” In addition to being something Maniscalco’s nonna might tell him at dinner, it’s a title about never giving up and always staying ambitious. In the book, Maniscalco reflects about working odd jobs on his road to becoming a comic, everything from waiting tables at Olive Garden to selling satellite dishes to dressing up as Captain Morgan. And in between some trips down memory lane, Maniscalco shared his advice for young comedians trying to find their own appetite for success.

STAY HUNGRY Book Cover Sebastian Maniscalco
Gallery Books

Brian Welk: Why did you choose to write this book now?

Sebastian Maniscalco: I reflected back on the last 20 years of my life and looking back at some of the stories that have happened to me and some of the trials and tribulations of being in the entertainment business, touching on my family, my upbringing, I felt there were some stories I hadn’t touched on in my stand-up that I felt would be more suited to a book or long-form kind of storytelling. Because in stand-up you can’t tell some of the stories I told in the book because they’re a little long and they have more of a beginning, middle and end to it, and you have to hit them hard throughout the set with laughter.

Coming from the Midwest, did you feel like your Midwest roots helped your work ethic at all or defined your path making it in LA? 

A lot of it had to do with being a product of my environment. Not just growing up in the Midwest, but the family I had teaching me never to give up and working for anything you ever had. I talk in the book about going into debt when I was in Los Angeles, and I had to go to my father for $10,00, and he gave me the 10 grand, but he made me pay back every dime of it, and once that 10 grand was now assumed by my father, it was more of a personal debt for me to pay him back, because by no means was my father rich, and he works for his money.

You get on stage three or four times a night wherever you can and get yourself better, and in the meantime do what you have to do to get better, be it waiting at the Four Seasons or selling satellite dishes in the ghetto, whatever the hell I had to do, I had no shame in working to survive.

In the book you describe getting feedback that your comedy needed to be less angry. What sort of jokes were you telling early on?

It was not necessarily the content, but it was more the delivery of what I was saying. When I started doing stand up comedy, at least for me, I was not super-natural in letting down my guard and being myself, so what I was doing was masking a lot of my insecurities with this over the top, angry delivery. I was watching the world around me, being very observational in my humor, but the way I was delivering it in my humor was off putting and not with a wink and a nod to the crowd that I know I sound absurd. It was more in your face, not really smiling, not really having a lot of fun, just finding my way. That’s something you have to do, and it comes with practice, night after night. You begin to peel those layers off as you become more experienced as a comedian and start finding your true voice. The first six or seven years, that’s what I was doing, trying to find out who I was on stage and be more comfortable in my own skin up there.

What led to you telling more stories about your family? 

When you’re mining for material, a lot of my stuff in the beginning was, “Hey I went to Subway” or “Hey I went to Ross Dress For Less,” and this was very on the surface, nothing too in depth about me as a person. There was a joke that I was not reluctant but a little of weary of putting in my special, the “What’s Wrong With People?” special. The joke was about when you go to Italian weddings how you have to bring an envelope filled with cash. It was very specific to the Italian culture, and I didn’t know if it was going to be funny to the rest of the people who didn’t grow up like that. But I put that in and decided, let’s see how it plays. I found right away that people were commenting online that, “Oh my god, this is how we do it,” or they were sharing their own experiences about Italian weddings. That inspired me to start diving into this family thing a little more.

Sebastian Maniscalco
Sebastian Maniscalco at the Beacon Theater/Todd Rosenberg Photography

Someone in my family owns a banquet hall, Alta Villa in Addison, and if you didn’t have your wedding there with the whole family, it was a big scandal.

I used to go to Alta Villa all the time. They had not only weddings but they had these teen dance parties at Alta Villa growing up where on Sunday night they would bring in a DJ like Julian Jumpin’ Perez, and he used to spin dance music, and we used to go there. Every time I go to Chicago, I talk about some of those references that are really specific growing up in Chicago. Like listening to B96 and mixtapes growing up. Stuff people my age would relate to in the late ’80s, early ’90s in the Northwest suburbs. I feel like a lot of times people really like to relate to what you’re talking about. It’s something people really enjoy when they know what you’re talking about.

What was your reaction to your family suddenly being the butt of the joke?

My dad loves it. He loves what’s happening with me. He’s my biggest fan yet my biggest critic. I’m going back to Chicago this week, and he comes to the shows and gets really nervous. He’s always rooting for me to do well, not that I don’t do well, but he’s very critical of the humor. He wants me to do my set verbatim the same way from beginning to end. When I don’t do it that way, he feels I lose some jokes. But as a performer, you have to be able to adapt to the crowd. Maybe you don’t feel like doing that joke tonight or you’re not passionate about it. So I drop a joke and put another one in there. It’s like having an overbearing father at Little League. My dad used to watch my play baseball, you’d strike out and he’d come to the dugout and say, “Come on, choke up!” Now with comedy, he’s very vocal about what I do, but I just understand he’s being a dad.

What advice would you give to other aspiring comics, especially coming from the Midwest.

I can only speak for myself. I didn’t do a lot of comedy in Chicago. Chicago is a real big comedy town. I just didn’t know any better. I did Second City for a year, then picked up my bags and I figured if you want to get into entertainment you go to Los Angeles where it’s all happening. A lot of people get their start in Chicago. It’s a nice little city to do comedy there, but I just didn’t take that path. I just dove in head first, because I didn’t know any better.

But my advice to young comedians is to really work the material, to really stay passionate about what you’re doing, be patient and to take it seriously. Now that I’m doing these theaters and people are coming out and paying a premium ticket. There’s so much that goes into people going out nowadays, especially if you’re a family that has kids. You have to get the babysitter, you go out to dinner, you pay for parking, you pay for the ticket, you pay for drinks. It’s a lot. And you have to be at the top of your game in order for these people to give them the experience that they need to have based on all the work that they need to get there. So I never take it for granted. It’s something I take very seriously. I’m going to give 150 percent, I’m not going to leave anything on the table, and I’m going to have fun doing it too, because the audience can definitely detect whether or not you’re having fun doing what you’re doing.

In a day and age where people think it’s just going to come and they’re entitled to success, it’s just not the case. It’s a lot of hard work and dedication to the craft. First and foremost you have to be funny. In my eyes this stuff cannot be taught. I can’t sing. No one’s going to teach me how to sing. Can’t do it. Same thing with stand up. You either have to be funny, or forget it.