Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco

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Despite ascending to a comedic pantheon that includes the likes of Seinfeld and Chappelle, he remains rooted thanks to his Sicilian-American upbringing.

When talking about ace standup Sebastian Maniscalco, Jerry Seinfeld once lovingly quipped, “Has anybody in the history of comedy had more syllables in their name?”

That’s how you know Maniscalco, a comedian who has spent the last 20 years building a career up from scratch, has finally reached rock-star standup status. Here was Seinfeld, the reigning king of comedians who reportedly earned $69 million last year alone for his own standup, inviting Maniscalco on his streaming show, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” and offering him perhaps the greatest compliment of all, anointing him “my favorite comedian these days.”

In a post-Johnny Carson era, the “Seinfeld Seal of Approval” is the equivalent of getting invited back to the couch to hang with Johnny and Ed. The endorsement — along with the subsequent friendship the 44-year-old Maniscalco struck up with Seinfeld — ranks among his favorites in a career full of highlights.

But for an Italian-American guy who moved to Los Angeles from the Chicago suburbs in 1998 with the aim of breaking into the entertainment industry despite having no industry connections, these last few years have played out like a dream finally come true. Maniscalco is currently traveling North America on a new standup tour, his book “Stay Hungry” was released at the end of February, he’s got a podcast with fellow comedian Pete Correale airing on SiriusXM and he was recently featured in People magazine’s “Ones to Watch” issue.

It’s enough to make a guy say, “Yeah, I made it.” That is, unless you grew up in a Sicilian-American household.

“I never really said I’ve made it just because of the environment I’ve come from,” Maniscalco told Fra Noi. “My father came to visit me for Christmas and said, ‘You can’t rest. You have to stay hungry. You have to keep writing new material. You have to work almost double the amount you did to get there to sustain it.’”

Maniscalco’s upbringing is a major plank of his comedy, though not its defining characteristic. His high-energy standup is decidedly mainstream, leaning heavily on stories about growing up in an ethnic family — riffs on everything from being an altar boy who wanted to work the “funeral circuit” for extra money to his grandmother’s high-sodium diet — but it’s mostly packed with pointed, observational takes on modern society and cultural mores. A Maniscalco set is also extremely physical, with the athletically built comedian stalking the stage like a madcap mime, hitting every punchline in routines about Chipotle, Whole Foods and being asked to take off your shoes in someone’s home with an exaggerated double-take or full-body jerk.

“I can’t believe people are resonating with the material,” Maniscalco says. “I’m talking about things that are very relatable to people, especially family. But you don’t have to be an Italian to understand what I’m saying. No matter what your background is, people can relate to stories about growing up.”

Maniscalco is an endearing storyteller, and it was the personal connection he established with his audience, along with a passionate work ethic, that carried him during the early, uncertain years of his career. He worked a series of day jobs — including waiting tables at the Four Seasons hotel and glazing hams at HoneyBaked Ham — while moonlighting at open-mic nights and comedy clubs. Following each show, Maniscalco says he would stand outside with patrons and fans, chatting and taking pictures to build a following that kept coming back, the next time with new audience members in tow.

“The last two or three years for me have been very rewarding. As a comedian starting out there have been times when things were shaky. At one time I was selling satellite dishes at a kiosk at the mall in the ghetto,” Maniscalco says. “This is a 20-year thing in the making. It didn’t happen overnight. To finally pop and have this type of response is unbelievable.”

Maniscalco pulled double-duty for seven years before gathering enough momentum to do standup full-time. His big break came in 2005 when he and three other comics went on tour with actor and fellow Chicago-area native Vince Vaughn. The tour and resulting documentary film, “Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days & 30 Nights – Hollywood to the Heartland” not only sported the most ludicrously convoluted title in movie history, it took Maniscalco from sets at The Comedy Store in L.A. to bigger venues around the country. He now regularly sells out 3,000-seat theaters. Perhaps even more impressive, Maniscalco’s recent Showtime special, “Why Would You Do That?”, was the network’s most-watched comedy/variety special of 2016.

A nonstop touring schedule, combined with explosive ticket sales, landed Maniscalco a spot on Forbes’ “World’s Top-Earning Comedians” list in July 2017, with projected earnings of $15 million last year. It’s an impressive distinction, sharing the same rarified air with Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, but it’s also uncomfortable for a guy whose father always warned him against boastfulness and the perils of believing your own hype.

“Of course, my father said, ‘What are you, nuts?’” Maniscalco says of the list, which was compiled without his input by analyzing ticket sales. “He thinks like I called the magazine. It’s a little strange.”

Maniscalco’s current standup tour, along with the release of his memoir, continue his evolution as a comic, mining his own personal life to hilarious effect. “Stay Hungry” marks Maniscalco’s first foray as a published author, giving the comedian a bit more breathing space than the typical rat-a-tat pace of a standup set to wax funny about his upbringing, his career highs and lows, and the experiences of being a husband and father to a young daughter.

“The book is something I thought I would never write,” Maniscalco says. “Growing up I thought in order to write a book you had to be a president or someone who cured a disease, but I’m a guy from Chicago doing standup comedy. What do I have to talk about?”

A lot these days, it seems. And Maniscalco promises new and old fans alike an ever-evolving act that he’s crafting as he’s living life, rather than clocking in at a computer every day to mine current events to generate controversy.

“There’s no politics. I don’t get into any of that. People are beaten over the head with that from when they put on the TV to when they’re on their phones,” Maniscalco says. “My comedy is kind of an escape from that. People need that in this day and age.”

The above appeared in the March issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Jim Distasio

Jim Distasio is an award-winning writer, director, editor. His documentary “Sawdust: Life in the Ring,” about the Zoppè Family Circus, was an official selection at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the River’s Edge Film Festival. His documentary “5,000 Miles From Home,” about the impact of World War II on Chicago’s Italian-American community, earned two local Emmys on six nominations. Distasio earned a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he currently serves as an adjunct lecturer. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Chicago Tribune Magazine, American Profile, Vine Line and Fra Noi.

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