Arts & Culture

Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, coming to C.R. Thursday, is flying high on career trajectory

Peggy Sirota photo

Hot off five sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York and a role in the Oscar-winning film “The Green Book,” Chicago-area native Sebastian Maniscalco is bringing his “Stay Hungry” tour to the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Thursday (4/18).
Peggy Sirota photo Hot off five sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York and a role in the Oscar-winning film “The Green Book,” Chicago-area native Sebastian Maniscalco is bringing his “Stay Hungry” tour to the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Thursday (4/18).

The new year is off to a good start for standup comedian Sebastian Maniscalco.

In January, he played to five sold-out audiences in New York’s Radio City Music Hall. In February, “The Green Book,” in which he made his feature film debut, won the Oscar for Best Picture. And in October, his next film, Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” is slated to premiere on Netflix. Among his co-stars are Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino.

“To have these movies back to back is something that typically doesn’t happen in the world of standup comedy,” Maniscalco, 45, said by phone from his Los Angeles home.

“I’m very excited to see what the rest of the year holds.”

For now, he’s on the road with his “Stay Hungry” tour, swinging through the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Thursday night (4/18).

His Radio City Music Hall gigs were filmed for a Netflix special, but if you saw that show on TV, don’t expect to hear the same material in Cedar Rapids. He’s on an evolutionary path.

COMEDY STYLE

“It’s not really the same material that’s on Netflix right now,” he said. “I tend to write a lot about my life as life happens, and it kind of displays itself onstage.

“It’s family-oriented,” he said of his standup routine. “It centers a lot on being a new parent. My wife’s family and my family come from two different backgrounds, so I always find there’s always a lot of material in the differences in how we grew up. And just daily observational-type material, but centered mainly around the family.”

He grew up in a middle-class Italian Catholic family in Chicago, entrenched in the Old World traditions his father brought to the U.S. when he emigrated from Italy at age 15. Maniscalco’s wife, an artist, had an upper class upbringing in Memphis, with Spanish and Jewish heritage. Their world converged when they met at a gym in L.A.

“My wife was treated with kid gloves,” he said, “and I was treated with a very honest, aggressive type of upbringing — not that I got hit or anything, but it was more like, ‘Go get a job at 8 years old.’ I was cutting lawns at 8 years old to earn my keep. A lot of work early on.”

His mother remains a good sounding board for his comedy ideas.

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“A lot of times I’ll be talking to my mother and explaining a story that happened to me, and if she starts to laughs, then I’ll think to myself, ‘This could be a possible bit.’ But a lot of the initial writing happens onstage,” he said. “It’s not really writing — it’s storytelling for me.”

He also bounces stories off his sister and wife. “If they start to laugh, I might start to see that I have a seed in the garden,” he said.

Once he’s ready to try out his new material, he’ll often head to The Comedy Store in L.A., which he calls his “comedy gymnasium.” That’s where he “hones and perfects” the bits to roll into his act.

OSCAR EXPERIENCE

Don’t be surprised if he tells a tale or two from attending this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. It wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, he said, especially since he only received one ticket, meaning he couldn’t take his wife. (She did get to join him at an after-party, however.)

He also didn’t get to go up to the stage with his castmates to revel in the Oscar win.

“I was seated in the mezzanine,” he said. “I think I was a seat filler. I was trying to make it down to the main floor. Just in case we did win, I would want to try to get onstage, but I never ended up getting there.”

Instead, he fell down a flight of stairs — in a tuxedo.

“Going from the standup comedy to the movie world was almost like starting over again in a different medium of entertainment,” he said. “I felt like the kid transferring from one high school to the other and I didn’t know anybody.”

But he’s getting the last laugh.

“Any time those things happen to me, it’s great,” he said. “It’s now part of my act — going to the Oscars, walking down the red carpet. It’s very self-deprecating, which I find very fun to do. I like poking fun at myself or making fun of my experiences.

“Everything is fair game when it comes to standup comedy. So when things like that happen, although maybe in the moment, as I’m falling down the stairs, it’s not like I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is gonna be great for the stage,’ but after reflecting on it, it was definitely something that is now part of the act.”

BEGINNINGS

Still a quiet, laid-back shy guy on a movie set, he was never the class clown at school. He honed his comedy chops at home.

“My humor happened at the dinner table, when I came home and I talked about what I saw at school,” he said. “That was my first stage — sitting around telling my mother, my father and my sister the stories of the day that happened at school.

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“Any time I’d get in front of a class for a book report I would tend to flourish, because although I wasn’t really comfortable in small groups of people, if you put me in front of a class and 33 people were staring at me, I’d tend to really rise to the occasion when it came to all the attention on me, but I would never seek that out.”

He’s more comfortable in front of a big group of strangers, beginning when his mother put him in a modeling show at a mall when he was 8.

“There was just something about being onstage where you’d kind of owned it, and felt really at home and confident up there,” he said.

His penchant for punctuating his comedy with movement and expression also came early.

“I just knew I had a funny bone and a funny way of telling stories — not only what I was saying, but how I was saying it — the physicality, the facial expression, all of that plays into being a good storyteller. Using my body and my face to explain a story was something that I found very fun to do, and I turned it into a career.”

Even though Chicago has been a training and proving ground for generations of top-flight comedians who moved through the Second City programs, Maniscalco elected to head to Los Angeles, instead.

“I was more ignorant than anything else,” he said. “Chicago is really a great city for not only standup but improv. I had in my own backyard a nice place to develop comedy chops, but I figured if you wanted to go into the entertainment business, you go where the entertainment business is, and that’s Hollywood.”

So at age 24, he headed there, not knowing a soul.

“I figured I’d just feel my way through this,” he said, “and hope for the best.”

He arrived in 1998, started taking comedy classes at The Comedy Store, and worked as a waiter to supplement his income. By 2005, he started making a living at comedy, and his career has been picking up speed in the past three or four years, leaping from stage to screen.

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“Going from standup comedy to an Oscar-winning film is something that if you would have told me 21 years ago when I came out to Los Angeles that was going to happen, I would have thought you were nuts.”

If You Go

• What: Sebastian Maniscalco: Stay Hungry Tour

• Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

• When: 7 p.m. Thursday (4/18)

• Tickets: $42.75 to $62.75

• Artist’s website: Sebastianlive.com/home/

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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