In 2018, Sebastian Maniscalco reached heights that few comedians could ever dream about. With a string of record-breaking, sold-out arena and theatre shows; a best-selling memoir, Stay Hungry; and a role in Green Book, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it’s no surprise that Billboard honored him with their inaugural “Comedian of the Year” award.
The man Jerry Seinfeld calls “my favorite comedian” was one of Pollstar’s top 30 highest-grossing performers in the world, and was nominated for that publication’s Comedy Tour of the Year award. He sold out five shows at Radio City Music Hall, and the latest in Maniscalco’s five television comedy specials (for Netflix, Showtime, and Comedy Central) scaled new ratings heights, prompting NBC Nightly News to describe him as “comedy’s new superstar.”
But “Stay Hungry” is more than just a slogan for the Chicago-born Maniscalco—it’s a way of life. And so in 2019, the man dubbed “the comedian’s comedian” by People magazine shows no sign of slowing down. The same week in January that his Netflix original special, Stay Hungry, was released, he performed an astonishing four sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, breaking the record for highest-grossing comedy event ever in North America. The year will also see Maniscalco’s performance—alongside Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci—in Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated The Irishman on Netflix. All this in addition to the main event, the launch of a brand-new tour titled “You Bother Me.”
As a profile in Vulture noted, “Maniscalco, without a breakout TV or film role, built a tremendous fan base the old-fashioned way: one joke at a time, one audience at a time.” The comedian expresses great pride in this hard-fought trajectory. “When I first started doing comedy, I never thought about doing arenas,” he says. “But in the course of 21 years, hitting the pavement, taking pictures with people, I developed a very loyal fan base. A couple would come to a show, then they’d come back and bring their family or their neighbors, and it just kinda swelled. Now you have limo buses pulling up to the shows—it’s just staggering.”
Named one of the Top 10 highest-grossing comedians in the world in both 2017 and 2018 by Forbes, Maniscalco has taken full advantage of this new platform. “With the success of the comedy, other opportunities opened themselves up,” he says. “I’m able to take on projects I’m passionate about, just do really quality stuff—I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can really calculate what I’m doing and not spread myself too thin.”
Known for his distinctive, physical style—he’s “not just telling a joke, he’s showing it, too,” as the New York Times wrote—perhaps Maniscalco’s most impressive feat is his leap into the highest levels of dramatic cinema. “The goal is not to be the next Denzel Washington, but to have some fun and be creative in another realm,” he says. “It was just unbelievable, doing these movies back to back. We shot Green Book in November, and The Irishman in December—coming straight off a set with Viggo Mortenson, then going toe-to-toe with DeNiro and Pesci.
“I grew up loving all these guys, so throwing me in that mix was a little daunting,” he continues. “But it’s a chance to exercise a different muscle, and I thought it would be interesting to give myself a little more dimension.”
Maniscalco expresses more surprise regarding Stay Hungry, his best-selling book. “I thought writing books was reserved for ex-presidents and people who survived disasters,” he says. “But I did think there were stories—old jobs I had, meeting my wife—where the best way to share them would be to wrap it up in a book. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, it took a while, but I’m very proud of it.”
Since moving to Los Angeles in 1998, Maniscalco has served as a textbook example of perseverance and hustle, initially earning his place as a favorite at LA’s legendary Comedy Store. After Vince Vaughn enlisted him for his popular “Wild West Comedy Show,” Maniscalco began his ascent to what Pollstar dubbed “the vanguard of a live comedy revolution,” becoming a favorite on late-night television and a touring juggernaut, eventually being named Just For Laughs’ Stand Up Comedian of the Year in 2016.
And Maniscalco is taking on a new challenge this year as the host of MTV’s Video Music Awards. “It’s a totally different audience—younger, more of a music audience— and to get myself in front of those people will be a great departure from going in and seeing my fans – more middle-aged working class and a lot of Italian-Americans,” he says. “I’ve never really hosted anything, never really worked with writers before, it’s all pretty new to me. I don’t think there’s been a VMA host in the past who’s had gray hair!”
But the biggest focus for Sebastian Maniscalco in 2019 will be the launch of the “You Bother Me” tour in September. “I constantly walk around going, ‘This guy bothers me.,’” he says. “Things you would probably just blow off, I get incensed by. But out of that kernel comes really great stuff. My wife never worked in a restaurant, but I worked in restaurants my whole life. So a lot of the show is just taking the audience through things like the entire experience of going to a sit-down dinner with my wife and her family and all the things that annoy me.”
Maniscalco notes that all of his accomplishments and visibility definitely create new hurdles for his comedy. “You reach some type of success and people start to recognize the act,” he says. “Coming up, you go into Dallas and just do your act and try to have people see it. Along the way, people expect new material, but they still have favorite bits you want to pepper in. In some ways, it’s almost tougher to stay at the top than it is to get there.”
All he can do, he says, is keep living his life and finding new experiences and observations to draw from—including, this summer, the arrival of his first son, who will join two-year-old daughter Serafina. “Going from hotel to hotel, life gets more monotonous,” he says, “so doing stuff with family is even more important. Toddler groups, music class, gymnastics—the more I get out there, the more material I have to extract from.”