“I gotta be honest with you…I don’t want to come off sounding like I knew this was gonna happen, but I’ve really been working hard to get to this point and I’m really really enjoying it."
So says Sebastian Maniscalco, the 43-year-old comedian who has successfully held the faith for almost 20 years in comedy and is now reaping the well-earned rewards.
Reflecting back to when he was “barely surviving in 1999,” the Chicago-born stand-up is now headlining his own Why Would You Do That Tour, which is scheduled to fill Houston's 2,400-seat Revention Music Center this Friday. Maniscalco says he's pumped to visit Houston, and not just to visit his favorite barbecue joint, Killen's in Pearland — which JJ Watt turned him on to, for those at home keeping score.
“I always watched Johnny Carson growing up,” he reflects, “And [I] was always enthralled when the comedians came on.” For the young jokester, the unknown aspect was admittedly the most captivating facet. “How do they remember all this? How do they nail the timing?”
Maniscalco also notes Brian Regan, Bill Burr, Eddie Murphy and Andrew “Dice” Clay as influences. “Also John Ritter, who is not really a stand-up, but as a tremendous physical presence and comedic actor, which is something I like to do in my act too," he says.
It was at a young age, though, that the funny kid set his eyes on actually stepping into the spotlight. “I was 15-16 going to comedy clubs, when everyone else my age was going to the basketball game at the high school,” he muses. “I’d drag girls I was dating to those clubs!"
But even as Maniscalco’s tastes have shifted, working the road with his own material has remained the passion of his career. “As I grow older, I tend to laugh at things that seem more dramatic than comedic,” he notes. “I think that’s something I notice more in comedians, something that really only they understand — this ability to laugh hardest at the serious tone."
Since going full time in 2005, he’s released four hourlong specials: 2009’s self-produced Sebastian Live, followed by What’s Wrong With People, Aren’t You Embarrassed? and Why Would You Do That?, all distributed exclusively for the premium channel Showtime. Starting in January, Sirius XM has picked up distribution rights to Maniscalco’s The Pete and Sebastian Show, which he co-hosts with fellow comic Pete Correale. Add on top of that a full touring schedule and the plan to publish a memoir this year, and Maniscalco becomes a hard man to get a minute with.
So why, if he’s got a body of great recorded work, should one make the trek out to see him in person? Because he prefers it that way. “A lot of the nuance of comedy is lost when you watch it on TV, because of different camera angles and whatnot," says Maniscalco. "It could be as subtle as the blink of an eye, or the movement of your finger that you’ll only see in a live performance – but you’d miss on TV. Comedy is best digested in a live environment.”
As the comic has scaled through the stand-up ladder, going from playing comedy clubs to theaters to arenas, he admits it can be tougher to maintain the intimacy with the crowd. “It can be [a] challenge, but for me, there’s nothing better than going to the Improv in Houston and killing for 300," Maniscalco says. "Don’t get me wrong, I love playing the larger venues, but there’s something to be said about performing in a small club.”
Easily one of the perks of being a showbiz pro is connecting with those you looked up to. For Maniscalco, Jerry Seinfeld might have been at the top of the list. “I met Jerry probably six months prior to shooting, and we became fast friends,” he says of his 2016 spot on Seinfeld's streaming show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. “Next thing I know, I’m driving around Los Angeles in a 1969 Chevy Camaro! We had a great time, and he’s a nice guy to have, not just as a friend, but as someone you can turn to in the business and ask all the questions to. He’s a great outlet to have.”
As Seinfeld transitioned to TV in the late '80s, Maniscalco is having his shot at breaking into movies. He’s recently completed filming in a number of high-profile projects, including a spot in the new Will Ferrell–Amy Poehler collab The House, as well as indie drama The Cruise and some voice work for The Nut Job 2. He’s also recently signed on to co-star in The Pre-Nup with Amelie Hersh. “You do stand-up pretty much your whole life and these other creative juices start flowing, you know?" he says. "You want to start doing other things too.”
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But the role that might be most exciting is the upcoming one: father. “I’m having a baby May 1, he says, “My first child. So needless to say, things are busy over here. When I was just starting out, I told my agent to get me anything. I didn’t care if it was a five-day stay in Omaha, Nebraska – I wanted it. But as you get older and your priorities change — family, wife, kids – I’m learning to not do as much.”
As he begins the new chapter of his life, Maniscalco reflects on his own childhood. “I grew up in an environment where my father was working, and he wasn’t there," he says. "Not to say that ‘he wasn’t there’ as in ‘I never saw him,’ but [he] was working 13-hour days, doing what he had to do to put food on the table. I have the ability with my career to make a little more time for the kids, just to see them grow up.”
Maniscalco and his father, he adds, are “closer now than they have ever been before.”
Sebastian Maniscalco will perform 7 p.m. Friday, April 14 at Revention Music Center, 520 Texas. For information, call 713-260-1600 or visit reventionmusiccenter.com. $32-183.