Sebastian Maniscalco is consistently one of the highest-grossing stand-up comedians in the country. And now, with the new Netflix special Is It Me? and upcoming autobiographical movie About My Father, co-starring Robert De Niro, he’s about to become a household name.
In this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Maniscalco opens up about doubling down on nostalgia and (mostly) avoiding controversy in his new special. He also talks about how the comedy world has changed for better and worse since he got his start in the late ’90s, shares stories from the sets of Green Book and The Irishman, and explains how he decided to embrace the most embarrassing moment of his career on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.
Maniscalco spends so much time on the road that when I ask him at the top of our Zoom call where he is, he looks momentarily confused. “Where am I?” he asks himself. “I’m in Charlotte, North Carolina? I had to look out the window to see where it was.”
For his latest special—his fifth hour and second on Netflix—Maniscalco decided to fully embrace the “old school” image he has cultivated over the years. “I just wanted to do something a little different,” he says of his tuxedoed look, which he describes as a Rat Pack-inspired “throwback to how Las Vegas used to be in the ’50s and ’60s.”
It’s a period in history in which he sometimes thinks he may have felt more at home. And he even got a taste of what that bygone era may have felt like through small but pivotal roles in films like the Oscar Best Picture-winning Green Book and Best Picture-nominated The Irishman. After filming the latter movie, Maniscalco tapped his co-star De Niro to play the titular role in an upcoming autobiographical film he co-wrote and stars in called About My Father.
Maniscalco got to bring his real-life father to the set of the film, which is expected to come out sometime next year, to help De Niro find the character. The comedian laughs as he recalls his father coming up to him during a day of shooting to ask, “How much am I getting paid for this?”
“I’m like, ‘Dad, you’re working with Robert De Niro! You’re worried about getting paid?” he recounts.
When Maniscalco recently screened an early cut of the film a couple of months ago, there were tears running down his father’s face as the credits rolled. “I think a lot hit him at that point,” he says. “Basically the movie’s a love letter to my father, and to see De Niro playing him in a movie, I don’t even know what that does to someone to see that, but he was very emotional about it.”
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to the whole thing by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.
I feel like there is a big theme in your comedy of longing for the good old days or wanting things to be more like they were. Do you feel like that’s increased over time as you get older, that you get more and more frustrated with modern society as you age?
Yeah. I have this thing for nostalgia in my act. I guess the best example is this doorbell bit I used to do about the doorbell ringing back then, and how it is now. I feel especially now, having kids, I feel like the way I grew up, just a simple upbringing but we had a great time, and sometimes you want to give that same thing to your children. And I’m thinking now, is that possible? In today’s climate? I know they’re not going to experience the same thing I experienced, obviously. But I just want to implement some of those old-world, old-school values that I grew up with in my kids. And I’m finding that, yeah, I can do that at home. But just the way the world is today, as soon as they go out into the world, it’s very different from how I grew up.
Well, you have that long bit towards the beginning of the new special where you talk about a kid at your kids’ school who identifies as a lion. Is that a true story? Is that something that really happened? Or is that a metaphor of some kind?
That’s not at my kids’ school, no. It’s a story that I actually heard from somebody. A lot of times in comedy, it’s almost like a movie, where you take things that you’ve heard or you piece them together. Another example is, I told a joke about my dad murdering animals in the backyard by putting antifreeze on baloney. He never did that. I actually heard that from somebody else and then weaved it into my act and gave that characteristic to my father. And I think nowadays people get really hopped up in regards to things that comedians are saying and think it’s true. And it’s just kind of putting a mirror on society and making light of everything.
Maybe there used to be an understanding that what a comedian was saying was just a joke or was not necessarily based in truth. But now you feel like people take comedy more seriously than they used to?
I think a minority takes it seriously; a very small portion, I think, of the populace gets hopped up when it comes to stand-up comedy. From what I’m seeing on the road, that’s not the case. People are dying to laugh. They have a sense of humor. They are not taking things to heart or seriously. If you don’t like the material, you don’t have to listen to it. I just don’t know when it became like, certain things are off-limits when it comes to humor. That’s what comedians do. They point out everything that’s going on in life and put a humorous spin on it. But nowadays, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
I’ve been watching your comedy for a long time. You’ve never been a particularly political or controversial comedian. But you do this thing throughout the new special where you imagine members of the audience criticizing you for being politically incorrect. You’re anticipating the pushback that you might get on certain things. Why did you decide to include that? Is that something you’ve actually experienced, people coming up to you, or online, pushing back on things that you say in that way?
No, not necessarily having to do with me. But that whole thing of recognizing that people might get upset based on what I’m saying was influenced by the state of comedy today. So instead of you saying that you’re offended, I’m going to tell you you’re probably going to be a little bent out of shape about what I’m saying here. And if you’re in the room, you can actually feel a sigh of relief when I say that. It allows the people to loosen up a little bit and actually enjoy the humor, rather than looking around and going, is anybody laughing? I’m giving the audience an outlet to say, “Hey, he recognizes that people might be offended,” and people get a good laugh out of it. As a comedian, I noticed that it worked for me to say that and have a much more enjoyable set. There is a little bit of tension relief when I mentioned that this might cause people to sweat.
In the same way that audiences might take what comedians say too seriously, I think there are also a lot of comedians right now who are courting controversy or they’re saying things knowing that they’re going to be controversial. I’m not sure that’s what you’re doing. But do you ever worry about sparking that sort of controversy or backlash in the way that that other big comics have?
It’s not like I’m seeking out controversial topics. It’s just that I’m always true to myself, true to what I see, and I’ve always been an observational comedian, and this so happens to be the next iteration of it. This is what I find funny, and it’s not like I’m looking to press people’s buttons at all. I don’t even think what I’m saying in this special is controversial. I just look at it as fun, people are having a good time with it. So no, I’m not seeking it out. I’m just being who I am. And if people have a problem with it—listen, you cannot please everybody. Someone’s always gonna have something to say. And if I edit myself and I don’t feel the freedom to do what I think is funny, I might as well stop doing stand-up. Because then, as soon as you start editing yourself, you’re not going to have an act.
Listen to the episode now and subscribe to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.