Interview with Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco
Sebastian Maniscalco headlines The La Jolla Comedy Store May 27-28.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago helped Sebastian Maniscalco form his unique perspective on the human condition which he conveys effortlessly through his stand-up comedy. A native of Arlington Heights, Illinois a northwest suburb of Chicago, Maniscalco would earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Corporate Organizational Communications before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in comedy.
After becoming a regular at The Hollywood Comedy Store, Maniscalco would be thrust into the limelight in 2005 when actor Vince Vaughn handpicked him to be included in his feature length film, Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show. The film chronicled a month-long tour that featured Maniscalco alongside several other comics, giving audiences an inside look at a comic’s life on the road. After the film’s success, Maniscalco went on to make numerous television appearances, including a stint as a correspondent on the short-lived Jay Leno Show.
SanDiego.com recently spoke with Maniscalco from his home in Los Angeles and discussed his first time doing stand-up and the ongoing process of a headlining comedian.
Why did you get a degree in Corporate Organizational Communications?
Sebastian Maniscalco: I wanted to be an accountant when I went into college, and took one accounting class and said, ‘This wasn’t for me.’ I failed to get into the journalism school so I said, ‘What school is within the college do you not have to take a test to get into?’ And they said, ‘Corporate organizational communication.’ To be honest with you, I knew I was going to do stand-up comedy after I left college. I wanted to quit college when I was a freshman, and my father convinced me to stay in school and get a degree. So, I did that and shortly after graduating I moved out to Los Angeles to pursue my career in stand-up. I always wanted to get into the entertainment business, it’s just when you grow up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, you don’t know how to do something like that and I have no regrets for getting a degree and staying in school, it was a good experience for me and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
When was the first time you did an open mic?
SM: This was in college actually. I won a contest to open up for the national headlining comedian that was coming to the school, and they had a comedy contest to open up for him, and I won and I did about ten minutes, and that ten minutes was probably the worst ten minutes I’ve ever done. It was a primarily black audience and they were screaming, “Sandman!” And I didn’t know what the hell “Sandman” was at the time, but later I found out that’s who they call for at Showtime at The Apollo.
What was the audition process like for this contest you won?
SM: I auditioned for this contest in a small room in front of three people and I made them laugh, but then it’s a whole different animal when you get in front of 300 people in an audience setting and half to do an act. It’s a whole different thing.
After that experience, did you continue to pursue comedy and do open-mics or did you lay low for a while?
SM: I laid low. I always wanted to do stand-up, I accomplished it; I did it and I didn’t get back into it until I got out to California in 98’.
So there were a few years there where you weren’t performing after your first experience on stage.
SM: No, there was a Second City in Chicago. I was studying there and taking acting classes, but I didn’t get back onstage until I came out to L.A.
Were you studying improv and sketch at Second City?
SM: Yeah, improv; just the school and the courses that they have there. At the end of the class we would have a show and invite our friends and family.
Would you say that when you arrived in L.A. that you definitely had a lot of experience under your belt?
SM: I wouldn’t say a lot of experience, I would say a handful of times getting up in front of a group of people. I was in a play; I was doing dinner theater called, “Joey and Mary’s Irish Italian Comedy Wedding.” I was the best man, Gio Capalini.
Do you remember the first time you did stand-up in Los Angeles?
SM: As soon as I got to L.A. I didn’t know how to get into stand-up so I took a comedy class for six weeks. It was very supportive, getting in front of a group of people that were kind of on the same boat as you. Then we would go out and hit the open mics on the off nights that we didn’t have class. The class kind of helped me get my feet wet, and then after that I started performing literally anywhere that would have a comedy night. I used to go down to San Diego I think there was a placed called Moondoggie's that used to have comedy, I think they still do, and PB Bar and Grill; they were offering a half hour of comedy; in L.A. I could only get 5 or 10 minute spots, so I would travel the 2 hours, do the half hour for like a meal, and then come back.
What would say helped you step your game up to the next level? Was it getting passed at The Comedy Store?
SM: Yeah that was the first club that I became a paid regular at in the year 2000 and then kind of worked out my act there every night of the week, and pretty much did these odd shows anywhere I could for about five years and then in 2005 Vince Vaughn had taken us on the road to do the Vince Vaughn Wild West Comedy Show.
Would you say a lot of things changed for you after the release of that film?
SM: The movie put me into the headlining category at clubs; the very entry level of a headliner. I was just talking about this to someone else earlier this week; when you get into comedy you think, ‘Oh I’ll just get an hours-worth of material and then at least I’ll have an a hour and I can headline the clubs.’ Well there’s a business side of this where you might have the material but you’ve got to be able to put people in the seats. And that’s something that’s humbling. You think you’re just gonna go out there, you’re funny and people are going to show up, which is not necessarily the case. Every time you get to a specific level, somewhere in your career, you’re always striving for the next; you become a headliner then that’s not enough, you gotta be a headliner that sells out the clubs, and then after you do that then you want to sell out theaters. So you’re always striving for that next big break.
When did you find your voice as a comedian?
SM: I’d say I’ve always had a strong point of view; but just getting comfortable onstage was the whole thing for me. When I started out I was very, very angry; like I was masking my insecurities onstage with anger, and it was awful, just awful to watch. But I definitely had a point of view on things when a lot of comedians kind of strived to find that point of view. And I had it early on, it was just a matter of practice, practice, practice trying to get as comfortable as I can onstage while expressing my frustrations on human behavior. I felt like around the time Vince Vaughn kind of picked me up around 2005 and we made that movie, I kind of felt that I was coming into my own. It’s like every three years you kind of look back at your act and go, ‘Wow I can’t believe I was doing that,’ or ‘ Wow, I’m much better now!’ So you’re always kind of coming into another pocket, another level. With 7 years in of doing stand-up I kind of felt like I had a good grasp of what was going on with myself onstage and how to handle hecklers and how to handle different scenarios onstage and being comfortable. I’d say about 7 years in I feel I had a good body of work.
How often will go off script and do crowd work and riff during your show?
SM: Over the last two years I’ve dipped into the audience a little bit more, just to kind of mix it up a little bit. I tend to do it when maybe something’s not working in my act or I got a little bored up there and I want to test the waters and see if I can make something funny kind of just improvising. I think the last 2 years I’ve kind of implemented it into my act, not a whole lot but there’s definitely a little bit more playing around with the crowd then I have in the past.
Any projects you’ve got coming up later this year?
SM: I just shot a one hour DVD. So that will be coming out later on this year or early 2012. And I’m in a movie that’s going to be coming out this June in select cities, called Just Like Us. We did about 3 or 4 shows in the middle east, basically translating how American comedy translates to the middle east and how the middle east is just like us as far as the way they perceive humor.
Does Sebastian Maniscalco have a message for the children?
SM: Not everybody’s a winner. Not everybody gets a trophy.