While he was growing up in Arlington Heights, the son of an Italian mother and a Sicilian father, Sebastian Maniscalco had a “dream” that one day he’d stalk the stage as a stand-up comic. After moving out to Los Angeles at age 24 and putting in the requisite toil, that dream came true.
But it was born not of inner turmoil or pain; nor was it an escape from the doldrums of suburban life.
“No drug abuse, alcohol — none of that,” he says.
On the contrary, he was perfectly “comfortable” in Arlington Heights as part of a tight-knit clan that ate together, vacationed together and most of all laughed together.
Sebastian Maniscalco: Aren’t You Embarrassed? 10 p.m. Nov. 14, Showtime (repeats — check schedule at sho.com)
“We really never took things seriously. If we did, we were crying,” says Maniscalco, whose new comedy special “Aren’t You Embarrassed?” premieres on Showtime Nov. 14. He’s also slated to appear on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” that same day and is scheduled to perform at the Chicago Theatre on Nov. 28, 2015.
Family and childhood are a significant part of his act, and Maniscalco says much of that material comes from his father as well as things (inflections, mannerisms, vocabulary) he gleaned from his ethnic upbringing.
“I think that’s where I got a lot of my physical comedy from, being in that environment and watching people speak with their hands and their facial expressions,” he says. “I just got a lot from watching my father’s face. He didn’t have to say anything; you could just read what he was saying on his face. And it was funny. Even when he was being serious, to me it was funny. I didn’t laugh in front of his face, but I always thought, ‘Look at how the message is being conveyed.’ And then I went to an American family’s house and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is so different to what I’m used to.’”
Much of his early comedy revolved around food, not as a subject but as a facilitator.
“If you’ve got a culture that doesn’t have food, you’re family ain’t talkin’,” he says. “Because there’s nothing to eat. Food brings out conversation, and at the dinner table, my first audience was my family. I would make them laugh while we ate.”
Upon graduating from Rolling Meadows High School — where he played soccer, ate lunches consisting of last night’s dinner that had to be refrigerated (veal parm and calamari, for instance), and palled around with friends who were more into clubbing than attending Friday night football games — Maniscalco attended Northern Illinois University for 4½ years (getting a killer 1.2 GPA his first semester) before moving to L.A. in search of comedy stardom.
Although he took a couple of improv classes at Second City’s conservatory, Maniscalco never did stand-up in Chicago.
“This whole time I was in Chicago, I just felt like, ‘If you’re going to play with this career, you’ve gotta go where it’s happening. Los Angeles was my pick, because I always thought I was going to turn the stand-up into some kind of TV or film career.
That still might happen. Recently, Maniscalco sold a show to NBC with “My Name is Earl” creator Greg Garcia. According to a write-up on Deadline.com, the still untitled sitcom “follows newlywed Sebastian as he attempts to stay true to his blue-collar roots while adjusting to a world full of people he finds increasingly offensive.”
The real Sebastian does, in fact, find lots of people offensive. Less offensive, perhaps, than his bristling, on-the-edge-of-implosion comic persona finds them, but irritating nonetheless. In his act, targets abound: Las Vegas slobs, Yelp! critics, rude airport workers, presumptuous guests, those who wear medical masks but don’t explain why — they all get skewered in the name of laughs.
“I live in the negative,” he admits in his special. “Live in the negative. My wife is in the positive. Came back to our house, I said, ‘Put the for-sale sign up. There’s a guy with a medical mask living next door.’ She’s like, ‘Maybe he has a respiratory problem and that’s why he has a mask.’ I go, ‘Or maybe he’s got 16 bodies in drums in formaldehyde in his basement. Put the sign up — we’re movin’!’”
Not atypically, Maniscalco is most animated onstage. Like many comedians, he’d rather observe than be observed when the spotlight fades.
“I’m very laid back,” he admits. “I’m very mild-mannered. I’m not the class clown. I never want to be the center of attention.”
When he is, though, it’s hard not to notice.