Sebastian Maniscalco slips into a leather booth at Forlini’s, the sixty-year-old red sauce joint in downtown Manhattan. Maniscalco, a trim 45-year-old with slick-backed salt-and-pepper hair, doesn’t have time to get comfortable before Joe Forlini, the restaurant’s elderly proprietor, approaches. He has an unusual look on his face, proud and tentative, star-struck in his own place of business.
“I’m Joe Forlini,” he says. “I just saw you up there in the Catskills.”
“Oh, you went to the casino?” replies Maniscalco, in a sort of sing-song badda-bing-badda-boom cadence with a bit of the High Plains prying open his vowels.
“Can I take a picture? My wife loves you,” asks Forlini, solicitous.
“Sure thing, Joe,” says Maniscalco, gracious.
“You need anything, let me know,” says Forlini.
“I’ll do that, Joe, thanks.” says Maniscalco.
Maniscalco doesn’t make much of the interaction. He knows who his work resonates with. Maniscalco, who grew up in Chicago in the 1970s, blew up in Los Angeles recently but he’s not part of the Upright Citizens Brigade / Second City / SNL multiverse. He’s a stand-up guy, not an improv one. And he spent years hustling from his job as a waiter at the Four Seasons to the Comedy Store to hone his craft on tight fifteen minute sets before hoofing it back to the dining room.
Now, Maniscalco has a couple of specials under his belt, a new memoir, a sold-out tour, and street cred with guys like Joe whose wives fill casinos in the Catskills. He’s in New York to go on Late Night With Seth Meyers, where he’ll lament that he can’t make his 16-month old daughter Serafina laugh and that preschool interviews are a thing. “I have to be on my best behavior,” he’ll say, “and you know, I’m not really….refined.” On the page, the line isn’t funny. But it kills. Meyers look likes he’s genuinely enjoying himself.
Maniscalco is old school. He fits in well with the Veal Scallopini and Lobster Fra Diavolo on the leather-bound menus. He takes great care with his appearance, in the Italian tradition of bella figura. He’s wearing a black merino wool sweater with a subtle check pattern, smart no-break slacks and a nice silver watch. It’s not showy but it’s nice and he credits his taste to the influence of his father, an immigrant from Cefalu, Sicily, who moved to Chicago at age 15 and became a beautician. “He did have kind of a sense of presentation. You see kids now and you’re like… is anybody watching them?” he says in a comic lament. “It just seems like the kid gets to choose whatever he wants, how he wants to wear his hair, how she wants to wear her hair.”
As a father of two young sons, one of whom wears only sweatpants and one of who wears only water-shoes, I wince at Maniscalco’s derision. I imagine Serafina clad in a cashmere onesie and tiny color coordinated Mary Janes. My kids may look a mess, I think to myself, but at least they can express themselves. But I don’t say this out loud. I think Maniscalco and I are very different, but I also think I like the guy and I want us to have a nice meal.
The Chicken Luigi arrives, for me, and a bowl of soup, for him. For a guy with a tour and a memoir entitled Stay Hungry, he doesn’t have much of an appetite. Much to the elder Forlini’s dismay, Maniscalco’s ordered a simple bowl of lentil soup, explaining that he cooked — and ate — meatballs, tacos and hamburgers with Megyn Kelly on camera a few hours earlier. I spear a bit of chicken breast and a coin of sausage in a white wine sauce and bite down hard.
Because we’re both dads and it’s the only territory on which I have an advantage — I don’t travel for work — we chat about our kids. Like many comics, Maniscalco is frequently on the road. Unlike most comics, he brings his wife, a “happy person” and a painter, and his daughter, who remains unemployed, along. The other day, in fact, during a stop in Toronto, Maniscalco watched Serafina’s first steps. “She just picked up and started walking,” he says, “and I’m sitting there, going….” He opens his eyes wider than ought to be possible. “I recorded it. I got it. I was like, ‘I can’t believe it.’ I was like….” He makes a surprised face and then a happy face. He looks proud.
As Serafina gets older, Maniscalco is looking forward to staying put. He’s got a small part in a very good new movie, The Green Book, a sort of reverse Driving Miss Daisy, co-starring Viggo Mortensen (as Morgan Freeman) and Mahershala Ali (as Jessica Tandy). But, he says, he already sees his kid much more than his father saw him. “Growing up, my dad wasn’t at the birthday parties,” he says, matter-of-factly.
Maniscalco talks a lot about his dad. Salvo Maniscalco makes frequent appearances in his son’s comedy, where he appears as the well-worn but affable caricature of an immigrant. He’s at once laughed at and seen as a font of wisdom. His starring role in his son’s bits makes sense too since, as Maniscalco tells me, his father was – still is – the sun around which the Maniscalco clan orbits. “He is the personality of the family,” he says, “not that no one else has a personality, but he’s like the larger than life … Everybody loves Salvo.”
Maniscalco learned how to be funny by watching his own pops. “He’s just a guy who loves to laugh, and he is proud of the fact that he thought that he knew what was funny,” says Maniscalco “and he does. To his credit, he really does know what’s funny…but doing standup, it’s one thing knowing what’s funny, and it’s another thing delivering what’s funny.” At the start of his career, the patriarch would send his son detailed notes. “Straight to the problem,” his son remembers. But now, what with success coming hard and fast, he’s finally learned to relax.
“I told him, ‘Dad, just be a fan,’” he says.
On stage, Maniscalco is crotchety, hilarious belligerent. He’s not interested in redefining comedy. He’s not interested in holding anyone to account. He’s not even particularly self-deprecating. He’s just a funny guy. The problem he gets straight to is this: How do I make these people laugh? His approach is direct. He does not screw around. In a regular bit, Maniscalco mocks a sensitive grocery shopper asking for organic chicken. “Did the chicken have friends?” Maniscalco asks with fey concern. The joke slays in many rooms, but it’s not to my taste. I identify with the Whole Foods shopper — if not the chicken. Still, it’s hard not to smile. Maniscalco is a winning guy. This is the not-so-secret secret to his success.
Maniscalco’s work doesn’t feel outdated because it’s not characterized by bitterness, bile, or spite. Maniscalco’s comedy is also not born from misery or resentment. Very much in the Seinfeldian vein, he expresses bemusement at the modern world. But unlike Jerry, Maniscalco is an effusive and expressive performer, a facial contortionist and physical comedian. He does an impression of a woman befuddled by the panoply of ordering options at Subway in which he lurches around the stage, part pigeon, part Keysar Soze. I’ve rewatched it a number of times. I dislike the premise – again, I identify with the shopper – but the brute force of his herky-jerky movement cracks me up.
There is an underlying sweetness to Maniscalco. Some of it, I understand, comes from his own childhood, “There was no misery,” he says. Some of it is that his comedy steers clear from anything controversial or political. Some of it, I gather, must come from being a relatively new father himself. But though his father is a frequent character in his act, his daughter not so much. “Sure,” he says, “I got a good nine minutes on her first birthday party,” he says, “I hired an alpaca. I had to get a permit for it!” But she remains in the wings. “I don’t want to be that guy who comes up and starts with, ‘My kid…’” he says, “I don’t want to get too deep into it. First of all, not everybody in the audience is going to have kids.
I also wonder if perhaps his reticence to mine his own life as a father — a Los Angeles father at that — might have less to do with not relating to the crowd and more with the fact that while animated outrage at the namby-pambiness of the modern world is great for comedy, it’s terrible for real-life parenting. If anything, most research indicates namby-pambiness — an as-yet uncoined scientific term — is salubrious for youth. Self-expression is more important than flawless dressing and chickens should have friends.
Maniscalco’s daughter is only sixteen months old, that’s one alpaca birthday party into the world. No doubt he’ll have more opportunity to call out the profligate degeneracy of modern fatherhood, all that coddling, all that cuddling, so many feelings as she grows. But I hope he doesn’t and I’m sure he won’t. He’s a sweet man and will be too busy coddling and cuddling and feeling to make fun of it.
For most of our lunch, Maniscalco has spooned his soup in a disinterestedly. (I spy Joe in the corner, worried.) But then the cannoli arrives and, Maniscalco, being a human being, can’t resist it. He breaks open the pastry shell and brings a ricotta-laden shard of it to his mouth. “That’s a good cannoli,” he says, chewing, “a good old-fashioned cannoli.” It’s sweet, not at all bitter, hard on the outside but all gooey and soft within.