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“The hottest comic in America” is a hack. | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker

In May, Lionsgate released a movie that stood out from the other films coming out at the start of studio-tentpole season. It was called About My Father, and it starred Robert De Niro in one of his innumerable late-career “embarrassing tough-guy dad” roles. The poster featured De Niro holding a cigar while decked out in sunglasses, salmon pants, and an American flag windbreaker, oblivious to the pained expression on the face of the guy standing behind him. That guy was De Niro’s co-star, who, according to the poster, had been deemed by the New York Times to be “the hottest comic in America.” His name: Sebastian Maniscalco.


I try to keep up with New York Times–approved trends, and so I felt a little bad that I’d never heard of the guy. By all rights, I should have. It’s not as if Maniscalco’s some random 17-year-old kid who’s famous for impersonating video game characters on TikTok or whatever. Since 2009, Maniscalco has released six hourlong standup specials, all of which spotlight his throwback style of humor, which combines irritated observations on the follies and foibles of modern existence with riffs on family life and his Italian heritage, delivered with the bada-bing attitude of someone who thinks that it doesn’t get classier than Frank Sinatra singing “My Way.”

It didn’t sound like something I would enjoy, but Maniscalco is popular enough that I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. In 2019 Forbes named him the fifth-highest-paid comic in America, estimating his yearly income at $26 million. He’s got a recurring residency at the Wynn Las Vegas and has set earnings records at sports arenas across America (not for doing sports, for telling jokes). By any objective measure, Sebastian Maniscalco is one of the most successful comedians of his generation—and somehow he had completely escaped my notice until last month.

He’s got a recurring residency at the Wynn Las Vegas and has set earnings records at sports arenas across America.

I wanted to see what I’d been missing, so on the Tuesday after Memorial Day I bought a ticket for a matinee showing of About My Father. Less than two hours later, I walked out of the theater feeling puzzled and a little bit upset. In the film, which is based on Maniscalco’s own life, Maniscalco and his working-class Italian father spend a holiday weekend with his fiancée’s rich, WASPy family. This fish-out-of-water premise should have been easy to nail, especially since De Niro has made basically this exact same movie about a dozen times already. And yet I counted only three audible laughs during the movie, none of which came from me. The characters were clichéd and one-dimensional; the predicaments were predictable and easily resolved; the stakes were nonexistent. Worst of all was Maniscalco himself, who was uncharismatic, unfunny, and—given that he was playing a character named Sebastian Maniscalco—surprisingly uncomfortable on camera. The movie got better every time he was off-screen.

It would be neither fair nor accurate to call About My Father one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. I watch a lot of bad movies. I once watched 33 Charles Bronson movies over 33 consecutive days, which I believe makes me the holder of one of the world’s least compelling and explicable records. Was About My Father worse than, say, Death Wish V: The Face of Death? On a strict technical level, probably not. But at least Death Wish V followed through on the promise of its premise and allowed Charles Bronson’s character to indulge his wish to commit death. About My Father managed the truly remarkable trick of putting the ostensible hottest comedian in America into a movie that isn’t the slightest bit funny.

How did this happen? The question gnawed at me for days after watching About My Father. Maniscalco wouldn’t be the first standup whose act just doesn’t translate to the big screen, of course, and the fact that his movie was less funny than Death Wish V didn’t necessarily mean that he himself was an unfunny comic. On the other hand, our current era is one in which lots of Americans, generally for reactionary reasons, take great joy in elevating to cultural prominence people who objectively stink. Which one of these is Maniscalco? I spent a week digging into his oeuvre in order to find out.

If you want to get the gist of what Sebastian Maniscalco is all about, you could do worse than to watch the first two minutes of his most recent standup special, 2022’s Is It Me? Filmed at the Wynn Las Vegas, Is It Me? opens with a paean to that city’s swinging, booze-broads-and-organized-crime history. “My favorite Vegas is from a bygone era: when cash was king, when everybody smoked, drank martinis, and dressed to impress,” Maniscalco says, over a montage of black-and-white photos with his own face digitally inserted amongst members of the Rat Pack. “That’s the Vegas I’d like to bring back to life,” he continues, as the camera follows a tuxedo-clad Maniscalco out of his dressing room and onto the golden stage at the Wynn’s Encore Theater, where the crowd greets him with a standing ovation.

You can basically extrapolate Maniscalco’s entire deal from that intro sequence. In look, demeanor, and sensibility, Maniscalco is a throwback to another era, one in which people led with their ethnic identities and used them as a lens through which to filter the world. Maniscalco comes from an Italian family, and if you forget it, don’t worry: He’ll remind you again in five minutes or so. His Italian American heritage isn’t just a facet of his stage persona; it’s the core component of that persona. It informs and directs his exasperated observations of the world and the weirdos within it, as well as his ultimately stock bits on kids, spouses, and family. If your Spotify year-end playlists always feature lots of Louis Prima and Lou Monte, then you are probably already a Sebastian Maniscalco fan. He’s Maggiano’s in a monkey suit. Now, that’s hospitaliano, baby!

The character he plays onstage is basically “Rat Pack Seinfeld,” a neurotic misanthrope who might threaten to “whack you” for chewing too loudly.

Maniscalco’s Rat Pack nostalgia isn’t just a stylistic affectation. His act harks back to an allegedly less sensitive era, one in which big stars would get up onstage and insult one another and everyone else for an hour—and if anyone was offended by the gibes, they kept it to themselves. Maniscalco’s humor is somehow both repressed and belligerent, focused on elaborately mocking behaviors that puzzle and irritate him, enhanced by animated “act-outs” in which he mimics those people he’s critiquing. In his second special, 2012’s What’s Wrong With People?, Maniscalco comes in hot and leads off by ripping on some woman he saw eating a Starbucks scone straight out of the bag. “Get a plate!” he exclaims as he embodies her voracity, hunching over and shoveling invisible crumbs into his mouth like a greedy hobbit.

A story about a woman eating a scone isn’t a joke, of course, and “Get a plate!” isn’t a punchline. But the audience loved it anyway, as well as the countless other analogous bits in his other specials. Their reaction says less about the strength of his material than about the style of his delivery. Onstage, Maniscalco talks in a thick, Da-Bears-meet-Tony-Soprano accent that, while clearly a bit of a put-on—Maniscalco is from Arlington Heights, Illinois, not, like, Bridgeport in the 1950s—is also integral to his act. It’s funny to imagine a working-class Italian American guy getting enraged about a woman eating a scone out of a bag. It’s funny to watch Maniscalco get so worked up over a guy wearing a CamelBak on a treadmill at the gym, as he did in his 2019 special Stay Hungry. The character he plays onstage is basically “Rat Pack Seinfeld,” a neurotic misanthrope who might threaten to “whack you” for chewing too loudly.

Maniscalco, who is 49, grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago and moved to Los Angeles to do comedy a few years after graduating from Northern Illinois University. He’s said that it took him two decades to perfect his act. While his general point of view has basically remained constant throughout his career, you can see certain aspects of his persona and his mechanics evolve, and harden, if you watch his standup specials in sequential order.

Much like 2022’s Is It Me?, Maniscalco’s first special, 2009’s Sebastian Live, begins with an intro that shows the comedian in his dressing room as big-band music plays. But whereas the 2022 intro is meant to portray Maniscalco as, basically, the comedy world’s equivalent of a made guy, in 2009 the joke is on him: He’s ostensibly been in his dressing room for four hours, primping and spritzing himself with cologne. When he does finally take the stage in 2009, he’s in an off-the-rack suit and a rumpled blue button-down shirt, and seems genuinely excited to be performing in St. Louis. His material is unfocused and a bit dated—his long opening riff on texting and cellphone etiquette belongs in a time capsule from the late aughts—but the delivery is enthusiastic, and he’s clearly having fun.

As the production values for his specials have improved and his reputation has grown, Maniscalco has calmed down onstage and has settled into his persona. In Sebastian Live, he paces around a lot, his constant motion betraying his underlying nerves. In his more recent specials, he holds his space better, as befitting someone who’s done this a bunch of times already. His accent has gotten more cartoonish but also more effective, insofar as he now clearly understands that his persona is what sells his material. While I prefer earlier Maniscalco to today’s version—his attitude vis-à-vis the audience these days is basically “You’re welcome, dipshits”—I have to admit that modern-day Maniscalco really knows what he’s doing with a microphone in his hand. The man has gotten very good at performing standup comedy.

That’s not the same thing as being funny, of course—and after watching his specials plus his autobiographical movie, I can say that I do not find Maniscalco to be very funny at all. (Your mileage may vary.) How is it possible to be good at standup without being particularly funny? Well, Maniscalco nails the mechanics of his bits—the timing and rhythms are right, the act-outs are well timed and engaging—while committing hard to the character that he plays onstage and the point of view that his character professes. The charisma that was wholly absent from his movie is readily apparent onstage—and that charisma is what audiences are responding to, more than any really good jokes.

But if you can coast on charisma, then you don’t necessarily have to write great material. And the best way to succeed with substandard material is to cater to crowds that don’t care about your material, people who are less interested in what you have to say than in what you seem to stand for—or what you stand against. There’s an ugly bit early on in Is It Me? that, to my mind, sort of gives away Maniscalco’s whole game. Speaking about his 5-year-old daughter, Maniscalco notes that there’s “a kid in her class that identifies as a lion.” He bugs out his eyes and pauses for effect as the crowd erupts in laughter. “Listen, I’m not making this up. I’m just reporting the news, people, all right? Twenty-three kids, one lion in the class.” The bit goes on and gets worse as Maniscalco pivots into smugly mocking another dad, who thinks that the lion-boy is great. “I’m not gonna be talkin’ to that guy the rest of the semester,” he says, as the crowd bursts into applause.

The riff wasn’t just mean and unfunny; it felt completely fake: a tired culture-war trope that might have been lifted entirely from Fox News chyrons and Facebook comments. (Indeed, the whole bit sounds uspiciously similar to a debunked news story that went viral on the right that same year.) But also, the riff killed. The people at the Wynn loved it. The lion bit encapsulated the “us vs. them” mentality that’s become Maniscalco’s thing and has propelled him to prominence. He’s selling an act perfectly suited for a moment in which lots of people are getting rich and famous by railing against straw men.

Given Maniscalco’s nouveau–Rat Pack vibes, it’s worth noting that the original Rat Pack had an unofficial member who was also known for his irritable comedic persona: Don Rickles. Like Maniscalco, Rickles belittled his targets—but at least Rickles was brave enough to insult those targets to their faces. When Rickles mocked a fat person, that person was generally sitting right in front of him, and Rickles took the risk that his target might get angry and throw a fork at him or something. Maniscalco almost exclusively mocks people who aren’t actually there. The kid who dresses like a lion, the father who thinks it’s “fabulous” that there’s a kid who dresses like a lion: Maniscalco’s targets all exist in blank space. If Maniscalco were to attempt a Rickles-style gag, he’d root it entirely in something that happened offstage, if it happened at all: “So, I saw a fat person the other day. Lose some weight, why don’t you?”

Maniscalco’s style of comedy is a fundamentally reactive one, in which the comic serves as the regular-guy foil to a world filled with people forever making choices he neither supports nor understands. This approach can work on the standup stage, where the comic controls the audience’s perception of his jokes’ antagonists. When Maniscalco tells a joke in which he rips some slob at Starbucks for devouring a scone like some grotesque hedgehog, the slob can’t tell her side of the story. We have no idea whether or not Maniscalco is exaggerating the scene or, indeed, whether or not it even actually happened. And that’s fine, because no one is expecting strict factual accuracy from standup comedians. It’s a comic’s prerogative to use glimmers of real-life events as catalysts for comedic riffs, to rail against the world as he sees it.

But this is also why his shtick falls so flat in About My Father. While watching the film, I was struck by how Maniscalco wrote himself as the straight man: the normal guy forced to deal with the madness all around him. This role made sense once I dived deeper into his standup, because the notion of Maniscalco as a normal guy in a strange world is central to his standup persona. So of course when he wrote the movie (the screenplay is credited to Maniscalco and co-writer Austen Earl), he’d write himself in the same role, as the average guy surrounded by nuts doing odd and uncomfortable things.

The difference between his standup routines and About My Father is that in the movie, we can actually see the alleged nuts. We can see the world that makes him feel so put-upon—and it’s not actually all that strange or irritating. His allegedly embarrassing working-class Italian father? Actually pretty normal! His fiancée’s WASPy parents? Pretty nice and tolerant people! Maniscalco’s character’s boorish future brother-in-law? In the end, a good guy! For the movie to work as a comedy, the characters around Maniscalco have to actually be as weird as he claims that they are. But they aren’t. The ostensibly wacky culture-clash weekend around which the movie is built actually just turns out to be a fun time with some nice people at a big house in Virginia. The entire film is one big straw-man argument.

Straw-man material can work in a controlled environment in front of a friendly crowd that just wants to have its priors reinforced by a sneering fuhgeddaboudit guy in a tux, or by an angry ex-president in a red baseball cap, or, I suppose, by a TV host who used to wear a bow tie on Crossfire. But take the comic out of his safe space and put him in a spot where he has to actually work to win over a crowd that hasn’t already decided that it loves him, and you can start to see the limits of Maniscalco’s approach. The poor box-office performance of About My Father testifies to the weakness of the comic’s material—as of this writing, the film has underperformed its budget by about $18 million. His disastrous stint as the host of the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards, meanwhile, testified to the limits of his irritable persona.

The VMAs hosting gig was supposed to be Maniscalco’s big break, the thing that would take him beyond his “Vegas, baby!” fan base and introduce him to the wider world. But his material simply did not play in the VMAs setting. He did a bunch of jokes about how young people these days all expect “participation ribbons.” Unfortunately for him, the live audience in front of him primarily comprised the sorts of young people he was mocking—and they weren’t having it. It wasn’t charming, and it wasn’t funny. He unequivocally bombed.

The press, and the show’s audience, pretty much universally agreed that the hosting gig was a disaster. And to the extent that the goal of a live comedy performance is to elicit laughter from the people in the room with you, it certainly was. But with Maniscalco’s fan base, who were mostly not in the room at the VMAs, I think the debacle may have only enhanced his appeal. As one representative comment on the performance, with more than 1,000 likes on YouTube, put it: “Sebastian is old school comedy. These millennials have destroyed all comedy because they are offended by everything.” For the nostalgists who have made Sebastian Maniscalco a star, all that really matters is who he isn’t.


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