On a recent quiet morning at The Summit, the ultra-exclusive gated community in Los Angeles, a crane was called to deliver olive trees to Sebastian Maniscalco’s house.
The Illinois native, known for relatable stand-up about his immigrant parents, and for his onstage physicality and boisterousness, went uncharacteristically silent watching the evergreens drop down on his stunning views of Beverly Hills. He’s used to talking about his much humbler roots.
“I like to poke fun or make light of what we see in society and make fun of my own family and my old-world immigrant upbringing. I think I do it in a way where we’re all laughing together,” he tells Variety.
Maniscalco’s father, Salvatore, emigrated from Sicily at age 15, getting a beautician’s license to support his wife and kids with cut-and-dye jobs in a suburban salon. He is the inspiration for “About My Father,” a new comedy co-written by Maniscalco with Austen Earl, in which Robert De Niro assumes the role of Salvatore. It opens Friday in theaters.
Viewers of Maniscalco’s six stand-up specials, most of which are streaming on Netflix, will instantly recognize his dad’s patina. “If the sun is out, a man should be working,” Sebastian quotes him as saying in an opening montage. The film is pseudo-biographical, following Sebastian’s courtship with a WASP-y artist (Leslie Bibb) and her intimidating politician mother (Kim Cattrall). He and De Niro are invited for a country club family weekend, and the cultural differences pour out faster than Tom Collins mix.
“My dad saw the film about six weeks ago. He cried. He’s my biggest fan and biggest critic. Living in Los Angeles, a lot of people are sycophants. Where I grew up, people see through all that shit. My dad is harsh, but it keeps me honest and on the level,” says Maniscalco, sitting in his home office. He radiates a handsome mischievousness, with the intimidating presence of a nightclub bouncer. But there’s a contradiction here. He’s a man who will cry at Hallmark commercials but also rumble in a parking lot.
Maniscalco moved to L.A. in his early 20s to work the comedy club circuit while bartending at the Four Seasons. He refused to conform to the hotel’s refined formality (“Good morning, sir. Good evening, sir,” he remembers being asked to chant), and his laid-back attitude made him memorable to guests like Jerry Seinfeld. Fifteen years later, he’s playing stadium tours and making a significant step up in Hollywood. In addition to “About My Father,” he’s just finished production on “How to Be a Bookie,” an HBO Max comedy co-starring Charlie Sheen and created by Chuck Lorre. He sees the projects as an opportunity to expand his core stand-up audience.
“Globally, TV and film will introduce my comedy to a broader audience. I’ve been wanting to do this creatively, and as a business move,” he says. “I wanted to share a love letter to my father and, in doing so, inject some of my point of view. Whether you know me or not, I think the movie gives a good sense of who I am.”
Maniscalco admits he was intimidated by film as a medium, saying stand-up allows him to “work a room for an hour and get the laughs. With a movie, I’m doing the takes and getting nothin’. It was hard to wrap my head around that.”
While he hopes “About My Father” will be a box office hit — a challenge for comedies releasing in theaters in recent years — Maniscalco believes he’s already won. “I grew up watching De Niro. I had his posters on my wall. And now he’s playing my dad?” he says. “My kids are going to see this someday. It’s already a success.”
Salvatore also got a few perks, having spent time teaching De Niro how to do the perfect dye job. But that’s an entirely different set of roots.