Stand-Up Done Right
Sebastian Maniscalco's impressive ride to the top
I’m not what you’d call a longtime fan of stand-up comedy. Physical and situational comedy? Sure. But stand-up? I didn’t acquire a taste for it until much later in life.
It wasn’t due to lack of exposure. Like many my age, I grew up watching countless hours of Johnny Carson and David Letterman. I was a big fan of both men and their shows, but their opening monologue was probably my least favorite part of their respective gigs. I looked much more forward to the conversational stuff with sidekicks and guests (along with some of the skits and stunts).
Of course, Johnny and David were hardly the only two telling jokes on their shows. Carson in particular was known for shining a spotlight on up-and-coming stand-up comedians. Carson had an eye for talent, and if he believed a comic had done exceptionally well that night in their short set, he’d wave them over to his guest chair for an interview. The gesture was effectively Carson’s stamp of approval. It opened doors for a number of previously unknown comics, including Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Drew Carey, Rosie O'Donnell, Ray Romano, Rodney Dangerfield, and even David Letterman, to rise to huge stardom.
I actually remember watching some of these people’s early Carson appearances back in the day, and while they earned lots of laughter from the crowd, I’d often find myself thinking, “Meh, they’re just okay.”
It wasn’t a poor reflection on them, of course. The problem was me. I just wasn’t into punchline comedy (though I did enjoy some of the more observational-type material). A big part of the reason was probably my age. I had yet to live a lot of life, so I may not have gotten some of the humor.
I still wasn’t into it in college, but that was probably because I saw way too many bad stand-up comics during that time. There used to be a comedy joint at the edge of town here in Greeley. It was called The Down Under, and it was in a small dingy basement behind a grocery store. They brought in acts (many from Denver) most weekends. And while I enjoyed attending occasional shows there, mainly just to do something different and fun with friends, the comedians were — for the most part — terrible.
I’m guessing it was because the club couldn’t afford to pay better acts to make the journey. Over an hour’s drive from Denver, Greeley was much smaller back then, and though we had a university presence, we were mostly known as a rural, farming area (often with a stench in the air to prove it). In other words, it wasn’t exactly the hip multi-cultural urban area that comedians prefer to perform in. And believe me, that became a crutch for a number of acts (and not in a comical “roast” kind of way). Comedians whose jokes didn’t get the laughs they’d hoped for sometimes got personal, taking their frustrations out on the audience.
It made for some awkward and tense situations, which is not what you typically hope for in comedy. But while the comics handled it wrong, I felt some sympathy for them. It was (and is) a very tough business to break into, let alone make a living at it. People put their dreams on the line, travel countless hours to city after city, invest a piece of themselves in every joke… and the vast majority of those people never make it.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s the nature of the business.
Thus, those who do make it after years and years — who do achieve a real name for himself or herself, headline big venues, star in televised specials or sitcoms, and even turn up in major motion pictures — tend to be something very special.
Several years ago, my wife (who’s always liked stand-up comedy much more than I do) suggested we watch Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show. It was a documentary that followed some up-and-coming stand-up comedians on a bus tour through the U.S. heartland. One guy, Sebastian Maniscalco, stood out high above the rest. His comedic angle was his personal disgust with the changing societal culture. This included the emasculation of the traditional family, especially when contrasted against his school-of-hard-knocks upbringing by his Sicilian father.
It may not sound like anything extraordinary in my description of it, but the mostly observational set was absolutely brilliant — all of it, from the writing and timing to the sharp, animated delivery and facial expressions. The guy had the balance and reflexes of a trained gymnast, and his stories came with a rich, authentic confidence… even down to the way he’d hold his gaze on the audience to further emphasize a particular societal practice he found offensive.
I was blown away. The guy was an absolute riot.
Many others apparently felt the same way about Maniscalco’s comedy, because he started turning up lots of other places — not just on late-night talk shows, but in his own television specials. My wife and I became big fans, and it’s safe to say that he paved the way for my subsequent interest in other stand-up comics, including Nate Bargatze and some greats from the past who I’ve highlighted a few times in this newsletter’s weekly Featured Vinyl section.
But let’s stay on Maniscalco. My descriptions of the man can’t do him justice, so here’s a taste of his art (in one of my favorite bits by him):
And I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Turkish bath story:
These days, Maniscalco sells out shows all over the country (and beyond). I’m guessing he’s one of the highest-paid traveling stand-up comedians today. My wife and I saw him at a very tightly packed Paramount Theater in Denver a few years ago (which was a blast), but we were even more excited when we saw that he would be bringing his summer tour to Red Rocks Amphitheater this year. My wife and I got tickets a soon as we heard.
I grew up just a hill over from Red Rocks, and have always loved the area. I have fun childhood memories of climbing on top of red boulders, jogging up and down the cement bleachers, and standing and posing on stage. It’s where I graduated from high school, and have since seen more concerts than I can remember. It’s an absolutely gorgeous outdoor venue — possibly the best in the nation. And a comedian, not a band, selling out its nearly 10,000 seats like Maniscalco did last Wednesday night is wildly impressive.
Maniscalco put on a long, fantastic set with hysterical new material on everything from a COVID vaccination mishap at Walgreens to participating with other parents in his son’s pre-school class. The audience, many of whom probably hadn’t been to a live show of any kind in at least a year and a half, roared with laughter throughout.
After wrapping up the night’s comedy, Maniscalco finished the show by getting serious for a few minutes. He reflected on his humble beginnings as a comic, including how he once performed in front of a grand total of nine people at the Comedy Works in Denver. He also talked about the hardships of the past 18 months. He spoke of those who’d lost their lives to the virus, including some people in his own life. He also talked about life off the road for the first real stretch of time in his career, describing how all he’s ever wanted to do is make people laugh. And when he couldn’t hear that laughter for such a long time, it tore him up inside.
Well, he got plenty of laughs that night, and as he posed for pictures in front of the capacity crowd with his manager and family, it was spiriting to see the rewards of such hard work and talent on full display.
I’m already looking forward to the next tour.
If you’ve never seen any of Maniscalco’s full-length sets, I highly recommend that you check one out on Netflix or Amazon Prime. I think you’ll thank me for it.
Have a favorite stand-up comedian? Let me know who it is in an email, or in the comment section below.
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Obligatory Dog Shot
It can get confusing when company comes over.
Keeping with the theme of stand-up comedy, someone I’ve long enjoyed in his various capacities is Dennis Miller. I dig his laid-back style, pop-culture references, and intellectual observations on topics even outside of comedy.
1988’s The Off-White Album (named after The Beatles’ White Album), is a fun stand-up set that includes some of Miller’s early political commentary.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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