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Mar, 2012

He was a stand-up waiting to happen

One of the most revealing documentaries about the rough-and-tumble comedy trade is Vince Vaughn’s 2008 Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days and 30 Nights – Hollywood to the Heartland. Among the then largely unknown wits Vaughn brought along on the not always so magical bus tour was Chicago native Sebastian Maniscalco.

On stage, Maniscalco was full of confidence, particularly when ranting at guys who indulge in non-macho libations like Amaretto Sunrises and Appletinis: “Drink beer or something that tastes like gasoline.”

Offstage, Maniscalco wasn’t nearly so self-assured. He noted how his purpose in life at this point was 15 minutes of validation on stage. His parents, who showed up on the tour, recalled how painfully shy he was as a child. Before and after making this flick, Maniscalco would invariably show up for comedy gigs in waiter attire – but not because it was part of his act, but because that was how he was supporting himself and he would have to run back to his serving job following his set.

Much has changed for Maniscalco over the ensuing years. He no longer waits on hotel tables in Beverly Hills. His comedy career has caught fire. He did his own 20-city tour, captured on the Comedy Central DVD Special Sebastian Live. His latest DVD, What’s Wrong with People? is slated for release March 27.

He has appeared on the late-night couches of Jay Leno and Craig Ferguson. Among other impressive Just for Laughs appearances, he was one of the bright lights of an otherwise limp festival gala – hosted by Eric Stonestreet – last summer.

Even better news for Montrealers is that indomitable local impresario Ralph Buttino has managed to land Maniscalco as headliner for the Italian Bad Boyz of Comedy III dinner-shows, Saturday and Sunday at Buffet Amiens. Opening acts are Joe Cacchione, a Montreal high-school principal by day, and Torontonian Freddy Proia.

“I’m very grateful for Vince with that tour, then the movie. It vaulted me into that next level of being a headliner,” Maniscalco, 38, says in a phone interview.

“It sure beats slipping out from my waiter job in the middle of a shift to do an Open Mic, have other waiters cover for me, then dash back to the job to pick up my tables. Nobody really knew where I was. But nothing was going to get in the way of me following my dream and doing stand-up.”

Unlike most comics, Maniscalco was hardly the class clown. But while he was bashful in school, he was a keen observer, which would later serve him well. He would also study the pros, everyone from Johnny Carson to George Carlin to Richard Pryor to get insights on material and delivery.

But Maniscalco would like to forget his first stand-up gig at the college he was attending in Chicago. He won a contest to open for the headliner.

“It was horrifying,” he recalls. “I was dying on stage. People were screaming: ‘Sandman! Sandman!’ I didn’t know what that meant.”

It was later explained to him that Sandman was a reference to the fellow who would use a hook to drag failed comedy acts off the stage at the Apollo Theatre in New York. “It was a very humbling experience, but that still didn’t prevent me from trying to make it.”

Though now established and respected, Maniscalco concedes that comedy is always a crap-shoot. “All shows are always different –especially when you get a variety of people on them – and you never know what to expect.”

The Italian Bad Boys of Comedy III will be a different experience for him as well – largely because his act is not centered on his ethnicity. “My material is not entirely based on me being Italian, although I do have some Italian-related material that I hope people will gravitate to.”

Maniscalco’s material, in fact, transcends ethnic backgrounds and focuses more on universal dilemmas – like dealing with technology. He left the Just for Laughs gala audience in stitches with a bit about trying to teach his father how to use a computer over the phone. A task made more difficult because his dad was using the mouse for a foot-pedal on the floor.

Maniscalco hopes to return to Just for Laughs this summer with an extended set, perhaps even his own one-man show. “I’ve done the festival three times and feel that I’ve established a fan base there.

“A lot of my humour is based on my angst and my disgust with human behaviour, and I feel I could better bring that out in a longer set. I feel like I’m an older soul in a younger person’s body.”

All of which explains the title of his new DVD, What’s Wrong with People? “I was raised with a morality and manners and taught how to conduct myself in life. But now I look around and see that my moral compass doesn’t match what is happening in the world today.”

Customer service is a particular pet peeve. He remembers the days when he would walk into places and employees would be helpful. “Now you walk in, especially at the airport, and the staff are upset that you actually showed up to fly. The only time they seem happy is when your bag is overweight and when they tell you that you’re going to owe money.

“Now everything is self-serve. You’re booking your own flights. You’re ringing up your own groceries. Nobody wants to help you. And if they do, it’s an extra charge,” he adds.

“But then again, it’s fun making people laugh about that and it has enabled me to make a living. So, despite everything, I guess that makes me a happy guy.”

Italian Bad Boyz of Comedy III, featuring Sebastian Maniscalco and opening acts Joe Cacchione and Freddy Proia, Saturday and Sunday at Buffet Amiens, 8700 Langelier Blvd. Saturday’s show is sold out. For Sunday’s dinner-show package at 5 p.m., tickets are $65. For the 8 p.m. show only, tickets are $40. Call 514-707-9836.