In the last few years, stand-up comedy has experienced something of a resurgence as comedians began making the jump from clubs and theaters to larger venues like arenas, amphitheatres and festivals.
Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, entertainment has taken on renewed importance, as people observing quarantine indoors continue to turn toward film, music, comedy and more.
Stand-up comedians seem particularly well-suited to read the room, making astute observations which address everything from the mundane moments of everyday life to the turbulent times that tend to define the American experience at the moment, providing fans an escape from the clutter and noise.
“I think stand-up is definitely needed. It’s kind of the voice of the country,” said comedian Sebastian Maniscalco. “As you’re sitting in your house doing nothing, you’re wondering if your thoughts are paralleled with other people’s thoughts – and that’s what comedy kind of gives people I think. When you go out and you hear somebody, and they’re talking what you’re thinking, I think it makes people feel better.”
Last year, during an arena tour, Maniscalco sold out four nights at New York’s Madison Square Garden, en route to a fifth place ranking on Forbes’ list of the highest grossing comedians of the year. Work in Oscar nominated films like Green Book and The Irishman followed.
A native of Arlington Heights in northwest suburban Chicago, Maniscalco recorded his first Showtime special Aren’t You Embarrassed? in the Windy City at Harris Theater, tapping south side Chicagoan Pat McGann as opener. McGann soon joined Maniscalco on the road as opening act in increasingly larger venues.
This past September, McGann recorded his first comedy special with Maniscalco aboard as executive producer. That Comedy Dynamics original special – Sebastian Maniscalco Presents Pat McGann: When’s Mom Gonna Be Home? – is now available to rent or buy via streaming video services like YouTube, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and more as well as streaming music services like Spotify, SiriusXM and Tidal, with a special audio release available on vinyl LP.
“Obviously, the timing is a little strange. But I think there’s some good things about it. A lot of people are going to be home and I think people are getting more and more accustomed to paying for in-home entertainment. I’m just excited. It was a really fun night when we shot it. I’ve seen the footage and we really captured what was happening there that night,” said McGann of the new special. “Having Sebastian’s name on it is a big thing. The fact that he’s the top comic in the country right now and his name is on it? I think that’s definitely going to help it stand out. Not a lot of comics are doing what he’s doing in terms of saying, ‘Hey, check this comedian out,’ using their platform.”
The two comics met while performing in Chicago at Zanies, a legendary intimate room that’s hosted live comedy since 1978 and established a comedy brand upon expansion to Nashville in 1983 and the suburbs of Chicago in 1989. In only his second year doing stand-up comedy, McGann scored the coveted role of Zanies house MC in 2008, a role he worked on and off over the course of about four years.
It was an important gig for the budding comedian in terms of the number of nightly opportunities it gave him to hone his on stage skills and connect with not just an audience but other comedians at the influential venue.
“It was invaluable to me. I feel like I went through that phase and got a ton of stage time. The only night I was off was Monday. There was a stretch where I did nine consecutive months. So that was Tuesday through Sunday – and some weeks we’re doing 14 shows. I was able to catch up to a lot of people that had been doing it longer than me,” said McGann, looking back. “What was interesting is that, when I was doing that, they wanted me to do a lot of crowd work and welcome people. So I grew in that area. But then when I got with Sebastian, you’re not going to do crowd work in front of a big act like him. I’m actually going out there and doing material. So the Sebastian school, that two plus years, I was really starting to grow with the material. Those two gigs for me really helped me to develop my complete act. It kind of gives you some different tools.”
The new special was recorded last September blocks from Wrigley Field in the Lakeview neighborhood on Chicago’s north side, familiar stomping grounds for both comedians. McGann once lived blocks from the venue, passing it each day on his way to catch the el train, while Maniscalco performed there on the final night of actor Vince Vaughn’s “Wild West Comedy Show” tour in 2006.
“I opened for Anjelah Johnson at the Vic in probably like 2013. At the time, it was one of the bigger venues that I had ever done stand-up in. So, it was overwhelming. And it was kind of all a blur. By the time I went back there [to record], I had been riding Sebastian’s wave with him and doing arenas and doing these huge venues – so I was much more comfortable in the space and really able to kind of be in the moment, which was nice,” McGann said. “I’ve done some TV spots but you’re doing like a five minute set there and it’s over so quickly. Here, you’re doing an hour and you can get out there and get a lot more comfortable. We did two shows too. So it was just a very positive experience.”
Early performances as opening act proved equally valuable for Maniscalco as he forged ahead in developing his identity as a comic, learning to win over crowds that weren’t always familiar with his work.
“When I was with my agent at the time, they were heavily involved with music acts. And I told them that if they were ever looking for an opener to let me know. So I would open up for a lot of music acts coming up and that really made me a stronger comedian,” said Maniscalco. “I would be walking out on stage with no introduction – nothing – and performing in front of B.B. King’s audience. They were acts that skewed a little bit older. It was a different environment – but I looked at it as an opportunity. So the B.B. Kings and Gladys Knights of the world – just a lot of older acts that I used to open up for. And that’s kind of how I got my whistle wet.”
Maniscalco took McGann under his wing on stage and off in sort of a mentor role as his star began to rise and the pair of comedians made the jump to bigger crowds together.
Stamping his name on McGann’s new special automatically has the benefit of lending the comedian some semblance of a built-in audience, fans who might already have a familiarity with the comic’s work thanks to the association with Maniscalco as his opening act.
For McGann, the relationship has provided an unparalleled learning experience. For Maniscalco, it was important simply to pay it forward, as was done for him early in his career.
“Vince Vaughn stuck his name out for me when he brought me on the Wild West Comedy Show and allowed me to do that with him and three other comedians. It was a documentary that kind of catapulted me from waiting tables to headlining clubs across the country,” Maniscalco said.
“When I started working with Sebastian, I realized, ‘This guy hustles…’ The work ethic. I also learned that you have to constantly be flipping material. I used to get comfortable in my stuff. But I realized that you’ve always got to be working. Constantly putting new things out – new ideas. I would sometimes be backstage and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea…’ And he would tell me, ‘Just do it. Throw it out there. You’ve gotta.’ So he was a great example for me,” said McGann. “And then there’s the business side of it. It’s kind of like being in comedy school. Just watching how he handles himself in treating it like a job – but with passion.”
Maniscalco and McGann both employ observational humor, working mostly clean as they address life.
In the new special, McGann connects with the live crowd via examination of his blue collar being, cracking wise in his approach to characters like his wife and kids and honestly but humorously addressing relatable topics like student loan and credit card debt. “There’s bursts of joy but most of it sucks,” jokes the comedian during the new special, poking fun at family a trip to Disney World. “That’s life.”
“Stand-up is always great and it’s a really good source of truth and it’s a great source of escape,” said McGann. “I think that, for me, if it’s not based in reality, then it’s almost impossible to sell. And I think that audiences now are sophisticated enough to kind of smell that. If you’re not really talking about your own life or your own experiences, then you almost automatically sound detached from it. The fact that it’s based in truth, I think, is important.”
“Believe me, what I’m seeing is people are turning to comedy for an escape from what they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis,” added Maniscalco. “People want to laugh. And they want to hear about the trials and tribulations of you as a person going through life. Whether it be arguments with your wife, issues with your kids or your own personal view on whatever it might be that’s your own personal life – where they can say, ‘Oh, I do that! I’ve seen that!’ That’s what they’re looking for today,” he continued. “I think a lot of people might have that wrong with comedy – that they’re trying to do a message. Look, nobody gives a f—k about the message. Just make people laugh.”
When it comes to the art of making people laugh, Maniscalco lauds comedians like Eddie Murphy and George Carlin as early influences. Both comedians cite the nightly work of Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show during an era when the late night talk show was tops. For McGann, a pair of performances on David Letterman’s Late Show stand as early career highlights.
Once upon a time, getting called over to the couch for a quick chat by Carson following a successful Tonight Show stand-up appearance could make a comedian almost instantly. Today, despite more choices than ever via countless television, online and streaming outlets, both comedians are in agreement on where that star making power can be found.
“I don’t think there is a marquee where you go on a show, get called over to the couch and the next day you’re a household name. Just because the environment of entertainment has changed so drastically. There are so many different shows and streaming networks that it’s really kind of hard to go on one and make a splash. But I’ve always thought that Jerry Seinfeld was kind of the guy that if he liked you, you could say to yourself, ‘Jerry likes me. I must be doing something right,’” said Maniscalco. “I don’t think there’s anybody that really fills Carson’s shoes. Plus, with the podcasts now, they’re taking over in regards to a lot of interviewing type shows – where the talk show format back in the 80s used to be Johnny Carson – and really that’s it. Letterman was there but Johnny was the king. But I guess I would say it’s Jerry Seinfeld today.”
“That’s exactly who I was going to say,” added McGann. “Getting invited to do Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is like an anointing. It’s a big deal. Especially for your peers – for other comedians.”
As it has for musicians, touring has become the single most important revenue stream for stand-up comedians. With live performance off the table indefinitely amidst COVID-19, the success of comedy specials has taken on increased importance.
“I’d love to be touring on the back end of it but I’m happy to just get it out there,” said McGann of the new special. “We were called off the road. Literally on the road. March 12, we were in Virginia and it was like, ‘We’ve got to go home…’ It was a major interruption – as it was for everyone. And I get that. Everyone’s reeling from this,” said the comedian.
“There are other opportunities out there for comedians today: podcasts, a book deal, a TV Show or what have you. You’ve just got to be a little bit more nimble now. But touring is how we make our money. You don’t tour, you don’t eat. Basically, that’s how it works,” added Maniscalco. “It’s been a slap in the face really to see how something like this pandemic can completely cripple your business – and the business that people rely on around you. We go to these arenas and you’ve got ushers working there, parking lot guys, bartenders, stagehands, lighting guys – it’s really affected a lot of people. And it’s made me realize that I’ve got to get another career,” said the comedian with a chuckle.
In conversation, Maniscalco and McGann share an easy rapport, finishing one another’s sentences and laughing together throughout.
As Maniscalco applies the success of his brand to the new McGann special, both comedians look forward to what’s next despite uncertain times.
“I think stand-up is kind of missed right now. I think that people are still figuring out where it fits in with these days. But I think it’s definitely something that people are craving. There’s just not a ton of stuff coming out,” said McGann, seizing upon opportunity. “I just look at it as kind of, hopefully I’m just getting started. I want to really capitalize on this. So, I’m looking at this as a start.”
“It feels great. I think this thing is gonna really send Pat into his own thing. This not only stands out because it’s a special but because it’s good. More importantly, it’s funny,” said Maniscalco of When’s Mom Gonna Be Home? “People are definitely looking for an hour of just release – where they don’t have to think about, ‘Should we send our kids back to school because of the virus? Should I wash this avocado?’ It’s an escape,” he continued. “I think you’re going to see the eyeballs on this special are going to be exponential now compared to if it came out six months ago. Pat’s special is nothing but fantastic. I would predict, given the special being out for six to eighteen months, in between that time period, you’re going to see Pat selling out theaters on his own tour. I would bet on that.”