When it comes to comedy, Sebastian Maniscalco is one of the biggest names in the industry. The stand up star is currently on his fifth nationwide tour, Stay Hungry (also the title of his new memoir). He’s sold out five successive nights at Radio City in New York City, where he’ll be filming his new TV special in April. And last year, he earned $15 million — landing him on the 2017 Forbes list of the world’s top-earning comedians, alongside the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Kevin Hart.
“I’m flabbergasted at the response people have given,” Maniscalco tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on stands Friday. “I always wanted to do stand-up for a living, but to the extent that it’s happening now? It’s amazing.”
But before all the fame, Maniscalo, 44, put in plenty of work to get to where he is today.
After graduating from Northern Illinois University in 1995, he saved $10,000 and moved to L.A. to pursue his dreams. To support himself, he served cocktails at the Four Seasons Windows Lounge. “I waited on everyone from Shaq to Nicole Kidman and John Travolta,” he says.
Between shifts he performed comedy whenever he could. “I would pound the pavement two, three, four sets a night. Dealing with hecklers … I was four or five years in thinking, ‘Come on, why am I not making a living at this?’ ”
But giving up wasn’t an option: “I told myself it was comedy or bust.”
During a chance meeting with Andrew Dice Clay in 2002, he was invited to open for the veteran comic on his tour. Three years later, Vince Vaughn asked Maniscalco to join his comedy tour. “It wasn’t Armageddon, where suddenly everyone knew my name,” he says. His success “was a slow burn. Everything I’ve ever done is a slow burn.”
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Finally, in 2009, Maniscalco’s first special, Sebastian Live, came out on Comedy Central, and his stardom has been steadily growing ever since.
- For more on Sebastian Maniscalco, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday
“I could sell out a bunch of shows or be in movies; all that is fantastic,” he says. “But if this were to all end tomorrow, I had a great run. True happiness is hanging out with my family—all the other stuff is gravy.”
Maniscalso’s book Stay Hungry is out Tuesday.