Unlike many of the comedians to grace the stage of Radio City Music Hall, I truly think Sebastian Maniscalco could survive without the jumbo screen. His greatest asset as a performer is his ability to be read from the back of the house, fully utilizing his practically rubber physicality, whipping his arms around like a windmill, and hyperanimating his face with one plosive consonant after another.
This is all on full display in Stay Hungry, Maniscalco’s new special for Netflix. It’s a special that alternates between rage and repressed rage. The repressed rage thing works nicely when he’s, say, explaining to a mechanic why his wife thinks the damage she caused the car shouldn’t be that expensive (according to her)—although nothing says “bridge and tunnel crowd” like a joke about car mechanics killing in the dead center of Manhattan.
Unfortunately, the rest of the time Maniscalco positions himself primarily as “guy-who-has-a-problem-with-everything.” The tough thing about being a comic like this—and great comics have struggled with it—is that when you define yourself in opposition to everything, you start off with a really short runway, and after half an hour it stops being energizing to watch. The first major section of the special revolves around Maniscalco going to the gym, where every action is jaw-droppingly bizarre to him, and even earbuds become “little bitch buds.” When he gets to the first strange thing about the story—a backpack of drinkable water—it feels empty. “That’s what makes me happy,” he tells his wife, “I like to be bothered.”
But in fact, Maniscalco will often stretch himself thin trying to reframe almost any behavior as weak or insubstantial, affecting an effete voice whenever he can’t yell at his wife, or when he has to give in to her needs or interests in any way. “So now I can’t yell at my wife,” he says. “She does not respond to yelling.”
The back half of the special, which revolves around the birth of Maniscalco’s daughter and his attempts to reconcile his family’s expectations for him, has more meat to it. Still, the approach flattens the material, and you’re left simply with his seeming resentment towards how he was raised and similar resentment that people today are doing anything different. It’s an admirable commitment in his performance, but the attitude just can’t sustain itself.