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Sebastian Maniscalco talks new TV show 'Bookie' on Max, plus Chris Rock's stand-up advice

For fans of comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, Christmas has come early.

As the focal point of "Bookie" (streaming two episodes weekly on Thursdays), a new Max series co-created by sitcom veteran Chuck Lorre, Maniscalco slips into the character of Danny, a beleaguered Los Angeles sports bookie, like he might a faded leather jacket. (And look for a striking cameo by Charlie Sheen playing himself, burying the hatchet with his former "Two and a Half Men" boss-turned-nemesis Lorre.)

Chalk that up to a fundamental synergy between the actor and his stand-up persona, blue-collar everymen just trying to do their jobs and provide for their family while enduring endless comic mishaps. It's "Death of a Salesman" meets "The Three Stooges."

“I don’t know anything other than working hard every day since I was young,” says Maniscalco, 50, on a rare break between back-to-back stand-up gigs at the Borgata hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, honing a new act that he will bring to Las Vegas next year. "Actually, I think it's a disease.”

Sebastian Maniscalco (left, as Danny) and Omar Dorsey (as Ray), play two Los Angeles bookies who just want to collect their money and get on with their day in "Bookie," a new series from Chuck Lorre and Nick Bakay.
Sebastian Maniscalco (left, as Danny) and Omar Dorsey (as Ray), play two Los Angeles bookies who just want to collect their money and get on with their day in "Bookie," a new series from Chuck Lorre and Nick Bakay.

That hard work is paying off. Several Netflix comedy specials led to appearances in movies such as "Green Book" (2018) and "The Irishman" (2019) and this year, a starring role as himself in this year's "About My Father," opposite Robert De Niro as Maniscalco's real hairdresser dad, Salvo.

"At his core, Sebastian is a likable person, and that's what I wanted him to bring to Danny in 'Bookie,'" says Lorre ("The Kominsky Method," "The Big Bang Theory"). "He is just trying to make a living; he's not the apex predator."

Maniscalco's co-star Omar Dorsey ("Django Unchained," "Halloween Kills"), who plays Danny's bookie partner Ray, says the comedian's instincts as an actor "got to a really high level on this show."

The comedian riffed with USA TODAY on the new show, stand-up advice he got from Chris Rock, and how a dropped gun turned into comedy gold.

Question: That scene where you and Omar are walking away from an incident in a hurry and your gun keeps falling down your pants, that was not in the script?

Answer: No. And I'll tell you, a year ago, the minute that happened I would have stopped filming and yelled out, 'Hey, the gun dropped!' But this time, I let it go and it became part of the scene. I'm not the actor I want to be, but I'm learning to trust my gut more.

Sheen and Lorre, back together: How Charlie Sheen leveraged sports-gambling habit to reunite with Chuck Lorre on 'Bookie'

Charlie Sheen (left) and Sebastian Maniscalco share a scene in "Bookie," a new Max series from TV veteran Chuck Lorre, who famously directly Sheen in "Two and a Half Men" before the duo ended up at loggerheads more than a decade back.
Charlie Sheen (left) and Sebastian Maniscalco share a scene in "Bookie," a new Max series from TV veteran Chuck Lorre, who famously directly Sheen in "Two and a Half Men" before the duo ended up at loggerheads more than a decade back.

What was your approach to playing this sad sack of a bookie?

Well, when I first talked to Chuck about the part, I volunteered to start researching bookies and get into the gambling world. And he said, please don't. He didn't want me changing this guy into "Rain Man" or something. He just wanted me to bring my personality to this. I just felt really relaxed doing this show.

And that wasn't exactly the case when you made "About My Father"?

I played myself in that movie, and I didn't exactly walk away thinking, "Oh, I'd love to do that again." I had a lot of doubts and anxiety when I made that movie. I was working with De Niro, one of the greatest actors of all time, and I was shooting away from home in Alabama. With "Bookie," we shot in LA, where I live.

Are you eager to do another feature film?

I wouldn't mind doing more drama. I just want to keep challenging myself. But look, I'm a lucky guy. If I just do stand-up and more seasons of "Bookie" for the rest of my life, I'm fine!

Would you ever stop doing stand-up comedy?

I'll always do that, always. But you need breaks, you can't do stand-up 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You have to live your life to get your material. Chris Rock told me this: "If you never make an exit, it's hard to make an entrance." You don't want people thinking, "Oh, I can always see that guy." So maybe I do a (comedy) tour, go away for a couple of years to do other projects like this one, then come back and tour.

Sebastian Maniscalco performs in a 2016 show at the Beacon Theater in New York.
Sebastian Maniscalco performs in a 2016 show at the Beacon Theater in New York.

Was it odd to do a show where you are often funny but not having anyone laugh?

I thought I'd have a problem doing comedy without a live studio audience, so I wasn't too sure how this would go. But in the end, I could often hear Chuck or (series co-creator) Nick Bakay laughing on the other side of the camera. I'm not sure if they were overdoing it to make me feel better, but it made me feel better.

Any inklings yet about whether "Bookie" might get renewed for a second season?

Sebastian Maniscalco plays L.A. bookie Danny in "Bookie," a new series from Chuck Lorre and Nick Bakay. Maniscalco is best know for his stand-up comedy specials on Netflix, as well as for starring as himself in the recent movie, "About My Father."
Sebastian Maniscalco plays L.A. bookie Danny in "Bookie," a new series from Chuck Lorre and Nick Bakay. Maniscalco is best know for his stand-up comedy specials on Netflix, as well as for starring as himself in the recent movie, "About My Father."

I don't know, can you make a call?

I don't have that kind of power, Sebastian, but I'll stay optimistic.

I'm surprised to hear you say that.

Why?

Well, you're Italian, we're not big on optimism (laughs). We always think about the worst possible outcome. So I like to think the opposite, assume the worst. This way, if this show doesn't get picked up for another season, I feel like "Yeah, I knew that." If it does, hey, I'm surprised. It works for me.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sebastian Maniscalco talks new Max TV show 'Bookie,' stand-up tours