VMAs Host Sebastian Maniscalco Teases an Unpredictable Show "Absent of Politics"

Sebastian Maniscalco - MTV Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of MTV

The comedian talks to The Hollywood Reporter about prepping for MTV's awards show and catering his act to a young audience in today's "woke" climate.

It was announced two months ago that Sebastian Maniscalco would host the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards. And since then, the comedian, actor and best-selling author has been hard at work preparing for what he considers a "bucket-list" job.

"It's crazy. It's something I never thought that I'd be doing. I grew up on MTV, watching the Madonnas, Princes and Michael Jacksons of the world," the Illinois native, 46, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I grew up watching the show. I never thought I'd actually be hosting this thing, so it's pretty fantastic."

Though Maniscalco — known for his sharp but clean humor — sold out four shows at New York's Madison Square Garden in January (breaking the record for the highest-grossing comedy event in North America), the star admits that he was initially hesitant about accepting MTV's offer to preside over tonight's ceremony at Newark, New Jersey's Prudential Center. 

"I had never hosted anything before. And any time something like this comes across your plate — whether it be a movie opportunity or something that you don't do on a day-to-day basis — you always kind of think to yourself, 'Can I pull this off and is this something that I can even do?'" said Maniscalco, who was included in this year's edition of THR's most powerful people in comedy and will next be seen in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. "I had to kind of think about it. It's close to what I do in stand-up comedy, but hosting a show of this size is something that is really out of my wheelhouse."

However, after weighing the pros and cons of taking on the gig, Maniscalco decided that he "wanted to be a part of history" — and is looking forward to witnessing a few iconic moments which MTV is known for facilitating. "I'm ready for my own Kanye West and Taylor Swift debacle," he says. "Or even a Madonna and Britney Spears kiss."

Below, Maniscalco talks more with THR about getting ready for what he believes will be an "unpredictable" night and performing his politics-free act for a young audience in today's "woke" climate.

What was your reaction when MTV asked you to host this year's show?

My manager called and told me that MTV wanted me to host the VMAs and I was taken aback. I was actually stunned. I never thought that it would be something that would be in the cards for me because they typically skew a little younger. Their audience is largely millennial, but their approach is that they kind of wanted a guy like me— someone who uses observational humor. They didn't really want a music person or anyone who was in that world. They wanted a different view of the VMAs, through my eyes. I actually had to take a beat and figure out if I wanted to do it or not. But once I thought about it, I said yes because this is part of pop culture and I'll be reaching an audience that I don't typically have as fans, and I wanted to hit a broader audience. I really wanted to be a part of history. So I had to weigh all the options and then after thinking about it for a bit, I definitely said yes and hit the ground running.

What has the preparation been like?

I hired about five or six writers. They're assisting me and giving me ideas for jokes — not only for the monologue, but for the presenters and who I'm introducing. I'm not taking the approach of making fun of people. It's just not what I do, plus I don't know any of the musicians personally. And when you take shots at people that you don't know, it isn't very likable. I'm going to stick with my brand of humor and give commentary throughout the night about what I'm seeing. I think what MTV liked about me is that my comedy is centered around saying what people are thinking. That's what I'm going to do throughout the night, give my commentary about everything that's going on during the show.

The VMAs are known for being one of the edgiest awards shows of the year. How do you plan to infuse your specific brand of comedy into what is typically a very irreverent event?  

I'm a bit older than what they typically have, so it's not like I'm going to go out there and go, "Oh, you kids today…" That's not what I'm trying to do, but a lot of my comedy compares the then and now. That's what I want to do here. Without giving my jokes away, I want to take some of the stuff that I've talked about in the past and apply it to the VMAs. And I also plan on touching on the sensitive world that we're living in and make light of that. You can't say anything anymore without some group getting upset at you. I'm going to poke a little bit of fun at the environment we're living in.

In 2019, millennials and Gen Z'ers are very socially engaged and culturally sensitive. How do you plan to cater your act to a young audience in today's "woke" climate? 

I've never had a problem with any of the jokes that I make. For the most part, they're not commentary on all of these things that are going on in society right now. My jokes are absent of politics. They're basically jokes about the most mundane things, whether it be about the subway or flying or talking about my immigrant father. I'm not touching any hot buttons in my comedy, and that won't change for the VMAs. Where I really do best is being immersed in a situation, whether I go to a city and notice how the city operates. For example, you go to Los Angeles and everybody's riding a Bird scooter. And then you do a joke about Bird scooters at a comedy club that night and all of a sudden, people are like, "Oh my God, he noticed the Bird scooters are in our city and he made a joke about it." The same thing with the VMAs. I plan on picking apart what's going on, whether it be onstage or backstage. Backstage, for me, is going to be like a playground for me, hopefully. Because, often when I watch an awards show, I want to know what's going on backstage and who's talking to who. I want to really bring the show to life.

The VMAs went without a host in 2018, and several other awards shows have done the same in recent years. In what ways do you think having a host improves the flow?  

A lot of these shows are now going without a host, which I don't really understand. A host brings continuity to the show, as well as a point of view, and keeps it moving along instead of some voice of God introducing all the presenters. It's not authentic that way.

What are you most looking forward to at this year's show?

Missy Elliott is the Vanguard recipient this year, and I can't wait for her performance. She has always been a really great performer and she always brings it. I'm excited to see what she has up her sleeve. I'm also looking forward to Taylor Swift performing. For me, this is all of today's pop culture wrapped up into one show, so I'm looking forward to a lot of the new artists — especially Billie Eilish and Normani. To be honest, I've just been introduced to a lot of these people within the last couple of months. I know music, but it's from afar. It's like, "Oh, yeah, I've heard that song." But I probably don't know who sings it and who that artist might have beef with. I don't know the feuds, who hates who and who's throwing shade. I just found out what shade even means. A lot of the audience sometimes, too, they don't even know who the artists are. So, it's going to be fun to discover them.

What is your favorite VMAs moment of all time?

It's got to be Prince when he came out with his ass hanging out [at 1991's show]. That is the only guy who could ever pull that off. When he turned around and you saw his ass, you went, "Oh, yeah, that works!" There was no one else at the time who had done that. And you just thought to yourself, "Oh, that looks great." So that's probably one of the most iconic moments that sticks out in my mind.

The VMAs are known for facilitating unexpected, oftentimes shocking, moments. As the host, does that add pressure or excitement?

I would say excitement. Those moments are the best moments because they're happening in real time. And to come up with something on your feet about what's going down right then and there is what comedy is all about. If something like that does happen — whether it be something like Kanye and Taylor or Madonna kissing Britney — those moments are always good for comedy fodder. The VMAs are very unpredictable and that's why people, including myself, love the show. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The 2019 VMAs will broadcast live tonight on MTV at 8 p.m. ET.