Sebastian Maniscalco and the VMAs - A trainwreck of tonal tension

This blog is brought to you by Anton Poldre, Account Coordinator, MAVERICK

Communication is a two-way street. In every case, it relies on the relationship between speaker and audience; subject and object; sign and signifier. Even in our most mundane interactions, the meaning we convey is perched precariously atop a complex network of cognitive dispositions and experiences – everchanging and fluid.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Perhaps – but it’s difficult to conceive of sounds, or signifiers that don’t accompany meaning. Equally important is the way meaning can be distorted from its original concept. This is especially interesting in the case of comedy, in which wit, satire and clever wordplay create new meaning with an intended perception – the absurd or comical. Comedy already features a complex relationship between common perception, expectations, and taboos – a challenge frequently addressed by managing the expectations of the audience.

Most people who attend comedy performances have a reasonable idea of what to expect, through past knowledge of the performer, complementary performances, and the atmosphere of the venue. They arrive ready to laugh, self-deprecate, and withhold a certain amount of moral judgement with the expectation that the meaning being conveyed is fundamentally comedic. Thus, despite the fact that meaning is so easily distorted, comedic performances demonstrate that this fluidity can be mitigated through reasonable expectation. The most important feature of this is an understanding of audience expectation and context.


A clear failure to understand the relationship between speaker and audience pervaded the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards, when comedian Sebastian Maniscalco was selected to host the awards show on August 26th. Hosted at the Prudential Centre in Newark, New Jersey, Maniscalco’s Italian heritage and point-blank style seemed to be a good fit for the event. This couldn’t have been more wrong.

If contrast and tension typically work to enhance awards shows, Maniscalco’s presence at the VMAs represented a complete incongruence with both peers and the audience. Maniscalco’s monologues clashed with progressive, well-received performances from Taylor Swift and Missy Elliott. While jabs and lighthearted dissent might have enhanced the show and sparked debate, Maniscalco’s spiel was perceived as offensive, contrarian, and tone deaf. It would seem as though Maniscalco was walking into a youthful ambush, attempting to connect with a demographic that seldom, if ever, overlaps with his own. Though 2019’s VMAs saw a slight shift towards an older demographic, the effect on the tone and atmosphere was negligible.

To blame Maniscalco for the reception of the performance would be naïve. It remains unclear whether a complete abandonment of his tried-and-true comedic style in favor of conformity would have been an improvement. The true fault comes from an attempt to align personalities on a superficial basis on the part of those tasked with selecting a host. Had more consideration been given to the spirit and values espoused by each performer the incongruence would have been made clear immediately. Maniscalco’s Italian heritage wasn’t enough to create harmony throughout the show, given the heavily value-based performances from his pseudo-contemporaries.


Anton Poldre