Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Carlos Mencia Just Said That

As ‘Mind of Mencia’ starts its third season, the comedian keeps his vow to unite people by outraging everyone
By Carl Kozlowski

It’s a July night in 2004, and comedian Carlos Mencia is in rare form, pacing a stage with manic energy and unleashing a withering comedic assault that will leave no corner of the audience before him unscathed.

“Having people do the Tomahawk Chop at Atlanta Braves games is like having a team called the Wetbacks, and pretending to jump a fence every time they score a touchdown.”

The words come fast and furious, and the response from the crowd at the Brea Improv in Orange County is an amazing display of human psychology. The packed house of 300 people inhales a collective, highly audible gasp, stares at each other in “Did he just say that?” mode, and then bursts into a roar of laughter – all within a split second.

Yes, Mencia just said that.

“Everyone’s got their nasty prejudices they bury way down; the old names never die. On September 10, 2001, niggers and Spics were it. But on September 11, it was a game of tag, and Arabs were finally it. Olly olly oxen free!”

The crowd displays another mix of shock and awe. For nearly two and a half hours, far beyond the 45 minutes most comedy-club headliners take, Mencia offers his own personal State of the Union address. His mix of social, political, racial, and sexual observations are all over the map and impossible to define as either conservative or liberal, but they all come together in a coherent worldview that seems to say, “I may offend all of you, but at least this way, we see we’re all alike.”

And sometimes, he just wants to make his fanatical followers think.

“We’re sending our soldiers to die for freedom of speech, but you have to be afraid to repeat my jokes at work tomorrow? Let’s have our soldiers die for something more important than McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and oil.”

These are the kinds of things people aren’t supposed to get away with saying after two decades of “political correctness” that scrubbed American public discourse into a bland sense of propriety. But Carlos Mencia’s determination to speak his mind – loudly, proudly, and publicly – helped him build a career that rose from plum late-night spots with Letterman, Leno, O’Brien, and Ferguson, to his HBO specials, to, most significantly, his own show on Comedy Central.

“The network wants to call it Nothing Sacred,” says Mencia after his Brea Improv tour de force. “But I wanted to call it You Think It, I Say It.”

Both sides ultimately settled on Mind of Mencia, which debuted in 2005 and will start its third season this Sunday, April 1. The show has proven to be a ratings winner for Comedy Central, helping to soften the blow the network suffered when previous ratings winner Chappelle’s Show collapsed after star Dave Chappelle walked out. Mind of Mencia’s success has solidified the journey the 39-year-old comedian has made from ? the barrios of East L.A. to his current home, the proverbial “mansion on the hill” overlooking the San Fernando Valley from a perch high above Encino, and he offered CityBeat the chance to come along for the whole ride.

Back in the Day
Mencia’s been building his following for more than a decade, since his surprising start at a Laugh Factory open mike night. He was then Ned Holness (that’s his given first name and his biodad’s last name), an accountant trapped in corporate-America hell, but his fast-and-funny mouth kept his coworkers daring him to hit a stage and see if he could really bring the heat.

He blazed through his set, whipping the audience into a frenzy before stopping at three minutes because he was secretly nervous and blanked out on more material. But his timing was perfect – three minutes was all the time the club allowed newcomers anyway. Soon he earned the attention of Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore, and a month later he made the leap to a prime weekend shot there. Not long afterward, she convinced him he needed to change his name if he was going to be regarded seriously as a Latino comic, so he adopted his mother’s maiden name of Mencia for his stage persona.

From there, he soared quickly, but it was still the mid-’90s, and mass audiences weren’t ready to embrace a Latino as the center of a sitcom or host of a broad-based talk/sketch show. Much like Chris Rock after he left Saturday Night Live, Mencia realized he was at risk of never attaining a true career breakthrough – so, also like Rock, he made a conscious decision to stop playing the TV game and instead reinvent himself in the clubs. Any club, anywhere, any time – playing all 50 states as he honed his voice and learned to be utterly fearless.

“I went everywhere from Alabama to Alaska, and that teaches you how to make people laugh, period,” explains Mencia. “I learned how to make people roll with anything I said, no matter how pissed off they would normally be at hearing the kinds of things I was saying.”

It was a risky move for a man who, with his Tonight Show appearances, had already gone far past the wildest dreams of his hardscrabble youth in the working-class neighborhoods of East L.A. His Honduran-born father and Mexican-born mother had 11 girls and six other boys besides Ned, which led to an upbringing that wouldn’t be out of place in the odd families of John Irving novels. But, as he rolled through his old neighborhood in his black Mercedes on another hot day in that summer of 2004, nervously awaiting word from Comedy Central about whether he’d even get to shoot a pilot, it was clear that his risk paid off.

“My birth father had built our little house behind a bigger house, further back up the driveway,” says Mencia, pointing out the two homes in question. “But my uncle and aunt lived next door, and they weren’t able to have children, so my birth mother gave me away to them, since their own house was so packed. I was the only child in my uncle’s house, but I grew up with two moms and two dads, all next door to each other.”

One might think that unusual situation would be the spark that inspired Mencia’s comedy, but he didn’t see much funny in his childhood. It was happy enough, but it was also rough growing up Latino and being looked down on in a Caucasian-controlled society. In those days, he recalls, each racial and ethnic group kept to its own unspoken boundaries, and even crossing into another neighborhood seemed like a journey to another world.

“We would be amazed one night a year, on Halloween, when we would cross over a hill to get to the houses that we thought were mansions in the Asian area and get some real candy, like Snickers, man. The rest of the year, you were the man if you could even get a piece of Brach’s candy, because we were stuck with the fucked-up Mexican shit like Chiclets!”

The keys to his understanding the outside world were the trips he took to the neighborhood Jack in the Box with his birth father, “because it was my one connection to the world that I saw on TV,” he says. “It wasn’t the burgers that mattered, it was the idea that we were sitting where the rest of the people got to go on TV.”

As he cruises past the area’s countless elementary schools – “It’s because of all the damn kids! These families are still huge!” – he thinks about how much things have changed, for himself and for this new generation of Latino kids. Mencia lives in a mansion now, with marble tile floors and a pool overlooking a canyon.

In that house, he sits and almost obsessively watches cable news channels with what little down time he has, always searching for the truth that lies somewhere between CNN and Fox News Channel. What’s surprising, as he mentally notes stories to make fun of, is how quiet he is while doing it. In fact, he is quiet much of the time in private, seeming to save his fire almost exclusively for comedy-club stages and TV studios.

It’s the quiet, family-man Carlos who married Amy, a statuesque former model, in December 2003 after they’d spent nearly nine years together, and they have a baby son. He could be forgiven for choosing not to return to the scene of his hardships, but he doesn’t forget where he came from – and all the memories of division help drive him as he strives to bring everyone together by taking them all down a step or two on America’s social ladder.

“When white people killed all the Indians, who did all the work? Go get the niggers! Then, in the ’50s, they finally said, ‘Hey, I ain’t doin’ shit for you motherfuckers no more.’ And The Man said, ‘Fine! We’ll call Julio and give him a quarter to come pick our fields,’” he said back at the Brea Improv.

It’s a harsh assessment of life that still holds true to him three years later, as he ponders the lessons he’ll offer his own son about life in a capitalist America.

“I’m gonna be honest, that he’s lucky to be my kid,” Mencia admits. “He’s not going to have to fight the way I fought. My kid’s going to go to school, and kids will be like, ‘Is your dad Carlos Mencia?’ That’s a pressure, but you won’t have to live in projects, and all those hardships. The hard part for me is giving my kid perspective, saying, ‘You’re lucky,’ and that there are a lot of people who don’t have our lives. We’re going to have to visit poor people in our family, in Honduras and Mexico, to give him a perspective on life and not have a sense of entitlement.”

A Much Bolder Show
Now it’s early 2007, and, surprisingly, Mencia hasn’t had to tone down his signature foul-mouthed comedic rage on the TV show. In fact, the incessant bleepings Comedy Central is forced to apply to his opening monologues only add to the funny, due to their sheer absurd constancy. And the swearing creates its own built-in bonus material when the seasons come out uncensored on DVD box sets.

Mind of Mencia has built its following around an unrelenting willingness to gleefully offend people of all stripes. Many dismiss it as sophomoric, but it’s worth nothing that the show is executive produced, not only by Mencia, but by Robert Morton, who earned a place in TV-comedy royalty through a 14-year stint as David Letterman’s producer.

Morton’s services – not to mention his endorsement – are hard to come by, but he sees numerous parallels between Letterman and the Latino firebrand.

“They are two of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen in the business, they pay attention to detail like no one I’ve seen, and they’re both extremely funny first and foremost. They understand their audiences,” says Morton. “He’s got a power you don’t see in standup comics very often. He’s got an electricity he’s able to create. He never deviates from that point of view and that voice.”

Thanks to that strong voice, Morton found that the key to the show lay in reflecting Mencia’s standup “or, as we often say, dressing up the pig.

“Watch any bit,” Morton continues, “and it’s an excuse to get him to do his standup. Sometimes it’s man-on-the-street, sometimes fake news or doing a song, but essentially he’s always doing his act. But when we started, we kept things relatively small until we realized what he’s capable of doing. Now we do more commercial parodies, have different types of monologues, and he’s become a great actor as well. Everything, from his instincts onstage to his television instincts, are much better and are now impeccable.”

Indeed, the March 15 taping of the third-season premiere revealed a much bolder show. But, even as Mencia dressed up as a dinosaur for a wicked children’s-show parody, and a video elaborately spoofed high school sports films, he saved his main fire for his monologue: a viciously funny take on the death of Australian “crocodile hunter” Steve Irwin and how white people seem to be the only ones who go out of their way to mess with deadly animals.

By the end of his typically feisty monologue, a good number of Mencia’s staff was laughing and cheering, even when well out of hearing range of the boss and without knowing a reporter was in their presence. It was a rare moment, not only for bitter Hollywood but for the work world in general – when’s the last time you gave your boss a fist pump and a “whoop” when he did something you liked? Spotted among the 10 writers were people who epitomized Mencia’s loyalty to friends, such as ’80s MTV favorite Ken Ober (host of Remote Control) and Brad Williams, a vertically challenged comic who was plucked out of obscurity at a Mencia road gig after someone in the crowd thought he might have a beef over Mencia’s humor regarding his height.

“I just laughed at the idea, and I knew then that I wanted to do standup,” recalls Williams. “And the idea that he called me out of the crowd expecting trouble and wound up hiring me just shows he knows what’ll work, and he sticks with you.”

Mencia’s loyalty to his friends and his low-key, everyman exterior are the same now as they were in 2004. Yet there is a noticeable difference between his life before the series and his current existence. He still greets coworkers and visitors alike with hugs and hand bumps, but he’s part of a big machine now, more beholden to deadlines and promotions. He spends his days in a suite of offices on a Hollywood studio lot rather than at home, and he is no longer able to take a day off to cruise around L.A. But the added responsibility is a tradeoff he’s gladly made.

Of course, as genuinely approachable and even kind as Mencia seems behind the scenes, he’s been a polarizing public figure from the start. His website even shows his favorite pieces of hate mail from people who can’t stand how openly he airs America’s racial dirty laundry. Surprisingly, however, he notes that the angriest people are folks from places like Ecuador, who rush up to him in public or send notes complaining that he’s never made fun of their ethnicity. And he also feels that he and his show have been misunderstood by many who take offense.

“My show is backyard – you and your friends hanging out in the backyard after a barbecue and two beers. It’s the shit you would say. And I think that people recognize that I’m not being mean, I’m not being vicious,” he explains, sitting in his spacious office. “You mean to tell me that black people don’t do white jokes, and Asian people don’t do Hispanic jokes? We all make fun of each other – that’s just the way it is.”

In fact, Mencia feels that, by tearing each other apart with laughter, his show has enabled people to come together.

“I can’t be the black show. I can’t be the white show. I wouldn’t know what to do there, but I can do a show as an American who sees all that stuff and laughs at it and says ‘Hey, it’s OK to laugh at this whether you’re black or white or Hispanic,’” says Mencia. “And another thing that the show has done is allow a lot of white people to laugh at this stuff, when most of the time they’re told they can’t say or laugh at things anymore. This show is for everybody, so laugh your ass off. We get calls all the time from people thanking us for that.”

One particular part of his act does seem to get singled out more than most, however – and it isn’t a racial thing at all. It’s his portrayal of “stupid” people, and his mocking their speech patterns with a “dee dee dee” that many interpret as a mockery of the mentally handicapped. But even with this, Mencia claims that the increased visibility he’s received from doing Mind has resulted in some odd responses.

“It came from a joke where I was making fun of stupid people – normal stupid people, and how they fuck everything up,” he explains. “Everyone has a moment where you see a couple you’ve never met and you think, ‘I hope they don’t have kids.’ Why? Because he’s ‘duh,’ she’s ‘duh,’ and then their kids are ‘dee dee dee!’ In the end, it’s not about the mentally retarded, and I know people who are mentally retarded, and now they say it. Slightly retarded kids from schools tell me, when they’re in class and other people get the answers wrong, they go ‘dee dee dee.’ And I’m saying this to kids in special-ed class who are mildly retarded! But they get it, and that’s all that matters.”

‘You’re a Fucking Thief’
Some others don’t “get” Mencia’s success, however. Two people who seem particularly annoyed about it are fellow celebrity comics Joe Rogan, of Fear Factor hosting fame, and ABC sitcom star George Lopez, who are the loudest among many comics who have accused Mencia of stealing jokes from themselves and others.

In fact, a story has entered into comedy folklore that Lopez once found Mencia at the Laugh Factory and grabbed him by the neck, slamming him against the wall while threatening him due to his belief that Mencia had lifted 13 whole minutes of his act to use in an HBO special. Yet Lopez did not return CityBeat’s calls asking about Mencia, and the idea of HBO executives – certainly savvy tastemakers in American comedy – not noticing that much material being stolen defies logic.

Mencia’s friend and fellow comic Ted Sarnowski, who drove Mencia around back in their earliest days as comics in 1988 and was rewarded nearly two decades later with a writing job on Mind, claims to have a crystal-clear recollection of how the feud with Lopez began.

“I did a radio show with Frazer Smith on KLSX, and Lopez was the resident comedian, and I had a joke about the enchurrito – did an enchilada fuck a burrito, and there’s the enchurrito? Unbeknownst to me, George Lopez took that joke and was using it without my permission, not knowing I’d given the joke to Ned, saying it was better for him,” says Sarnowski. “This was back in ’88, when they all first started. I never gave Lopez the joke; he took it from me after I did it on the radio. I gave it to Ned, and that’s where George started his whole ‘You’re a fucking thief’ [thing].”

A more direct attack on Mencia’s credibility has been waged by Rogan, who established himself as a headliner through years in clubs as well a major role in the long-running NBC sitcom Newsradio. Rogan is also a master martial artist and a commentator for Ultimate Fighting Championship telecasts, and on the night of Saturday, February 10, at the Comedy Store, he apparently decided to blend those two worlds by staging a verbal battle royal over the issue with Mencia, who was also at the club.

Thanks to Rogan’s cameraman friend named Redban, who constantly films his public appearances for Rogan’s website as well as for Redban’s own, the footage hit the Web and created a sensation. In it, Rogan loudly brings up several examples of jokes he claims Mencia stole, with Mencia denying all the claims, even as a third comic, Ari Shaffir, shows up to claim Mencia stole a joke from him as well – and then there’s a clip of Shaffir telling the allegedly stolen joke on a TV show in 2004.

The joke is about the idea of creating a wall along the Mexican border to keep Mexicans out – and then wondering how to create that big of a wall without using Mexican labor. Here again, the claims against Mencia don’t seem to hold much weight.

For one, the normally outspoken Rogan ignored two attempts to discuss the issue with CityBeat. And secondly, Shaffir’s claim on the joke is unfounded. I heard Chicago comic Tim Joyce tell the exact same joke and saw him receive a standing ovation for it at a showcase for producers and network executives at the former club Moomba in fall 1999, a full five years before Shaffir claims to have invented the joke.

In other words, despite Rogan’s pages of ranting about the issue at, the best example he and his cohorts can think of is one they patently didn’t create, either. When dealing with topical, news-related humor, jokes can often cross over into the realm of the meme, becoming a common thought that anyone may share with countless others.

Ultimately, the entire incident backfired on Rogan, according to Comedy Store talent coordinator Tommy Morris, who says Rogan has been asked to stay away for a while, while the stage remains open to Mencia.

“The thing being misconstrued is that we chose Carlos over Joe, but the whole issue really has to do with Joe Rogan illegally taping inside the club,” explains Morris. “Joe went onstage and was fighting a beef that had been going on for years, so we let it go for a few minutes. We ran around the room asking people to turn off cell phones to avoid another Michael Richards incident,” in which competing club the Laugh Factory was spotlighted as the location of Richards’s racist tirade last November, thanks to cameraphone footage taken by audience members. “We didn’t realize that his cameraman had run out, grabbed a camera, and was filming from around the doorway.”

According to Morris, Rogan had already been banned from filming at the club, because “he was putting outlandish stuff on his website. We told him we’d love him to perform here, but just not to tape here, and that was established months and months ago.”

So Rogan was asked to “take a break,” which Morris said was clearly explained as not being a ban from the club, “but Joe is the one who came back on the Internet and got ugly. And if you project negativity, you’ll get that right back in return.

“I know what they say about Carlos being a joke thief, but isn’t that the oldest fucking issue in the history of comedy? Robin Williams, Jackie Gleason, Jerry Lewis – all called joke thieves, but all are among the greats,” continues Morris, his voice rising in frustration over the whole situation. “Joe can say we’re going down without him, but the truth of the matter now is that we’re doing better than we have in years. Joe’s actions don’t reflect the respect he claims to have for us in words. He does care about Mitzi, she cares about him. I want Joe here, I want balance in all of this, but it’s gonna be a while.”

For his part, Mencia attributes the accusations to “jealousy, and it’s part of the way it’s always been,” he adds.

“You name me a comedian that becomes popular, and [others will] say that’s hacky bullshit. It comes with the package,” he says with resignation. “As soon as I started getting fame, I knew I’d be representing people regardless of what they think or don’t think. I have a good heart, I’m a good human being and a nice person, and I’m gonna try and be that person for the longest time I can. You might not understand everything I am, you might not like my cussing, but would you like to have a kid who takes care of his family, who’s responsible and spreads laughter and life lessons through his TV show? If my kid turned out to be exactly like me, I would be proud.”