He’s on PC patrol
“HOW come you don’t make fun of Albanians?”
That’s the kind of complaint that typically turns up in comedian Carlos Mencia’s e-mail, a peculiar but somehow satisfying echo of the aggressive, everybody’s-fair-game, cut-through-the-bull comedic commentary that he’s been spouting in his stand-up shows and TV appearances for almost 20 years, most recently on his popular half-hour Comedy Central showcase, “Mind of Mencia.”
The more ethnic stereotypes and hypocritical behavior that he drags out into the spotlight and mercilessly mocks in his brazen bits, the more groups of people want to be included in the beating.
“I just like obliterating what people think is right and wrong,” the 38-year-old comic said recently as he sat in a booth at Johnny Rockets in Encino sipping an iced tea on a stifling Valley-hot morning. “Because of how I manifest my thoughts on stage, people feel singled out when I don’t talk about them.”
“Mind of Mencia,” now midway through its second season (new episodes returned Sunday), is Mencia’s highest-profile forum yet for stomping through the delicate garden of political correctness. An amalgam of stand-up, audience interaction, sketches, parodies and man-on-the-street interviews, the show allows him to both impersonate and lampoon the cultural tics of Anglos, blacks, Latinos, Middle Easterners, Indians, gays, women, sheiks, rappers, dictators and pimps.
“Mind of Mencia” has taken over from the similarly structured “Chappelle’s Show” (which it was originally intended to follow, before Chappelle’s bail-out last year) as the second-highest rated program on Comedy Central next to “South Park.” The show’s audience has grown from an average of 1.4 million in its first season to 2.1 million this year. Mencia has begun fielding movie proposals, and in the fall he will launch a Comedy Central-sponsored 50-city stand-up tour, playing 5,000-seat venues. And the cable channel has just signed him for a third season of “Mind of Mencia,” to begin shooting early next year.
“There was certainly a sigh of relief when the show did well, but we had high expectations for it in the beginning,” said Lauren Corrao, Comedy Central’s executive vice president of original programming and development. “If we hadn’t, we would never have planned to schedule it behind ‘Chappelle’s Show’ to begin with. Carlos is a star on the rise.”
Mencia’s material may be audacious and profanity laden (bleeped out, of course -- this is still basic cable), but often his sketches cleverly puncture stereotypes -- like the bit about picking up a few Latino day laborers at Home Depot to do some repair tiling work on the space shuttle. To Mencia, the show’s appeal is simple: “As long as there’s some truth to it, my audience goes with it.”
While working over topics like the Iraq war, race relations, politics, celebrity culture and immigration, Mencia vocalizes the muzzled indignation of that portion of American society fed up with what it sees as political correctness run amok. (A typical observation has him proclaiming that what has most fed illegal Mexican immigration is the fact that “black people quit.”) Both his touring and studio audiences, which cut across most ethnic groups, skew heavily toward the kind of young male eager for that brashness and willingness to provoke.
“I cannot ask people, ‘Do you think this is funny?’ ” said Mencia. “I have to tell people this is funny. Emphatically. ‘No, this is funny. And don’t pretend that in the back of your mind this thought has never crossed your brain.’ Once I make that connection with people’s humanity, it’s over. Because then you see reflections of you in what I say. I become the megaphone for people.”
A few live recordings and small film and TV appearances on shows like “The Shield” and “The Bernie Mac Show” eventually led to the Comedy Central gig. The inflammatory issues that everyone tiptoes around became the crux and wide-ranging appeal of Mencia’s material. Early in his stand-up career, Mencia had a revelatory encounter when he confronted a white man offended by a black joke while the blacks in the audience were laughing. He had the realization then that “political correctness is a form of racism.”
“It’s not overt, it’s not mean, it’s not ill-intended, but the negative impact of it is you think you’re superior to these people, so you’re going to shelter them because you don’t think they can handle it,” he declared. “That’s what we do with minorities and political correctness, and that was a big turn for me in my comedy career.”
An accidental comic
Mencia (whose given name, incongruously, is Ned), was born in Honduras the 17th of 18 kids and grew up in both the East L.A. projects and Honduras. At 19, while working for Farmers Insurance and studying electrical engineering at Cal State Los Angeles with the dream of becoming a pilot, Mencia had an epiphany.
He had always verbalized his offbeat observations of the news and pop culture to family and friends, but something about how he managed to entertain his co-workers without actually meaning to finally got his attention. One angry rant in particular, about the chances of survival for a flight attendant ripped out of an Aloha Airlines flight, earned the approval of the office’s curmudgeon, who suggested that Mencia do stand-up.
“At that moment, I knew that I could make what I just said into an actual bit and that I’d been doing that my whole life, not knowing what I was doing,” Mencia said. “Then it just became a process of doing a better job at writing it, honing it, getting better at my stage presence, getting better at my ability to talk.”
He spent seven years developing his craft at the Comedy Store, learning from guys like Paul Mooney, Sam Kinison and Richard Pryor. He credits the Mexican American comedian Paul Rodriguez, in particular, with teaching him that while mining material from your ethnic background, “you can actually be funny to anybody as long as the way you tell the joke works for the point that you’re trying to get across. So, you don’t have to know about lowriders in order to laugh about lowriders, if you set up the premise properly.”
That competitive environment also fanned his voluminous self-confidence. “When a big comedian walks in and he kills the room, nobody wants to go on after that,” Mencia said. “I was filled with so much bravado, I’m such a competitive guy, that I’d be in the back going, ‘Let me go on. I want to follow Martin Lawrence. I don’t care. I’m funnier. I can do it.’ ”
As for his own politics, Mencia is a nonpartisan critic. “People ask me all the time, ‘Are you a Democrat or a Republican?’ ” he said. “Listen, I’m not the smartest guy on the planet, but I’m smart, and here’s what I know about nature: There is no day without night, there is no up without down -- everything on this Earth is built on the extremes of opposite sides. So being a conservative and not changing anything from the past is just as stupid as being a complete liberal and thinking that everything should change and not learning from our mistakes.”
Though millions of fans seem drawn to the line of fire (and Comedy Central claims that its Latino viewership has gone up 30% since Mencia’s arrival), Mencia has his detractors, including a few other comedians, who find his material derivative or even racist (he uses “wetback” and “beaner” freely) and his arrogance off-putting, particularly when making claims about his crossover accomplishments, such as: “No disrespect to my predecessors, because without Freddie Prinze and George [Lopez] and Paul [Rodriguez], I wouldn’t be able to do what I do as easily, but I’m the first Richard Pryor of the Hispanic culture.”
Despite his contention that he never tries to be outrageous, Mencia certainly doesn’t shy away from blatant provocation. A future Season 2 segment called “The Stereotype Olympics” will feature five men of different races and ethnicities competing in events such as watermelon-eating, fence-jumping, rock-throwing and rickshaw-pulling.
Mencia draws fire on the Web as well, with many pegging him as a monotonous racist while comparing him unfavorably to Chappelle in the same breath. “His material is repetitive and he thinks he’s funny when he says ‘beaner’ and ‘duh duh-duh,’ ” one poster complained. But another wrote: “I’m just happy there’s someone on comedy central WHO ISNT WHITE.”
“I know that not everybody’s going to like my show,” Mencia said, grinning impishly. “But that’s OK! Because I’m not for those people. See, I know who I’m for. I’m for the people that are real. What they find cool about the show is the honesty of it. It’s that moment that nobody else talks about.”
The day’s fan encounters bear this out. As Mencia leaves Johnny Rockets, a white guy in his 30s and a young Latino busboy both stop him to give encouragement.
In the same way that Chris Rock startles in his edgy comedy, offending some while pleasing others with what they see as desperately needed truth-telling, Mencia’s supporters tend to express gratitude for his stating the things they wish they could say -- especially if it makes them laugh at themselves.
“That’s when the show is its best,” Mencia said. “Beyond all the jokes, it’s me going, ‘Hey, everybody out there, politically correct people that think this is the demise of our civilization: Look who’s laughing.’
“The stakes have never been higher in every respect. If my show’s there for five years it’ll really ingrain itself in the psyche of America, and that’d be great. But if my show fails or were to go away too soon, that’ll affect not just me, but it’ll affect that kid named Jose and the kid named Gabriel who’re coming up. Because five years from now, we’re going to have young Hispanic comedians -- and white comedians and black comedians -- emulating me.”