By David Gavri
So what do people still say about Carlos Mencia? He’s a hack? He’s a thief? He’s a fraud? Carlos Mencia has been a controversial name ever since the notorious fight between him and Joe Rogan back in 2007 at the world famous Comedy Store in Los Angeles.
Rogan accused Mencia of stealing jokes, nicknaming him, “Carlos Men-steal-ia”. Other comics joining in the accusations included: Ari Shaffir, Willie Barcena, Steve Trevino, and George Lopez. Caught on tape, the feud spread like wildfire throughout the internet. And it escalated further after Comedy Central’s hit TV show, South Park, aired an episode about it.
Everybody loves success, but they hate successful people. —Unknown
Is Carlos Mencia really as terrible as his accusations? Or are people jealous of his achievements? Despite what we choose to believe about Carlos Mencia, no one can take away the fact that he’s a 25-year comedy veteran, with plenty to show for it.
His list of accomplishments dates all the way back from the days of In Living Color and The Arsenio Hall Show, to the Tonight Show with Jay Leno—where he received a standing ovation on his first appearance. In 2002 his HBO appearance was nominated for “Best Stand-Up Comedy Special”. Not for the Easily Offended was his first DVD that he recorded soon after. Success followed with his TV show on Comedy Central, Mind of Mencia. Paired up with Chappelle’s Show, Mind of Mencia was an instant hit, averaging around 1.5 million viewers. After its first season, Mencia launched his second stand-up special titled, No Strings Attached. It became Comedy Central’s first Platinum-selling DVD.
Mencia made it all the way to the top. And then the scandal broke out. After it happened, Mencia appeared twice on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast where he made apologies and attempted to clear the air. Yet, the negativity still lingered, and for a while, Mencia was the most hated person in comedy. His career should have been over. But Mencia never quit. He recorded his third special, Performance Enhanced, in 2008 and then his fourth special, New Territory, in 2011. On top of it all, he has three successful restaurants, Maggie Ritas, right here in the city of Houston. The negativity has only made him stronger. Despite what’s been said about him, Carlos Mencia is a household name that continues to perform in sold out venues all across the country. We were lucky to meet up and talk with him. Filled with insight and advice, Carlos talked with us about life, about his career, and about comedy.
Carlos, you’ve had a lot of hatred aimed at you—on a large scale. And still, you’ve been able to rise above it all. How do you do it?
I’ve come to a place where I’ve realized that peoples’ opinions of me, has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with themselves. Before, I was at a point where I wanted to make everybody happy. But what I’ve realized is, I can’t make anybody happy. There are people out there who love me no matter what, and then there are people out there who do nothing but hate me, no matter what—no matter what you say to ‘em. You could say, “Ya know, Carlos donated a million dollars to charity for children with cancer,” and they’d be like, “Yeahhh well fuck him anyway!” So, it doesn’t matter.
I don’t need anything to be happy, and I don’t need anyone to be happy. I can tell you that there are people out there in the world who hate me so much, that they wish I was dead—right now at this very moment. I can also tell you that there are people out there who love me so much that they would DIE for me. But both of those extremes don’t make me better and they don’t make me worse. It’s outta my control. So once you give yourself to that, you can be happy. You can really be happy within yourself. And that’s where I’m at. I just wanna go out there and share my life, that’s it.
How do you handle criticism when it comes from your own peers?
With regards to criticism, ALL successfull people get criticized—that’s just a part of it. It’s just the way it is. And us comedians, we come from a very selfish, self centered place. Cuz we’re like, “I get to be the writer, the director, the producer, AND the performer—AND I get to be on stage ALL BY MYSELF!” So when us comedians don’t get what we think we deserve, it takes us to a whole ‘nother level of feeling like, “Hey! THAT person doesn’t deserve this! I deserve it more! Why don’t I have that?!” And it’s VERY difficult. It takes a very long time to get out of that place. You have to let it go. Just let it go. Comedians are built differently. We hafta check ourselves.
We all wanna hate—because hating makes us feel like it’s not our fault. We blame other people so that it’s THE OTHER person’s fault that we don’t have what we don’t have. And I don’t take shit from anybody like that. What’s mine is mine, what’s theirs is theirs. I’ve never taken a role from anybody, and nobody’s ever taken a role from me. My job is not to convince anybody of anything, or make ‘em think anything of me. My job is to go up on stage and share my gift with the world—share my life with them and show ‘em how I shine. That’s all I do. And whatever happens, happens.
All the bad things people have said about you—how do you shake it off?
What you think about me, is none of my business—that’s your business. You have your reasons for whatever you do—God bless you. It’s not for me to decide, or even to be worried or have any concern about it. And so it’s not a, “Fuck that person,” it’s a, “Hey, they have their opinion and that’s their world. This is mine.” Nothing bad. Positive love and reinforcement.
Through all your ups and downs, how has it changed your attitude?
When I was younger, I didn’t have it figured out, but I did it right. And what I mean by that is, I put on blinders and I did what made me happy. From that perspective, I had integrity—I was honest with myself. “This is what I wanna do, fuck everybody else.” That was my attitude.
The difference now is, after dealing with all the complexities of life that came at me within the past few years, the “fuck everybody else” part is gone. For me, it’s about, “This is who I am, this is my truth.” Your truth is just as real to you as my truth is to me. It doesn’t mean I’m better, it doesn’t mean you’re worse. That’s just your truth and this is my truth. And that’s the difference. There’s no sense of, “I have something to prove to everybody.”
How is your performance mindset different now than it was before?
The difference today is this: When I used to get on stage, I used to go up there with the mindset of, “I’m gunna kill it, I’m gunna rock! I’m gunna destroy this audience!” But now, I don’t even think that way anymore. Now when I’m backstage, all I’m thinking is, “I’m a good person—I’m kind, I’m loving—and I’m going to share my life with these people.”
At the end of the day, my number one goal is to make people laugh. As human beings, we can only tell stories that we are living or have lived. And what I am sharing with my audience is laughter from my story. I hope I can make them feel better and brighten their day. All I wanna do is go up there on stage and share my life with the world, share my gift with the world, and make the world a better place.
Any last words regarding the joke-stealing accusations?
When I say things, I’m very specific. I know that when I write a joke, when I say something—that I am saying a very specific thing to target a very specific person to make a statement about something specific. I’m using the English language to be very precise. But I’ve realized that, people are gonna think and feel and interpret how they wanna interpret. And it’s not my responsibility or my job to worry about that. If that’s what they think, then that’s what they think.
For people who say I steal material—what I live and experience during the day is on stage that night—and it’s FUNNY. Oscar Wilde once said, “If two people perceive the same reality, then they see it to be the truth.” A comic has the ability to get on stage and express their perception. The curse of being a comedian is being able to communicate your perception to your audience. My perception is my reality. My mind is cursed. Any normal person who sees a homeless guy on the street might just see that, and nothing else. For me, I see something that I can possibly take to the stage that night. Nothing cruel, just funny. And it’s the job of the comedian to not only be able to see that, but to also communicate that to your audience in a way to where they find it funny.
Are there “proper steps” to becoming a seasoned comic?
It’s different for everybody. You can generalize that it takes at least five years JUST to get funny. And then about another five years to marry your funny with your point of view. But, that’s just a meter. Some people do it earlier, some do it later. There’s no ONE path to stardom for a comedian.
Now, it used to be that you went on the road and you learned how to be funny. Then, you did Johnny Carson, you got a standing ovation, he called you over to the couch, and within a year, you had a TV show. But nowadys, there are many many roads to “success” in this game. And whatever the road is for you, that’s YOUR road. Embrace it. Keep movin’. Because, you don’t know WHEN your next break is gonna come or HOW it’s gonna come. Just be prepared for it.
How do you define success?
I think that’s a question that only an individual can answer about themselves. To me personally, it’s all about finding YOUR happiness—whatever that is. It’s hard in life to find your center—to find that place where you don’t need anything—where you’re just happy. And if you find that place—THAT is success. Because, that shit is hard to come by.
Eastern philosophy teaches you to find strength within yourself. If you find happiness within you, then you’ll never need to find happiness outside. We in Western culture find happiness by telling ourselves, “If this happens, I’ll be happy—if that happens, I’ll be happy. Or as comedians, “If I get this TV show, I’m gonna be happy. If I get this movie role, I’m gonna be happy.” All of that is not only in the future, but it’s predicated on getting something that you don’t have control over getting. And if it doesn’t happen— [shrugs his shoulders] sad. They’re like, “Fuck! Can’t believe I didn’t get that! Shoulda got that! Why didn’t I get that?!” If you didn’t have so many expectations, you probably wouldn’t be that bummed out. Find a place where you’re happy outside of all that.
How do you prepare for your stand up specials?
I write on stage a lot. So for me, by the time I get to record a special, I’ve done it SO many times that I know exactly what it is, and I know exactly where the beats are. And the more I rehearse it, the more extemporaneous the show can be. Because if I know everything that I’m gonna say and how I’m gonna say it, that actually allows me to go beyond it and do other stuff, and come back and do other stuff, and so on. Whereas, if I don’t, then I’m gonna be thinking about the joke too much like, “Oh ok first I gotta say this, and then I gotta say this…” And then I won’t be thinking about what I really have to say.
Take us through your thought process when writing material.
I see the world through a matrix—through a funnel of comedy. I can literally see something happen, and I’ll be like, “That’s funny, I’m gonna do that tonight.” And someone else will go, “Okay…what the fuck’s funny about that? That’s not funny at all!” But I’ll go on stage and do five, ten minutes on it. And within two weeks, it’s expanded to fifteen, twenty minutes of really funny shit. And when other comics see that, they go, “There’s no fuckin way! Somebody must have already built that—and you just took it! You can’t write twenty minutes of jokes in a weekend! That’s impossible! How do you know how to do that?!”
But I see it as, “How do you NOT know how to do that?! We’re COMEDIANS!” We’re supposed to know how to be funny! That’s our job! I mean, if you asked civil engineers to build a bridge over a river that’s this wide and this deep, they’d go, “Yeah yeah, the river flows this way ‘n that way, you don’t have to tell us the rest, we’ll take it from here.” Done. Just like that. They know how to do it. For me, it’s the same. I already know how to be funny. And when I see something, I go, “Okay, I know how that’s gonna be hysterical.” So for me, it becomes a very simple thing to do. All I hafta do now is put in the goofiness of it.
What’s an example of something that you saw and immediately thought was funny?
When I watched the presidential debates, I knew that I could go on stage and say, “Damn I wish Obama acted like he was ghetto! Am I the only one who hoped he’d get all ghetto ‘n shit??” The audience would be like, ”[claps his hands] Yeahhh!” Then all I hafta do is act it out and be ghetto like, “Aw hell naw, dis mu’fucka whaaaa?!” And now it’s funny—it’s not even a question. It’s not even a QUESTION! It’s already there, written for me.
Now, all that goes through my mind is: How ghetto do I wanna act? How crazy do I wanna be? Do I wanna drop a nigga bomb or not? If I do, is it the end of the joke? How far do I go with it? Where are the pauses? Do I wanna get just one BIG laugh? Do I wanna get two laughs and THEN a big laugh? Or do I wanna get one laugh, a BIG laugh, and then two tags? How do I wanna act this out? Do I wanna act out Romney? And so on.
Impressive. Have you always been able to write like that?
It used to be hard for me in the beginning. But I’ve trained my brain to write this way. I am an absorber of information all day long—like a sponge. And when I go up on stage, that’s when I squeeze it. I’ve given up on trying to be “normal”. I will never be a “normal” person. I will never be able to go to a wedding—and not see a joke. I will never be able to hang out with my family—and not see a joke. I will never be able to have a relationship, friendship of any kind—and not see jokes. EVERY, SINGLE, THING that I do…that I see and experience—can be my next really great bit. And so, I don’t just get to be a normal person. And that’s the curse of a comedian.
What made you choose comedy?
At the time, I had nothin’ better to do. [laughs] It’s not like I was the funny guy in class or anything—it wasn’t like that. I was searching for me—for a purpose. And the first time I went on stage, literally, THE FIRST TIME I went on stage, I found my purpose. [smiles happily]
Out of all the years you’ve been doing comedy, what’s your most memorable gig?
Way too many to mention, but probably a titty bar. [laughs] And I probably bombed. The place is like, “Give it up for Candy! …Now for the comedy of Carlos!” [laughs] I step on stage and the guys are like, “Hey where’s the chicks?!” [laughs] Those kinda gigs were pretty fuckin’ harsh. But it was awesome, no matter what happened.
What can you share with the younger comics?
If I can lend some advice to these young guys—be positive toward the people that you work with. Make friends with them. Because when you don’t, it can be taken for something that it’s not. I’m not a negative person, but where I grew up as a comedian, it was very negative. Comics would say bad things about other comics like, “Mannn did you hear that guy got a TV show?! He fuckin sucks! Did you hear how that guy opened up for this guy? I’m fuckin’ funnier than that!” And that talk, is inconsequential. It serves no purpose. I could sit here and tell you, “Ooh man, I’m smart enough to be president! And blah blah blah…” But I’m not the president, so it doesn’t matter! Why sit around and do that?
Just curious, how do you respond to the ol’, “You’re a comedian? Tell me a joke!”?
[laughs] I don’t. Not until I’m on stage. But they’re not being mean, they just think it’s that easy. What we do on stage makes us vulnerable to those kind of attacks—because we’re SO good at it, that we make it look easy. But, it’s NOT easy. It might be easy to be funny around your friends when you’re drunk, but to be funny on stage is a whole different animal. And when you’re good at it, you make it look like anybody can do it. And people feel like they can, which is why they say that.
Aside from being a comedic success, you also have three successful restaurants. Tell us about ‘em.
Maggie Rita’s Tex-Mex Grill & Bar—we have three locations within the city of Houston. It just so happened that the opportunity came up, I thought it was a good idea, and I like to eat! [laughs] And restaurants aren’t easy, but I am lucky to have such a good business partner. It’s something that I never would’ve done had I not had a good partner. I mean, I believe it’s eighty or ninety percent of all restaurants close within the first year of opening. Bars and restaurants have one of the highest, if not THE highest open to close ratio. So I am very lucky.
When you pursue a venture like that, are you pursuing it so that it fits your image as a comedian?
Not at all. For me, it’s all about whether or not it fits with what I want from and out of life. And if it does, then I’ll do it. For instance, I like vodka. And if someone came up to me with a great idea for a new vodka, and I liked it, then I’d do it. But I wouldn’t sell vodka if some vodka company just wants to pay me to do it. The last thing I want is for me to be at some club, drinking some shit that I don’t like, all because they sponsored me. I don’t wanna be the Ciroc guy when I wanna drink Belvedere. I don’t want Hennesey to tell me that I can’t drink Chivas! [moment of laughter]
What legacy does Carlos Mencia want to leave behind?
I’ve done it all. From here on out, it’s all about the journey. Whatever comes, comes. What people think about me while I’m alive or dead is none of my business. I don’t let that become an issue of significance for me. I do stand up because I love making people laugh, and I think I’m making the world a better place by presenting perspectives that open minds. If people become inspired by what I do, God bless them. And if they don’t, God bless.
Interviewed & Written by: David Gavri