Carlos Mencia’s standup career was in tatters, but he’s back

mrowland@modbee.comJune 12, 2014 

  • Carlos Mencia

    When: 8 p.m. June 21

    Where: Rogers Theater, Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto

    Tickets: $29-$69

    Call: (209) 338-2100

    Online: www.galloarts.org

You can never really know what’s going on in a man’s mind, even one as famous as Carlos Mencia’s.

The man behind “The Mind of Mencia” had a stratospheric rise in the comedy world and catastrophic backlash that nearly cost him his career. But the 46-year-old comic has emerged from the dust and rubble to be a leaner, though not necessarily meaner, performer.

“Right now, I don’t think I’ve ever been funnier or had a better perspective and been more prepared,” Mencia said from the road in Ohio. “I’m at the top of my game.”

To know what it means for him to say he is at the top of his game is to realize that during the height of his backlash, he felt like he was at the bottom and might end it all. So, as with any good comeback, the key is knowing how it all happened.

Back in 2005, Mencia’s Comedy Central show, “Mind of Mencia,” was the highest-rated new comedy series on all of cable TV that summer. It went on to become one of the top-rated programs for the channel, behind only the perennial hit “South Park.” The bombastic comic had his own TV specials and was featured in a prominent Super Bowl commercial for Bud Light.

Then in 2007, fellow comic Joe Rogan stormed Mencia onstage during a performance in Los Angeles and accused him of plagiarizing other comedians’ work. A clip of the altercation that also showed similarities with other comics went viral, and Mencia’s reputation as a joke stealer – perhaps the deadliest sin in the comedy world – was sealed. His Comedy Central show was canceled in 2008. The vitriol went so deep that in 2010 the Wall Street Journal called Mencia one of the three most hated standups in the profession, alongside Dane Cook and Jay Leno.

That level of disgust, though less fever-pitched, still follows the comic today. When news broke over the weekend about the crash that critically injured “30 Rock” star Tracy Morgan and killed comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair, Mencia received a tweet from a stranger that said, “Why couldn’t that be you?”

“Someone wished I was dead instead of the individual who died,” he said in a phone interview with The Bee. “It takes a lot to not to bite on that. To not even send a message of, ‘Why would you say that?’ Five, six, seven years ago, I probably would still be in a Twitter war with that guy. But that’s not my job. My job is to make people laugh.”

The most important thing Mencia said he learned from the debacle is perspective. It is something he tries to share with people from the stage. Flipping people’s perspective, while continuing to say what most people won’t, is where he finds his humor now.

“It was a rough time and taught me a lot. Some people choose to live in a negative world. If you get stuck in it, whether defending yourself or whatever, it doesn’t matter what you say. You’re a pig in mud, trying to clean yourself – but you’re still in mud. It doesn’t matter your intentions or your proof. That’s irrelevant,” he said. “I choose to live in a positive world and a positive presence. I love after a show when someone says, ‘You gave me a different perspective.’ It’s just who I am. I like to look in the crevices of things, the nooks and the crannies. I like to see the things other people don’t see, don’t want to look at.”

Mencia, who has steadfastly denied consciously stealing jokes, said one of the things he is most proud of is his refusal to bad-mouth the comics who have flung allegations at him.

“Google my name or whoever else hates me. You’ll find a lot of anti-Carlos stuff,” he said. “You can’t find me saying something bad about other comics. I am proud I went through all of that. There were suicidal moments in those days, there were homicidal moments within those days. It’s not easy when you don’t have perspective and are going through all of this. There are billions of people, and everyone has an opinion; everyone has a filter. That has nothing to do with me. That’s the perspective this gave me.”

It didn’t come without hard work, though. Mencia said he went to therapy after the allegations of joke stealing surfaced and threatened to torpedo his livelihood. After “Mind of Mencia” was canceled, he took some time out of the national spotlight. In 2010, he appeared in the film “Our Family Wedding” with America Ferrera and Forest Whitaker. Then in 2011, a visibly thinner Mencia re-emerged with a new Comedy Central special aptly titled “New Territory.”

Mencia credits a friend who was diagnosed with diabetes for his 70-pound weight loss. He said he had told his friend for years to lose weight and eat better. When the friend was facing toe amputation because of the disease, the two had a heart-to-heart.

“He started crying. He said, ‘You know what, bro? You told me the truth – I didn’t want to see the truth.’ Then he said, ‘I want to be there for you the way you were there for me. You are fat, too.’ He said if I continued the way the way I was going, I’d be where he is, going to get his toe chopped off.”

But Mencia did one more experiment to verify his friend’s claims about his weight.

“I had to fly the next day to Nebraska, so I changed my seat from first class to coach. And I put myself in the middle seat, I’ll never forget, it was 12B,” he said. “I said, ‘I am going to look at the faces of two people I have to sit between and that will let me know if I am fat or not.’ Then I looked at their faces and said, ‘Oh, no, I am fat.’ 

Mencia has kept much of the weight off since and continues to tour extensively. He is honing a new special, which he said has garnered interest from Comedy Central, HBO, Showtime and others. He hopes to have it released by October. After each show, he stays to sign autographs and take pictures with his fans. And, as he has done for 15 years, he offers audio recordings of the show after each live performance.

He continues to do a podcast, called “Laughin’ and Livin’,” which is available on his website. He said his online show allows him to be more three-dimensional. His performance, he said, is all about being funny. But his podcast gives him the chance to talk to people and discuss things he has seen, or his life or current events, without always going for the laugh.

Still, he said, what people hear and see of him in the public is a far cry from where he came from. Born Ned Arnel Mencia in Honduras, Mencia took a stage name and developed his persona as an entertainer. He was the 17th of 18 children in his family and majored in electrical engineering in college before turning to comedy.

“Ned doesn’t come through in anything. Ned is shy and quiet and would rather stay home and watch television,” Mencia said. “Ned is completely the opposite of Carlos. Ned goes to a party and never says hi to everyone. Everything that is entertaining is Carlos.”

The mind of Mencia today is less angry, he said, despite the anger that has been directed at it.

“There’s no more proving, no anger, no aggression. That doesn’t mean I don’t get aggressive and excited and shout. I am unbelievably passionate, but it comes from a different place,” he said. “I used to scream from the mountaintops, ‘I am funny, check me out!’ Now I speak from the valley and let anyone come who wants to come.”

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on Twitter @marijkerowland.

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