Open Minded

By David Jenison

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Posted June 7, 2012 in Feature Story

Divisive comic Carlos Mencia finally gets up close and personal

“You know what is funny?” remarks Carlos Mencia when asked about his dramatic weight loss. “I only talk about this when other people ask because there are three people who really annoy me. First, it is the person who lost weight and starts telling everyone how they’re supposed to do it. Second, I hate the person who just stopped drinking and now thinks everyone is an alcoholic. ‘You’re gonna drink?’ ‘Yeah, it’s Cinco de Mayo, I’m going to drink.’ Lastly, I hate the person who just found Jesus. That is the most annoying person on the planet.”

While he’s not going all Charles Barkley on a Weight Watchers plan, Mencia did lose about 70 pounds since last taking the big stage. His inspiration was to drop the pounds and not something else.

“I had a friend with diabetes who was about to have his toe amputated, and I wanted to keep my toes,” says the 44-year-old comic. “He told me that I was on my way to where he was. I said, ‘I love you, and I want my feet how they are.’ Really, the diet was more about not eating crappy food in the middle of the night. For example, I was drunk last night, everyone wanted to go eat, and I chose not to go. I would have eaten biscuits and gravy and scrambled eggs and then went to sleep. That would be a pound right there.”

 

On a Low Note

Mencia, who was born in Honduras and raised in the East L.A. projects, says the hardest part of losing weight wasn’t the allure of late-night Waffle House runs. It was overcoming the psychological associations with limited food options growing up. That will happen when you are the 17th of 18 children.

“It is really hard to lose weight when you come from being poor,” he explains. “I related food to so much of my happiness, to being successful, to being an American, to knowing I can now eat whatever I want when I couldn’t before. It was about being a provider. That was the hardest part about losing weight for me.”

In a sense, the weight loss is a snapshot of Mencia’s recent comedic transformation, one that happened out of necessity. The comic ended the last decade on a low note after what had been a post-Y2K roll. The Dubya years started with successful stand-up tours and TV appearances that resulted in the hit DVDs Not for the Easily Offended and No Strings Attached, the latter becoming Comedy Central’s first platinum-selling stand-up comedy disc. Filling the void left by Dave Chappelle’s abrupt departure, Mencia became the network’s newest comedic star with four seasons of the Mind of Mencia. His last big tour, 2008’s At Close Range, headlined such major venues as Red Rocks in Colorado, the Lincoln Center hall in NYC and multiple nights at the Gibson Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. For all his success, however, Mencia was a divisive figure à la LeBron James, Jay Leno and the Kardashians, and his enemies outnumbered his allies in the hyper-competitive culture of the comedy clubs.

In 2007, former Fear Factor host Joe Rogan famously ambushed Mencia on stage at the Comedy Store and accused him of stealing jokes and hiding his partial German ancestry and birth name. Some of Rogan’s attacks were downright dumb. Other performers used stage names, e.g. Jacob Cohen (“Rodney Dangerfield”) and Jonathan Leibowitz (“Jon Stewart”), and pointing out the comic’s distant German roots only makes sense if he’s got a Greek friend needing a bailout. The plagiarism accusation, however, is a more damning and complicated charge. Historically, accused joke-jackers include heavyweights like Robin Williams, Milton Berle, Bill Cosby, Dane Cook and Denis Leary, but Mencia lives in the age of viral videos and media sensationalism. Rogan & Co.’s allegations might be true, they might be exaggerations or they might simply be attempts to steal some ink (something Rogan arguably needed after Fear Factor’s recent cancellation), but Mencia haters were happy to throw fuel on the fire and ignite a national narrative.

 

Thick Skin

Mencia, whose real name is Günter Johann Austerlitz (just kidding, it’s Ned Mencia), soon found himself attacked on platforms that didn’t even exist when he started out. He explains, “People who used to bully other people and the people who got bullied have now switched places. When I grew up, there were bullies at school who picked on you and called you names. These days, the bullies are those same nerds who now go online and say the meanest things in anonymity. Now that they have a voice, they are doing the exact same things that were done to them as kids. What am I going to do?”

In a New York Times interview last November, Mencia said the accusations were “so untrue” and “so far gone” that he was clearly complicit in creating this animosity. Asked about his role, the comedian admits, “I was complicit in the chip that I had on my shoulder.”

Comedy is a tough circuit, and those who think a Central American is simply lumped in with the Mexican comics don’t fully understand racial dynamics. Mencia felt he needed to have an edge, but that edge proved to be double-sided.

“When you feel you don’t belong, you over compensate,” he explains. “That’s what I did when I went to the comedy clubs. I had to be that guy in order to be successful. When I went to the Comedy Store and other clubs, people looked at me like I didn’t belong or fit in, so I had to have thick skin. That is how I could go home without having my tail between my legs crying. I became very cocky, which is abrasive to other comics. I got laughs at a young age, and I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke and I didn’t do any drugs, so I really never hung out with young comics. That created a big part of the environment that happened later on. I didn’t have any friends in comedy. By not being their friends, a lot of the things I said were misunderstood. When people said stuff about me, I didn’t have any friends in the comedy clubs to say that’s not the person I am. I had turned other people off, and I didn’t give a shit at the time. As a person, thank God, you can change and evolve.”

Mencia recalls a high school counselor who advised his friend to pursue being a mechanic rather than going to college. He too was told to look down, not up, and this made him more defiant and determined to succeed.

 

Anger Management?

“I am a bit of an angry guy,” Mencia confesses. “I remember calling a club in Arkansas to see if I could perform, and the [club manager] said it wouldn’t work because there were no Hispanics in that town. I had to prove to them that I could do it. I had to cut deals, do a percentage of the door, and sometimes it was a really low percentage, like 30 percent, just to get my foot in the door. That bothered me. I wish I could say it didn’t bother me, but it did. I wanted to not be that guy, to not take it and use everything I could to show that I deserve this. I was born in Honduras, so I was treated like shit by the Mexicans. I never felt like I belonged. That comedy club in Arkansas, I don’t think he was a racist at all. I think he literally thought no one would want to come see a guy named Carlos. I understand that. The ignorance bothered me, but I think that is something that I can address.”

Ultimately, the comedian addressed this with a major reinvention. In addition to shedding the pounds, Mencia also dropped his meaner edge and opened up about his personal experiences. These changes made their debut last December with the Comedy Central special Carlos Mencia: New Territory. He still makes countless racial jokes, but he also provides an immigrant’s perspective on what makes America great. The routine is a lot more personal about his life and family, and unless there’s another comedian out there with a one-thumbed dad, it’ll be tough to say these jokes aren’t his.

I never got into personal things before because I used to think it was boring,” he admits. “It was ignorance on my behalf. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to open up. The problem is I thought people understood I was just being funny, but they often took it so seriously. They were not able to differentiate between Carlos the person and Carlos the performer. Now they see more humanity.”

 

“The Funniest Broke Guy”

By opening up, Mencia also appears to have reconnected with his Central American roots. They apparently reminded him about what’s important and encouraged him to make the transformation that now anchors his show.

“It taught me to be happy with what you have in life, and what you are not happy with, change it,” he says of his heritage. “I remember going to Honduras and seeing the happiest poorest people I’ve ever seen in my life. I remember thinking the petty things that make me unhappy don’t mean anything to them. They don’t have what I have, and they are happier than I am. Honduras gave me some of the greatest moments and definitely the best life experiences to teach me.”

As far as the changes he’s made, Mencia confesses, “The difference with me now is that this type of angst has gone away. Instead of being angry and trying to prove everyone wrong, I want to share my happiness with the world. I am a fortunate man with a wonderful father who brought me here [to America] to give me a better chance. I am happy and grateful for that. If I was still in Honduras, I’d be the funniest broke guy milking a cow.”

As part of his reinvention, Mencia also went back to his comedic roots. Bypassing many of the larger venues, he opted to set up shop for several consecutive nights at old-school comedy clubs. For example, he’s doing five nights each at Improv clubs in Chicago, Miami, West Palm Beach and Cleveland and six nights at the Brea Improv in Orange County. Still, he’s included a few larger venues in his current tour, including a June 16 performance at the Morongo Casino Resort in Cabazon.

“SoCal shows are special because that is my family, especially out there,” Mencia says of the Morongo crowds. “I can talk about local things and local people. Right now, I am on Marco Island in Florida. If I were to do a joke here about having a rooster wake me up in the morning, they would laugh at how absurd that is. If I said that over there, they would laugh because they can relate. It’s the difference between a crowd that doesn’t understand what it was like for me growing up and a crowd that does.”

In the past, Mencia rarely told people what he experienced growing up, but now he does. It appears the mind of Mencia has finally opened up.

Carlos Mencia at Morongo Casino Resort & Spa, 49500 Seminole Dr., Cabazon, (888) 252-4499; www.morongocasinoresort.com. Sat, June 16. 8pm. $69.25-$79.25.

 


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