For Mencia, it's mind over matter

Despite criticism, the stand-up comic knows he was meant to make people laugh

November 20, 2008|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,sam.sessa@baltsun.com

Comedian Carlos Mencia is fueled by frustration.

In fact, he always has been.

Twenty years ago, when Mencia was working at Farmers Insurance and studying electrical engineering, he liked to gripe to his co-workers about the state of the world. Mencia was seriously upset, but his co-workers kept cracking up at what he'd say. They encouraged him to try stand-up during amateur night at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. For Mencia, it was like being struck by a bolt of lightning.

"The word 'epiphany' gets thrown around ... but truly, the first time I stepped on stage I had that moment of clarity," he said. "I realized God gave me a gift, and this gift is to make people laugh, and this gift should not be wasted on trying to configure some electrical components."

Mencia never looked back. He dropped out of school to focus on comedy full time and worked hard to build up a routine. With time, his efforts paid off: He released several stand-up specials, his TV show Mind of Mencia ran for four seasons on Comedy Central, and tonight he performs at the Lyric Opera House.

But Mencia's success has had its share of snags along the way. Several years ago, a handful of his fellow comedians labeled Mencia a plagiarist and occasionally skewer him in interviews. And his own family didn't even want him to go into comedy in the first place.

When Mencia announced he was quitting college, his mother staged a family intervention to get him back in the classroom.

"My mom was just like, 'What is wrong with you?' " he said. "The whole family came in the house and was like, 'These are the reasons you need to stay in school.' "

At the time, only one of Mencia's family members defended Mencia's decision.

"My father was like, 'Hey, if he wants to be a clown, let him juggle,' " he said.

Mencia knew making a name in comedy is an uphill battle. But he'd already overcome a great deal of adversity. Born Ned Arnel Mencia in Honduras, he was raised by his aunt and uncle on the east side of Los Angeles.

As a child, Mencia had trouble earning good grades in school, not because learning came tough, but because neighborhood bullies beat up kids with good grades, he said.

"I grew up poor," he said. "The fact that I had to struggle to succeed, that wasn't a big deal to me. I'd struggled my whole life."

Mencia hunkered down at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles to learn the trade. He studied celebrated comedians such as Robin Williams and Andrew Dice Clay, and refined his own routine.

"Every single thing, I learned from there," he said. "The timing, the nuance, every nook and cranny that is comedy, I learned it at the Comedy Store."

Mencia picked up on the little details: Whether or not to hold a drink, the best times to use profanity, how to do accents - he can rattle off a long list in rapid-fire. Mencia also realized his ethnicity would be the first big crutch to overcome.

"I could always talk about being a Latino and having a Mexican mom and a Honduran dad and being from Honduras," he said. "That was always an easy go-to place. But on the other hand, it was a crutch."

For years, Mencia's success was incremental. After making a name for himself at the Comedy Store, he was tapped to host Loco Slam, a Latino comedy program on HBO. In 2001, he teamed with Pablo Francisco and Freddy Soto to tour as The Three Amigos.

Then came Mencia's biggest boost: his TV show, Mind of Mencia. After comedian Dave Chappelle canceled his own show, Comedy Central picked Mencia to replace him. Mencia hosted Mind of Mencia for four seasons. Recently, he decided not to film a fifth.

"It would have felt repetitive and redundant," he said. "There's a lot of different doors that are opening for me. ... I truly have no idea what's next."

Though Mencia has worked in TV and film, he still likes performing his stand-up routine more than any other medium.

"I think it, I say it, they laugh," he said. "Bam!"

But Mencia's stand-up routine has drawn sharp criticisms from other comedians. Joe Rogan, a comedian and host of the TV show Fear Factor, and comic and TV star George Lopez have both accused Mencia of stealing from other comics. Some people posted videos on the Web site YouTube comparing Mencia's act to bits done by Bill Cosby and D.L. Hughley.

Mencia said he's no plagiarist, and is willing to sit down and talk to any comedian who says Mencia stole from him.

"I know what I am. I know who I am. And I know that I have integrity," he said.

"I know that if any other comedian came up to me questioning something I did or said, it would be literally settled in a heartbeat. I love comedy. I give to comedy. I don't take from comedy."

Mencia tries not to let the negativity cloud his perspective. Regardless of how much he is attacked, he refuses to return fire.

"You can find a lot of accusations," he said. "The only thing you won't find is me putting down another comedian throughout all of this."

When Mencia wraps up his current tour (called the "At Close Range Tour") in mid-December, he's going to start exploring new projects. He might do some radio or another TV show. He's not entirely sure.

Now 41, Mencia has been a working comedian for about 20 years. He is able to support his mother and father and is married with a son.

As Mencia gets older, he said he worries from time to time that his inspiration will dry up. It's a thought that never entered his mind when he was a young comedian.

"I think I now get more fearful that I'm going to run out of things to say," he said.

"Then I go up on stage and say whatever and half the audience is dying, crying and the other half is going, 'Oh man, did you really just say that?' and I'm like, 'OK, I've still got the fire.' "

if you go

Carlos Mencia performs at 8 tonight at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $42.50. Call 410-547-SEAT or go to ticketmaster.com.

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