The Resolute Punch of Comedian Carlos Mencia (Interview)

Sneak Peek: Montana’s Brian D’Ambrosio hopped on a call with comedian Carlos Mencia to catch up before his upcoming stand up performances at The Wilma and ELM. Read the full article below, and purchase tickets to either performance HERE.

He has been canceled by various activist factions. He has been uninvited to events and sometimes trolled with hostility. He has been called a number of unflattering names – thief, fool, clown, bully – by his fellow comedians and even other celebrities, perhaps most notably, Joe Rogan. In spite of everything, Carlos Mencia revels in being the comedian that others seem to love to loathe.

That’s because Mencia sees himself as successful and sees his brand of comedy as not just on the ball and topical but necessary and required. Indeed, he is as stanch about the integrity of his act as ever.

“My parents came to this country for better opportunities,” said Mencia, who was born in Honduras. “Here, I have been able to take care of my parents and build a different life for my kids. Then I became the first victim of this cancel culture (for ethnically and racially charged material that some found offensive). I’m getting attacked by comedians on the Internet for joke stealing. They said, Mencia, he’s culturally appropriating material. His name is not Carlos. He’s not Latino. He’s German. What am I guilty of? It’s definitely not stealing jokes.”

To be sure, it’s been a rough, patchy return to the spot light for Mencia, 56, and he says that now he is not looking to pick fights, just crack smiles. But he isn’t going to shy away from performing the incendiary variety of material that has drawn such ire in the past.

“All of the things that have happened to me could have turned me into an angry, aggressive, unapologetic, in your face comedian,” said Mencia. “But what I’ve learned and re-learned is that I want to make everybody laugh. I have no enemy on stage.”

At eight years old, Mencia first learned that he had a knack for observing situations and creating jokes about them, a talent for poking fun at the very things that made others uncomfortable. Luckily for him, his ever-patient mother never scolded him for his gags.

“I would say something that I thought was funny or inappropriate as a kid, and she wouldn’t say, Carlos, you are a bad person, or you are mean. She said, Carlos, this isn’t the right place or the right time. I discovered that place on the stage.”

Unique Perspective

Mencia, sent to the United States by his parents while only an infant and raised in Los Angeles, said that his background informs his comedy and the subject matter of his act with a unique perspective.

“I try to tell my kids about my humble beginnings,” said Mencia. “It is hard for them to understand an outhouse that doesn’t flush. Here I am: American. But not. Honduran. But not. Mexican. But not. There are a number of ways that I could come at life and dissect it.”

Mencia first started working at comedy clubs in Los Angeles in the early 1980s and he said that places such as The Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory were notoriously harsh, rife with much in-fighting and comic versus comic friction. He said that he was bullied by other comedians and, in turn, he bullied them right back. He earned a reputation as a fiery and feisty act. He catapulted to prominence nationally – Comedy Central, films, and HBO specials – before a slew of accusations, ranging from joke stealing to intentionally inflaming hatred and animosity towards certain ethnic and cultural groups, clipped his wings. A joke he told in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina drew special indignation. Consequently, the tenor and tone of his show has softened just a smidgen.

“I came to a fork in the road: I could become the guy who says to everybody, well, you can kiss my ass. Or you could begin to see their point of view. I don’t ever want to be a comedian that’s so angry that the joke isn’t there. The choice that I made a decade ago was to not intentionally alienate people. I still want to be edgy and make people uncomfortable, though.”

Indeed, Mencia said that audience members should expect to be confronted with topical and touchy and uneasy material.

“The first thing that I say to people at every single show is, if the opening act said anything remotely offensive, then please leave. There is something hypocritical in standup that has liberated me…If you watch a live LGBTQ comedy show, they will talk about subject maters that I’m not supposed to. Go to an urban show and they say the ‘n’ word 89 times in two hours. Asian comics squint their eyes and make fun of Asian voices and mannerisms. If I said it, that would be racist! When it’s mixed, we are not supposed to broach that subject matter? It’s ridiculous.”

Mencia said that his jokes all bear some semblance of truth and that the reason that some people recoil at them is for that very reason: he’s projecting some crazy type of cultural candor.

“I don’t have to be black or gay to talk about black or gay subject matter,” said Mencia. “That philosophy is more separating than uniting. If I tell a good ethnic joke, possibly I can get one hundred percent of the audience laughing one hundred percent of time. Why pervert that?”

Refuses to Dilute Act

In Mencia’s estimate, a joke is only a joke and one must make a decision, a choice, to be hurt or to be offended, or to be aggravated, by what he said. He describes himself as a comedy purist, in the mold or shadow of, say, Lenny Bruce, or Richard Pryor, or George Carlin, those comics who refused to let the audience, or wider society, determine the nature of their material.

In this, Mencia said that he refuses to let any person or any group influence his program. To do so would be to make it too vanilla or too watered down or too boringly bland. He views his role as a comedian in philosophical terms, aware of the authority of comedians in modern culture.

“Comedians today are what Socrates and Plato and Aristotle used to be in their time,” said Mencia. “Today, people don’t know Nietzsche or Kerouac. But they know Dave Chapelle! Try to do a joke about Kerouac – and see how that goes over with the crowd.”

In fact, Mencia strives to maximize the connection that he makes with an audience every single time that he performs. And similar to the eight-year-old boy who used to crack jokes and try to get his mother to laugh, he is still keen to observe the irony, absurdity, and lunacy of the everyday, and he retains a mischievous passion for packaging and delivering all of it in a funny story.

“No art form can change minds and make people see things in life like comedy can,” said Mencia. “When you are laughing, your mind, heart, and soul are open and waiting to hear what comes next. I love talking about all of the craziness. The joke’s emotional response is for the audience to feel and decide.”

Carlos Mencia performs at The Wilma in Missoula on November 10 and The ELM in Bozeman on November 11. Writer Brian D’Ambrosio’s newest book, “Montana Eccentrics: A Collection of Extraordinary Montanans, Past & Present,” was released in September 2023.