Carlos Mencia Talks Chappelle's Show, Illegal Immigrants, and Whether He's a Joke Thief
When Carlos Mencia first brought racist road signs, Peter Boyle reading hate mail, and terrorist snacks to the American television audience in July 2005, certain critics slagged him as Comedy Central's cheap replacement for Dave Chappelle.
The formula: Start with a standup-and-sketch format, swap nigger for wetback, shake for four weeks, and then premiere. In the Mind of Mencia pilot, Mencia even tried to preempt the criticism with a knockoff title sequence and the objection, "Stop! What am I, the resident beaner now? I'm supposed to sit around and tell jokes about burritos and tacos?"
Earlier this week, Cultist asked Mencia about replacing Dave Chappelle, Arizona's border panic, and the repeated accusations of stealing jokes.
New Times: When you premiered Mind of Mencia, was there a lot of pressure to fill the gap left by Dave Chappelle?
Carlos Mencia: No. To be honest with you, it was the opposite. Most people don't know that I was supposed to be a companion piece for Chappelle's Show. So I was actually supposed to go on after Chappelle. He was supposed to be my lead-in. And when he went to South Africa, they didn't know if he would come back. We were basically in a situation of "How is this gonna work for us?" I literally went from "You're gonna follow the most popular cable show on TV" to "We don't know if he's coming back" to "Who is this asshole replacing Dave Chappelle?"
|Mind of Mencia|
After Chappelle bounced, did Comedy Central start to think of your show as a replacement?
Actually, it was more of an albatross. Because we were supposed to be a companion piece, we were told what not to do. Like, "Don't do sketches." If you watch the first few episodes of Mind of Mencia, we don't have any sketches. We have kinda pseudo-sketches, but not really. So what was complicated about the first year doing Mind of Mencia was that I couldn't exactly do what I wanted. The problem was that as the show got more and more popular, and we became the number two show on the network after South Park, we knew that Chappelle wasn't gonna come back and I kinda said, "Can those restrictions please be removed?" And little by little, they were.
During your four seasons, did you accomplish everything you wanted with that series? Or was there a lot of unfinished business in the end?
No. Dude, during the fourth season, I let everybody know I was done. I did some research and I found that sketch shows, even the ones that have been on for 20 years, only have a relevance span of something around two to four years. Then they fade, get a new cycle of players, and they do it again. If you go back to my days, there was In Living Color. You know, Keenan, Damon, Jim Carrey, and that group of guys. They had those three years as just this hot show and then it kinda faded. And Saturday Night Live is the same. You get three years and then another cycle. That was one thing.
The other thing was in talking to my writers it became evident to me that we basically had so much material that we had talked about that we were just gonna start becoming redundant. And I didn't wanna be that guy that every year did a sketch with Judge Carlos because there's a bunch of courtroom news drama. And the example I would give is ... Right now, immigration is a big deal. So if we wanted to do a sketch about immigration, I would have to go back to see what I already did because we already talked about immigration on Mind of Mencia. I would have to check to makes sure we didn't repeat any jokes or premises. And at that point, it was like, "It's time to move on and do something different."
|Mind of Mencia|
|Troops at the Border|
You mention immigration. And it might be an obvious target. But what do you think about Arizona's immigration law?
Immigration is an American problem. It's not an illegal problem. It's not a Mexican or Central American problem. They're here because we gave them work. That's the bottom line. If you don't want illegals, don't give them work. And when I say that onstage, there's always people who give me that look, like, "It's not that simple." But here's the joke: Mexico borders El Salvador and Guatemala. Ironically, they don't have an immigration problem. 'Cause they don't fuckin' have work!
My comedic take on it is that I would have been OK with that law had it said they were gonna check everybody as they do at the airport. The fact that they're singling out people based on how they may look or sound or behave. And that got me thinking. Why is it that we check everybody at the airport? Is it because we don't wanna piss off some Middle Eastern Muslim who might blow some shit up? And if that's the case, then the message we're sending to illegals is "Hey, maybe you should be a little more violent toward America and we'd respect you."
Then I just have to add a joke. I have to find a funny thing to say. So you're gonna come home and you're gonna be like, "What happened to my house?" And there's gonna be some Mexican going, "I don' know. Eeeeet jus' blow up!"
|Mind of Mencia|
But it does seem like Central American and Mexican immigrants are getting a worse rap in the US lately because of the drug violence in Mexico.
Sure. But they're killing each other. They're not blowing up buildings. Look ... You and I can have a serious conversation. And in this interview, it might come off as even more serious than it is. The one thing that I'm always aware of is that I am a comedian. So if I have a thought and that thought doesn't end with a huge punchline, I'm not talking about it onstage.
Part of looking at these things is seeing them from a different perspective. OK ... My brother is an American citizen, but he's got a thick ass accent. So when SP1070 passed, he called me and said, "Man, chu know they gonna ask me for my papers." And I jokingly said, "Maybe you shouldn't put a 'ch' in the word 'you.'"
Then I called a buddy of mine who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. He's English and he's been illegally in America for six years. So I called him up and I asked, "Hey, man. How do you feel about the law and what are you gonna do about it?" And he said to me, "Well, that law is not for me." And I was like, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Do you honestly believe that the police is going to ask me for my papers?" And I went, "Oh. Wow. I guess you're right."
Now there's only one step for me to make it a joke.
You've been called out by George Lopez, Joe Rogan, and others over allegedly lifted gags in the past. Have you ever actually taken a joke or borrowed a premise?
Listen, as a young comedian, I think everybody did somebody else. That's life. Every kid who was a basketball player wanted to be Dr. J, and then they wanted to be Michael Jordan, and then they wanted to be Kobe Bryant, and now they're gonna want to be Dwyane Wade or King James. The same goes for comedy. When Richard Pryor started, he was doing Dick Gregory. And when Chris Rock started, his act was Richard Pryor.
I didn't know about comedy, luckily so. In the beginning, I was just an amalgamation of all the comics that I saw at the Comedy Store in the sense of, like, "Oh my god! Paul Mooney! He's amazing! Racially, he just doesn't give a shit!" So I learned from all of these comics. You know, at a certain point, you've just gotta wake up and be like, "It's part of the package. I'm not the only one. It happened to many." And you move on and you write stuff and you do the best that you can. That's all I've ever done.
So are comics a little too touchy about theft?
I wish I could talk about this stuff and not be Carlos Mencia. The question you're asking, if I answer, because of all the accusations, it comes off, like, "Of course he said that!"
If you're a young comedian right now and you're worried about any of this crap, don't do comedy! Because every joke about parenting has already been written. Every joke about fat people has already been written. Every joke about poor people has already been written. Every joke about black people has already been written.
What are you gonna do? "I did an immigration bit. Handled! Done! It's 20 minutes long. Don't touch it anymore!" Um ... No, man. Somebody else is gonna have their point of view and their joke.
Carlos Mencia. Monday, September 6. Miami Improv, 3390 Mary St., Coconut Grove. There will be two sets, one at 7 p.m. and the other at 9. Tickets cost $35, plus the Improv's usual two-drink minimum. Visit miamiimprov.com.
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