Even today, it’s a little startling that someone like Carlos Mencia could become so intensely hated, even despised, for doing something as seemingly inconsequential as telling jokes. Then again, it wasn’t telling jokes that made Mencia arguably the biggest pariah in comedy, although he has plenty of competition on that front from Dane Cook and Gallagher.
No, Mencia didn’t become hated for telling jokes of questionable quality. No, Carlos Mencia became hated for stealing jokes. To civilians, telling the same crappy Taco Bell joke as a contemporary might not seem like that big of a deal. Yet within the hermetic, Darwinian world of comedy, joke stealing isn’t a misdemeanor, it’s a goddamned felony punishable by professional death.
But the hostility towards Mencia goes beyond joke theft accusations. Mencia has also rightly caught flack for being a consummate hack pandering to the lowest common denominator. He’s also been criticized for being a racist dependent on cheap, hateful stereotypes in lieu of substance or genuine social commentary.
There is also the not-so-minor matter of success. Among his many crimes against the comedy community, Mencia also committed the unforgivable transgression of becoming way too successful. Comedians tend to view the success of others with skepticism and disdain. Hell, comedians are such a self-loathing bunch that they often view their own success with skepticism and disdain. But when the supernova streaking above all of their bitter and jealous peers is a Dane Cook or a Carlos Mencia instead of, say, an unimpeachable exemplar of talent and integrity like Marc Maron or Louis CK, the jealousy and resentment tend to be extra fierce.
So it’s worth noting that repeatedly throughout Mencia’s first trip to the Cat Ranch and WTF Marc Maron emphasizes that Mencia is a comedian who has paid his dues. He posits Mencia as a man who had performing standup for roughly as long as he has, to the point where they taped HBO specials in the same city at the same time roughly two decades ago.
In his introduction to the interview, Maron acknowledges that to many members of the comedy community, Mencia isn’t just a controversial and less-than-beloved figure; he is the anti-Christ. Yet Maron makes it clear that he’s not interested in prosecuting Mencia or exposing him as a joke thief and deplorable human being.
No, Maron is intent on giving Mencia the benefit of the doubt, on treating him like a contemporary with a unique point of view and fascinating perspective. He’s less interested in attacking Mencia than in giving him a safe space to reveal himself. Maron didn’t set out to establish Mencia as a thief, a hack and a racist, but he more or less ends up doing so anyway.
With the benefit of hindsight, it feels like Mencia was less interested in opening himself up to Maron on a profound, existential level, than in delivering a convincing performance as a comedian who is misunderstood and unfairly maligned but is ultimately innocent of the crimes of which he has been accused.
Maron doesn’t push Mencia on some of his more egregious and self-aggrandizing statements. He just gives Mencia a decent length of rope that Mencia immediately sets about hanging himself with. For example, when Maron asks him about his take on stereotypes, Mencia tells Maron that the only time he’d have a problem with stereotypes would be if the comedian employing stereotypes explicitly states that there are no exceptions to the stereotypical behavior they’re describing.
As a ridiculous illustration, Mencia imagines a man at one of his shows standing up and praising Mencia for using his art to convey that every hispanic, without fail, from the beginning of time, wears sombreros, drinks, and is an illegal immigrant. Mencia imagines himself telling off this phantom quasi-fan of his by angrily articulating that, no, not every hispanic behaves that way, and the fantasy Mencia fan is wrong for making such an extreme generalization.
On a similar note, when Maron asks Mencia how he’s received in the hispanic community, Mencia insists that he’s not just embraced by hispanics as a comedian, he’s embraced as a truth-teller who speaks for his community. In his most hubristic moment, Mencia tells Maron that if he wanted to, he could use his place of power, prominence and influence within the hispanic community to whip up anti-white fury among his fanbase, but that he purposefully chooses not to, because, like Spider-man, Mencia realizes that with great power comes great responsibility.
Mencia realizes that it would be irresponsible for him to use the enormous power he accrued telling racist jokes to agitate for a race war pitting hispanics against caucasians. Mencia depicts himself as a man who just wants to make people laugh, but has been pilloried by his peers partially because he does not drink or smoke or use drugs, and consequently doesn’t hang out after shows with his peers getting blotto and delivering elaborate post-game critiques of the night’s show.
In his bid to win over Maron, Mencia presents himself as someone whose life and career are defined on some level by fear, specifically the fear or failing and sucking. It’s clearly not enough for Mencia to not fail. No, his enormous ego demands that he not only succeed but to destroy, to kill, to obliterate audiences with non-stop belly laughs. And it’s clear that lowest-common-denominator racial humor is going to get him to that place of comic destruction faster than more sophisticated, nuanced fare.
Mencia defends himself from charges of joke thievery by arguing that the jokes he’s been accused of stealing are so hacky and broad that they’re essentially un-stealable. Mercia argues that he didn’t steal jokes so much as go after the laziest, most obvious joke about, say, additions to the Taco Bell menu or a proposed wall between the United States and Mexico (damn you, Donald Trump, for making Mencia’s hackwork timely again), only to discover that other, similarly desperate, hacky comedians made nearly identical jokes.
Mencia works overtime to create a sense of solidarity with Maron, to engender the sense that deep down they’re not too different, just two comic craftsman trying to make people laugh in a tough business. There are times throughout when it feels like they’re in danger of bonding and that this episode, like the Robin Williams episode, might end with the host (and by extension the audience) having a new fondness and appreciation for his guest.
If this episode had ended five minutes earlier, it’s easy to see how Mencia might listen to it and feel like he’d done an exceptional job, that he’d answered the serious charges against him with candor and honesty and, if he didn’t exactly win a fan of Maron in the process, then he’d at least illustrated that he was not the nefarious, shameless villain of the public imagination.
The episode ends on a fascinating cliffhanger, however. Maron can’t help but feel like something wasn’t right, and that Mencia had essentially pulled a con job on him. Maron clearly felt manipulated, like Mencia had exposed just enough of himself to give the illusion of honesty and candor without actually revealing anything important about himself or his comedy.
In the parlance of WTF, Maron ended the interview thinking that he and Mencia were “good,” only to take a step back and realize that they weren’t good at all. He was right, but his listeners, and by extension the comedy community, wouldn’t realize how decidedly non-good he and Mencia were until Maron poked around a bit in the hispanic standup community for a follow-up episode we will be covering in the next entry in this column.