Writing a joke is a tricky thing. Sometimes a joke comes to you fully formed, perfect, and complete. Most times it comes in the form of a garbled premise; you know there is something there and after weeks or in some cases years of bending, shaping, and wrestling with the idea, the jokes is pulled into shape. It is an experience that is as frustrating as it is rewarding once you have the finished product.
Beyond artistic achievement and the satisfaction that comes with crafting a new joke, there is also a pragmatic and financial benefit. New jokes mean that when you revisit a town you were in 6 months ago, the small following you may have cultivated will not be disappointed in seeing the same act all over again. Jokes are important to a comedian because they feed, clothe and put a roof over the comedian’s head. That is why the one unpardonable sin in comedy is joke theft.
Which brings us to Carlos Mencia. When I started this series I knew that sooner or later I would get to Mencia. In fact, there was many a time that his named popped into my head when contemplating the next comic to write about for this series. However, I resisted writing about Mencia for one reason: I am incredibly lazy.
While I have written about the likes of Carrot Top, Larry the Cable Guy, and even Jeff Dunham, I have found something in their acts that is redeeming: Carrot Top’s self effacing silliness, Jeff Dunham’s virtuoso ventriloquism, and Larry the Cable Guy’s commitment to character. However, Mencia is more difficult to defend because, while the other comic’s jokes are not exactly original, they are not stolen. And even if Mencia’s act is only 8 percent stolen, that is a number that ultimately corrodes everything else he has worked on. So, what is there about Carlos Mencia that we should give begrudging respect to?
Carlos Mencia opens up his newest special talking about how America is the greatest country in the world. Not the bravest stance for a comedian to take, to be sure, but as someone who grew up here as an immigrant, perhaps he actually believes it. In many ways, Mencia is the archetype of the American Dream come true; a young immigrant who has worked his way up from nothing to become incredibly successful in his chosen field. With no other knowledge of how Mencia became a household name comedian, this story easily fits the story American children are told from the day that they are born; in America, anything is possible if you are not afraid to work hard.
However, reality is much more complicated than that. There are plenty of people out there who are working hard to make their American dream come true who are barely living above the poverty line. What is the differentiating factor between them and a Carlos Mencia? Perhaps it’s the lengths that Mencia is willing to go to make his dream come true.
In 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson made a film showing the less presentable side of the American dream in There Will Be Blood. Oil tycoon Daniel Plainview is ruthless in his acquisition of power, ultimately destroying everyone who gets in his path including his adopted son and a holier than thou preacher. Plainview’s philosophy is presented with a lethal dose of black humor in one of the most quotable film lines of the past decade:
The movie, based on upon Upton Sinclair’s Oil is a chilling representation of the kind of cold-hearted capitalism that ultimately turned the United States of America into a world super power. It is a sobering reminder of what it takes to achieve wealth and power in the world. This kind of cunning calculation is heralded on Wall Street and in big business, but is Plainview’s threat to “drink your milkshake” any different than Mencia’s threat of stealing jokes in the 2010 documentary I Am Comic?
Granted, Mencia makes this admission with a twinkle in his eye and a heavy dose of sarcasm, but anyone who has heard his now legendary interview with Marc Maron on WTF knows that there is more than a little truth in this.
However, joke theft has been around as long as standup comedy. In Groucho Marx’s autobiography, Groucho and Me, Marx says that when his and brothers and he started out on the vaudeville circuit, they would pilfer jokes from other acts all the time. Milton Berle was accused of joke theft so often, he ultimately incorporated this into his comedic persona. Robin Williams was a notorious joke thief and is rumored to have paid comics who have confronted him about it on the spot. And there is still debate among certain comics as to whether Dennis Leary stole his entire act wholesale from Bill Hicks.
While this type of behavior is absolutely egregious to those within the stand-up community, there is a surprisingly high tolerance for it from the public at large. Looking at the comments on Carlos Mencia’s YouTube videos, there are just as many people defending him, as there are those that denounce him. For those that defend Carlos Mencia, the general sentiment is that they don’t care who came up with the jokes; it’s all in the delivery.
And while I am loath to admit it, the man can sell a joke.
While I personally am not a fan of the “beat yo’ kids” jokes (which relies on the rather shaky premise that the reason there is so much crime these days is because kids don’t get viciously beaten enough by their parents, as if the prisons are filled with people who just had it too good as children), it is hard to deny that Mencia is doing everything he can do to sell it with one hundred percent conviction. This type of joke is done ad nauseam in comedy clubs throughout the country, and it’s a guaranteed applause break. People are just wild about jokes about child abuse! However, I’ve rarely seen the bit performed with this kind of unrestrained enthusiasm and physicality.
Carlos Mencia storms around the stage like a whirling dervish and it’s in his performance that we see the act of being up there and telling jokes is something he is passionate about. In the first of Mencia’s appearances on WTF, he and Maron talk about the pain he feels about never earning the respect of the comedy community, despite the huge success he had achieved as well as his passion for doing stand-up comedy.
It would be cynical to assume that everything he says is all part of an act. Why else would someone choose this career that, no matter how physical and charming the performer or easy the jokes, you’re guaranteed to have absolutely horrific nights on stage? However, it takes a certain fortitude and integrity to do standup comedy right. Those are the values that appeal to many of the people who choose standup comedy as a career.
Carlos Mencia stands as both the dark side of the American dream as well as the gaudy fulfillment of it, we should ask ourselves what success ultimately means to us. Standup comedy to many means the same thing as the American dream: there is a promise of freedom and abundance of riches that await those who have the talent and drive to succeed.
Carlos Mencia looked deep in the maw of failure and decided to do whatever is necessary to succeed. The history of America is built on the shoulders of great men, to be sure, but it also built on the shoulders of a lot of scoundrels and rogues as well. The same is most definitely true of standup comedy, and it’s one of the reasons we find ourselves attracted to this most singular of lifestyles. In pursuing this career, your character will be tested time and again. We have seen the path Carlos Mencia has taken and we see that achieving the American dream can lead to fame or infamy. Mencia, a bright and gifted standup, achieved quite a bit in his career, but did so unscrupulously. He is both a warning sign and the culmination of professional success. He forces us to ask the question, “How bad do you want it?”, and he forces us to conclude that no matter how you answer, there is a price to be paid.