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On his first visit to the Cat Ranch to be interviewed for WTF, comedy Anti-Christ Carlos Mencia did a halfway convincing impersonation of a non-deplorable human being. The controversial Mind of Mencia star put on a major charm offensive in an effort to convince Marc Maron that he was not the monster history had made him out to be, but rather a misunderstood and unfairly maligned comedian whose unusual personal habits (he doesn’t drink, smoke, or use drugs) and incredible success made him an irresistible target for criticism from comedians who envied him.
Maron proved an accommodating host and the conversation the two men shared was amiable and full of both mild laughter and moments where Mencia seemed to drop his well-honed public persona and reveal himself as a pathologically ambitious, insecure man driven by fear who was in the process of trying to better understand himself, his place in the world and the enormous tidal wave of resentment he has somehow engendered by telling jokes, in part by going into therapy as a forty-something.
Something clearly didn’t sit right with Maron about their first conversation, however, so he decided that a follow-up was in order where Maron would talk to comedians within the hispanic community who had personally experienced Mencia’s penchant for purloining the material of his professional colleagues.
For these working comedians, Mencia’s professional and personal shortcomings are no mere matter of conjecture or gossip. No, they are concrete facts they’ve been dealing with for years. The first comedian Maron talks to about Mencia and his sociopathic tendencies is Willie Barcena.
A social worker before making the big leap to full-time standup, Barcena defines himself in part as a guy who, in order to be able to sleep at night and live with himself, purposefully eschews the kind of lazy racial humor that is at the core of Mencia’s personal aesthetic. Barcena wants to make people laugh, but he aspires to do more than that. That is where he is different from Mencia, who comes off as a man whose only desire in life is to make the largest possible audience laugh as intensely as possible.
Normally that would be a winning, even essential quality in a standup comedian. But with Mencia it quickly becomes obvious that for him, making audiences laugh is an addiction that blinds him to everything else. It blinds him to the racist nature of his comedy and to his inveterate hackiness. But more than anything, that pathological need to destroy comedically blinds him to the emotions of the comedians he’s coming up with, and whose material he has a record of borrowing without accreditation.
The next comedian Maron speaks to, Steve Trevino, is even more damning. Trevino, who opened for Mencia for years, and wrote for Mind Of Mencia for a season (something that Mencia took as permission for him to use his material, since on a very real level, Trevino did work for Mencia), depicts Mencia with no small measure of empathy as someone with a massive hole where his conscience should be that can only be filled by laughter, power, and fame.
Trevino sees Mencia as a man who almost can’t help himself, who is driven to repeatedly transgress the iron-clad rules of comedy (the first of which is “no stealing”) in his mad lust for power, success, and, more than anything, the big, aching, heaving laughter that he needs to function. In Trevino’s telling, Mencia is both a genius with a photographic memory (which comes in handy when stealing jokes) and mentally ill.
In his most damning accusation, Trevino talks about how Mencia stealing the material of a more respected comedian named Freddy Soto might have played a role in Soto’s premature death. Trevino tells Maron that Mencia is so shameless that while Soto’s dead body was essentially still warm Mencia was back on stage telling Soto’s jokes, again without credit.
Then it is time for Mencia to return and defend himself against these new/old accusations. From the very start, the tone of Mencia and Maron’s conversation is different. The “We’re just two old pros talking shop” vibe of the first conversation has been replaced by something tenser and more confrontational.
Maron brings up that Mencia once bumped him at a show, performing for so long that Maron finally just gave up and went home. Maron asks Mencia if he habitually bumps people as a power trip and Mencia, to both his credit and discredit, concedes that, yeah, a lot of times when he bumps someone it’s a sign of dominance, a giant “fuck you” to the considerable segment of the standup community that thinks he’s a hack and a joke thief.
Throughout both interviews, Mencia comes off as a fascinating combination of cool calculation and bizarre unselfconsciousness. He owns up to bumping Maron partially as a “fuck you” to the notion that Maron occupies a higher comic plane than he does, just because, you know, Maron clearly occupies a higher comic plane than Mencia.
“You think you’re better than me? Then look at how much harder your audience laughs at me than it does you!” seems to be the underlying aggression behind many, if not most of Mencia’s drop-ins. Mencia tells Maron that the only way for him to work through his intense feelings of frustration and sadness and hurt surrounding the widespread hatred of him is by attacking comedians critical of him by doing drop-ins at their shows and bumping them.
Mencia doesn’t seem to realize the ridiculousness of trying to counter-act the widespread perception of him as a bully and thief by behaving like an even bigger bully towards the people making the accusations. Mencia at times tries to win Maron back on his side by talking about his insecurities and internal struggle, and the psychological price he has paid being one of the most vilified and reviled comedians in the history of the medium.
But Maron isn’t having any of it. He’s far more critical of Mencia this time around and Mencia comes off much worse than he did during the first episode. WTF is not a courtroom and Maron is not a prosecutor but his closing monologue has the vaguely legalistic feel of an attorney’s closing argument. It’s not a trial, but if it was, motherfucker would clearly be found guilty on multiple counts.
Is Mencia a sociopath, Maron wonders aloud? He doesn’t come down one way or another on the issue but if the question has to be raised, the answer is probably “yes.” Maron is more convinced that the allegations of joke thievery are rooted in truth, even though that theft might have taken the form of unconscious borrowing and shared premises rather than pre-meditated stealing.
This two-part episode offers a fascinatingly deep look into the interlinked subjects of sociopathy and grasping professional ambition. It is the best possible look into the warped, twisted mind of Mencia (although in this case it’s not Mencia’s comedy that’s twisted so much as his sense of personal ethics and accountability), even if the actual television program named Mind Of Mencia comes up only infrequently.
Incidentally, about a year after this podcast was recorded, I had the surreal “honor” of watching Mencia perform repeatedly as the ship comedian on the Kid Rock Chillin’ the Most cruise, an experience I wrote about for the extended version of my book about musical fandom, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
It was, as you might imagine, absolutely terrible. Mencia lived down to his reputation but what fascinating me was that at the end of his first show, Mencia invited the audience to come back to his concluding show, as he was throwing out all his material and was going to improvise that next set. We were assured that we’d see an entirely different show the second time around.
For no other reason than to call Mencia out on his shit, and also because options are somewhat limited onboard the Kid Rock Chillin’ the Most cruise, my wife and I called his bluff and went to that second show and, which was more or less the exact same show as the first, beat for beat, joke for joke. So like Trevino and Barcena, and Maron, for that example, I have my own personal experience with Mencia being a man of low moral character and flagrant dishonesty, but we are hardly unique in that respect, which might help explain why you don’t hear too much about Mencia these days, positive or negative.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.