Carlos Mencia: Completely Juicing That Orange
When interviewing Carlos Mencia, the elephant in the room can be heard breathing heavy in the corner. You know it’s there, he knows it’s there. But, fuck that elephant. Let’s ride that elephant, let’s see what fucking tricks that elephant knows. At a certain point, a man, a comedian has to be seen beyond his accusers and given a chance for redemption.
I would much rather hang out with Carlos Mencia than anyone I’ve met that has harsh words for the guy, because I love comedy. Look at just this one blurb from his lengthy bio:
“Mind of Mencia” debuted on Comedy Central in early 2005. It became one of the strongest shows in the network’s history, averaging about 1.5 million total viewers. “Mind of Mencia” was executive produced by Carlos Mencia and Robert Morton (“Late Night with David Letterman”).
1.5 Million Viewers!!!! I want to hear all the stories and Mencia has seen it all and through it, his soul has been tempered, his resolve has become focused and steely-eyed. His career is a trial by fire, and Carlos Mencia has survived and he’s ready to thrive. You can see Carlos Mencia at The San Jose Improv on April 28th–May 1st, tickets here: http://sanjose.improv.com/event.cfm?id=438885
SUSC: Good morning man. I thought we could talk about the early years and skip ahead to what you are doing right now.
Carlos: Not a problem.
I was wondering back in the late 80s, how hands on was Mitzi Shore (the owner of The Comedy Store in LA), did she give advice to everybody? Did she help you with your career, what was her role?
She was very hands on with people that she cared about. She took a real interest in me. She was the one who told me I shouldn’t continue my career with the name Ned. She said it should be more melodious and that it should reflect what you do. A name should reflect what you want to say. I told her that I had an uncle names Carlos and because of that she became elemental in shaping the kind of comedy I did. She was always watching me and telling me what was good and what wasn’t good. She literally was there to help me become the best I could be. I was a hard worker, so it wasn’t like, “Do this, or don’t do this,” but she would steer me on the right track. She always told me to maintain on stage and ignore your surroundings. I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t do any of that stuff. She would always tell me to keep my head where it was at and ignore everything else.
This was like 88, 89? You were like a kid?
I was 20, bro when I first met her.
Would you go to the main room, watch other comedians and just wait your turn?
I worked at The Comedy Store. I was the runner during the day, so 9-5, I ran around and did whatever needed to be done. I picked stuff up, dropped stuff off, took guys to the airport, that kind of crap.
Right. But crap, like all work is crap, but you had your foot in the comedy world even during the daytime.
Right. At night I was a non-paid regular. So on Mondays, which were the days everybody tried to get spots, I got a spot all the time. During the week if anybody didn’t show up on time, or fell out, I got that spot. So, I got to be onstage more than many of the people around that time. I would do the Belly Room, come downstairs, open up the OR and then go to the Main Room. On nights I wasn’t working I would go do the Laugh Factory and The Improv, so I was always going onstage. Constant.
When you were 20, who were the features or headliners that you were inspired by?
I can’t tell you if they were features or headliners, I would watch them do 15 or 20 and it didn’t matter if it was Richard Pryor or Fred Greenlee, who you have no idea who he is. I wasn’t a comedy guy, I didn’t know anything about stand-up when I started doing stand-up. I never wanted to be Richard Pryor, I was learning to do stand-up as I was beginning to watch the comics, so I learned from all of those guys. Every one of them from Charles Cozart to Fred Greenlee to Sam Kinison to John Caponera, they all gave me encouragement in some shape or form. Some gave me personal advice about what I should and shouldn’t do, others I learned from by just watching them. Like, if you commit to a joke, even if it’s not written funny, it can be emotionally funny by the level of commitment to the art of what you are doing. I was really lucky to be mentored by all these guys.
The late 80s was the end of the comedy boom, so you had to grind twice as hard just to make a career. Was there anyone in the beginning that took you on the road?
Nobody brought me on the road because I was a comedy store guy and didn’t do the road. By the time I got my first HBO special, my first half hour, I was already a headliner. I never opened for anybody or featured for anybody, I just kept working at The Comedy Store. In some ways that was awesome and in other ways it wasn’t. It was a little too familio, in the sense that everybody saw me go from a kid who was working the door to a guy who has a special. They saw me working at it, but for a lot of people it seemed overnight. To some of the comics it didn’t seem like I paid my dues. I heard, “Dude, you never did the road, you never stayed at shitty condos, you don’t know what its like.” That kind of stuff. And, I was a favorite of Mitzi’s. So I caught shit for being liked. So in that way it wasn’t great. And later on in my career, when I could have used some friends, in this business, I really didn’t have that many. It was good at first, but became hurtful later on in my career. But you take the good with the bad, my friend.
I heard they are making a feature movie about the early days of The Comedy Store, have you heard anything about that?
I have heard rumblings about that for a long time, so I’m curious. I was there when they did The Comedy Store reunion and they had Pryor and Louis Anderson and Paul Rodriguez and all those people who were killers at the time. I was there when all those guys worked the stage and it was an incredible time. It was cool and I have a lot of stories.
You can go to an open mic these days and there are 40-50 comedians, was it like that back in the late 80s also?
It’s always been the same. The difference is that now you have guys who dabbled in stand-up, but got heat with a YouTube video and now has a following but don’t have the stand-up chops to back it up. Those guys are in a completely different world and environment then us and what we have. We’ve all grinded for stage time with nobody in the audience, or 3 people in the audience and it was easier to bomb. If I went up on stage in the beginning of my career and got 10 laughs in a three minute set and that’s the most laughs that I’ve ever gotten, I was excited. I walked offstage like I killed. And to me, I did kill. Because that’s the best I’ve ever done. I wasn’t measuring myself by others. For these guys its different, they can fill up 300-400 seat room, but they don’t have an act. For the rest of us, we experimented like a motherfucker. I would go onstage in shorts, the next day in a suit, the next day in a tux and the next day in jeans just to feel it out. We were allowed to truly find our way in every sense of the word. Mitzi said, not to me, “You should wear a yellow suit and call yourself Jackie Banana.” It was a really awesome time, but it was also a time when every Tom, Dick and Harry thought they understood what comedy was. And today every person with internet access thinks they know how to write a joke and deliver a joke and critique a joke—they don’t know shit. Unless you’ve done it, you have no clue.
Do you think 24 hour access to comedy has made audiences better, hipper?
Nope. They still don’t understand live stand-up. The comedy they mostly get is a cat doing flips or a dude getting slapped by a girl. Even though stand-up dominates Netflix, the truth is most people still don’t watch stand-up. They don’t want to commit to an hour of stand-up comedy and it’s everywhere, and its cheap to make. A network used to have to buy 10 to 13 episodes of a show at a million dollars a series, and now they spend a fraction of that on a comedian who makes a funny thing. Let’s be honest, a lot of people are getting specials before they are ready, before they are polished, before they are great. When you watched HBO specials in the 80s by the time they got it, they fucking earned it. And they were good. It might not have been the type of comedy that you like, but it was fucking amazing. By the time you saw Emo Phillips he had his character down. Bobcat Goldthwait had his character down. All those people had worked so hard to build their set. A lot of kids today, their third special is where they found themselves. The first two weren’t shit and they knew it. The jokes weren’t completely thought out. The orange wasn’t completely juiced.
What do you mean by that?
When I see an amateur comic, or a young comic, the tell-tale sign of being green is they do premises that only have one punch line. Then they move on to the next premise and the better they get the longer that premise becomes. A real comic, like Richard Jeni, was perfect. He milked the shit out of that premise. If the premise was, “Hey, I watching an infomercial about fishing,” that bit was so good and long and every nuance was milked out of it. And when he was done, there was nothing else you could say about that premise. And most people doing specials today do not have that. So, access doesn’t make audiences better. Because they are not seeing the crème-de-la-crème, the best of the best and at the end of the day there are only going to be a few comics that even get to that level. And maintain that level. A lot of comics get one hit, one wave, one “Woooo”, but what’s going to happen after?
You have been on the road for three decades, you grind harder than 99% of the comedians out there, you entertain the troops, actor, writer. . . what is your passion today, what are you working on?
I stayed away from Hollywood for a little bit. The in-fighting and negativity wasn’t my thing, so I grinded it out on the road. I’ve been training for the next phase. I have a couple of projects for a couple of networks and a show that I think got picked up by the Travel Channel. So the next phase of me doing TV and movies is coming, I just wanted to be ready from a stand-up perspective. Whenever you have a TV show come out, the heat starts again, it’s another cycle, another wave. I’ve been told, the great ones have many, many comebacks. People forget about you and then all of a sudden, boom, they come back in a movie role and everybody goes, “Oh shit, I forgot how much I loved him.” The point is to be ready, to always be ready. Comedy-wise, always be ready. When you go from clubs to small theatres to huge theatres or arenas, your act better be fucking ready. Or you’re going to miss the opportunity. For me, hitting the road is like working out, I’m preparing my mind, body and soul for what’s ahead. I’m ready, again. I had to get used to the evolution of me, and I’m in a place where I’m comfortable 100% in my own skin and who I am and I’m ready to present myself to the world.