We Ask, They Answer: Q&A with comedian Carlos Mencia
The popular comedian dishes on everything from the Cubs to answering his critics
By Jennifer Billock
Comedian Carlos Mencia has kept a relatively low profile since the end of his show, Mind of Mencia. But with an upcoming performance at The Chicago Improv in Schaumburg (June 24-25), The Real Chicago took the opportunity to catch up with him and get the lowdown on what he’s been doing. Below, Mencia dishes about everything from the Cubs, Ozzie Guillen, his favorite Chicago restaurants and his complete shift in mindset after the plagiarism controversy a few years ago.
Q: What is going to make this show different from past shows?
A: It’s an entire attitude to be honest with you. When I stopped doing Mind of Mencia, I just kind of had a change in my person. I mean, like a real change. I think before that I was very ghetto. The attitude that it takes to survive is a very, very strong attitude. It’s a lion, dog-eat-dog kind of world, and that’s a very pervasive attitude. If you look at my comedy now, I think it’s more inviting, it’s funner, it’s happier. It’s less aggressive and defensive in nature. Even though the premises are the same, I think the way I go about it is much more inviting. I think it’s something that you’ve gotta see. It’s the best work that I’ve ever done, according to everybody around me.
Q: What do you think caused the change in mindset?
A: You know, when I grew up, everything was basically built on “I don’t wanna get shot, I don’t wanna go to jail, I don’t wanna wind up on drugs, I don’t wanna end up dead, I don’t wanna end up in the hood, I don’t wanna be a bad son, I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna.” So when I would go on stage, as an example, if you were to say to me “How do you know you’re not gonna bomb?” My answer would have been, “Because I know that I can bomb. And I’m going to do whatever it takes not to bomb.” And if you asked me today, I would say, “I don’t think about that.” I just know that when an audience comes to see me perform or when I go up on stage, I’m going to make sure that the audience has a great time because that’s my job. And I love making people laugh. So it’s a different complete approach.
Q: What’s your favorite venue in Chicago?
A: I think the favorite, favorite place to perform, one of the places I had the best time ever, was… I used to perform in Elgin back in the day, and it was such a communal thing, everybody from Elgin would come out. They were just so happy and good, I don’t know. Elgin was one of the funnest places to perform.
Q: What about your least favorite?
A: That I don’t have. I’m serious. It’s not that I don’t wanna talk smack. Chicago is my favorite city to perform. It’s a big city with a really special attitude. I believe that only in Chicago could the Cubs exist. Only in Chicago. Anywhere else they would have moved already, or people would have stopped going. You know, you guys are a big city that actually has weather. You have an up, you have a down, you have a good, you have a bad, you have hot, you have summer, you have winter, you have autumn, you have spring. And I think because of that, it just creates a really great environment for comedy. It really does. Just happy people, man. I mean, I remember I did a show in Vernon Hills, at Zanies, and it was a blizzard. Crazy snow. The shows were sold out. I thought, man, I wonder how many people are gonna show up. Not one person didn’t come. I was like, what? I’m from LA, where if it rains, it’s like, “Oh my God, I can’t go out of the house, it’s water!” Man, I love Chicago. I love, love, love Chicago.
Q: You mentioned the Cubs. Are you a Cubs fan?
A: Man, I’ve been to Wrigley Field. I am a huge fan of going to see games at Wrigley. That’s the one field where I actually feel like I have to lose weight because those seats are SO tiny. And every time I’m like, “Oh, I hope I don’t sit next to a fat person, because OH MY GOD, it’s going to be the worst ever.”
Q: Well, I do recommend the White Sox, but you know, the Cubs are okay.
A: Actually, Ozzie is a really good friend of mine. As a matter of fact, sometimes he gets me in trouble because he says things. I remember one time I saw a news blurb and I see Ozzie Guillen’s name next to mine, and I’m like, “What is this story about?” Somebody asked him a question and he answered, and he started to get in trouble for it, and he was like, “Oh really! When Carlos Mencia says stuff like this, it’s hysterical, but when I say it!” I called him up and I’m like, “Ozzie! Why are you getting me in trouble bro? I didn’t say this s***!” Yeah, so Ozzie is in town with at least some of his sons, and he will most likely come to the show. So like I said man, I’m a fan of Chicago. I really am. And I know a lot of people there, and they love me and I love them, and we just have a great relationship.
Q: When you’re in town, is there anywhere you absolutely need to go?
A: Portillos, man.
Q: Oh, Portillos is the best!
A: I know. And it’s best at the integrated one so you can get pasta, it has that other place.
Q: Barnelli’s, that’s in Vernon Hills.
A: Yeah. Oh, so good. SO GOOD.
Q: Is there anywhere you don’t want to go restaurant-wise?
A: Are you out of your mind? No, man! Come on, you guys have the best pizza. It’s awesome, what are you talking about? The best hot dogs. It’s amazing. I even enjoy going to that rock and roll, that’s what we call it, the Rock and Roll McDonalds. The one downtown. I had the best experience there. I remember one time I was going in there at 2:00 in the morning. It’s snowing. It’s kinda like sleet and snow mixed together. And on the way in, this guy goes, “Hey man, can I get a Big Mac?” And on the way out, I go, “Here’s your Big Mac.” And he goes, “What the f*** you talkin’ about? You know I meant give me money, b****, I don’t really want a Big Mac!” And I said, “Don’t ask for a Big Mac, b****, ask for money!” And I gave him the Big Mac. I just walked away. It was awesome.
Q: You’ve done a lot of stuff on TV. What would you say is different doing comedy on TV from doing comedy on stage?
A: Let me be honest with you, man, there is nothing, nothing, nothing in the world better than doing stand up on stage. Period, end of story. It is immediate, it is uncensored, it is unedited, it is raw. It is exactly what I wanted to be. I am the director, writer, producer, everything. That’s what it’s all about, man, I mean, for me. Doing movies, television, and shows when I do it sometimes, it does fill some kind of void. But, it only fills small parts of it, whereas doing stand up just fills my complete void. Nothing like it.
Q: Is the audience different between doing stand-up comedy and something like “Mind of Mencia?”
A: Oh yeah. Because there’s breaks, there’s lightness, there’s editing, there’s “You can’t say that, you can’t do that.” I don’t have any of that when I’m on stage. I say exactly what I want, whatever it is I want to say. And that is the true essence of me, whereas anything else is not completely the essence of me. There are pieces of me, there are parts of me. It’s a version of me. But when I’m on stage, you get 100 percent Carlos Mencia, exactly the way I want it. For me, there’s nothing like stand up. Nothing like it.
Q: Do you get hecklers at all when you’re performing?
A: I do sometimes. I mean, it used to be different before. I think now I really don’t get hecklers as much as I get people that are like, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!” More positive. But they get boisterous of course.
Q: What do you do in that situation?
A: I don’t know. I mean, I’ll say something funny of course. It’s one of those changes. I think that before, I would have obliterated someone like that two years ago. Now, I find a way to be funny but also not make that person feel bad. Now I understand that the majority of the time I get hecklers, it’s because I’m doing my job so well that I actually create the environment where people feel like we’re just having a conversation. And I shouldn’t blame them for that. Like I said, there’s a change. So before, I would have just obliterated somebody. Now, I’m good.
Q: I know there was a lot of controversy in the past about some of your material. What would you say to those people who are still on an anti-Carlos Mencia bandwagon that would open them up to being a fan again?
A: Don’t believe what comes from other peoples’ mouths, so to speak. Come and see me perform. Come and see what it is that I do, come and see what it is that I say on stage, and then you can make up for yourself. As far as me, I don’t think about that stuff. I’ve been doing comedy for years now, I have at least 20 hours of material that I’ve done that’s out there in the ethos. I can’t think about any of that stuff. I can only think about one thing. There are a lot of people who think about haters and negativity. I don’t. I wake up every day thinking about one thing: What can I do to make my fans happy? How much can I create to make the people that like what I do, the people that are entertained by what I do, how can I make them happy? How can I make it better? How can I make them laugh? The rest is up to them. The minute you start sliding to make haters happy or to make people that don’t like you happy, it’s at that very moment that you become a slave to them. Because you’re never gonna get everybody to like you. And so what am I gonna do? Well, I can’t do that because this guy says he doesn’t like that. And I can’t do these jokes because, and I can’t do that, and all of a sudden I’m gonna go up and stage and I’m going to have nothing to talk about. I can’t do it. I’m a positive man.
Q: Do you think that’s a mistake that a lot of comics starting out make, that they change the material based on who likes it?
A: Of course. In the end, the truth is that you and I live in the same world. Comedy is an affirmation, so to speak. If you laugh at something that I say, it’s because you understood it. So if I do a joke about a brown Corolla and a Mexican guy driving it, and he puts spinners in his wheels and he spells his last name, Hernandez, in Old English letters in the back, and you laugh, well that’s an affirmation that you know what I’m talking about. You would be like, “Oh my God, I’ve seen that!” That’s who we are. We all live in this world, so we all talk about relationships. The difference is, what’s your bit? Robin Williams does an amazing bit on golf. Either way, so did George Carlin. They just have their perspectives on what that is. That doesn’t mean that if you’re a young comedian and you go golfing, you can’t do your golf bit. You CAN do your golf bit. Just as long as it’s personal to you, and it’s your thing, and it’s your experience. That’s what I tell young comics. Ignore all that other stuff. That’s what we have to do to be creative. Carlos Santana said to me, “Painters don’t own colors, you don’t own words. Don’t worry about it. Just create your art. That’s what you have to do.” And ever since then, that’s all I do. Create my art.
Q: Those sound like great words to live by. So what would you say is the best experience you’ve ever had in your career?
A: The best experience I’ve ever had in my career ever is, I was performing in a comedy club in San Antonio, and this guy came up to me and said, “Hey man, you woke my brother up from a coma, and I just want to thank you for that.” And I kinda chuckled and went, “Cool, cool, whatever.” Well, right after that, his brother comes up to me. And his brother tells me this story that basically his family used to go see him all the time. They used to go hang with him, they used to go sit with him, they used to go talk with him, you know, do all kinds of things with him. And then his brother came to see me perform. And he bought a CD of mine, took it to the hospital, and played it for his brother. A week after or so, his brother woke up. When he woke up, his family happened to be there, and they said. “Hey, do you remember me being here, do you remember me coming here, do you remember me talking, do you remember any of that?” And he said, “No, I don’t.” They said, well how did you wake up? He’s like, “What I do remember is there was this comedian, and he was so funny and I couldn’t stop laughing. At one point in the middle of that laugh, I had to catch my breath and I woke up.” He’s like, “And that (comedian) was you.” For me, those are the moments that drive me. It’s not about anything else except for being funny to the point where I affected a human being in that way. And I don’t look at it like, I AM A GOD! It’s nothing like that, but wow. You know what I mean? That was me, and that did happen. And that’s an amazing gift that God gave both of us. Him to wake up and me to be the one to deliver that happy message of life. The more I tell it, the more fake it seems, but it really did happen.
Mencia will be performing four shows on June 24-25 at The Improv in suburban Schaumburg. Tickets are $35. Call (847) 240-2001 for more information.