Carlos Mencia Is Back. Has He Stopped Stealing Jokes?

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 30 2011 1:00 PM

The Troubling Return of Carlos Mencia

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Carlos Mencia performs at a benefit hosted by the International Myeloma Foundation last year.

Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images for IMF

This Sunday, Comedy Central will broadcast Carlos Mencia: New Territory, a new one-hour special by one of America’s most hated stand-ups. Why do people despise Carlos Mencia, who for four seasons had his own show, The Mind of Mencia (also on Comedy Central)? As you may have heard, Mencia stole a lot of jokes.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Now, joke theft can be a murky and complicated matter. Many comedians draw from the same wells: ethnic stereotypes, what’s in the news, common complaints about family life. It is obviously possible for two comics to come up with the same basic joke. If a stand-up takes a topical subject—say, the wall between the U.S. and Mexico that anti-immigration activists have called for—and makes a joke drawing on an ethnic stereotype (“Who’s going to build it?”), well, surely more than one person might have thought of that. So did Mencia steal that bit from Ari Shaffir? Watch their routines and decide for yourself.

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But know that Mencia frequently repeated jokes that other comics had told—sometimes mimicking not just a premise but the joke’s delivery, as in the famous riff he took from Bill Cosby, with its frantic crescendo leading up to a deflating punchline. In an interview for the documentary I Am ComicMencia even acknowledged stealing jokes, comparing the practice to sampling in hip hop—an entirely specious analogy: Samples are recognizably other people’s music, and recording artists are legally obligated to seek permission for their use.

Which is why it’s odd that New York Times profile of Mencia earlier this week referred again and again to “accusations” of joke theft, without ever simply pointing out that Mencia did, in fact, steal jokes. The profile does not shy away from the controversy—it couldn’t, given that for several years now it has defined Mencia’s career—but it does give the mistaken impression that there is some ambiguity concerning the basic fact of the theft.

Consider the profile’s discussion of Mencia’s infamous set of interviews with Marc Maron on Maron’s WTF podcast. The piece describes them as “a still-controversial series of interviews that burnished Mr. Maron’s reputation but cast a harsh light on Mr. Mencia,” as though there’s some debate about whether Maron used Mencia or depicted him unfairly. So far as I can gather, there isn’t (nor, in my opinion, should there be).

In reference to the podcast, the profile also provides a rather troubling quote from Mencia himself. If it aired years before, Mencia says, “I would have told truths about Steve [Trevino] and Willie [Barcena; two comics whom Maron interviewed on the podcast, who said a number of damaging things about Mencia] that they never ever would want anybody to know. I’d be ruthless and very cruel and hurtful.” The profile calls this Mencia’s “version of the high road,” but really it’s anything but: It allows Mencia to insinuate that he knows horrible things about those two men without having to provide any evidence that he actually does.

It’s a rhetorical strategy not entirely unlike one he deployed on the WTF podcast, in fact, when he said that he had friends who wanted to physically hurt his enemies—friends, he implied, who were very capable of such things—but that he stopped them from doing so. Again, Mencia presents himself as the good guy, while at the same time making a not terribly veiled threat.

And though he has acknowledged stealing jokes before, he never owns up to it in the Times profile. At one point, talking about his old material, he says, “I didn’t get that people needed to understand where my comedy came from.” But he’s referring to his biographical perspective, his personal background—not to other comics’ routines.

All of which makes it difficult to feel sympathy for Mencia. And he’s not entirely undeserving of it: Other comics, including Dane Cook and Robin Williams, have been accused of joke theft multiple times without suffering severe professional consequences the way Mencia has. And the fellow comic who took it on himself to make the accusations public, Joe Rogan (most famous for hosting Fear Factor), seems, frankly, like a bully and a jerk, one who handled the matter in pretty much the most obnoxious and self-aggrandizing manner possible.

So I tried to watch Mencia’s new special with what I hoped was an open mind. Mencia did, I concede, lose me a bit right at the opening when he said, to riotous applause, that “the United States of America, on our worst day, is better than any other country on their best day. Period. End of story.” And soon I found myself trying to fact-check some of Mencia’s bits. What did he mean when he said the president of Honduras “just disappeared” last year? Was he referring to Manuel Zelaya? And is Mencia really involved in a “legal dispute” with CNN? He says he appeared on the network opposite someone from Alabama. Did he mean Arizona?

Admittedly, this is not the best mindset to have when watching stand-up. But I guess I’m not ready to have another when watching Carlos Mencia.

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