Insane in the Brain
Carlos Mencia is the new Don Rickles. That may not be a good thing. Using race as the basis for insult comedy, he positions himself as a messenger for the new millennium. After years of struggling as a stand-up comedian, Mencia has finally made it. His basic cable comedy series, Mind of Mencia, grants him a weekly outlet for his candor and crudeness. Sometimes he succeeds, but most often, his formulas are repetitive and his denouncements unfunny.
The 12 episodes that make up Paramount’s Mind of Mencia: Uncensored Season 1 are one third stand-up, one third man-on-the-street interactions, and another third skit-based material (Mencia asks couples why they’re together (“The Newly Met Game”) and turns a certain L.A.-based TV phenomenon on its ear, in “Desperate Gardeners”). During the stand-up portions, he points out members of his audience and riffs on their racial profiles. While African Americans mostly take minor hits, whites, Asians, and Latinos get a regular reaming. Mencia is ruthless, mocking every stereotype from large Mexican families to Japanese geekiness.
Mencia also attacks Muslims mercilessly. While showing some sympathy for Hindus and others mistaken for Arabs, he essentially declares that anyone hailing from a Middle Eastern address deserves to be harassed. Yet, he denies any intolerance. “It’s only a joke,” he says, or on other occasions, “You know it’s all true.” Look at the profiles of the pilots who flew the planes into the Twin Towers, he says, and draw your own conclusions.
The performance of such jingoism can be amusing. Not terribly funny, but occasionally on target. Mencia suggests that we have become too comfortable in our differing skins, and need to be reminded that our cultures make us special, flaws and all. He repeatedly refers to his most frequent target, Mexican Americans, as “beaner,” occasionally deploying “wetback.”
To Mencia, these are just words, or rather, hurtful words that might be defanged with new contexts. His selections tend to be familiar: while he makes the familiar observation that Latinos fill the jobs that white America won’t touch, to highlight U.S. hypocrisy, the only Caucasians he chastises are those wandering around Rodeo Drive. Mencia drags out his older brother Joseph—broken Spanglish and all—to play “Jose Jimenez.” Suddenly, Mind of Mencia is The Ed Sullivan Show, with Bill Dana dragging out that sketchy stereotype.
This is the essence of Mencia’s humor. On the one hand, he can be very clever. Yet when he wants, he is completely callous about his racial profiling. For example, a meeting with the California DOT about a racist road sign (it depicts a family running across a highway) argues for his shrewdness at skewering social stigmas (he gets the official to agree about the image’s intent). But a piece about barrio-style fashions falls flat. Even guest star Cheech Marin gets only a minor laugh when he appears as the new Mexican Pope. The sad thing is, Mencia can be a real “man of the people” when he wants to be. When discussing the n-word with Method Man, Mencia illustrates that historical context, not cultural conceits like hip-hop, dictate who can and cannot use it.
Mencia is most effective when he focuses on marginal scenes. His trip into gay L.A. is excellent, illustrating that, as strange as the same-sex world seems to him, it too has ideals both laudatory (political activism) and lamentable (body image issues). Similarly, a visit to the local Renaissance fair produces the kind of lewd sexual content his show usually avoids. Thankfully, Mencia understands this, and his commentary as part of the “Behind the Scenes” DVD bonuses verifies this. He says he is finding his “TV voice,” and realizes that some of his stunts haven’t worked the way he planned. But he never apologizes for his prejudiced persona. Instead, he marvels at the fact that he has an outlet for his ideas.
While his fans consider him the Chicano Dave Chappelle, Mencia does not have Richard Pryor as his humor role model. Instead, he wants to insult and then embrace, playing all his race cards before bemoaning his own minority status. Thus the comparison to Rickles. There is more to the Mind of Mencia than a collection of ways to refer to Hispanics, even if he does occasionally lapse into seeming dee, dee, dee-rivative.