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He's on PC patrol

Comedy Central's Carlos Mencia believes `political correctness is a form of racism.'

July 12, 2006|Jay Fernandez | Special to The Times

"HOW come you don't make fun of Albanians?"

That's the kind of complaint that typically turns up in comedian Carlos Mencia's e-mail, a peculiar but somehow satisfying echo of the aggressive, everybody's-fair-game, cut-through-the-bull comedic commentary that he's been spouting in his stand-up shows and TV appearances for almost 20 years, most recently on his popular half-hour Comedy Central showcase, "Mind of Mencia."

The more ethnic stereotypes and hypocritical behavior that he drags out into the spotlight and mercilessly mocks in his brazen bits, the more groups of people want to be included in the beating.

"I just like obliterating what people think is right and wrong," the 38-year-old comic said recently as he sat in a booth at Johnny Rockets in Encino sipping an iced tea on a stifling Valley-hot morning. "Because of how I manifest my thoughts on stage, people feel singled out when I don't talk about them."

"Mind of Mencia," now midway through its second season (new episodes returned Sunday), is Mencia's highest-profile forum yet for stomping through the delicate garden of political correctness. An amalgam of stand-up, audience interaction, sketches, parodies and man-on-the-street interviews, the show allows him to both impersonate and lampoon the cultural tics of Anglos, blacks, Latinos, Middle Easterners, Indians, gays, women, sheiks, rappers, dictators and pimps.

"Mind of Mencia" has taken over from the similarly structured "Chappelle's Show" (which it was originally intended to follow, before Chappelle's bail-out last year) as the second-highest rated program on Comedy Central next to "South Park." The show's audience has grown from an average of 1.4 million in its first season to 2.1 million this year. Mencia has begun fielding movie proposals, and in the fall he will launch a Comedy Central-sponsored 50-city stand-up tour, playing 5,000-seat venues. And the cable channel has just signed him for a third season of "Mind of Mencia," to begin shooting early next year.

"There was certainly a sigh of relief when the show did well, but we had high expectations for it in the beginning," said Lauren Corrao, Comedy Central's executive vice president of original programming and development. "If we hadn't, we would never have planned to schedule it behind 'Chappelle's Show' to begin with. Carlos is a star on the rise."

Mencia's material may be audacious and profanity laden (bleeped out, of course -- this is still basic cable), but often his sketches cleverly puncture stereotypes -- like the bit about picking up a few Latino day laborers at Home Depot to do some repair tiling work on the space shuttle. To Mencia, the show's appeal is simple: "As long as there's some truth to it, my audience goes with it."

While working over topics like the Iraq war, race relations, politics, celebrity culture and immigration, Mencia vocalizes the muzzled indignation of that portion of American society fed up with what it sees as political correctness run amok. (A typical observation has him proclaiming that what has most fed illegal Mexican immigration is the fact that "black people quit.") Both his touring and studio audiences, which cut across most ethnic groups, skew heavily toward the kind of young male eager for that brashness and willingness to provoke.

"I cannot ask people, 'Do you think this is funny?' " said Mencia. "I have to tell people this is funny. Emphatically. 'No, this is funny. And don't pretend that in the back of your mind this thought has never crossed your brain.' Once I make that connection with people's humanity, it's over. Because then you see reflections of you in what I say. I become the megaphone for people."

A few live recordings and small film and TV appearances on shows like "The Shield" and "The Bernie Mac Show" eventually led to the Comedy Central gig. The inflammatory issues that everyone tiptoes around became the crux and wide-ranging appeal of Mencia's material. Early in his stand-up career, Mencia had a revelatory encounter when he confronted a white man offended by a black joke while the blacks in the audience were laughing. He had the realization then that "political correctness is a form of racism."

"It's not overt, it's not mean, it's not ill-intended, but the negative impact of it is you think you're superior to these people, so you're going to shelter them because you don't think they can handle it," he declared. "That's what we do with minorities and political correctness, and that was a big turn for me in my comedy career."

An accidental comic

Mencia (whose given name, incongruously, is Ned), was born in Honduras the 17th of 18 kids and grew up in both the East L.A. projects and Honduras. At 19, while working for Farmers Insurance and studying electrical engineering at Cal State Los Angeles with the dream of becoming a pilot, Mencia had an epiphany.

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