Much has changed about standup comic and part-time lightning rod Carlos Mencia since his Comedy Central series "Mind of Mencia" ended after four seasons in 2008 and he was branded a "joke thief" by his peers and comedy fans for allegedly stealing material from Bill Cosby, George Lopez and other lesser-known comics.
For starters, he shed more than 70 pounds, a physical transformation Mencia attributes to being called portly by a diabetic friend who was being wheeled into an operating room to have his toe amputated.
"He just looked at me and said, 'What are you going to do, man? ... You're fat, too,'" Mencia said. "And then they just wheeled him away. How messed up is that? I was just like, 'Wait, that's it?' That really freaked me out."
The 45-year-old Mencia also sought therapy to help him cope with the fallout from the plagiarism claims that nearly ruined his career, accusations first leveled by fellow comic Joe Rogan during a well-publicized, on-stage spat with Mencia at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Soon, more accusations emerged, and he was even lampooned on "South Park."
In an interview for the 2010 documentary, "I Am Comic," Mencia brazenly proclaimed that he stole jokes but was less forthcoming in subsequent interviews.
Nevertheless, the damage was done, and the once popular comedian was left to repair his tarnished image, having become radioactive to a large number of fellow comics and fans.
"I guess, if I learned nothing else, it's that you can't take it personally," said Mencia, who will perform April 19 at The Music Farm in Charleston. "And getting to that point was hard for me, and I realize now that it takes maturity and understanding that there are going to be bumps in the road. It's so easy to become angry and to become bitter, but you have to grow and change and evolve and become better."
While the weight is gone and his brash demeanor has mellowed some, little has changed about Mencia on stage, where each night he seeks to challenge the audience's perception of socially sensitive topics like race, class and politics.
As an example, Mencia cited a joke in his act about the late pop singer Whitney Houston and the stereotype that black people can't swim. Houston drowned in February 2012 in a bathtub in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel.
"There is nothing anybody can do to bring Whitney Houston back, and it doesn't make me a bad person to tell a joke about it, and it doesn't make someone a bad person for laughing at that joke," Mencia said. "You're also not a better person for choosing not to laugh, but that's how so many people think."
Mencia, born Ned Arnel Mencia, said he owes much of his no-holds-barred approach to racial and class-based comedy to Paul Mooney, a pioneering black standup comic and former writer for Richard Pryor, who was among the first comedians to barrel headlong into sharp social commentary on stage.
"Early in my career, my thoughts on comedy were that you could do some edgier stuff, but you still had to tell jokey jokes," Mencia said. "Then I saw Paul Mooney, and he was saying some of the realest (expletive) I've ever heard and I was like, 'You can do that?!' I never looked back after that night."
When talking about his comedy, Mencia refers often to "essential truths," which he describes as the sometimes ugly things we all know to be true about our society and culture yet choose not to talk or think about.
As an example, Mencia references an interaction with a teenage fan during a show in Utah, which prohibits alcohol from being served in comedy clubs. Every show in Utah is an all-ages show.
"So I ask this kid what he's going to do and he tells me he's going to go to a community college or something," Mencia said. "And I told him to really think about that decision because it's going to dictate the rest of your life. Let's say he wants to be president of the United States. I said, 'If George Bush went to Utah State, he never would have been president,' and the audience all went, 'Oooh, I don't know,' but it's true.
"Only one president went to a state school and that was (Lyndon B. Johnson), and he only became president because Kennedy was killed," Mencia said. "Here's a sentence I promise you'll never hear in your life, 'I'm the president of the United States, and I'm a Phoenix.' This stuff matters, and we all know it's true, yet no one wants to talk about it. Well, I do."
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick .
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