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Carlos Mencia is searching for something profound. He lifts a spoonful of soup to his mouth, stops and puts it back in the bowl. He sits back in his chair and suddenly his face lights up. He seems to have had an epiphany.
"I had a priest come up to me and say, 'I wish I could talk like you,' " says the shit-talking comedian. His tone is serious, which causes everyone at the table to grow silent and nod slowly as they absorb the holy man's words. "He said, 'I wish I could touch people the same way.' "
The words "touch" and "priest" cause everyone at the table to pause and look up at him quizzically. Mencia shrugs.
"I was like, 'Touch? As well you shouldn't, Father. But I can keep a secret.' "
The table erupts in laughter, and two guys nearly lose their iced tea.
Carlos Mencia is holding court. It's just after 5 p.m. on a Monday, and the star of the wildly popular Comedy Central show Mind of Mencia is sitting at the front table of the Galleria-area Ninfa's on Westheimer, which he says is his favorite spot in Houston. Maybe that's because the restaurant's owner, Santiago Moreno, is sitting with him, along with his tour manager, Joey Sosa, and the general manager of the Houston Improv, Eddie Brito. Mencia has spent the day doing nonstop TV, radio and print interviews to promote his September 8 "Punisher Tour" show at the Toyota Center. Now we're at Ninfa's, where Mexicans, Indians, African-Americans, whites and Asians are sharing a dining room. It's a very Houston scene, and perfect Mencia fodder.
I'm here to learn a little bit more about the mind that has created TV sketches such as the "Stereotype Olympics" (events include stereo stealing and fence jumping) and "Royal Religious Rumble" (Jesus is seen twisting Buddha's nipples). There's no denying dude's blowing up right now. His fans are ferocious, and they mimic his every line, one of their favorites being "You're re-taaar-ded!" and "Dee de Dee" (which signifies stupid people). But for all the love, there are some haters, such as comic Joe Rogan, who calls out Mencia for having a made-up name (his real name is Ned Holness) and for being a "weak-minded joke thief." (Mencia shrugs off the disses.) You can't help but wonder if Mencia's shtick -- which at times can border on race-baiting -- is real or just for effect.
"I don't say things to be edgy," he says, which is a little hard to swallow initially. Here at Ninfa's, the music in the restaurant seems to dip every time he says "cracker," "nigger" or "beaner." It's like a call and response: He talks about an ethnicity, and someone from said ethnicity looks over at our rowdy table. (A middle-aged white man, upon hearing "cracker," pulls his daughter next to him and glares at us.)
We're examining H-town's diversity. Where do the different minorities stand? What's the hierarchy? Mencia, who comes to Houston often, describes it as a sort of ethnic totem pole.
"Black people have it the worst," he announces, sounding like a professor. An African-American couple who've just walked in do a double take. "PC doesn't reach them, for some reason. With black people, the ethnic jokes are still funny, and the racial animosity is still there. You still hear about blacks and how lazy they are, especially here in Houston after Katrina. Remember what Barbara Bush said? She would never make a statement like that about Arabs. Why is it that they're the worst people to date in every culture -- even with Latinos? It doesn't make any sense. I don't know where the fuck it comes from." The man in the black couple is riveted, ignoring the hostess who's speaking to him. It's hard to tell if he's fascinated or pissed. He slowly walks off, still watching us.
Moreno tells us about his nephew in Austin, who's dating a white girl. The girl's father initially hated the nephew because he was Hispanic. So Moreno told the boy to have one of his black friends pick up the girl for a date. "The next time my nephew came over, the dad was like, 'Come on in, son! Lemme fix you a tor-till-a!' "
We all burst into laughter, but Mencia is serious. "I was watching the World Cup, and I saw a black guy on the German soccer team. I thought, 'Of all the negative shit that I talk about, the fact that Germany would have a black guy on their soccer team?' Man, that made me cry. Seriously." The table grows quiet again, reflecting.
"Shit, who's next? Oh, yeah, Mexicans have it the next worst," Mencia pipes up. His announcement that "that immigration thing is such a hot-button issue" seems awkward in a restaurant full of Mexicans. "Look at Houston," he says. "Four years ago, if white people saw a Mexican flag outside someone's house, they'd be like, 'Oh, how cool!' Now it's like, 'Those motherfuckers!' "
So who's next? "Hindus, man," says Mencia. He looks at me. "You get the backlash of being Arabic, and you're not. That's gotta be worse -- because you don't even deserve it." He does an Indian accent: "I am not heem! I am not heem!" The table erupts again, and Moreno pats me on the back. Two Indian guys in dress shirts sitting a few tables away look over at Mencia as he dissects his "boopity-boopity-boopity" Hindu joke (in which he differentiates between a Hindu and an Arabic "muck-a-lucka" accent). "The phonetics of that joke are so strong that white people are like, 'Oh, shit!' and Indians are like, 'Thank you very much!' "