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!' "
As a (non-Hindu) Indian, a small part of me agrees -- the part of me that gets stares at the airport. I'm tempted to ask the Indian men sitting a few tables away, who're still watching us, puzzled, if they agree, too. After all, it's a sentiment that rings throughout the Indian community, though few would publicly admit it. Mencia, who has Indian friends, has picked up on it and relayed it on a comedic -- albeit elementary -- level.
"Then it's white people," says Mencia. "White people aren't allowed to be human anymore. White people are only allowed to be white. If you're white and you do a black joke, you're a racist. If you laugh at the joke, you're a racist. If you say, 'I'm proud to be white,' people are like, 'Oh, so you hate niggers?' It's like, 'No! No! I'm just proud to be me.' "
We start talking about creating a white organization that's "just okay" with being white. "Not proud to be white, but okay with it," he adds. Mencia loves it and swears it'll be on his show as a "cold open" or at the end of one of his monologues. "You've just witnessed how a piece is born on the show," he tells me.
Next on the totem pole are "Middle Eastern and Arabic people, for obvious reasons." So who, according to Mencia, has it the easiest?
"The Asians." I look around, hoping to find some, but the Asian couple I saw earlier has left. "Honestly, the kind of shit they go through is inconsequential. It's like, 'Oh, they have little dicks and are good at math.' "
In Mencia's mind, he's bringing society together by making fun of a particular segment. Then another. And another. It's a comic staple: Drop bombs, then sit back and watch dissimilar people leap to each other's defense. He offers a parallel. Dissing America is like dissing Houston:
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"If I go to Montrose, and I'm like, 'Dude, what the fuck, what's with the gay guys and the transvestites?' You'd be like, 'Dude, yeah, it's cool. This is where most of them live. And there are some great restaurants and cool things here.' And I'd think to myself, 'Okay, the people who live here have accepted that this is that neighborhood, and that's cool.'
"Then you drive a block from there, and you hit the nice homes. And they say, 'This is where the nice homes are. The president lives here. But they're stuck-up and stuffy.' Then you go by the wards, and they say, 'This is where the black people are, and here's where the Mexicans are, here's where Fiesta is. But we're all different, man, different parts of town.' Then you got the people in the suburbs, who're like, 'Fuck the city, man, that place is weird. Gays, Mexicans, it's crazy. I live 30 minutes from there.' It's all division."
A catchy Mexican pop tune throbs in the background as the chatter from the cross-section of a hundred diverse diners fills the air. Mencia leans in. "So let's say I come in at a show, and I say, 'You know what, Houston? Your city is a shit hole.' Everyone in the room will bust out. The Mexican guy, the black guy, the rich white guy from River Oaks, they'll all be like, 'Fuck you, man, you don't know our town!' And I'll be like, 'Well, among all that bullshit, it looks like there's a thread that connects everyone.' " He sits back in his chair, doing the epiphany face again.
That's Carlos Mencia: the thread that connects our bullshit.