Why Carlos Mencia Traded Engineering for Comedy

Right now, a lot of people are losing their jobs. They're saying, "Oh, my God, what am I gonna do?" If this is you, I'm here to tell you, this is your chance. Paint. Put out a rap album. Design a car. Do whatever you've always wanted to do. You've been saying all along that you wanted to do it. Well, go out there and find something that makes you happy. Because in the end, there will always be jobs to be had. It might not be tomorrow, or the next day, but at some point you will find a job, and the kind of job is completely up to you. Why am I so confident about this? Because I had one of those turning points in my life: long before Comedy Central came calling, I used to be headed for a career in engineering.

When I was growing up, I didn't want to be Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy or any of those guys. So who did I want to be? My dad, Pablo. He's always been my hero. My father grew up in a little town in Honduras. He was orphaned at age 4 and ended up in the United States through a series of unbelievable circumstances—we call my dad Pablo Gump because he has that kind of story. When I was growing up, he worked construction and was a truckdriver, but really he was a dreamer and a philosopher.

But before I go on, let me clarify one thing. My father is technically my uncle, and the woman I consider my mother is my aunt. They couldn't have kids, so when I was born my birth mother gave me to them to raise as their own. I'm one of 18 kids my birth mother had—she and my brothers and sisters lived in the house behind ours and I lived with my parents in the house in front. So in a way I was lucky from the beginning. I got the attention of an only child but had my brothers and sisters right there too. It was bizarre.

When I was growing up we didn't have cable and I didn't stay up late, and the only time you could ever see comedians back then was on the late-night talk shows. I was too busy getting good grades to watch. When you're one of 18 kids growing up in East L.A., you realize that you have to do something to help yourself and your family get out of there. I knew college was the way. I graduated from high school in 1985 and decided I was going to be an electrical engineer. I didn't necessarily have a passion for it, but I loved math and I loved electronics, so it made sense. I enrolled at Cal State Los Angeles, five minutes from my house, and to support myself I got a full-time job working at Farmers insurance company, in their printing department. Everything seemed fine.

Now, one thing you must understand is that all my life I was a smartass, thinking lots of funny thoughts. My mom knew, but she would never let me say any wisecracks out loud. If she thought I was about to remark on something, she'd give me a look and say, "You better not say what you're thinking. Not here, not now." And I wouldn't. But at work, with a bunch of guys around, I started talking. I would tell the guys about things that frustrated me—"I saw this on the news, can you believe that?" And they would laugh. I was the class clown of Farmers insurance, but I wasn't even trying to be. I only really started thinking about comedy when a co-worker of mine, Joe—a bitter guy who you just knew hated his family, hated his life and hated going to work—came up to me one day. In a monotone voice, out of the blue, he said, "You're really, really funny. You make me laugh. You should do stand-up comedy some day."

As luck would have it, a club called the Laugh Factory was holding an amateur open-mike night, and a few weeks later I decided to go. I had no idea what I was going to do onstage. I hadn't written anything, so on the way to the club I stopped at a bookstore and bought a joke book. I told two of the jokes, and they were lousy. So I decided to talk about something I'd seen on TV that day, when a newscaster said something completely ridiculous: a stewardess had been sucked out of an airplane in midflight, and he said she was "presumed dead." And people laughed. The set lasted maybe three minutes, but I had actually made up a joke. I stepped offstage and at that moment I knew that this was what I was supposed to do. I remember thinking, You're not supposed to be working at Farmers insurance and you are not supposed to become an engineer.

And on that night, I decided that I wasn't going back to school, and I was quitting my job. It wasn't about money. It wasn't even about the laughs. It was the fact that I told a joke that made people see something stupid in the world and made them go, "Oh, my God. You're right!"

Two weeks later, my mom realized that I wasn't going back to school or the insurance company. She actually had an intervention for me. She called all the family together and said, "OK. We are here to tell you what is good for you." I understood where they were coming from completely—I was going to be the first one in our family to graduate from college, and that was a real source of pride for all of them. "How can you throw away the brain that God gave you? You have a secure future," she said. Everyone was crying. But then my dad spoke up: "Hey, you know what? If he wants to be a clown, let him juggle." He didn't know what being a comedian was. He literally thought I wanted to be a clown. But he was also trying to say, "Look, I came to America to find happiness, not money. And if juggling makes him happy, then he should go juggle." What's funny is that when my dad said that, my mom understood. She looked at him and was like, "You're right."

Comedy helped me discover one very important thing: my life is my life. I have never looked back or second-guessed my decision. I know that we live in a capitalist society and I understand that we all want to feel comfortable and secure. But, honestly, I know poor people who are happier than rich people. Nothing can replace happiness and that means finding that peaceful place inside you, whatever that is. Even if it's being a clown instead of an engineer.