Ralphie May:
Comedy & a Need to Change the World

Remember Sam Kinison? The comedian who looked like a walking train wreck, who screamed out his routines at top volume, attacking every hypocrisy he could find and ranting like a crazy man? You know, the guy you thought was going to be terrible the first moment or so he was on? And turned out to be hilarious?

Well, if there hadn't been a Sam Kinison, there's a good chance there'd be no Ralphie May. Picture it this way: May is a high school kid in Tennessee who wants to be a comedian. Kinison comes to town and the local rock station has a contest to choose Kinison's opening act. May enters and wins. But let's let Ralphie May pick up the story. In a telephone interview, he says, "I was a young kid. Sam got to know me a little and felt sorry for me. He suggested I move to Houston and work the clubs there, so I could develop as a comic. So I went to Houston."

Why Houston? It's a great place for a budding comic to develop, May says. It's not a hot spot. It's isolated, but it's halfway between LA and New York, so it's on the circuit. Comics come there, play the Improv and the other clubs. There's places to work, to study and grow. Asked what Kinison taught him, May says simply, "Sam Kinison taught me tenacity, that there's no line, not to have any fear, to be brave. He taught me all that and a lot of other things."

He says he learned much the same lessons from other comics who influenced him. "Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. Pretty much everybody who made me laugh."

May made the move to Houston when he was 17. He is now 42 and has been working steadily as a comedian for 25 years, the last 11 of them in high visibility, since he placed second on the first season of Last Comic Standing in 2003.

As his years as a road warrior comedian matured him, his act has matured also. Where he once relied on fat jokes -- he weighs somewhere over 400 pounds -- May's work has gained depth and meat as he has himself developed a sense of depth. Now, he says, there's a deeply serious purpose beneath his comedy. Not everyone has noticed his deeper level though. He says he does not get any respect from other comedians because "my peers look at me and they see fat jokes. I work at being so much more than that. Maybe at one time I relied on fat jokes but that's been a long time ago now. My stuff is much deeper than that. I'm not a fat comedian; I'm a comedian that is fat."

To see that his work is much deeper than its surface, though, "requires observation and an open mind." When I asked if those qualities were lacking in the comic community, he said simply, "Those things are lacking in the world, period."

Many of us would shake our heads in frustration at the nation's inability to observe and maintain an open mind. May, though, wants to use his art for the dual purpose of helping to develop those missing qualities in his audience and in the world at large, while simultaneously making people laugh until they hurt..

"So much of my comedy relies on observation. And sympathy. I see so many people feed on misery. During the riots, I saw a comic say, 'They're rioting down on Crenshaw. Go on down a get yourself a free TV, do some looting. Steal some cold beer from the 7/11.'

"There's so much hate and fear. You have to find a way beyond that. Have to find a way to be a good person, to say, 'Don't worry about all that hate.' You have to fight hate in every form it takes. I end my shows at 2 hours and 10 minutes because every 65 minutes in this country a veteran kills himself. I want to be funny but there's a serious purpose to the humor."

As an example, we talked about his cracker routine, in which he riffs on how much better off we would all be if we named cookies after racial and ethnic slurs. The routine kills but it also leaves you thinking, maybe he's on to something.

"That bit came out of my observation that crackers don't get upset at being called crackers. If they don't mind, then it defuses the words, takes away their power. Why don't they get upset? That's because crackers are delicious. So what if we named cookies after ethnic slurs? It would take all the power out of those words. Nobody's going to get mad at being called a cookie. You see, kids have to learn hatred. People laughing at that routine can go on to think about the way those words are used and they can change."

But do people truly change as the result of hearing jokes, of having hypocrisy and hatred pointed out to them?

May doesn't expect miracles but he maintains a hopeful attitude. "If I can change one person, how many will be exponentially changed? If one person changes, how many people won't see hatred, how will the mores and thought processes change, how many people won't see hatred and won't want to kill themselves or somebody else?"

Are people surprised to hear a man who makes his living causing people to laugh talk about trying to eradicate hatred? "Sure, they are. I want an audience but it's not wacka-wacka comedy. There's a deeper purpose beneath it."

That depth of purpose is discovered in the writing of the routines. May writes incessantly; most comedians aim for an act that consists of a tight 45 minutes, but May does a show that lasts 2 hours and 10 minutes -- all of it new material. As an example of how prolific he is, consider this: Jerry Seinfeld announced that he wants to develop 15 minutes of new material this year. Ralphie May will develop better than 2 hours, use it once on tour and then throw it away. His method is to write the material, do it on tour, after which it will be recorded on one of his specials and then will never be repeated live. He'll write a whole new act for his next tour.

His process? "I observe something, get mad about it, research it, and the talk about it." He does not, like Seinfeld, maintain a daily writing schedule. Instead, writing is an on-going process, in which being funny is not enough. The material has to speak to his concerns.

As May speaks matter-of-factly about using his art to help others, I'm thinking that it is asking a lot of an audience to go to a comedy show in order to be lectured on the evils of the world. I ask him why it works, what the attraction is for an audience? "First, it's funny. I'm delivering punch lines every 6 to 8 seconds. For the audience, it's an endorphin rush. They feel ethereal afterwards. Their faces hurt from laughing and they are relieved of stress. They get to see what a total mess everything is and feel that there's some hope.

"Everything's a total mess, so the comic has to represent a total mess. That means they're the most honest artists we have. Painters, musicians, actors can all lie in their work. The comic has to be honest.

"Comics are the lowest rung art form out there. We're all alone up there. Actors get all the girls and everything but all they do is speak lines that somebody else wrote. A comic has to discover it, write it, and deliver it. Everything's a total mess, so the comic has to represent a total mess. That means they're the most honest artists we have. Painters, musicians, actors can all lie in their work. The comic has to be honest."

As he speaks, I'm thinking of a friend of mine who went to see a major comedian and was so impressed by the man's first show that he stayed for the second. He mentioned to his server how excited he was to see the second show, and she said, "Why? It's the same as the first show. It's always the same show." I didn't see how that man's experience fit in with Ralphie May's insistence on the honesty of the comic.

"That's true," he says. "There are comics who haven't written a joke in 15 years, but they get weeded out. They become lawyers, writers, show runners, but they don't remain comics. Comedy's a self-policing process."

If comedy is the lowest rung on the show business ladder and if the comedian has to represent a total mess, and if the field is so stressful, why do it? What's in it for the comic?

"We have a need to make people love us. We come from bad backgrounds. We suffered as kids. We don't choose comedy; it chooses us."

I read him a quote he gave another interviewer: "I'm a great comedian. The great comedians aren't cut from silk. Their life's miserable. If you love a comedian and you think they're wonderful, then their life growing up was horrible. There's no getting around it. That's the commonality of all stand-ups. That's why we have the common bond. That's why we think different than everybody else. Because we are different than everybody else. We're damaged goods."

He stands by that statement. Asked if he still sees himself as damaged goods, he says that he isn't any more but that it's important to stay in touch with the wounded kid that he was.

"I was that person. Now I'm not. I go back and visit that kid, the one who played by himself because nobody else would play with him, the kid who put himself to bed because his mother was working, and I say, 'It's going to be OK. It's going to get a lot better.' Now I've got a great wife and fine kids, I've got two houses, I'm successful -- it got better. Some kids get lucky, I guess. Some have lucky days, lucky weeks, a lucky 15 minutes. For me everything changed when I met my wife and we had kids. That was lucky. I've been lucky since then. My wife and my kids turned it around for me."

What effect does he want to have on audiences? What does he want them to leave the theater thinking and feeling?

"I want them to change their way of thinking. I want them to see my logic. Their way of thinking led them to need to come see me. I want them to change their way of thinking so they can have empathy for each other. I want them to be able to love and accept love, to be better people, to recognize that everything is good."

Sounds like you want these things for others because they were once missing from your life.

"Exactly. Exactly. I want people to be around people who love them. I want to make the world better. I've got kids. I've got a responsibility to my kids. I want to make the world a better place for my kids.

"It's a hard thing to do. A hard thing to fail at, but it's worth doing."

Ralphie May is so serious about these ideas, so committed to the notion of making the world a better place that he is contemplating eventually running for the senate from Tennessee. After talking with him for a hour, I came away thinking it would be a mistake to laugh at that possibility.

interview by
Michael Scott Cain

6 June 2015

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