Ralphie May didn’t take home the prize in the first season of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” but he walked away with acclaim, recognition and new fans.
May finished second to Dat Phan, whose own career hasn’t equaled May’s success to date. May has recorded two stand-up specials – “Prime Cut” and “Girth of a Nation,” released two CDs with those names and been embraced by legendary comedians.
In an interview, May takes a stand against political correctness, reflects on meeting some of the legendary names in comedy, and expresses the hope that his daughter, April June May, won’t follow in her parents’ career path.
What was the process for you to get on "Last Comic Standing"? It wasn’t as big then as it is now.
If you’re well known in the comedy community, you get invited to come in; you’re given an appointment time. I was actually in Hawaii two days before and Jay Mohr called and goes, “Hey, dude, I want you to audition for this show. They’re going to call it ‘Last Comic Standing’.” I said OK. When do I got to audition? “On Friday.”
In the comedy world, your gigs go from Wednesday through Sunday. Friday you can’t take off. I’m like, what are you talking about? I’m in Hawaii. He goes, “Well, you’ve got to audition.” I’m like, you’re crazy. You know my act. Just tell them. He said this is a legitimate contest. If you want to be a part of it, you’ve got to come and audition. I said well, who am I going to audition for? He said Bob and Ross from The Tonight Show. I said well they know my act, too. Just tell them. And he said, no, you’ve got to come.
At that time, I was so broke. I didn’t have a lot of money. My rent was 1200 a month and the gig I was working was 1600. My girlfriend, now my wife, she put it on her credit card. She believed in me. She sent me back. I showed up at NBC at 1 o’clock in the afternoon after flying all night long. And I get there and they gave me three minutes. I walk on stage and the first line is “They only gave me three minutes and it took me a minute and a half to get my fat ass up on stage.” And I started my act and I’m killing. They said, “That’s enough Ralphie.”
I said, “You sons of bitches. You made me fly all the way from Hawaii and you don’t even give me my full three minutes.” I started cussing and they said, “No, no, no. We want you.”
How important was it for you to get a spot on that show?
It was huge. I was making inroads. I’d done Kimmel 11 times and I’d done the Late Late Show with Craig Kilborne before and I was doing some stuff but I hadn’t gone over the edge. That show, it was an opportunity I went after full bore. It took me 14 years to become an overnight success. Because of that show, it launched me in the stratosphere. Not winning was actually a benefit for me.
Because it galvanized people. I was a fan favorite. Every performance, I got standing ovations. When I didn’t win, it upset people so much that they went out and bought my album and my first album, Just Correct, went platinum in 11 weeks, which is huge for a comedy album. My special, "Girth of a Nation," was the top-rated special on Comedy Central in the 2006-2007 season. My other special, "Prime Cut," which was released last November, was the highest rated of the month and continues to get high ratings.
Did Comedy Central come looking for after your success on "Last Comic Standing"?
I think they were a little apprehensive. I’ve never been one to be invited to the festivals. I was in LA but the young people at Comedy Central knew me but the ones who had been around for a while weren’t really aware of me and they wanted to be in business with me once they saw "Last Comic Standing." What happened was we took that success and we did two specials in one night. They saw the first one. It was supposed to air in September. And they wanted to push it to November. I thought that was disrespectful until I found out that’s what you want because that’s November sweeps. That’s huge. That’s what you want to be part of. They got behind me with their whole big marketing machine and they made "Girth of a Nation" huge. They did the same thing with "Prime Cut"; they aired it in November sweeps.
Oftentimes people in Los Angeles and New York forget what the rest of America looks like and they discriminate against people based on their looks, or if they think you’re overweight. I’m not just a little overweight; I’m a lot overweight. And I was a lot more. I think you’ll see in the next couple of years more bigger people on Comedy Central because they're not so focused on it at all anymore. They‚re very progressive for a network, what they're allowing as far as content and who they’re allowing to say it.
There are a lot of fat comedians. Gabriel Iglaesis and John Pinette, among others. They seem to focus more on their weight in their act than you do. You mention it, but you don’t dwell on it. Is that a conscious effort?
To a degree. I’ve always thought of myself more as a comedian who’s fat than as a fat comic. Honestly, when I was coming up, Louis Anderson and then later on, as I was developing as a young comedian, John Pinette, had the market on it. They were doing better fat jokes than I could even think about. So I decided I just wanted to do material that anybody could get from anybody. Where I interact with the world. I sometimes mention I’m fat, if there are funny circumstances. Like, I personally love to take a bath, but the truth is I don’t get to take a bath very often because I can’t take a bath in a regular bathtub. I look like a loaf of bread. That’s a fat joke in and of itself, but it’s also the truth and it says more about the state of things and gives people a better perspective into who I am and what somebody fat has to think about and be around as opposed to just being a fat joke or something that degrades people.
You recorded both concerts the same night, one after the other?
Yeah. We switched the curtain behind me. I switched jackets, we switched the audience and we loaded more tape in and we shot it.
That’s fairly unusual, isn’t it?
Yeah. I think that was the first time any comedian has ever done that. But I have a lot of material. I write all the time. I’m constantly writing, coming up with material.
Has the attitude toward you changed? Does the average person on the street, instead of seeing you as the fat guy, now see you as the famous guy?
Yes. Yeah. It’s very weird. I used to get looks and ridicule and scorn and now I get “Oh, my god” and people coming up to me and taking pictures and wanting autographs in the airport. I’m walking around the mall. People come up to me. Literally, I’ll have 40 or 50 photographs taken during a trip to the mall, and that’s a lot of time.
Is that an enjoyable problem to have?
I’ve always been a people person. My grandfather was a politician. I was honestly just happy to be around folks, and getting that kind of acceptance is always wonderful. Getting that immediate feedback: “Oh, my god, you’re my favorite comedian.” Wow. It’s a real tickle, honestly, when you think about it, how much fun it is.
I read you wanted to be a comedian since you were 9 years old. What sparked that desire in you?
In the summer, my grandmom would let me stay up past the news, because we always had to watch the news and discuss it a little bit. And we’d get to watch Johnny Carson‚s monologue. I was watching the news all the time, so I knew about topical events.
The first time I did it professionally was at the University of Southern Alabama in Mobile. It was at a Methodist youth retreat. We came from Arkansas down there and did a show. I did it and I did so well. I was 13. I was hooked. I knew I wanted to do it. At 17 I got picked to open for Sam Kinison. He told me to go to Houston. My mom moved down there. I did a comedy showcase. Danny Martinez taught me how to be a comedian.
What kind of things did he teach you?
Timing. Respect. How to write. He gave me face time, guidance as far as jokes go. He was instrumental.
You never got to go on Carson, but you’ve done Leno.
Yeah. I’ve been on Leno. I got the first standing O in over 10 years on Leno. I don’t even remember it. I had viral meningitis. After that, I went to the hospital. I did it with a 104 fever. The meningitis kept knocking it all out of me. I don’t really remember anything.
Did you watch a tape afterward?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Snoop Dogg was banging on the couch, he fell on the floor. Jay was crying. The audience just rose up and gave me a full standing ovation. After the whole thing, I asked my wife in the hospital, how did I do on Leno? She said, “You killed.” I said how did I do? “You killed.” Finally they brought in a tape. I was in an isolation ward. My wife had to come in with goggles and a mask and gloves and an apron. It was serious. I was in there for a long time. They let me watch it and I would watch it every couple of hours because I couldn’t remember anything. My short-attention span memory was getting burned out.
Why didn’t you cancel if you were sick and do it a different week? Or was that not even a thought in your head?
Not even a thought. I’d waited 14 years -- and my whole life -- to do the Tonight Show. I was at the precipice, for me, of my whole career. It was like full circle, from being a little kid, 9 years old at grandma’s house watching the Tonight Show, to being on it.
It used to be an appearance on the Tonight Show would make a comedian’s career. It’s not so much the case anymore. Which was more important for you? The Tonight Show or Last Comic Standing?
Last Comic Standing. Last Comic Standing, because it put me in prime time and it opened me up to 14 million people’s homes every week. I took that as a great responsibility. That’s why I always did different material and I gave them the best performance I could.
I don’t consider comedy to be a competition, but they made it that way on that program.
Which is really weird because comedy is very subjective. What the masses will vote on and think is great, most comedians probably wouldn’t. They would disagree with Last Comic Standing, the way the winner’s been chosen, every time. But that’s neither here nor there. You can always second-guess things. But I agree. I don’t think comedy is great as a competition. I think it’s subjective. It’s like if you like action movies. Nobody just goes to the movies. You go to see a specific movie.
People who see you in person won’t see the same material that you do on television. In person you’re edgier, you’re dirtier. How do you embrace something like Comedy Central that doesn’t let you do everything you want to do? Do you have to pull the punches?
No, no. What you do is you just change the vernacular. Instead of saying blow job -- and I did about five minutes on blow jobs on the album I just did, “Prime Cut,” instead of doing that I said oral.
Is it a conscious thought that you have to tone it down for television?
Yeah, a little bit. It’s more challenging to me to switch my material around and switch my vernacular. And they’ll get the full meaning and the full punch out of it.
What‚s your writing process like when you’re trying to think of new material? Do you work every day?
To a degree. I’m always working on it. It’s like the white noise of my mind.
Do you try to write? Or do you jot it down when it comes to you?
You know, I don’t even write it down anymore. I just memorize it. A lot of topical stuff. Or stuff that bothers me. That’s where my motivation comes from: something angers me or topical humor. I’m upset with the way the nation is with this racial stuff right now. It just pisses me off how people think It’s better that someone’s a blank-American: You’re not black. You’re African-American. Well, ask most black people. They ain’t never been to no fucking Africa. They don’t know shit about that. You were born in Mexico. Now you’re Mexican-American. Asian-American’s the most offensive because how you do you determine who looks Asian-American? It’s the eyes. But if you consider asia as a continent it goes from the Ural Mountains in Russia where they’re whiter than me to Malaysia where they’re darker than Barack. And a lot of people don’t have the eyes. This political correctness, people think it’s better. It’s a new religion. People believe in political correctness.
The fact is that political correctness has a long history of being wrong. People don’t remember, but it was politically correct 150 years ago to own black people. It was politically correct 100 years ago to deny women an education over the sixth grade or the right to vote or to own property. Fifty years ago it was politically correct to have different water fountains for whites and coloreds. It’s ridiculous. Political correctness is wrong most of the time. Not enough people realize that.
You say a lot of things in your act that other comedians might not cross that line. Is there a line for you? Are there things you won’t joke about?
No. I’ve done jokes about the tsunami and the pope dying. Once you do that, it’s all open. There’s no getting around it. You’ve gone past the limit. You’re talking about the largest natural disaster and largest loss of life in recorded history. I joked about it. You’re talking about the death of one of the most beloved religious icons in the modern history of the world. Yeah.
When you decide to talk about the tsunami, what’s the process?
I’ve got to get different angles, I’ve got to get more angles than any other comedian. If somebody else is doing it, I don’t want to know about it, and I don’t want to do it like them. I want to be my own individual. So I couldn’t just do a tsunami joke. I had to talk about gambling with it and the huge loss of life and I’m picking the under. I said I’ve been to the beach in Thailand. There were like seven people on the beach and I was three of them. There’s no way It’s going to hit, so the line was 180 and I said 165, so when it went to 300 I was like damn it, damn it, I lost 10 large. I joke about that. I joke about the Kennedys. JFK, he was an idiot. “We’ll take the convertible. It’s a sunny day.” Bang! Back and to the left. Robert Kennedy: “I know a shortcut through the kitchen.” How about Teddy Kennedy: “I’m a great driver.” JFK Jr.: “Fuck the second day of flight school. I’m a Kennedy.” People get mad at that joke until I hit them with: Do you know who the happiest person in the world was? Darryl Hannah. “Woo, I’m so glad he didn’t marry me.” That’s kind of messed up because that bitch was a mermaid ; she could have saved his life. It makes people laugh; I take it past the point of ridicule. I make the point and I then I just exacerbate it so far that they‚re just blown away by it.
Your wife, Lahna Turner, is a comedian as well. Is there any rivalry between the two of you? How does it work with two comedians in the house?
The only rivalry is about jokes. Because we’ll be talking and we’ll both go, “Oh that’s great and then it’s who’s going to take it on stage first? We’ll talk about it because we both know each other’s act so well. I wrote a joke that I couldn’t do anything with, so I gave it to her. One of her jokes that she couldn’t do anything with and was too hard coming out of her mouth works great in mine. The joke I wrote for her was “Is it wrong to tell an AIDS patient to stay positive?” And for me, I was talking about my Mexican maid. “She’s fantastic. No racial pun intended, the place looks spick and span.” That’s the joke she wrote for me. It’s this type of give and take we have. It’s really, really fun.
I imagine your daughter is going to have a lot of fun bringing the two of you to career day at her school when she’s older.
Oh, yeah. I think so. I think so. We just hope she’s not serious. That’s what we’re scared about, that she’s going to grow up and be an ultra-right wing Republican and serious and not funny at all and be a lawyer. God forbid. Most parents, that would be one of their dreams.
If she decides to become a comedian, what advice would you and your wife give her?
Don’t. Every good comedian is damaged from their childhood. I am and my wife is as well. We’re going to raise her right. We’re going to read to her and hug her and love on her. We’re staying together because we love each other. We’re going to make her a great person. I never would want my child to be a comedian because they would never have the opportunity to live a life by themselves. They would never have the opportunity to be their own person. They would always be Ralphie May’s baby. Or Lahna Turner’s baby. God forbid there be another Ben Stiller. If she wanted to be an actress, maybe.
What’s your damage? What messed you up when you were younger?
So much. There’s not even enough time to talk about it. So much. So much. Youngest of four, divorced mom. I saw physical abuse. I was six years old; my uncle and his whole family decided to come down and visit us in Clarksville to see me. They made a special trip to see me. When leaving, their plane hit a mountain. My grandfather passing away in front of me. A whole host of trauma. Stuff that children shouldn’t see, I saw. I saw people die in a tornado. I saw way more than I should. It’s a typical southern story. I used to say if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.
I’m going to say the names of some comedians. I want you to give me your opinion about how they impressed you or what they taught you.
Sam Kinison was tremendous. I don’t think people in comedy recognize how far he was ahead he really was. What he was doing was not only a whole style, it was something I don’t know if comedy’s even gotten close to it now. Sam Kinison was a genius. He was a rock star.
How about Bill Hicks?
Wow. The only guy I’ve ever seen who made me want to quit comedy. It’s like what the fuck am I doing? I think Bill Hicks, it’s a shame that he’s not a household name but Pauly Shore is. It’s a real fucking crying shame because he was beautiful. His jokes were like music.
Hack was a legend before I even knew him. I just knew that as good as he was on stage, he was as good as that with his time with young comedians. I loved Hack. I learned so much from Buddy, just so very, very much. When he died, I cried like when I lost my grandfather and like when I lost my father. That’s how close I was to Buddy.
What did you learn from him?
Wow. How to tell a joke, how to write a joke, how to edit a joke. Nuances. How to do a pussy joke without saying pussy. He taught me everything.
How did you come into his orbit?
Through Jeffrey Ross at the Friars Club. He came over and I made him laugh. He goes, [doing an impression of Buddy]: “Not very many people make me laugh at all, especially young guys. As a matter of fact, I don’t think there’s been a guy under 40 years old that’s made me laugh in maybe 20 years. You’re really good. What’s your name? My name’s Buddy.” Then Kenny Moore would bring me over and Jeffrey Ross would take me over. And Buddy said, “You can come over too sometime.” We could drink tequila and talk. And I’d take him for a ride and we’d go goof off. Talk man stuff. Talk about women. Talk about jokes. Talk about everything. He was tremendous.
What about Jay Mohr. You worked with him before “Last Comic Standing.”
Oh, yeah. Jay, Jay was very instrumental. When I met Jay I was having a hard time in LA because I couldn’t make any money. I was selling weed and making ends meet through that but that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a comedian. And I’d gone to where I was a headliner, being able to get 2000 a week, to going out to LA to making $15 a spot and only getting like 10 spots a week. You’re making 200, 300 bucks, depending on gigs, a week and it’s not enough for living in LA. Then night after I met him the first time – it was a Friday night, I met Jay on a Friday night and he liked my comedy.
On Saturday I was walking to the Laugh Factory down Sunset and he pulled over and stopped and picked me up. He goes, “Dude, what are you doing walking?” I said I’m too broke to put gas in my car, I’m too broke for a valet, so I’m walking down here to get a spot and try to make some money. He said, “What do you mean? You’re phenomenal. Why aren’t you working all the time?” At that point the clubs would not give me work because as the feature act I would blow the headliner off the stage and they wouldn’t headline me because I didn’t have the TV credits or movie credits to sell tickets. I go, the headliners are week. They won’t follow me. He goes, “I’ll work with you.” Right them on the spot he called his agent up and got me 17 weeks of work. He changed my life.
Other people might have decided to quit after moving to LA and not having immediate success or much success. What kept you going?
Heart. Heart. It’s the same mentality that I got hot women with: I wanted it more than anyone else. And when you want something more than anybody else, that’s the difference. When it gets hard, the people who don’t want it as much will quit, then there’s just one less person getting in your way.
Milton Berle. I forgot to ask about him.
Uncle Miltie, he was phenomenal. I didn’t get to spend as much time with him as I wanted to. Miltie was a helluva comedian and a helluva showman. The stories he told about the old Friars’ Club and how it used to be, it just gives you a sense of perspective and it makes you admire what you do more as a career choice, as an art form, as an American art form.
Was it intimidating sitting around and talking to those guys?
To a degree. But at the same time, they’re just comedians. Comedians, no matter the age or who you are, we’re just comedians. We’re all cut from the same cloth so when we get together it’s like the quilt’s come back together. That’s when we all felt like ourselves is when we’re all hanging out together.
Are there other comedians we haven’t talked about who influenced you or inspired you that you got to meet and hang out with?
Rodney Dangerfield. He was phenomenal. And guys like Doug Standhope was very instrumental to me. Dougie’s always been a champion of mine. He told people I was funny a long time before they knew it. And Jeffrey Ross, he was extremely helpful.