Ralphie May brings comedy to the Englert


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Having gone from living in the hood to becoming a national headliner, comedian Ralphie May’s rise to fame is not lost on him.

May, who will perform at 7:30 p.m. today in the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., had performed comedy for nearly 20 years before he received a big break: He came in second on NBC’s reality show “Last Comic Standing.” After that, everything began to change.

“Going from barely being able to make the rent to a year later buying a house in the Hollywood Hills, it was strange,” the comedian said.

He began his career 25 years ago at the age of 13, when he performed at a church youth rally.

“It was what I wanted to do, so that’s why I went after it,” he said.

Whether because of pressure, material seen as lame in hindsight, or a tough crowd, most comics talk about bombing the first time they perform. Not him.

“I told my jokes. I got a standing ovation. I made out with a 14-year-old chick,” he said. “I know that’s not as heartwarming as some of the tales you hear, but it is true.”

The Englert hopes May’s show, while not heartwarming, will be a great night for fans of comedy.

“We always love having comedians at the Englert,” said Nancy Mayfield, the Englert development director. “The space is intimate enough that from every seat you can catch every nuance, every facial expression, and share in every laugh.”

That first act, even at the age of 13, was nearly four years in the making. May decided he wanted to get into comedy when he was 9 years old. He grew up watching late-night television legend Johnny Carson, and he was drawn in by Carson’s use of topical humor, which he began to replicate.

“I really enjoyed writing [topical humor],” he said. “I was writing it when I didn’t even know what I was doing.”

Even though he believes he got friends and family to laugh harder than Carson got his audiences to laugh, he said, he holds the talk-show host in the highest regard.

“I know I have a lifetime of experience to get before I can compete with Mr. Carson,” the 38-year-old said. He compared any hypothetical contest between Carson and him to a “2-year-old playing a chess master.”

In addition to topical humor, May also prides himself on what he calls his “crass, irreverent” comedy, including “racially insensitive” and “culturally controversial” bits. He views his jokes on race and other issues different from those of others, however, because of the social message he also tries to offer.

“I try to open people’s eyes to the plight of fellow man,” he said. “I actually give a shit.”

He particularly enjoys examining stereotypes, he said.

“I love it when stereotypes just happen right in front of you,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

During a phone interview, May highlighted Tiger Woods’ recent fall from grace as an example. He referred to Woods’ November 2009 car accident as “the most Asian thing I’ve ever heard of.” In regard to Woods’ highly publicized infidelity, May said, “Wow, that’s NBA black.”

Still, while he may have little reverence for his subjects, he does respect their humanity; he referred to the golfer as “Mr. Woods.” That didn’t hold back the jokes, however. Of Mr. Woods’ loss of sponsors, May pointed out that he hasn’t lost Nike. Why?

“The slogan is, ‘Just do it,’ ” May said. “He’ll be fine.”

He is one of the few white comedians who tackle ethnic issues in such a manner. While some could assume such jokes would bother some, if not many, people, Stacey Pokluda, May’s publicist, said that hasn’t been a problem.

“Ralphie’s jokes are hilarious,” Pokluda said, perhaps illuminating the key reason May has been able to perform such humor in such venues as “The Big Black Comedy Show.”

After that first gig at a church rally at the University of Southern Alabama, May continued to do comedy, and he began performing in clubs a few years later at 17. Because of his age, his mother had to take him to the shows.

“My mama always thought I was funny, so she’d help me out,” he said

Of course, even though she may have found him humorous, his mother thought comedy was just a phase.

“She also thought I was gonna go to college and have a real job,” he said. “Twenty years later, I haven’t gone anywhere.”

That sentiment, “I haven’t gone anywhere,” seems an understatement. After the “Last Comic Standing” performance, people in the street began recognizing him. One person, he said, approached him while he was in his car, stopped at a red light.

“At first, I thought I was getting carjacked,” he said, but the guy just wanted an autograph.

Since then, May has enjoyed success on the stage and screen, including numerous appearances on late-night television and three Comedy Central specials. One of his appearances on “The Tonight Show” garnered him a standing ovation — the first for a comedian on the show in 10 years, according to a release issued by Outback Concerts, the promoters of the show.

The crass nature of May’s comedy and his aggressive style of delivery sometimes draws critics’ ire, but the comedian doesn’t care. Instead, he gauges his work by the crowds’ reactions, with a standing ovation being the highest of honors.

“They just want it funny and hard,” May said. “For me, that’s what I go by. I don’t have to have all the bells and whistles.”

Because of this, he knows that his comedy isn’t for everyone.

“I just create jokes for the people,” he said. “I just try to punch them in the face with as many jokes as I can.”

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