Ralphie May on Southern intellectuals and hating alternative comedy
Literally the biggest comedian working today, Ralphie May has been charming the pants off of comedy fans for the last decade and a half. Playing a slack-jawed wise-ass, May will often twist his audience's perception by using a Southern accent to deliver an insightful crack about controversial subjects that would land a less talented comic in PC prison.
In anticipation of his five upcoming Comedy Works South shows (all sold out ), Ralphie May recently shared some wisdom on his distaste for "alternative comedy," why his "nigger cookies" bit will help destroy racist vocabulary, and what the deal is with not taking Southern accents seriously.
Westword: You came up in the Houston comedy scene in the late '80s and '90s, which has gained a reputation for being strongly associated with comedy heavyweights Sam Kinison, Ron White and Bill Hicks. How did being surrounded by this grade of talent impact you as a young comic?
Ralphie May: It was amazing. It was a lot like Denver; that's one of the reasons I like coming there, because it reminds me of Houston in the '90s. There were a lot of great club owners, tons of talent, and a lot of older guys helping the younger talent, without any ego. They'd press those comics to get better.
And when someone made it, they either wouldn't move away, or they would regularly come back. And in Denver you have that with people like Josh Blue and Chuck Roy; it's unbelievable the amount of talent that you have there.
Now that you've accomplished so much since then, is it important for you to continue on that tradition of helping out younger comics that are just getting started?
Well, if I was asked I would. There's a huge problem with younger comics today not asking for advice. The alternative comedy scene really doesn't have that much to talk about: A hard day for them is the wi-fi not working at Starbucks. That stuff doesn't resonate with a lot of people. But in their community -- the hipster/alternative, self-important early-twenties type -- everyone wants to be the next big thing, and no one wants to be a plumber or an electrician.
It used to be that if you were a road comic who had been out there doing it for forty years, that was something to admire. And now this younger generation has a feeling of, "I don't need those people" and created a niche within their own audience. Not to say it's bad, it's just not relatable to a lot of people.
But when I've been asked, I've helped anyone who has ever asked me for help. There was a sixteen-year-old kid who asked me if he could do a guest set at one of my concerts. I couldn't believe the balls he had, so I said sure. And so he did the set, then he spent a summer in Atlanta working the only club that would have him, a black club. Now he's out here and a regular at The Laugh Factory, The Improv, he just got a Nickelodeon show -- and he's only eighteen. He's not a part of the gimme generation.
Denver has a similar work ethic. If you come in there talking about no wi-fi at Starbucks after Chuck Roy, you're gonna bomb. And when those kind of people bomb, they don't last. They keep that self-indulgent attitude.
It's always been fascinating to me that so many comedians, or just people trying to be funny in general, will put on a Southern accent whenever quoting a stupid person. It's the go-to voice for idiocy. As an intelligent man with a Texas accent, do you ever have to deal with people not taking you seriously?
Yeah, I know about that. And yet one of the greatest contributors to American literary history, Mark Twain, had a Southern accent. Also, when I use the word "yonder," people think I'm some kind of illiterate, hillbilly retard. But they don't remember that "yonder" was used by William Shakespeare in one of the most famous quotes in literary history: "What light from yonder window breaks?" So is it stupid or intelligent? I suppose it all depends on what accent the word is spoken with. When it's a theatrical, Elizabethan tone, they're in awe, but when it sounds as if you're from Georgia, some people scoff.
Exactly. And while the rest of the country belies our accent, Southerners hold it as pride. We think it's charming and endearing. To me it's less harsh on the ears than a Boston or New York accent. We take time with our words to alliterate and enunciate, and in doing so it's an extension of the Southern mentality as a whole. "It'll get done." "Let's take our time." "A garden don't grow overnight."
Do you think any of this dismissal of Southerners is a hangover from the Civil War and the continuing issues of race and politics in the South?
Well, we've earned that a little. The South delivered some of the greatest men this country has ever known: Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were from Virginia, Abe Lincoln was from Kentucky. But then we become known for having a governor who says, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," and Klansmen and people yelling terrible things about blacks. It's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. And it only takes one person to confirm a stereotype for it become a stereotype.
You're a white comedian who often makes jokes at the expense of black people -- and black audiences love you for it. How does that work?
I learned a lot time ago that if you speak the truth, it ain't got no color. I grew up in the South, and there was no white or black where I grew up -- we were all broke. And with that mentality, you're not coming at it as a bad thing but an honest thing. You're objective with your objective, you understand?
In my last album I did the bit about "nigger cookies," and my goal was not to piss off anyone or just extemporaneously use that word, but to take the power away from the word so it never hurt anyone else. And the reason I have a stake in the game is my children are Jewish, and seventy years ago there were people who had no problem killing Jews, and did it almost to the point of genocide. In my experience, it seems that if you're going to use offensive language or joke about touchy subjects, you better make sure that your argument is airtight -- because if it doesn't make people think, then they're more likely to revert to anger. Does that dynamic put a lot of pressure on you to really mull over a joke for a while before you present it on stage?
Before I go on stage with a joke, I'll think it out. I don't write anything out. But I think about the angles, the argument. And with certain words, people think you should either say it in a racial way, or not at all -- and I take exception with that; we shouldn't be afraid of a word. If we didn't name a punch "punch," the action would still hurt somebody -- but words need other words surrounding it to help define what the word is. So we can change the meaning of words over time. Ralphie May will be at Comedy Works South, located at 5345 Landmark Place, Greenwood Village for five shows this week starting on Thursday, November 21. All are currently sold out; for more information, visit comedyworks.com.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.