Comedy

Ralphie May on Southern intellectuals and hating alternative comedy

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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."

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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse