The 400-pound standup comedian will be at Cleveland's Improv Thursday through Sunday.
By TERRY MORROW
Comic Ralphie May feels misunderstood.
"People say, 'You're so urban, you're so urban.' I'm like, 'Really?' I think I'm just Southern," says May, a Chattanooga, Tenn., native whose career has taken off after appearances on NBC's "Last Comic Standing" and VH1's "Celebrity Fit Club" reality shows.
May, 33, who is in the middle of a nationwide comedy tour, was raised in Arkansas and lived in Houston for nearly a decade. "I'm so Southern," he says, "I'm my own cousin."
May's Southern style isn't immediately obvious.
Unlike other Southern-bred comics who talk about rednecks, fishing holes or trailer parks, May has a streetwise sensibility. He usually performs wearing sports jerseys, cargo pants and sneakers. He peppers conversations with inner-city slang.
"A lot of people who aren't from the South don't understand ... that there aren't a lot of white-black issues [in the South] because we're all poor," he says. "I don't care if you're white or black.
"We didn't have Tupperware. We all ate out of a Cool Whip bowl that was stained with chili or spaghetti sauce. We all went to our grandmama's house and watched the new TV on top of the old TV. We had to entertain ourselves because we were broke. That's where comedy comes from."
At age 13, he performed for the first time in front of an audience at a Methodist youth retreat in Mobile, Ala. "My jokes had that level of innocence," he says.
By 16, he was devoted to doing standup wherever he could. He was also partying hard and was involved in a car accident. He spent 10 days in a coma.
"You close your eyes and then wake up 10 days later," he says. "It's kind of like, 'OK. Here I am.' What day is it? Really? Better watch CNN to catch up."
As a student at the University of Arkansas, he got his big boost: opening for Sam Kinison. Heeding Kinison's advice, an 18-year-old May moved to Houston, where the comedy scene was blooming. He stayed for nine years.
Then he relocated to Los Angeles, and his career took off.
He was a contestant on two editions of "Last Comic Standing." The reality show opened doors for his career, but was personally devastating.
Tribute to father
May's father died on a night when he was scheduled to perform on the show. May says he wanted to quit the show at that point, but the powers-that-be threatened to sue him for $1 million.
So he went on stage and did jokes that his father always enjoyed. He says they weren't the best jokes in the world, but it's what he felt at the time.
"You've got two options when you are presented with these tragedies," he says. "Laugh or cry. I save my tears and keep them close to my heart. Once I shed them I don't have to keep repeating them."
He says his own tragedies entitle him to comment on dark subjects, such as Terri Schiavo, the tsunami disaster or the passing of the pope.
"Funny is funny ... as long as you come from a positive place," he says. At 430 pounds, May participated in "Celebrity Fit Club" to shed weight. He has lost about 50 pounds and continues to work out.
He is producing a new comedian competition series called "Baggin"' for VH1. It features comedians "trash talking" each other for prizes and is set for a fall premiere. A superhero feature film starring him is on tap, too.
"It's pretty cool the way things are going down," he says. "It could be a lot worse."
May will be at The Improv in Cleveland from Thursday through Sunday and at Funny Bone in Cincinnati on May 26-29. For other dates, check www.ralphiemay.com.