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Q&A: Ralphie May

The fearless funnyman with a renewed Las Vegas residency may be tired of the politically correct boo-hooing, but his standup act is helping fuel a national comedy boom.

G.K. Hizer
July 29, 2017

If you’re a fan of standup comedy, you’re well aware of comedian Ralphie May. After appearing on the first season of Last Comic Standing in 2003 (where he came in second to Dat Phan), his career has taken off. Without being drawn into sketch comedy or film, May has kept his focus on standup and become one of the biggest stars in comedy circles.

With a career that has yielded seven comedy albums, four Comedy Central specials, and two Netflix features, May shows no signs of slowing down. He still tours constantly, filling clubs and theaters, and recently landed his first residency in Las Vegas.

As a summer tour takes him across the United States, May will be appearing at Paradise Cove in River Spirit Casino & Resort on Aug. 18.

Q: What led you into comedy, and who were your influences that drew you into it?

A: I started in comedy in 1989, and the guys that were hot then were Dice [Andrew Dice Clay], Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy, and, of course, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. That’s what I grew up on, but I also loved Johnny Carson. The first time I tried standup I was 13, in a school talent show. Later, when I was 17, I won a contest and opened for Kinison. He told me, “If you want to do this, you need to move to Houston.” So I did. 

Q: With your schedule, you play a mixture of clubs and theaters or casinos. How do the shows compare or differ as your'e playing different kinds of venues?

A: Well, it’s more intimate in a club setting, which is better for comedy, but when I’m playing a theater like the one I’m coming to in Tulsa, they’ve done so much to make it more intimate and not feel so separated. They’ve pulled the seating forward, and you can see everyone. It’s really pretty cool. I was talking to my friend, Chris Rock, who played there recently and he loved it. That’s really a high recommendation when another comic says, “Yeah, man, you’ve got to play there. It will blow your mind.” So I’m really looking forward to it.

Plus, I’ve got friends there and some family in Tulsa, so it’s fun to come and know people where you’re playing. I’m from northwest Arkansas, which is just an hour or hour and a half away. At that point, it’s all the same people, or at least the same kind of people, so it will be nice to be home, more or less. 

Q: Speaking of playing casinos, you played your first residency at Harrah's earlier this year. It looks like you're going back in the fall. How did that work out for you?

A: Originally, it was just going to be for three or four months, kind of a probationary period, I guess, from January to the first of July. But it all worked out really well. I loved it and they were happy, so they came back with a follow-up contract for two and a half years. It’s great, because I’m making twice the money and I don’t have to travel — they come to me. 

Q: After touring for so long, surely you've had some great shows and some bad ones. What was one of the weirdest shows you've ever played?

A: I got fed up and quit one time. I think I was working in Stillwater [Okla.] and there were only about 10 people in the audience, and they just weren’t into it. About 10 minutes in, I just said forget it and quit. Then I sat down and drank a few beers with them, and they were cool. It was kind of funny, because when I was onstage they were just like, “Oh ( forget) this guy!” But once I sat down with them, they were like, “He’s one of us.” So we sat and talked for about an hour, and I tried to work in a couple of jokes. That was definitely a different night. 

Q: You played the Gathering of the Juggalos in 2012? How bizarre was that?

A: It went really well. Going in, they told me that no one had lasted more than 10 minutes with this crowd, but I was like, I think I’ll be OK. They like dirty jokes and having a good time; these are my kind of people. Then they said, “Well, you only have to play 10 minutes.” Two and a half hours later, I finally wrapped up the show. Of course, I’d taken a hit off a nine-foot bong that took three people to operate and was shotgunning beers with people in the crowd, but it went great.

I stayed another hour and a half afterward, taking pictures and signing anything they wanted signed. I stayed until the sun started coming up. I think that’s why they never invited me back — they’d rather see someone fail. 

Q: Do you ever think that coming in second on Last Comic Standing was a blessing?

A: I would have liked to have won. I think I’d have been more ready than the guy who won. He wasn’t already a headliner, and I honestly don’t know what happened to him. I think that what happened to me was the same as what happened to Metallica in 1988, when they were nominated for the first heavy metal Grammy, but lost to Jethro Tull. Metallica should have won it, but they gave it to Jethro Tull that didn’t even have a record out at the time. 

Q: But I've talked to heard interviews with people who were on American Idol who came in second place and they said it was kid of better for them to not win because then they had control of their career. Do you think maybe that worked to your advantage as well?

A: Yeah, probably, because my first four albums went platinum. At first, I thought the goal was to win, but I’d already gotten into 40 million homes on network TV during prime time, and that was unheard of at the time. I think that show helped reignite standup comedy. It fueled the internet, which fueled even more interest, and it fed into this big steamroller. Comedy is in a boom right now, and I think that helped play a big part in that. 

I know the clubs are a lot nicer than they used to be. We’re not playing in bowling alleys anymore. These are legit clubs where the owners are businessmen and treat the comics with some respect. Most of the shysters are out of the game, and it’s a legit business now.

Ralphie May
Paradise Cove | River Spirit Casino Resort
8330 Riverside Pkwy. | Tulsa
Aug. 18: 8 p.m.
Must be 21 or older to attend