Pop Goes The News — Ralphie May is a survivor — both in the world of stand-up comedy, where he’s been performing for more than 25 years, and in life.
Five years ago, the corpulent comedian was struck with double pneumonia and a pulmonary embolism. The near-death experience came a little more than two decades after a car accident that put him in a coma with 42 broken bones.
Then there’s his battle with substance abuse, a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the demise of his marriage.
“I’m fantastic. I’m as good as it gets,” May insists, sipping a can of Coke at 9:40 in the morning and wearing sunglasses to ease headaches he suffers 13 years after getting laser eye surgery.
“I’m actually losing weight for a change. I’m happy for a change. I’m not miserable. Except for [marijuana] I’m substance-free, which, for me, is awesome. My anxiety is being handled without Xanax or [Benzodiazepines].”
Not too long ago, May was in a very dark place.
“For a couple of years my plan was to make enough money to make sure that my kids are okay and then just kill myself,” he admits. “I was miserable. Now, it’s like I want to see them do everything. I want to stay alive forever now.”
May says he was diagnosed with PTSD more than two years after his brush with death in a Florida hospital.
“I had to stay awake in ICU for 11 days. That fucks your mind up,” he explains. “It was like I was drowning for 11 days in my own fluids and infection. I couldn’t breathe. I had to stay awake to breathe every breath, so I was sleep deprived. I had to be restrained. I broke with reality.”
Before getting treatment for PTSD, May says he would stay awake for five or six days while on the road performing stand-up. “When I went home I would fall asleep because it was the only place where I felt safe,” he recalls.
“I would go and get my kids out of their beds and put them in bed with me. I’m the lowest point in the bed so they both fell to me and that was the only place I was happy.”
May says his near-death experience is largely to blame for the end of his 10-year marriage to comedian Lahna Turner. She filed for divorce last October and sought joint custody of daughter April June, 8, and son August James, 7.
May recalls that even after his recovery, Turner was convinced he was going to die.
“The doctors said just the opposite but she didn’t believe the doctors,” he says. “When someone that you love tells you that over and over and over again [that you’re going to die] you can’t be around them and it makes you miserable.”
May wishes Turner had sought professional help to deal with the trauma of watching the father of her children fight for his life.
“She never got any treatment at all. She swears up and down she doesn’t need it,” he says. “And now she doesn’t need me. So it’s like, good. You go be you and I’ll go be me and we have children together and I’ll make sure they’re taken care of forever.”
May — who attributes his weight to “genetics and a roll of the dice” — insists he’s healthy.
“I’m fortunate not to have a fatty or enlarged heart. I’m amazingly fortunate not to have a fatty or enlarged liver. I don’t have diabetes, I don’t have high blood pressure, I don’t have high cholesterol,” he says. “I’m lucky across the board.”
May, 44, says being single now “is kind of fun.”
He explains: “You get to go see towns that you’ve known for years in a little different way, as a single man.
“For years I was married so I had no life at all. I would just go home and get into my pyjamas and smoke reefer and watch a movie and go to sleep and get up and do it all again the next day.”
Both in Tennessee and raised in Arkansas, May was 18 when he won the chance to open for one of his idols, Sam Kinison. That break led to work behind the scenes and in front of the camera in Los Angeles.
He came second on Last Comic Standing and appeared on The Tonight Show before starring in his own stand-up specials and recording several comedy albums.
May’s most recent special, Unruly, streams on Netflix.
May spoke to Pop Goes The News ahead of a 13-night run in The Nasty Show at the Just For Laughs festival, where he has performed before.
You clearly get a kick out of talking about things the rest of us are too afraid to talk about.
That’s me. I’m kind of like a finger in your butt — uncomfortable at first but then, not so bad.
I want people to laugh. I never get past that goal. I want them to have a great time. If you want to see sock comedy or observational comedy, there are tons of shows. But maybe you’re on a second date with a chick and you need a comic to do a good blowjob joke to see how this bitch reacts. To see if there’s going to be a third date. I get ‘em in a mood and I keep them there because I’m not threatening. They’ve never been hit on by a 400-pound guy. They think that what I’m saying is crazy and fictional even though it’s true and it gets them in a mood and it turns them on, but not at me. It turns them on to their guy because they think there’s no way that they can be turned on by me.
Are there any topics that are off the table?
No. God, no.
You never find yourself holding back or censoring yourself?
Never. Never. When you start doing that you start limiting your comedy and if you change for one group of people then you lose your integrity as a comic.
By now, most people know what to expect at your shows.
They know not to be offended. They know it’s just jokes. I don’t mean anything by it. I don’t have political favourites. Everything is open for discussion.
How do you feel about fans sharing your act on social media?
Comics worry about joke thefts and the audience taping you and sending it out. I really don’t because I can’t control that and therefore it’s not something that’s omnipresent in my mind.
They can take the water, they can’t take the well. Alright, you stole a bucket of water. Alright, fine. I’m chock full of it. I’ve got jokes for days. I put out a new hour-and-a-half every year. I don’t think that there’s ever been a comic in history that’s been able to do that. I’ve recorded two completely different specials the same night — nobody’s ever done that before.
It doesn’t bother me in the least to be the guy I am. I’m very comfortable in my own skin and if you know who you are and you’re not worried about anything, they can take anything they want and I’ll deal with it.
In April, you took a lot of heat after someone posted some of your old material about Native Indians on Twitter.
They didn’t even include the whole joke. They took 44 seconds of it. Being taken out of context is a horrible thing. I really could give a shit. I’m upset that they used my words to hurt people but I’m not upset or ashamed about the joke I made because it was a joke.
I said Indians cry when we litter but no one was crying for me when I lost 10 grand at the Mohegan Sun Indian Casino. And by the way, the buffet had no corn. That’s just disrespectful. Of all the places you should be guaranteed corn…
I imagine Donald Trump is gold to comedians.
I think he’s a total dick. I’m nervous.
I’m a student of history and nationalism is a very scary thing. It’s what gave rise to Adolph Hitler. I firmly believe that if Trump got into office that he would engineer, like Hitler did, a reason to gain even more control and to circumvent the Constitution as far as term limits and stuff. He would blow something up and blame it on terrorists and get America into another war because he understands that it actually builds economies and moves economies and would galvanize America.
You tweet a lot about Trump but will he make it into your act?
I don’t even think I’m going to talk about him. I think he’s a fucking asshole and the more I talk about him the more juice he gets. He can suck my dick. I think the guy’s a total dick. A big time asshole. Anybody who has to tell you that many times that they’re smart means that they’re definitely not smart. The Muslim ban — that’s crazy.
In America we’re about to eat a shit sandwich. One side is the corn side, one side is the peanut side.
Do you think Trump will win?
He won’t. But Hillary is not that much better.
We tell ourselves that we’re the greatest fucking nation — and we tell that to ourselves all the fucking time. We are goddamn delusional and it’s arrogant. We really got two shit choices for president. You’ve got a spoiled rich guy or a woman who’s been in public office for 30 years. It’s like, get the fuck out of here.
Canadians watch what’s going on down south with bewilderment.
Everybody’s mad at Black Lives Matter. How the fuck can you be mad at someone upset about their people being killed?
I’ve told every black guy I know, buy yourself a Puerto Rican flag and if you get pulled over and some racist cop is yelling at you, just slowly flash that Puerto Rican flag and it will confuse them. They’ll have to call the sergeant. “Are we shooting Puerto Ricans? No? Alright, have a good day, sir.”
What can we expect at The Nasty Show?
Filthy, dirty, really funny. And I’ll make you laugh your asses off.
I’ll get her a little turned on for you, boys, and you close the deal. I’m doing my part. If I’m a great fucking wingman, I win. I’ll be a dirty filthy animal.
It’s fun and we’ll make you laugh — and I won’t talk about socks, I promise.
The Nasty Show runs July 20 to 30 at Metropolis as part of Just For Laughs. For tickets and more information go to hahaha.com.
Follow @JRK_Media for Just For Laughs highlights.