Comedian Ralphie May has plenty more to talk about than fat jokes


Ralphie May almost died but says he now has a new outlook on life.

He's a solo-billed, headline comedian at the South Point this weekend. But he says he is still shut out of comedy's big leagues.

He wants to save the world but admits he's a little messed up himself.

"I'm imperfectly yours," he says.

Not a bad title for a stand-up special.

As the 40-year-old comedian battles back physically from a near-death bout with pneumonia last year, May says he draws inspiration from his wife and two children and has kicked a longtime marijuana habit.

He always told himself the weed was "for pain management and anxiety," but it also was "covering up trauma from childhood."

"I'm a great comedian. The great comedians aren't cut from silk. Their life is miserable," he says. "If you love a comedian and you think they're wonderful, then their life growing up was horrible. There's no getting around it.

"That's the commonality of all stand-ups. That's why we have the common bond. That's why we think different than everybody else. Because we are different than everybody else. We're damaged goods."

And May is still 400-plus pounds of damaged goods. After 23 years as a stand-up, nine of them in the national eye, some things just don't change. He's still carrying the weight - and the baggage that goes with it.

"I'm fat. I'm fat, I'm fat, I'm fat," he says on the phone, in a voice that sounds resigned and indignant and a bit short of breath all at the same time. "Because of that I'm dismissed."

The comedian talks onstage about immigration laws in Arizona more than his weight. Even so, "when somebody's different, it's so easy to dismiss what people say because of what they look like. They really want to judge the book by its cover," he says.

"The perception of fat people in America is that they're fat, therefore they're dumb, they're lazy, they must stink. They're unlearned, unintelligent. ... It's not that they could be more than just a person who's fat. That perception especially permeates itself in a place like Los Angeles, (which) is chock-full of beautiful people."

But May is simultaneously quick to defend how far he's come since 2003, when the TV contest/reality show "Last Comic Standing" put him in the national spotlight. (He lost to frequent Harrah's Improv host Dat Phan, but that mattered about as much as Chris Daughtry losing "American Idol" to Taylor Hicks.)

May says he has sold 1.6 million tickets in the past four years. He has released five comedy albums in eight years and had four one-hour specials on Comedy Central.

But even the latter is a frustration, he points out, because the cable network doesn't fund the productions or sponsor him on tour. "I'd love to be that guy, I'd love to have help," he says. "I want to be a part of the in crowd so bad, (but) I'm just not. But what do you do, bellyache? ... You can bitch and whine about it or you can evolve and work."

So he chooses the latter, generating so much stand-up that "I've flooded the market with material. I write faster than the market dictates."

This productivity comes while he battles back from what he calls "a perfect storm" of health problems that had him fighting for his life last year with pneumonia and blood clots in his legs and lungs.

"It wasn't because I'm fat, it's because I was exhausted and had immune deficiency," which he blames on an inability to absorb vitamins after gastric bypass surgery a few years ago.

Add to that thyroid and leptim hormone problems. "My body doesn't know I'm fat," he says. "I only eat 1,200 to 1,400 calories a day and I still don't lose weight."

Overdoing it on the 2005 TV reality show "Celebrity Fit Club" resulted in four back surgeries, he says. But with the help of a physical therapist, May says he is "now on the other side of it and healing and losing weight and getting stronger."

After the ordeal, "I'm trying to make a difference" onstage, he says.

Casino audiences still get a lighter set because of "time constraints and a party attitude." Especially this weekend, because the opening act isn't his wife, Lahna Turner, but Tampa Bay radio host Mike "Cowhead" Calta.

But see him in a place where he can really stretch out, and May's new mission is "changing peoples minds."

"I want our adults to be the last generation to suffer these indignities" of racism and hatred, he says. If the enemies of America see us all equally, why can't we see ourselves as "fingers on the same hand?" he asks.

"I can put anything in (a set) I want and I was just filling it with jokes. Now I'm filling it with something else," he says. "I leave 'em with something different."

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

 

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