by Robert Bell
OK, we have the winners of our Ralphie May ticket drawing.
Congratulations to Clarke Huisman, Alena Jones, John Wesley Hall, Deanna J. Love and Jamie Dorsey. They each won a pair of tickets to see May perform at Robinson Center Music Hall at 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 7.
Times contributor Philip M. Provost recently caught up with May for a chat about growing up in Clarksville, his early standup experiences and what it takes to make it as a professional funnyperson.
Talk a bit about your experience growing up in Clarksville.
It wasn’t the best. It was a hard life growing up. It was a similar story to a lot of people in Arkansas. My mom was a florist. I’m the youngest of four. My father and mother hated each other, and they took it out on us. She’d sue him for not paying child support, then he didn’t pay, and that ended up costing us a lot. Thank goodness for my grandmother, she was a hell of a woman. She was really beneficial, she kept us in a stature way above our means and made sure we were taken care of as far as clean clothes and shoes.
How did you get into comedy?
I used to belong to the Methodist Church in Clarksville, and we had this youth group outing, we had this rally, and they had a talent show. When I was 13, that’s when I did standup comedy. I killed it. I made out with a 14-year-old girl from Alabama. I’ll never forget it. I was hooked on comedy. I got to enter a contest to open for Sam Kinison when I was 17. This was 1989, and he was the pinnacle of standup at the time. He pulled a prank on me: He told me to say the wrong thing, to scream and yell at the audience, to tell them they’re all stupid. It got me booed, and then he came on stage and said, “Can you believe that kid, talking to people like that? He’ll be crying backstage, thinking his comedy career is over, he’ll never be in comedy again.” But Sam loved me, he said it went perfectly.
More after the jump.
How did your education help your comedy? Is specific education necessary for standup?
I was kicked out of high school, Clarksville High School, in 1990. I pulled too many pranks. I stole a car — the principal’s car — but they couldn't prove I did it. They were going to throw a bunch of us out of school, so I took the blame. The other guys were the valedictorian and the salutatorian. Those guys wanted college. I just wanted to do standup, so for me, it was a no-brainer. It’s been kind of strange: A couple of years ago, the graduating class in Clarksville wanted me to come be the keynote speaker. I canceled a $50,000 weekend, I was so honored. I got a new suit. I was jazzed to go back and speak.
But at the last second, like two weeks before, I got canceled. They didn't think I was appropriate. It’s like, come on guys, I’m not that little white trash kid you had to be ashamed of. I’d love to come up there for graduation and shake everybody’s hands, wish them luck, tell them to follow their dreams, say you can do anything, no matter where you come from. But getting back to your question: I went to college. I took 50 hours of college credit. I took a lot of public speaking, psychology, sociology, history, English and creative writing courses and all of it was to benefit me as a comedian. That’s what I did. I gleaned as much knowledge as I could from the education system on what topic I wanted to do — but at some point, you have to do what you have to do. You have to perform to become a standup comedian.
What was it like being the only white comedian on the Big Black Comedy Show?
You know, being the only cracker in the box is a little interesting. Everybody thinks Arkansas is just a hotbed of racial tension and we just hate each other racially. It’s just not the truth. The truth is: There’s no black or white in Arkansas, we’re all broke. When you’re all broke, you’re the same color. That’s what I grew up around. So when they offered me a spot on the Big Black Comedy show, I caught some static from white comedians. I got a standing ovation there, and I got a standing ovation when I did the Tonight Show, which is a “white show,” quote unquote. I don’t know. I like people, and you don’t judge people based on skin color.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring comedian?
Oh, man. Perform, perform, perform. You’re going to bomb, and that’s OK. You’ll learn more from bombing than from doing well. Work and love. Fall in love. You’ll be a success in spite of everything else, in spite of the turmoil life gives you, in spite of jobs you lose, or drama with family, in spite of everything. You can make it happen for yourself.