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Comedian Ralphie May on politics, race and the present-day reality of America

Comedian Ralphie May

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It’s easy to look at comedians and think they’re always joking – a wisecrack a minute, a witty observation tossed out almost constantly. But the essence of comedy is human truth, and a lot of that truth is serious business – especially if you’re talking to Ralphie May. Speaking to IFC about his new comedy DVD, Too Big to Ignore, May highlights how he chooses to provoke his audience, hopefully to think, even as he’s making them laugh. In a recent interview, May explains how his original goal to make a family-oriented comedy special turned into a treatise on racial tolerance, political correctness, parental guidance, and intellectual openness.

IFC: Just to get started, talk about putting your set together for the new DVD.

RALPHIE MAY: I started out with the intention of doing a family DVD, with material about the kids and stuff like that. And then I started getting mad about social issues, like how Arizona was going after Latinos. And it brought up old anger of Arizona, like not celebrating Martin Luther King Day, and it just angered me, it made me very upset. And it was just to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore so I started writing jokes about it. And then there were other things, like we got Osama bin Laden, and it dawned on me that we as a nation have been spun around. If people look at each other long enough, they can’t look up. They can’t look up and see what’s really going on because they’re looking at each other.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s with the whites versus black and in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, it was black and white versus brown, Latinos. And then we settled that down and then in the ‘90s, we had the greatest amount of prosperity a nation has experienced in the history of the world. And then 9/11 happened, and that’s where we’re stuck at now – it’s us versus the Muslims. And that’s the power that our government uses to spin us. That’s why we’ve allowed two wars to go on, and when I go and see the troops, it bothers me a lot that these men and women are being put in harm’s way when we went to get a guy, and we got the guy, and we’re still at war for no reason. And then I saw how we took that stuff and instead of dealing with real issues and getting people out of harm’s way, we started attacking gay people. Seriously? We’ve got a huge fucking deficit and we’ve got two wars and we’re talking about who’s fuckin’ who? Are you serious? Is this all we can talk about? It sounds stupid, but I really wanted to bring the focus back to what we need to do and wake people up to what our government’s doing. And in some way, our next generation, maybe they’ll be sitting in their college rooms watching my special and it’ll dawn on them, “Hey, he’s got a point. Maybe he’s right!” And in doing so, maybe it will change somebody’s mind. That they don’t see the bullshit that life is. That with this reality of what this country is now, is not in reality what it really is.

IFC: In your special you say, “My kids now can curse better than most foreigners learning English.” How do you make sure that when you make a joke like that, you’re not playing into an unflattering stereotype and that you’re just making a behavioral joke?

MAY: I can’t affect how it’s taken. I can tell you that I think there has to be intent there for it to be a truly harmful thing, and it’s very un-p.c., but I would venture to argue that political correctness has a longer history of being wrong than it does of being right and I think that whichever way you drink the kool-aid, in any way, you’re setting yourself up for something very damaging and potentially very dangerous. 150 years ago, it was politically correct to own people, and 50 years ago it was politically correct to have separate schools for black and white and have separate armies for black and white. So I take on words, racial slurs, and I say that hate’s a gun. The bullets in it are the words we call each other. There’s only been one racial slur that we’ve ever gotten rid of and that’s the word cracker. How did we do that? Because crackers are delicious. I want to make the greatest cookies in the world and give them all racial slur names, and in doing so, take all the sting away from these words. That being called one of these words would be the emotional equivalent of calling someone a snickerdoodle, or a Fig Newton; it would have no emphasis at all. It would have no punch. It wouldn’t hurt anybody’s feelings. And in doing so you take all the power away form the words.

IFC: What do you think about the idea of people’s right to not be offended? Does no person have a right not to be offended, or is there a line where this sort of dialogue crosses into inappropriateness?

MAY: Honestly, I want to give people the tools to not be hurt. I think they won’t be. One, protect your own happiness. Hold your happiness in your own hands, and in doing so you protect your own dignity. People have been calling me names and setting me back my whole life. And with every fight it’s just given me more fuel to my fire and in doing so I’ve become a success. That’s honestly how I did it. I just worked harder than everybody else. I wasn’t smarter than everyone else; I wasn’t endowed with more talent than everyone else. I just know how to work people. And that’s how I became the comedian that I am.

I think honestly, this is easy. And I wanted to take the sting away from the words. If I disarm the people who are going to hurt people and with whatever words that it is that they would hurt you with. In the Sandra Fluke case, she knows she’s not a slut. It just exposes Rush Limbaugh to be classless and a bigot. We’re not offended by him. I’m offended that he’s on the radio and he makes money and he’s classless — somebody who spouts all these values and is a drug addict. He’s an oxycodone drug addict and goes on these sexual vacations where he preys on young women, and I don’t really respect him. So call me a slut. I’m not in El Salvador when you buy your 16,000 oxycontin’s. Is that what you’re mad about? I think with people if you just stay mad and offended or hurt and you just stay a victim your whole fucking life, then that’s all you’re ever going to be. There has to be a point where you stand up for yourself. I think people can tell you to stand up but until you bear your own weight and stretch your legs and pick yourself up, you don’t know what that means.

I’m not so delusional that I believe everything I say will work. But there haven’t been that many people over the last 50 years that have tackled this subject, and the reason why [I want to do it] is because I almost died last year and I had two beautiful babies who are Jewish. And I was about to leave these babies with a world where I had been given a wonderful opportunity: The last four years I performed in front of 1.4 million people — that’s not televised, that’s just people who paid to see me. And I had their minds wide open, and I could put anything in them that I wanted to. And instead of just jokes, I should actively try to just make a difference. And by doing this, I might not succeed, but at least I fuckin tried. I might not get us there but somebody’s got to start the fuckin’ dialogue. Somebody’s got to build a bridge. If we just stay offended the whole goddamn time, what are we going to do with the nation?

IFC: Where then do you draw the line of taking the responsibility of being a public spokesperson of any level as an advocate of tolerance and acceptance and deferring your responsibility as a role model?

MAY: If you consider a comedian as a role model then that’s your responsibility. I’m an entertainer first. But I do as a stand up comedian, the way for me to evolve is to make a difference, to make people laugh and learn and do something different. Because there’s too many comedians out there just making people laugh. And anybody can do that. If I can make you laugh and learn, I want to be like George Carlin and Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and Sam Kinison and Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. I want to be of that ilk, I don’t want to just make you laugh, I want to make you think. I want to make a difference. I want to be part of that vernacular. I have beautiful babies that, I’m their role model.

People come to me and say that’s not a very good example, teaching your babies to cuss. And I say really? Because my daughter April says, “My name is April May and I’m a strong woman because I don’t take bullshit from anybody.” And she got kicked out of pre-school one day for that. And I found out why, because a five-year-old boy stole something she was playing with and she went over to him to take it back and she smacked him in the face and he went crying to the teacher and she’s like, “I told you I’m a strong woman, I don’t take bullshit from anybody.”

And you know what, I don’t have a problem with that; I went and got her ice-cream. And I think that’s a little girl who’s not going to be a victim, and said, “daddy, I’ve got that responsibility,” and I’ve got to arm her with what that I can. And all I can arm her with as a daddy in this world, I have to teach her self-defense, but first of all I have to teach her verbal self-defense. Things that can make her smart. I have to educate her, I have to teach her verbal skills so she can handle herself and not be put in dangerous situations. And never be a victim. And I think that responsibility is heavier on a father to his daughter than a father to his son.

IFC: Is there anything as a comedian at this point that you feel like is off-limits, personally or politically? Is there anything that happens in your life that you feel like you prefer not to talk about?

MAY: Right now I’m catching static from people who don’t want me to talk about the Arizona law. But in my own personal life, something that I don’t like to talk about is violence against women. I don’t like to talk about hurting children, or hurting dogs. I don’t find that funny. I don’t think bullying is cool, I don’t think that’s fuckin’ funny. I don’t know if you heard my story on my podcast, about how I was a bully. I got into a car wreck. There was a kid who I went to church with, I was a hypocrite. And when I was broken and battered this kid who I went to church with who I was nice to on Sundays, kept me up with my studies and he was gay. His mom would drive him down, three days a week, 60 miles round trip and bring him to visit me in the hospital and keep me up with my studies. And he got them all organized and helped me out.

And when I got back a year later in school and people where still bugging him and he was even more withdrawn and depressed, I punched some ex-friends of mine in the face, people who deserved to be. Paul didn’t. I smacked them and said, “nobody messes with this guy anymore.” And I think that’s a good example, I think that’s something that we have to do. That’s man stuff — that’s when I stopped being a boy and started being a man, when I put that bullying stuff down and stuck up for somebody who was weaker and who was different because he was effeminate.

IFC: When you have a subject, be it that one or something else, how careful are you to court the idea of ending on or interjecting more serious discussions into your material. You talk about being an entertainer, but how careful are you about stopping to make a point like that simply because you think it’s important, even if it digresses from your funnier material?

MAY: You make it in the process of being funny. You can’t let it lag — there still has to be a punch line every 8-9 seconds. And if you hit them with a punch line, everything will be ok. Everything will be fine. You can still make a point, but you just have to be funny about it.

Ralphie May can be found online at RalphieMay.com. Leave your own thoughts in the comments below.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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