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.