Ralphie May goes on the offensive against political correctness

Ralphie May's comedy career is built around the idea that "politically correctness" is overrated.
Ralphie May's comedy career is built around the idea that "politically correctness" is overrated.

Comedian Ralphie May puts serious thought into his words.

"I have to," he says. "I'm one who uses the common vernacular as a tool. I'm a stand-up comedian, so I have to use words."

So it was not a flip decision to name his next album Ralphie May: HNIC, the acronym standing for "Head (N-word) in Charge."

"The reason I'm doing that is I want to take the stigma out of the word," May says. "The strategy of the last 50 years is treating the word and the hate as one thing and denoting that if you say the word, you must be filled with hatred for black people ... . It's obtuse and it's an antiquated way of thinking. Not using the word and hoping it will cease to be has just emboldened the word and made it stronger."

Repeated use can sap a word of its power, May says, citing examples of antiquated terms such as keen and groovy that were used to death in previous generations.

People who have seen May, who comes to the Lexington Opera House on Thursday, might not expect such an analytical perspective from a comedian who has starred in three Comedy Central specials and whose humor often centers on drug use and ethnic jokes.

May grew up in Clarksville, Ark., the fourth child of a single mother living in an 800-square-foot home.

"I literally had to fish for my supper a lot of times," May, 38, says.

His first break came in 1989, when he won a contest at age 17 to open for Sam Kinison, the late comedian who was famous for routines punctuated by primal screams.

"We were driving to the gig, and he said, 'Are you scared?'" May says. "I said, 'No.' Then he said, 'Well there are 3,500 people out there, and none of them came to see you.'"

Kinison told May that if May started to bomb, he should just start screaming at the audience and insulting them, and they'd love it. As May's routine started to founder, he followed the advice and got booed off the stage.

It was a perfect set-up for Kinison, who immediately went out and screamed, "Can you believe that kid, coming out here and talking to you good people like that?! He will never be in show business again. Oh! Oh! Ohh!"

May was about to call his mom to pick him up when Kinison's brother Bill came over and told May that the comedian loved what he did and that May had the guts to do it, and that Sam Kinison wanted him to come to the after-party.

"A Sam Kinison after- party is no place for a 17-year-old boy," May says.

But Kinison ended up being a mentor to May, helping him with his routine.

The next big break came on the first season of NBC's reality-competition series Last Comic Standing. May says that rather than tearing one another down, the competitors worked together to make the shows better.

"We just thought if we had a chance, we'd better give them the best we could give them," says May, who finished second to Dat Phan. "We made sure everything we did was funny.

"I'd been a producer, and I got the other contestants around and said, 'Look, we could be canceled. Just because they start this thing doesn't mean they couldn't end it at any time. That's why we've got to be funny at all times.' We had to be funny at all times as well as compete amongst ourselves."

After the show, May kept working on his career, which has included distinctions such as being the only white comedian to appear on The Big Black Comedy Show.

May has been slapped with the "politically incorrect" label, which he wears with pride.

"Political correctness has a longer history of being wrong than being right," May says. "One hundred-fifty years ago, it was politically correct to own black people. ... A hundred years ago, it was politically correct to deny women the right to vote.

"When are we going to learn as a nation that we're all fingers on the same hand? Political correctness hasn't taught that. It's taught us to be blank-Americans instead of just Americans."

May says his approach to comedy was formed in those years of growing up in poverty, and although his routines can come across as abrasive, "it all comes from a place of empathy."