Caustic comedian Ralphie May looking for laughs in Neenah

ralphie-mayRalphie May has been looking forward to getting some laughs in America’s Dairyland. The boisterous baby-faced comedian played to large crowds in Milwaukee and Madison last weekend. He’s spending this weekend at Comedy Quarter in Neenah.

“I have tons of friends who love Wisconsin,” May said. “I can’t wait.”

Club owner Rich Wickesberg is also looking forward to having a comic of Ralphie’s caliber in town for a special event this weekend. You can see the often racy but usually loveable comedian at one of his five shows tonight through Saturday.

“He’s playing mostly all theaters,” Wickesberg said. “He’s down at the Pabst Theater … then he’s in Madison, which all hold 1,600-plus people, and then he’s coming to Neenah to come play our club. We’re excited about it.”

While May started performing comedy as a teenager in the late ’80s, America didn’t get its first big dose of Ralphie May until 2003. That’s when he appeared on the first season of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.” May fell just short of the title, losing to Dat Phan in the show’s finale. Many thought May was robbed of the win, but he’s far from bitter about the experience.

“We were like kids, we had a blast,” May said. “We had no idea when we were making that show that 150 million people would watch it over the course of the year. We had no idea it would be Emmy nominated. We just wanted to make an entertaining show.” The exposure helped bring May’s scathing comedy to a much wider audience.

“It propelled me to a whole new place,” he said.

Since then, May’s list of accomplishments has included recording three one-hour specials for Comedy Central, becoming a regular on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and recently landing a role in an upcoming movie starring Neil Patrick Harris and Amy Sedaris. The film, “The Best and the Brightest,” is about a suburban couple that moves to New York City and tries to get their daughter into an exclusive kindergarten.

“I play a security guard at a school that they’re touring,” May said. “It’s just a little scene, but it’s a funny scene.”

Long before any of his recent success, May got his first big break from one of the most prolific comics of the ’80s. He was 17 years old and taking college classes at the University of Arkansas while still attending high school. Friends in a study group, which met at a Shakey’s Pizza, encouraged him to try out for a stand-up comedy contest at the restaurant.

After winning several rounds, May eventually won the grand prize — a chance to open for the legendary Sam Kinison at a big comedy concert in the area.

A former Pentecostal preacher known for his controversial material, ear-piercing screams and a reputation for partying hard, Kinison was a true rock star comedian. His untimely death in a 1992 car crash shocked the comedy world. May remembers driving to the gig with the fiery comic and talking some shop.

“He goes, ‘Kid, are you nervous?’ I said no. He said, ‘Kid, there are going to be 3,000 people there and no one is paying to see you.'”

Kinison told the young comic that the audience would love him if he yelled and cursed at them during his set. Ralphie took the tongue-in-cheek advice seriously.

“A couple of jokes bombed and I remembered what Sam said so I started yelling,” May said. “Thirty-five-hundred people in unison start to boo me.”

When Kinison came on stage he acted just as angry as the rest of the audience, telling the crowd Ralphie May would never work in comedy again.

“At that time he was the most powerful person in standup comedy, and he says I’m never going to do it again,” May said. He remembers being nearly in tears while talking to his mom on a pay phone. That’s when Kinison’s brother came up to him and assured the novice comedian that everything was OK. Sam Kinison never thought Ralphie would actually follow his advice, but found the whole thing to be hilarious.

May was invited to a party after the show, which he describes as “no place for a kid to be.”

“Me, I’m drinking half a beer and pouring the other half out,” May said with a laugh. He left that night with a stamp of approval from Kinison, and the confidence to continue telling jokes to crowds.

“Eight months later I left Arkansas never to move back, and moved to Houston to pursue comedy,” he said.

May’s life has been full of comedy ever since. He even married fellow comic Lahna Turner. She’ll be appearing at Comedy Quarter April 7 through 11, and comes with a reputation for having a sense of humor even more twisted than her husband’s.

Rich Wickesberg at Comedy Quarter says tickets for the shows this weekend are going fast and some performances are close to selling out.