Ralphie May’s ‘WTF’ Revealed the Smart, Thoughtful, and Sensitive Soul Behind the Big Personality and Big Laughs
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When Marc Maron began recording interviews in his garage for WTF, he probably never envisioned that the show would eventually become a sort of living, evolving museum of contemporary standup comedy. No, he was probably just trying to figure out what the fuck had happened to his life and career. Yet because WTF is so popular, venerable, and exhaustive, it has ended up playing the role of an ever-growing audio encyclopedia chronicling the quirks, philosophies, and life journeys of an impressively broad and deep cross section of modern standup comedians and funny people.
WTF’s secondary role as an audio history of modern comedy is particularly essential in capturing for posterity the stories of a series of beloved comedians who died after being interviewed for WTF. If you want to know what Robin Williams and Patrice O’Neal were like as men as well as comedians, for example, it would be tough to beat their WTF interviews. The same holds true of the late, great Ralphie May, who recorded a revelatory WTF episode back in 2012 that dramatically changed the way people like me saw him for the better and recently surprised and saddened the comedy world by dying of a heart attack at 45. Granted, I’d never really thought too much about May before he did WTF, but after listening to May talk to Maron I had a whole new respect for May as a comedian and a human being.
It seems safe to assume that Maron was just as impressed. You can tell that he’s deeply invested and engaged in the interview because he doesn’t say a whole lot. Instead, Maron spends the interview listening intently to May’s remarkable life story and unique perspective. May’s incongruously gentlemanly Southern accent is so lilting and musical that he could be rattling off alt-right talking points or reading an excerpt from The Art of the Deal and it’d still seem charming.
Thankfully, what May has to say is just as compelling as his homespun way of saying it. Maron can’t quite remember if he knew or partied with May during his coke-fueled blackout days. It turns out that not only did Maron party with May, but in 1992 at the Laugh Stop in Houston, May opened for Maron, with a dude named Mitch Hedberg as the feature. Needless to say, I would love to have seen that show, just as I’d love to have seen May open for another Southerner with a strong point of view: Bill Hicks.
The product of a crazy mother and absent father, May began doing standup at 17 and won the opportunity to open for Sam Kinison after winning a talent contest at a Shakey’s. Kinison had a bifurcated reputation among young comics. To Maron and May he seemed partially like an irreverent but fundamentally decent mentor showing wowed proteges both the ropes and the wild life, and partially like a larger-than-life Falstaffian figure pushing impressionable young comedians on the path to hell.
May seems to have some Kinison stories even Maron doesn’t know. Kinison gave May some important opportunities as a young man but also seemed to take a certain demented glee in tormenting and hazing him. May shares an amazing anecdote about sharing a limo ride with Kinison to a gig (his first, naturally) and having the older, more successful hell raiser psych him out by telling him, “There’s going to be 3500 people there and none of them are there to see you.”
Kinison offered the hungry young comedian a baptism by fire. During one of May’s early gigs, Kinison tricked his opening act into ending his performance by profanely insulting the crowd as a bunch of bigoted, KKK, Deliverance-looking motherfuckers so that when Kinison went on he could win back the crowd by pretending to share their anger and shock at May’s verbally abusive closing fury of nasty verbiage.
May is winningly blunt and forthright when looking back at his past with both shame and pride. During a particularly moving segment, a choked-up May talks about how he saw a near-fatal car accident he suffered as a teenager as karmic retribution for bullying a gay friend he was cool with in private but whom he mocked in public out of peer pressure. May is just as refreshingly honest talking about being seen in some circles as a hack and a joke thief in his early days, and how black and Hispanic clubs and audiences embraced him while whiter comedy clubs viewed him with skepticism.
This being WTF, there’s a lot of fascinating insight into the craft of comedy. May talks about how one in a series of important mentors asked him if he wanted to be a “fat comedian” who trafficked primarily in pandering fat jokes, or a comedian who just happened to be fat, something that changed both how he saw himself and how he saw comedy. The episode deals so extensively with May’s fascinating upbringing and early years in comedy that it doesn’t have much time to devote to his extraordinary success.
May’s revelatory WTF ends with May finishing second on Last Comic Standing but first in the hearts of the viewing public, a mixed blessing May compares to flute-loving prog-rock weirdoes beating Metallica for the first metal Grammy. The episode left me wanting more, which is the mark of a good podcast.
The late comedian says he calls the WTF host “Mr. Maron” out of respect. It’s safe to say that by the end of the episode Mr. Maron has a lot of respect for Mr. May as well. Heck, that’s obvious in the first five minutes. May and Maron are very, very different people but this standout episode makes it equally apparent they have an awful lot in common, particularly a deep love and reverence for the art and craft of standup that comes through in every moment of this gripping, funny, and ultimately deeply moving episode.
Photo by Kelly A. Swift.
Nathan Rabin is a father, the author of 5 books, a columnist and the proprietor, owner, Editor-in-Chief and sole writer for Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place, which can be found at nathanrabin.com.