Ralphie May is a softie.
This observation has nothing to do with the flesh on his frame that inspires comedy-special titles such as “Girth of a Nation.” It has everything to do with Matt Rife, the 20-year-old comedian who will open for May on Sunday, Nov. 15, at the Knitting Factory.
“I met him when he was 16,” May recalls in a phone interview. “He begged me for, like, three months to open for me in Youngstown, Ohio, and I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no.’ And he just kept on beatin’ me up.”
So May relented. That was four years ago. Now Rife is an up-and-coming comic and a cast member on MTV’s “Wild ’N Out.”
Not coincidentally, May’s generosity attack happened on the anniversary of Sam Kinison’s death.
“He got me started,” May says, “and I’m always grateful for that.”
When May was 17, he won a talent contest to open for the flamboyant shock comedian at the University of Arkansas.
Kinison wasn’t helpful at first. “Kid are you nervous?” May remembers him asking. “There’s going to be 3,500 people there and nobody paid to see you.
“He goes, ‘Kid, if you get in trouble, just start yelling and cussing at the audience. The more you yell and cuss at them, the more they’ll love you.”
The set ended with thousands booing, May says.
“I think that he snowballed me a little bit. I was backstage crying.”
A contrite Kinison soon convinced May to move to Houston and pursue comedy full-time. It was the start of a unique relationship. There was the naive youngster. And there was the notoriously hard-partying celebrity.
“It was weird,” May admits, “because I wouldn’t hang out with him after, like, 11 o’clock, because he’d be too gakked up on coke.”
For May, 43, paying it forward is part an undeniably empathetic aspect of his comedic personality. Yes, May jokes about race, drugs and sex. Yes, he’s politically incorrect. But there’s a vulnerability that has connected with fans ever since he made his commercial breakthrough on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” in 2003.
His struggle with obesity is part of it. May has undergone gastric bypass surgery. He’s tried to lose weight on reality show “Celebrity Fit Club.” A pneumonia-related health scare in 2011 hospitalized him for days and sidelined him for weeks.
May is human. Just like his audience.
In October, media outlets revealed divorce proceedings with his wife, Lahna Turner, also a comedian.
May vented on Twitter: “You know I’m not a celebrity,” he wrote. “I’m just a comic and a man. @tmz you guys could’ve been cooler. Thank you for adding to my misery.”
May is a celebrity, though. Media coverage is part of that equation.
“For me,” he explains, “with paparazzi staking out your kids’ school to take pictures of them, it’s over the line, I personally think.”
“... I love my kids. I work hard,” he continues. “I don’t bother anybody. I smoke a little reefer, and I have a good time. I make the people laugh hard. I do two hours of jokes. Most people don’t even do a full hour. I do two. Because I want people to realize that I respect the money they spend with me.”
Two hours? That’s a long routine.
“I’ve always been like that,” May says. “I’ve been in stand-up now for 26 years. It’s fun for me. It’s always been something that I wanted to do and be, and I’ve had enough luck in life to do what I love and love what I do for 26 years. It’s great.”
It’s strange to think that May, 43, is five years older than Kinison was when he was killed by a teenage drunk driver in 1992. May isn’t just older than his mentor, though. He’s more mature.
May didn’t offer any “helpful” hints to Rife when the kid opened for him in Ohio that first time. “I was a nice guy,” May says. “I don’t haze comics. ‘God bless you, go up there.’ It’s hard enough.”
Tonight in ‘The Other Studio’
Join Tim Johnstone and me as we talk rock and spin new music from Jeff Lynne’s ELO, Eric Church, Weezer, Kurt Vile and more. “The Other Studio” airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on 94.9 FM The River.
In Scene Nov. 20
▪ A restaurant review of Le Coq d’Or, the new fine-dining establishment at Chateau des Fleurs in Eagle.
▪ Boise photographer John Shinn makes his gallery debut with an installation at Ming Studios.
8 p.m. Nov. 15, Knitting Factory, 416 S. 9th St., Boise. $37.50. TicketWeb. Opening: Matt Rife.