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COMEDY: Comedian Ralphie May returns to the roost

by Eric E. Harrison | January 18, 2008 at 1:57 a.m.

— When Ralphie May is hot, he's really hot.

May says he was running a temperature of 104 when he made his 2004 appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and got the show's first standing ovation for a comedian in 10 years.

"I don't even remember it," he says. "Everybody told me I looked so relaxed; I was just trying not to [get sick]."

May, just shy of his 36th birthday, was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., but grew up in Clarksville.

"I had fun growing up in Arkansas," he says. "Growing up in Clarksville, Little Rock was Tinseltown," he says. "Now that I live in L.A., I dream of traffic being equivalent to a busy day around the malls.

"It's going to be strange to be an adult and go back and see how things have changed."

He recalls the time he punched out Corliss Williamson after the former Razorback and NBA player dunked over him during a sixth-grade basketball game.

"I've always been a huge Razorback fan," May says. "My nephew's at the university right now. My mom and dad are graduates. I even went there for a 'cup of coffee,' part of their Beginning Scholars Program" while he was in high school.

"I got in trouble one time when I was on The Tonight Show wearing a Razorback shirt," because the show's producers got nervous that the University of Arkansas would sue for displaying the Razorback image without permission.

"Now I'm working on getting a letter of permission [from the university] so I can wear my Hog shirt on TV," he says. As it is, he wears a red shirt in all his publicity pictures and the cover photo on his most recent album, a CD/DVD set called Prime Cut.

May says he is excited about doing "my first big show in Arkansas" tonight at The Village, a club in a converted southwest Little Rock movie theater. "I'm going to cut short an appearance at the South Beach Comedy Festival in Miami to do this show," he says. "Comedy Central was, like, 'You're blowing us off? For Arkansas?' and I said, 'Yeah.'"

May says he has family members coming in from all over the state for the show.

He's not planning to take toomuch advantage of the comedic opportunity of having two presidential candidates with Arkansas ties.

"I like [Mike] Huckabee - he's funny," May says, "and I'm proud that Arkansas is in the [political] forefront. When other comics kid me about Arkansas, I remind them that Arkansas has more millionaires per capita than anyplace else.

"But I really don't mess much with politics."

He does note that his grandmother, Sue Sykes, was big in state politics in the '70s and who, he says, advised a young governor named Bill Clinton that he stood to lose his first reelection bid in 1980 if his wife didn't change her last name from Rodham to Clinton. (Clinton did lose that election to Frank White, and Rodham did change her name before her husband ran again and won in 1982.)

At 17, May won a talent show and a chance to open a show forthe legendary late Sam Kinison, who reportedly told May, "That was the funniest thing I've ever seen in my life."

Kinison took May under his wing and May moved to Houston. "I left Arkansas at 18 because there were no comedy clubs in the state," he explains. (There was at least one club in Little Rock, he admits, but about that time it may have been temporarily on the rocks.)

May hung around with the so-called "Houston comedy mafia," which included Kinison and the late Bill Hicks, but "those guys were all 15-20 years older than me, and they didn't like me very much. Not only was I stealing their jokes, I was stealing their gigs."

May broke into the big time when he took second place in the first season of NBC's Last Comic Standing. "Longtime fans of Ralphie's stand-up were joined by countless new fans when America thought he wasrobbed of the winner's title," as May's official biography diplomatically puts it.

May released his first DVD, Just Correct, in February 2004. He also did a Comedy Central special called Girth of a Nation, a reference to his weight problem - after a car accident when he was 16, in which he broke 42bones, he swelled to more than 800 pounds, but has since undergone gastric-bypass surgery and as of Jan. 9 he had gotten down to 392. (En route, he lost 27 pounds on the VH1 show Celebrity Fit Club in 2005, one of the lowest totals in history of the show.)

May's wife, comedian Lahna Turner, will be his opening act, and their newborn daughter, April June May ("that's a name you'll never forget," May brags) will be there as well. But May says she's not that likely to disrupt the show.

"She calms down when she hears applause," he says.

But just because his family will be present, don't assume that May does a family show.

"This is not a family act," he says. "I'm pretty dirty."Ralphie May 8:30 p.m. today, The Village, Town & Country Shopping Center, Asher and University avenues, Little Rock. Doors open at 7 p.m.

Tickets: $20 in advance, $24 at the door (501) 570-0300 www.thevillagelive.com

Weekend, Pages 72 on 01/18/2008

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