To become a good comedian, you have to learn more than how to tell a good joke. You also have to learn how to take one.
Forty-five-year-old comedian Ralphie May, who died of cardiac arrest Friday at his home in Las Vegas probably heard every fat joke in the world. But his close friend Sean Traynor, the manager of the Addison Improv comedy club, says he still laughed at them.
"He would crack jokes with you and didn't mind taking a joke at him," Traynor says. "I remember when he told a bunch of the house comics about how he got fat after a car wreck and one of the comics said, 'Did you hit a fucking lard truck and have to eat your way out?' and he just died laughing. He could take a joke better than anyone."
The Houston native, who found fame and a national audience on the first season of NBC's reality competition Last Comic Standing, was passionate about helping young comics. That sometimes meant just laughing at one of their jokes or offering words of encouragement; other times, he handed them checks.
Comedian Tyson Faifer, who has appeared on NBC's American Ninja Warrior, says his most memorable interaction with May happened five years ago when Faifer caught one of his shows at the Addison Improv.
"He started doing crowd work, and he came to me and asked what I did, and I said I was a comic," Faifer says. "He said, 'Man, you're just a little baby comic.' Then he yelled at Ebony Crossley [the former door manager of the Addison Improv] and asked if I was really a comedian. Then he said to refund my ticket because 'comics don't pay the bill at my show,' and I checked my bank account, and sure enough, they refunded the ticket."
Comedian and North Texas Comedy Fest founder Dan Danzy first crossed paths with May in Beaumont in 2006, when Danzy was a high school student hanging out at the Comedy TX Club. Danzy says he saw May drive up to the club in a fully loaded Hummer H2 while wearing "the leather-iest leather jacket I've ever seen and those cool sunglasses."
Naturally, everyone thought he was the total Hollywood package who wouldn't converse with any of the upstart comedians, but Danzy says talked with everyone who wanted to meet him, whether they were after advice or just a handshake. The place was packed and "people were constantly talking to him, and he never seemed bothered by it," Danzy says.
May even met with and listened to his potential critics. Comedian Dave Little says when he first encountered May, "I didn't like him. I kind of hated him."
Little says he had gotten into a heated discussion with May in an online newsgroup five years ago over something Little says he can't remember, except that "we just got kind of sideways on stuff." When Little met May in between shows at the Arlington Improv, Little says his opinion changed immediately.
"There was kind of a pause, and he recognized my name and remembered and just said, 'Dude, I was way out of line with the things I said,' and I said, 'I'm not usually like this, and I want to apologize, too,'" Little says. "He couldn't have been nicer and more gracious. He went out of his way to be extra nice, and it just changed the way I looked at him."
Traynor says May's natural tendency toward people-pleasing helped drive his comedy.
"He kind of had this urban slang to himself, so he could definitely get away with saying the N-word on stage," Traynor says. "Because of his character, he could cross over different platforms and be accepted by different audiences: black, white, Mexican. Ralphie would call out stuff whether it was political or religious or race-driven. I remember him wanting to get these rubber bracelets made with the N-word on them, the real word, because he felt like if everybody used the word, it would lose its power. He was a real smart dude when it came to comedy."
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Danzy says May never took cheap shots.
"Ralphie was trying to get a Dr Pepper and a waitress couldn't hear him, and she wasn't ignoring him but she couldn't hear him," Danzy says about the first time he saw May perform in Beaumont. "So I got up and filled up his Dr Pepper for him, and the other comics were laughing and pointing because they thought I was kissing up, but he leans in and says, 'I'll always remember the new comic who got up and got me a Dr Pepper and not the comics who are laughing at the comic who got me the Dr Pepper.'"
May lived to make people feel better, Traynor says.
"He could roll with anything," he says. "He could make the most awkward or shitty situation funnier with just opening his eyes really wide and shaking face. He could make anybody laugh."