There are not many white people who would (or could) make Amistad jokes on a ship full of 5,000 black people. Or describe a trainful of Chinese people as speaking “china talk.” But Ralphie May does. And he gets away with it. Not because his audiences are racist, but exactly the opposite. Because they are intelligent.
Ralphie May practices a kind of intelligent irreverence for political correctness. He posits political correctness has a longer history of being wrong than it does right, and reminds me that 200 years ago it was politically correct to own another person.
His sets are filled with honest jokes about race, religion, and everything in between. His life is an open book and no subject is taboo, from his weight to his stays in psychiatric wards.
Talking to him, we jump from the prison system to gas prices, religious zealots, gay marriage, his marriage, comedy as a profession, fatherhood, and a myriad of other topics. The topics are seemingly disparate but the thread connecting them all is May’s honesty. His comedic philosophy boils down to a commitment to openness and the honest dialogue that inevitably follows.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand, for a comedian, the point is not just to make you laugh, laughter is the most obvious immediate response, but these thoughts- making someone think about a subject, [the response] is usually silence. That to me satiates more than just about anything. More than I think just laughs would.”
He talks about the perfunctory apologies comedians are forced to make when their material inevitably offends someone, “I haven’t had to make the public apology, the mea culpa, the bullshit mea culpa. I haven’t had to do that because what I’m saying is true. Don’t let any word have power over you. If we change the meaning of the word, then the word will cease to be used. We’re just crackers. I just go through and verify my point. People go, ‘yeah you know what? He’s right.” He adds, “If I’m doing something right, then I should offend someone at every show.”
Comedy isn’t just about laughing. Although it may seem that way initially, the best comedy, that sticks with you and the jokes you remember years after you hear them are about the important, dark, messy parts of life. They resonate because they tackle issues we’ve all contemplated yet through wordplay and storytelling, comedians are able to boil them down to their essentials and offer a unique, often revelatory perspective.
Through his honest appraisal of himself and his experiences he gains the trust from audiences to say things most do not. When he speaks “just correct” he does so intelligently. For example, after making the comment about ‘china talk’ he clarifies, “I don’t know the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese.” This breaks the stereotype that people who aren’t politically correct do so out of ignorance, and introduces the idea that perhaps political correctness is the unenlightened/unprogressive view.
This honest approach to language presents a shift in emphasis from verbage to accountability. “I think we focus too much on the words and not enough on the people’s actions. Most minorities will tell you, you don’t have to say any derogatory words to make them feel hate.”
With four Comedy Central specials under his belt, and hours of material about every relevant topic I can think of, it’s exciting to think what will be addressed in this new show!