The untold truth of Ralphie May

Ralphie May's death in October 2017 came after the cancellation of a series of tour dates. He cited illness as the reason for the cancellations, says Rolling Stone, and his official cause of death was cardiac arrest that came after a long battle with pneumonia. The outpouring of condolences was immediate as the comedy world mourned the loss of one of their own and Twitter was filled with fond memories and sadness in equal parts. What should you know about the man Marc Maron called a "comic warrior"?

He took Sam Kinison's advice and it backfired horribly

Remember your first days at work? No matter how scared you were, how much stage fright you had, or how badly it went, Ralphie May's first real gig was worse.

He shared the story with Bent in 2015, at a time he was touring in a bus that would make anyone jealous. At first, though, his future wasn't so clear. He was 17 when he won a contest that had a terrifying prize — opening for Sam Kinison. After he flubbed a punch line, he completely failed at getting his rhythm back. Before the show, Kinison had given him some advice in case this happened: swear and yell. It worked for Kinison and May had no reason to think he was getting anything but actual advice, so he did it.

"I got booed by 3,200 people, I started crying a little bit, I ran off stage and then one of the biggest names in stand-up comedy comes running out and tells me I'll never be in stand-up comedy again," May said. "And I'm really crying now. I got used, you know? I got set up."

He found out about a year later Kinison loved him and had raved about him. May was invited to a party by the comic's brother, and there was no looking back.

His weight problems started with a car accident

When May performed on Last Comic Standing, he was a relatively svelte 450 pounds. To put that in perspective, the Sun Sentinel says at one point, he tagged the scales for 800 pounds. He's always known where his problems started — with a car accident when he was only 16 years old.

May broke 42 bones in the accident, and his fight with weight was constant. He had gastric bypass surgery, had his stomach stapled, and even spent two months on VH1's Celebrity Fit Club. His goal weight was always 200 pounds, but he'd only make it down to around 350. Sadly, he said he knew his size was a detriment to his career. "I think there's a bias against fat people on network television," the Sentinel quoted him as telling the Houston Chronicle. "In general, it's endemic [to] the industry."

He took the fall for some pranks and was kicked out of high school

May attended Clarksville High School, but he told the Arkansas Times he was kicked out in 1990. At the time, he already knew he wanted to spend his life doing stand-up, so when he was suddenly faced with a choice, he said "it was a no-brainer." He was — unsurprisingly — known for pranks, but stealing the principal's car was one step too far. They couldn't prove it was him, he said, but when word got out they were going to kick a whole group out of school, May stepped up and took all the blame.

"The other guys were the valedictorian and the salutatorian," he said. "Those guys wanted college. I just wanted to do stand-up."

Once May hit it big, he was actually invited back to give the keynote speech at graduation. He was psyched to do it, he said, canceling a gig and getting a new suit. But two weeks before he was supposed to appear, the speech was suddenly canceled. The school said it wasn't appropriate to have him back for graduation, but May didn't see it. "It's like, come on, guys, I'm not that little white trash kid you had to be ashamed of. I'd love to come up there for graduation and shake everybody's hands, wish them luck, tell them to follow their dreams, say you can do anything, no matter where you come from."

There was some controversy over a Colorado show

In 2015, TMZ reported May had been acting so incoherent police were called to his show to escort him away. They claimed he was high, but May told a different story.

While audience members were claiming he couldn't even form a sentence, May blamed the troubles on faulty monitors. He talked to Nebraska radio KEZO (via KDVR) and said it was a technical malfunction that made him look like he couldn't speak. He also questioned how he was treated by the Grand Junction Police Department as he was escorted away, saying they claimed they'd gotten reports of some kind of powder being seen, so they searched May, his bus, and his car. Nothing was found, and KJCT8 reported he questioned the legality of the search, claiming police didn't have probable cause.

He said political correctness was wrong

No one would ever accuse May of being too politically correct. For May, political correctness was just plain wrong.

"I would venture to argue that political correctness has a longer history of being wrong than it does of being right, and I think that whichever way you drink the Kool-Aid, in any way, you're setting yourself up for something very damaging and potentially very dangerous," he told IFC in 2012.

He explained, saying it was once politically correct to own slaves, and later it was still politically correct to have segregated schools. That's why he said he chose to include some of the worst racial slurs in his comedy, likening hate to a gun that uses words for bullets. By making people laugh at these words, he said he wanted to take away their power to hurt. "I want to give people the tools not to be hurt," he said. "And I wanted to take the sting away from the words."

He was a bully, but it became off-limits

May told IFC that while there were certain things happening in 2012 that people didn't want him to talk about, there was only one thing truly off-limits for his comedy. That was bullying and the violence against women, children, and animals that grew from it, because "I don't find that funny. I don't think bullying is cool, I don't think that's f**king funny," he said.

Part of the reason he never found it funny is that he used to be a bully himself, and that only changed after he was in the devastating car accident. While he was recovering, a boy from his church would travel 60 miles three days a week just to visit him in the hospital and help him keep up with the schoolwork he was missing. When May got out and went back to school the next year, he saw the same kid — depressed and the target of relentless bullying, all because he was gay. "I punched some ex-friends of mine in the face, people who deserved to be," May said. "Paul didn't. I smacked them and said, 'Nobody messes with this guy anymore.' … That's man stuff — that's when I stopped being a boy and started being a man, when I put that bullying stuff down and stuck up for somebody."

He didn't think racially insensitive jokes should offend

Racially charged jokes are pretty much guaranteed to bring a gasp of some sort from the audience. In April 2017, May talked to Show Tickets about his No Apologies show in Las Vegas and explained just why there were no apologies for his racial remarks.

"People are only offended when it's about their group," he said. "If you get offended, then take your f**king lump like everyone else and wait for the next joke." He's also said there's nothing personal and no hate behind the jokes, noting that intent makes a big difference. "I give everybody drama, but everyone also knows it's Ralphie. He loves you."

Not everyone saw eye-to-eye with him on that, though, and in 2016 the Argus Leader reported on the outrage that came after some of May's jokes were plucked from the context of his routine, edited (May says), and broadcast on the radio. It was a shot at the Native American community that hit on both alcoholism and unemployment, and the rage was instantaneous. Groups like the Cheyenne River Youth Project and representatives of the Oglala Sioux accused him of racism and bullying, and while he apologized — technically — it was a backhanded sort of apology. "Look, if you're truly offended by a joke that was edited and taken out of context, I am truly sorry," he tweeted.

His estranged wife said she never saw the split coming

May and his wife, Lahna Turner, filed for divorce in 2015. While the rumor mill has been turning away on that one, what goes on behind closed doors was ultimately only known to two people. We do know, however, that Turner's guest post on LaughSpin in 2017 suggested the problems really started in 2011 when May was hospitalized with some life-threatening problems.

"Ralphie was hospitalized with pulmonary embolisms," she wrote. "The doctors saved his life by seconds. I really believe that I had actually watched him die but he pulled through. He came back to us … but he was never quite the same."

She didn't go into specifics, but when she talked to SplitSider she did say that when she got served with divorce papers after 17 years together, she hadn't seen it coming. "I never would have left him, but that happened," she said. "It just really threw me."

He made some serious lifestyle changes after a near-death experience

In 2011, May faced some major health scares. It started in October, when he boarded a cruise ship with the early stages of pneumonia. He was rushed to the hospital after just three days and spent nine days recovering from pneumonia and blood clots in his lungs. Unable to travel even after leaving Tampa Bay General Hospital, he moved in with Turner's parents while going through physical rehabilitation.

When he spoke with the Tampa Bay Times that December, he said he was grateful that if it was going to happen, it happened there. He also said no one would have been surprised if he'd died. "They'd probably just put it to me being obese, and just write it off like that."

It wasn't just obesity, though. He'd slept in his own bed only 17 days of the previous seven months. His travel schedule was insane, and he'd even been diagnosed with walking pneumonia before he'd gotten the all-clear to get on the cruise. "I was afraid I was gonna die in my sleep," he said. By 2012, The Rocket said he was facing an extensive list of health issues: thyroid problems, hormone problems, a dislocated shoulder, difficulty absorbing vitamins, and his weight. He planned to quit marijuana and quit drinking, figuring he'd release a few more albums and one more special before he quit comedy for good.