RALPHIE MAY has the fat-guy opening down cold, which you need when you're a 500-pound comic who arrives on stage with all the subtlety of a Winnebago crashing through a guardrail.
"All right, how's everybody tonight?" he shouts. "Yeah, you're looking at me thinking: 'How're you, fatty? I know it took a long time for him to get his [behind] up on stage.'"
But that's about it for the fat jokes from May, who just finished four nights of killer gigs at The Improv, the downtown comedy club.
"I never wanted to be known as a fat comic," May, 31, said before a recent show, "just a comic who happens to be fat."
I went to see Ralphie May because many feel he's the future of comedy in this country.
He's a white guy with a hip-hop sensibility who discourses intelligently - and hilariously - on such topics as the war in Iraq, race relations, ethnic stereotypes, the Kobe Bryant trial and how the biggest mistake terrorists could make would be to blow up St. Louis. ("You disrupt the production of Budweiser beer, the wrath of America will descend on you!")
Since finishing second in the NBC reality series Last Comic Standing last summer, he's also become a hot property. He had a guest-starring role on NBC's Whoopi last month, and has signed on to be a traveling correspondent for the new syndicated talk show On-Air With Ryan Seacrest. In two weeks, he'll be on the Tonight show with Jay Leno. His new CD/DVD comes out next month and he recently entertained the troops in Iraq as part of a USO tour.
And he's hit the big time, he says, despite a pronounced bias against fat people on TV and in Hollywood.
"Fat people are the only people you can still make fun of in this country," he said.
May's been huge since he was a teen-ager. He was up to 800 pounds until a stomach-stapling operation nine years ago helped him lose more than 300 pounds. Since a gastric bypass operation on Nov. 26, he's lost 80 pounds.
But his favorite story about prejudice toward fat people in the entertainment world involves the time he auditioned for a role in the Stephen King film Dreamcatcher.
"I'm auditioning to play a morbidly obese guy who's eating himself to death through guilt," he said. "The audition went well. The casting people loved me. Then the executive [producer] for the movie said I was too fat to play a fat guy!
"I went off on him. I said: 'Are you out of your [bleeping] mind? That's the most retarded thing I ever heard!'"
So where does a fat-guy comic who was born in Tennessee, grew up in Arkansas and is on the road 50 weeks a year choose to live these days?
Right, Los Angeles. Home office for the beautiful people. Where, for all intents and purposes, fat people don't exist.
"In L.A., fat people are mythical," May said. "We're like Big Foot. 'Oh, yeah, my cousin knows someone who's fat.' Nobody's fat in LA."
But May is tough enough to handle it. In fact, after the emotional beating he endured at his first big gig, he seems tough enough to handle anything.
This was back when he was 17 and won a contest to open for legendary bad-boy ranter Sam Kinison at the University of Arkansas.
"We're driving to the show in a limo," May recalled, "and Sam says to me: 'Kid, are you nervous? There's gonna be 3,500 people at this show and none of them are there to see you.'"
When May admitted he was scared, Kinison gave him some advice. Kid, he said, if you screw up a joke or go blank, just start cursing at the audience. I mean, really give it to 'em. They'll love you after that.
Sure enough, four minutes into his 8-minute set, May flubbed a joke.
"Thirty-five-hundred people go silent," he said. "I panic."
So he took Kinison's advice. He laid into the audience. He called them a bunch of ignorant rubes and every four-letter name in the book.
And the audience started booing. People were screaming: "Get off the stage!"
"I started to well up in tears," he recalled.
Badly shaken, he fled the stage. Which is when the most wondrous thing happened.
Bounding out to the microphone, with a big smile on his face, was Sam Kinison.
"Can you believe that guy?!" he roared to the audience. "Can you believe the nerve of him, cursing you nice people like that?!"
Hearing this, May grabbed his coat and headed for the door. Which was when Bill Kinison, Sam's brother and manager, stopped him.
"Kid, that was great, Sam loved you!" Bill Kinison said. "He never thought you'd actually curse the audience. He wants you to come to the party after the show with us."
So Ralphie May partied with Sam Kinison and his entourage that night - "There were drugs, hookers, oh, you name it" - and a comedy career was born.
Fourteen years later, he's on the verge of a break-out year.
He's still fat.
But now people are talking about his talent, which is what Ralphie May always wanted.