When he was still in grammar school, Ralphie May was convinced he had what it took to become a professional comic.

In fact, he thought he was on a par with late-night comedy god Johnny Carson.

“Before my grandmother got sick, I used to stay up and watch the late news with her and then watch the first 10 minutes of Mr. Carson,” recalled May, 39, in a recent phone interview.

“I’d watch the news and I’d make a joke about something I saw. Then he’d make jokes on the same subject. I just thought we were both funny; that’s why we talked about the same things.”

May might have gotten his start emulating Carson, but he doesn’t aim for the same mainstream audience. At least not in his live shows, which come with an “adult subject matter” warning when you buy a ticket.

And May himself wants anyone who might be coming to see his act Friday at Portland’s State Theatre to be aware his comedy is not exactly G-rated.

“People in Maine are sweet people, so I want to tell them right now I’m racially insensitive and politically incorrect,” said May. “I make no bones about it. It’s funny and it’ll make you laugh, but it’s gonna be an R rating — maybe worse.”

Now that you know what to expect in terms of material, you should count on settling in for a long night if you go to the show. May wants to do at least two hours of comedy, because he figures much of his audience includes working-class people, and they deserve their money’s worth.

“Most of my audience are not the richest guys, so I figure it probably takes them two hours to earn enough for a ticket,” said May. “So I figure I should give them at least two hours of my time.”

May certainly knows something about the working class. He grew up in Clarksville, Ark., where his mother worked as many as three jobs to support a family of four. His father and mother divorced when May was young, and his father did not financially contribute to the family.

As a youngster, May did comedy at any talent show he could find. When he was 17, he won a radio station comedy contest. His prize: opening for the late comic legend Sam Kinison at a show in Arkansas.

“He was the biggest, baddest guy in comedy, and he knew it,” May said. “He was just an incredible force.”

May not only got to perform on the same stage, he got to mingle with the hard-living Kinison at an after-show party complete with liquor and lots of women. Kinison got his professional start performing in Houston, so he suggested that May start there, too. May was already attending college courses while still in high school, but he could not pass on a chance to make it in comedy.

So he gave up thoughts of college and moved to Houston.

After eight or nine years of “honing” his craft, he relocated to Los Angeles. It was there that he met Maine’s best-known comedian, Bob Marley.

“Bob Marley is the quickest writer I’ve ever seen, and his bits about his father and mother always make me cry laughing,” said May. “He always said he wanted to get me up to Portland — well, now I’m coming.”

It was also in L.A. where May got the biggest break of his career: appearing on a competition reality show, “Last Comic Standing.” He finished second, but that didn’t matter. The show had given him nationwide exposure, and he was soon appearing on TV variety shows such as “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” — the very show he had grew up watching when Carson was at the helm.

After that, he went on to make comedy albums and his own stand-up specials for the Comedy Central cable network.

Although he is a fairly portly fellow, May doesn’t do many fat jokes. He doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as being only able to tell fat jokes — plus, he feels like a lot of other comedians have already exhausted the material.

“I don’t dwell on it, and I feel if you can’t make it better, why do it,” said May. “I talk more about politics or about my kids than about me. And I don’t do many kid jokes either, because I can’t out-do (Bill) Cosby.”

Speaking of kids, if you have any and you want to come to May’s show, he says you’d better get a sitter.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at [email protected]