Q&A with red hot comedian Donnell Rawlings

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Q&A with red hot comedian Donnell Rawlings
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By Jennifer Powell (Courtesy photo)

A success many years in the making, former Alexandria resident Donnell Rawlings, who has been on “Chappelle’s Show,” “Guy Code” and HBO’s “The Wire,” brings his easy flow and razor-sharp stand-up skills home this Saturday to the Birchmere.

Alexandria Times: You are a T.C. graduate?

Rawlings: I’m a T.C. Titan for life. When I tell people who are not from the Alexandria area that I’m a T.C. Titan, the first thing they always ask me if I know Denzel and if I was in the movie.

The student spirit section at T.C. games has a cheer about that.

Really? When I in school, it was “T.C. Titans are what?” “Red hot!” I was the manager for the basketball team and we used to say it all the time. It was like a secret code. They don’t know it now, but the kids back in the day, they know.

How did you get to be part of “Chappelle’s Show?”

I was blessed to luck into what some people consider to be the best comedy sketch show of the past 20 years. It was a lot of fun.

Can you go back a little bit and tell us about growing up here?

We moved from Washington D.C. when I was 11. I went to [George Washington] Middle School, then Francis C. Hammond, and then I graduated to the big leagues of T.C. Williams. That was before social media followers, and you just had regular people who followed you.

I think that is where I got my comedy chops from, because the old T.C. Williams had the “red carpet.” The red carpet was where every kid from every neighborhood met at the beginning of the morning. That was where we had our version of “Rip the Runway;” it was our fashion statement, where you traded candy, where you would try to talk to a girl who would disrespect you for the rest of the school year and where the funniest people laid down the funniest jokes. I think if you can make it through the red carpet at T.C. Williams you can make it anywhere.

Is this when you realized you were exceptionally funny?

I never considered doing standup then, but anyone from T.C. then knew me as a funny guy. When you’re five-foot-four and 75 pounds as a senior in high school, you’re already the funny looking guy and when every cheerleader is looking at every other guy but you, I think that can create some humor in your life.

Tell us one of your best jokes from then.

We did what you call “jones” on a person back then. My teacher, Mr. Dave Daly, was one of the funniest guys I knew. He was always ready with something funny to say, and he was definitely one of my first inspirations in comedy.

Years ago I did a show that benefitted T.C. Williams and Dave Daly opened. It was not a good idea. Some of those same students that he put out of his class and gave bad grades to were there on the other side and there was nothing he could do about it. They booed him like crazy. It was so ugly. But he stuck with it and got through it. That’s my guy. I’ll remember Dave Daly forever.

How did you end up coming to the Birchmere?

When I was growing up we would walk down Mount Vernon Avenue and we would pass it. For some reason [the Birchmere] was one of those forbidden and mysterious spots tucked back there that a lot of people we grew up with didn’t go to.

Last year I had a chance to open for Lyfe Jennings, an R&B singer. It was my first introduction to the theater. Afterwards, the general manager, a T.C. Williams graduate, said, “Hey Donnell, I think we can do something good. You should come back and do it yourself.”

Then I really found out about the history of that place. I feel really honored to come back in my hometown and go to the place that I used to walk by everyday on my way to my first job — cleaning up hair at the barbershop. Now, to headline there with my name on the marquee. It is an exciting time.

Tell us what we can expect at your show.

One of my mentors in comedy, the Fat Doctor, is opening for me. This guy was very instrumental in the beginning of my career. He helped me find my voice and my joke structure, so I am very excited about that.

With coming back to Alexandria, people can expect to get some down home humor. I’m quite sure there will be somebody that will heckle me that I went to high school with that thinks that is funny. Yeah, I will completely destroy them.

That was going to be our next question.

Fair warning: this is not the T.C. Williams red carpet. This is Donnell’s red carpet. It’ll be a different thing.

I’ll bring some of the character work from “Chappelle’s Show.” For me, it’s almost like a homecoming. It really will be like a red carpet reunion. My family will probably be there. It’ll be a good time.

My comedy is observational and it’s character driven. I will say if people are fans of me or my acting work then you will definitely become a fan of my live comedy. I’m really confident about that and what I can do on the stand up stage.

You seem to be a really unscripted and free flow comedian. How do you work?

I feel like I have some classics and some hits that are my favorites, but I don’t feel really comfortable as a comic just doing that. If I go on the stage and don’t try to do any improv and engage the audience on the spot, I feel like a robot.

So I would say my stand up is 40 to 50 percent stuff that I prepare and that I want to talk about. The other 50to60 percent just comes to me. An audience will appreciate a comic’s act, but they can really feel when something is organic and is something created right on the spot, and that is when they really respect you.

You are a U.S. Air Force veteran. What was your path after high school?

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Sometimes, it takes 10 years to become an overnight success.” When I graduated from T.C., I wasn’t focused on college. I was too busy cracking jokes. I wasn’t a bad student, but I wasn’t a great student.

I took the [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] test to get out of three periods at school and did well on it. I joined and did four years in the Air Force. I was then a law enforcement specialist — a.k.a. cop — and was waiting to become a D.C. police officer while working as Safeway security.

During that interim period, some coworkers would invite me to go the Comedy Connection in Greenbelt, Md. on Tuesday nights. It was camaraderie, no one thinking I could be a comedian.

I became a heckler, using some of those red carpet skills. Then I started becoming popular as a heckler. The club owner wanted me to shut up, so he dared and invited me to go onstage. I ripped, and 21 years later it’s what I’ve been doing. It was all by chance. I always knew I was a funny guy, but it wasn’t like I practiced in front of a mirror every day. It just so happened that some opportunities presented themselves, I took advantage of it, got excited about it and made it happen.

Does it still work that way for you? You have a lot going on in 2016 besides the comedy tour.

I’ve shot three [TV] pilots. I’m not waiting, and that’s part of having projects in the works. My attitude is: if I can be a solid stand up, create opportunity for my family and just continue to create and keep myself in the game, something will click. Something big. You have to be in it to win it.

One thing I can say after 21 years, every year I feel I’m getting better. I’m never bored of my job, and always try to figure out a way to make myself better, to meet new people. And if I stay the course, then the bigger things will happen.

At the end of the day, I’m the dude that used to crack jokes on the red carpet with no money in his pocket, and created a good and fair lifestyle with his God-given talent. I never take that for granted.

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