By Kassidy McDonald │ [email protected]
Donnell Rawlings thought he wanted to be a cop. It wasn’t until he started heckling comedians at stand-up shows that he realized that he could be a great comedian. The Alexandria Times asked Donnell about his experience of previously living in Alexandria, as well as how he got his successful comedy career to where it is today.
AT: How was your experience in Alexandria while you attended T.C. Williams High School?
DR: I had a good experience and made some good friends in Alexandria and I’m still connected with the community. And I think what makes this show so special for me at The Birchmere, because it really feels like a class reunion for me: all my old school friends come through. And it’s those ones that I can’t lie to because they know me from like age 13. So, I gotta be truthful.
AT: How did you get your start in comedy?
DR: Well, I was waiting to be a D.C. police officer years ago. And I used to go to this comedy club with some colleagues of mine at a job I had. And I started heckling the comedians. And I went from being a heckler to the club owner daring me to go on stage. I went on stage and never looked back. So, it was never anything I wanted to do, but just so happened. I got into it just by being a heck of a loudmouth in the audience. … I had no ambition to do stand-up. What it was just like one thing led to another. I started to stand up there, get excited about that. And then I started, kind of got a couple of monologue books, started practicing monologues and trying to train myself to be an actor that evolved into an acting career and everything was just by chance.
AT: Do you have a favorite role or part you’ve played on TV or as an actor?
DR: Well, no I wouldn’t say favorite role. But the role that I’m probably going to die with is a character Ashy Larry from the Chappelle Show. People would never ever let me live that down.
AT: Do you think that character was the most memorable or influential in your comedy career?
DR: I think that that show [the Chappelle Show] was just such a great platform for people to see what I’ve been doing for years. I’ve done some other stuff in regard to, you know, what I think will go down as one of the greatest things I’ve done, especially in the eyes of my son, when I played Dez the barber in the Pixar animated Oscar-winning movie, ‘Soul.’ It doesn’t matter what I do moving forward in my career, the fact that my son finally acknowledged what ‘Daddy does for a living’ through animation. That’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done.
AT: Do you have a specific person who influenced your career the most when you started comedy?
DR: I would probably say my mom. I remember one time, she said, ‘I don’t want to hear another joke or story until you go make some money.’ And we grew up not having much. But, even with the struggles that we dealt with, my mother always kept her sense of humor. It was always the lightest side of the situation and was always something to look forward to. So, I think my mom probably was my biggest inspiration, it never was like, I was like, I want to be like Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy because I didn’t want to do stand up. You know, I wanted to be like my mom. I wanted to care about people like my mom. I fell in love with kids like my mom. I fall in love with communities that I go to just like my mom. So that was my biggest inspiration.
DR: Oh, and I will say this. I had a teacher before I even started thinking about doing comedy. He had aspirations to do stand-up. This dude always had a joke. He was the king of the one-liners. I remember one time he said, ‘Donell was my outstanding student. He was always out standing in the hallway.’
AT: In creating your comedy, do you observe actual situations, or can you create comedy just in your head?
DR: No, it’s real life. My stuff is like, mostly observational. For me to really get into writing, I just have to be around people. And, you know, when you’re around people there’s always the person that makes you laugh on everything. Yeah. And I just take my comedy from life, life experiences. You know, I’m not really a joke writer. It’s just like, I let the jokes follow me, I’ll just start talking about something. And then the sooner the punchlines come in, the tags, the callbacks, all that stuff will come.
AT: What was the best night of your life in terms of comedy?
DR: I think one of the pivotal points was when I did Def Comedy Jam for the first time, because at that time there weren’t a lot of platforms for comics to perform. And that was like one of the biggest credits you can get. But for me to be able to say ‘go after that performance’ and ‘go on that stage’ and for people to say ‘you’ve seen him on Def Comedy Jam,’ that was like a real pivotal point. I knew like, okay, your hard work is paying off. And people are starting to acknowledge what you do.
AT: Do you have any future plans or exciting news you want to share with readers?
DR: Well, I’m just looking forward to my Netflix special coming up this fall. Snoop Dogg’s comedy special is streaming on Netflix right now and people seem to love that. And then I just encourage everybody to pay the cable bill because I will be on something …
AT: How is life in comedy and this art form difficult, how is it great?
DR: Well, it’s difficult for people that don’t want to stay true to themselves, you know, people that kind of been through what they consider to be ‘cancel culture.’ I know we’re in a tough time, everybody’s overly sensitive about everything, but the people that are the true artists to this, they’re not going to waver from their freedom to be able to say what they want. With that said, I still think you have a certain amount of responsibility. Just because you have the right to say what you want doesn’t mean you have to always say everything.
And also the question I get, ‘Is a joke too soon?’ In some cases, I think a joke could be too soon. But it’s never gonna be too soon for a funny observation. That’s when you’re gonna get funny observations that hit hard.
AT: Do you think you’ll do comedy for the rest of your life?
DR: Oh yeah. Comedians don’t retire. Their choice would be to die in the middle of a standing ovation. It is a job that’s so fun, so fulfilling, when I have my performance there are two people that come to the show. Somebody that wants to laugh, and somebody that needs to laugh. And when people come up to me, like, ‘Yo, I just lost somebody close to me. I wasn’t feeling up to it. I didn’t think I was gonna have a good time. But you removed me from that for 45 minutes or an hour on most days.’ That’s the biggest reward of doing my job.
Rawlings will be back in Alexandria to perform at The Birchmere Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at: https://www.ticket master.com/donnell- rawlings-alexandria- virginia-07-02-2022/event/15005C47E7045222.