LS: Hey, Donnell! You’ve been up to a lot lately. Give me an update on this year.
Rawlings: I think that I’m going to be in a different time zone every other day. I’ve just finished a Southern California tour with Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. We extended it to include Memphis, Birmingham, Charleston, South Carolina, and we just did St Louis. After that tour ends I start a tour with Dave in Australia and New Zealand. I’m going to be on the road very aggressively for the next five weeks.
LS: What’s the name of the tour?
Rawlings: Well, the first part of the tour is the Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle tour, and then the next part is Chappelle’s tours of New Zealand and Australia.
LS: Are you opening with Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock as well?
Donnell Rawlings: Yeah, It’s me, Rick Ingram – funny, funny guy out of California, Dave Chappelle, and Chris Rock. And it’s been amazing.
LS: From my understanding, you’ve known Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock for a while now. Tell me how that has come to fruition with you guys all ending up on tour together and the history there.
Rawlings: Chris Rock is a comedy legend. I grew up watching him. I’m a fan of all his specials. Dave Chappelle and I are both from Washington, D.C., and we became close when I moved from D.C. to New York, which led me to be on the Chappelle Show, which led me to be a part of comedy history. I think yesterday was the 20-year anniversary of his show’s debut on Comedy Central. So I just feel honored and blessed that I could be a part of history and work with two comedians who will go down in history as two of the best to ever do it.
LS: The Los Angeles Times published an article about the rise and fall of cancel culture and comedy. From my experience with both you and Dave Chapelle, I feel like you guys kind of go above cancel culture and just say what’s on your minds. What are your thoughts on cancel culture and comedy?
Rawlings: I think that cancel culture is going to cancel itself. I understand people have some concerns about certain subject matters. But you’ve got to keep in mind that this is an art form and you should be free to say whatever you want to say. I went on stage the other day and said, “Listen, I’m going to say whatever I want because I can deal with the consequences.”
I think that cancel culture is getting too much of a spotlight. Usually, the people that are offended [or find it] outrageous are only a small percentage of the people that enjoy standup.
And for those people that enjoy exercising their freedom of speech, I think it’s unfortunate because [cancel culture] is really watering down comedy. At the end of the day, if you go see a comedian it’s not like back in the day where you didn’t know a comedian’s history until you went to see him live. Now you can Google a person, you can get a sense of their style of comedy, and you can choose to support it or not support it. I think going to places, being offended by people that are telling jokes, we’re not trying to change the world, we’re just trying to make people laugh. You’ve got people like Dave Chappelle, you’ve got people like Chris Rock that don’t want to defy cancel culture, but they’re going to feel free to say whatever they want to say.
LS: In the last three years you’ve been touring, have you seen any changes within your audience? Have you had any situations where you’ve seen more of people being offended?
Rawlings: I haven’t noticed it much because, going back to my point earlier, people know Dave’s brand of comedy. They know my brand of comedy. They know Chris Rock’s brand of comedy. So you know what you’re going to get. And you have the option to choose comics that don’t push the envelope, comics that don’t walk that line. Personally, I haven’t seen too many people that were outraged over anything I said. You can’t please everybody all the time, I’m sure there have been people at my show that say he’s not my cup of tea, but I haven’t had anyone walk out, anyone write me letters, or anyone marching outside of the venues. I haven’t experienced that, but it’s not to say that other people haven’t experienced it. LS: You’re currently on BMF, can you tell me a little bit about your character and what you’re doing on the show? Have you had the opportunity to work with 50? Rawlings: I actually worked with 50, maybe three or four years ago. He had a comedy show that aired on BET. One of the directors on the show, Tasha Smith was a good friend of mine, we worked together on HBO’s The Corner years ago. The role of Alvin [on BMF] is a mortician with an interesting life, to say the least. He’s fascinated with dead bodies in an inappropriate way, so I found that to be very interesting and dark. But, you know, that’s what they wrote. My character is cousins with Lamar, who people are comparing to Omar from The Wire, a villain type. Every good show needs a villain, some people root for him and other people want him to go. We find out that guy keeps coming back, he has more than nine lives, and it will be interesting to see that I’m pretty much one of Lamar’s only friends, and he doesn’t treat me like a friend or family. It makes for great drama, and I think he really captured the culture that was BMF in the late eighties, and I think he has another hit on his hands.
LS: Do you prefer to be on the stage or in front of the Camera? I know you have a podcast right now as well, are you looking to do more acting or do you enjoy going on tour and being on stage?
Rawlings: Well, I’m in more control of my career and the things I do through stand-up. With producers, directors, I don’t have to worry about people picking me when I do stand-up. I don’t have to worry about an audition, I don’t have to worry about people beating me for a role. Acting is more challenging for me. I think after doing stand-up for 30 years, I pretty much know how to do that. I’m really good at it. When I act, it’s still me playing make-believe, and I’m still going to class and learning more. I’ve learned so much by watching people that [act] for a living. I think acting is more fun, it’s a pastime. It doesn’t really feel like a job to me and I get to learn every time I hear ‘action’.
LS: Tell me a little bit about how you got involved in stand-up comedy and what your passion was for going on stage. Is this something that you planned your whole life or is this something that you fell into? How did you end up getting involved with Dave Chappelle?
Rawlings: Everything that’s happened in my life in regard to doing stand-up and acting has happened out of nowhere. I’m a military vet, I was in the Air Force for four years. When I got out of the military I was waiting to be a D.C. police officer and doing in-between jobs to help me prepare myself. I worked as the head of security for a grocery chain in D.C. called Safeway, and there was a guy named Mike Washington who was a stand-up comic at night, and a Hostess rep in the daytime, and he would give me and everyone I worked with free tickets to his comedy show. I would go to the comedy club not even thinking about doing standup, but just as something to do with my coworkers.
I started heckling the comedians, I was a loudmouth. The club owner wanted me to shut up, and he dared me to go on stage. He was like, okay, you’re funny from your seat, but what about when the light is on you? And he challenged me to go on stage. I didn’t do it then, but two weeks later, I went on stage and I got a standing ovation the first time I ever performed, and I never looked back. Stand-up led me to take a couple of acting classes and my relationship with Dave and my relationship with Neil Brennan, who was also doing well for himself in the comedy world. Both of those guys greenlighted me to be on the Chappelle show, and I’ve maintained a relationship with both of them for 30 years. Everything that’s happened for me, it’s just been chance, I was never prepared, I was never the guy sitting in front of a mirror saying, ‘I want to be a stand-up comic.’ I was always the funniest guy in the room but I never thought I would be the funniest guy in the room. It all happened by chance and I followed it and never looked back.
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