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Comedy Mon Jan 07 2013

Unchained and Uninhibited: An Interview with Comedian Donnell Rawlings

Whether through dramatic roles on shows like HBO's "The Wire" or stand-up series including "P. Diddy Presents the Bad Boys of Comedy," Donnell Rawlings has definitely made his mark in television; however, it would be starring alongside comedian Dave Chappelle on "Chappelle's Show" that would turn him into a household name. I recently spoke with Rawlings who performs at UP Comedy Club next weekend; here, the comedian, actor, (and burgeoning chef), talks about his current projects, why a certain filmmaker should keep quiet, and why it's still alright to be "ashy."


With "I Love the 80s: Strikes Back," "Black to the Future" to name a few, you've made the rounds on those "talking head"/commentary shows--what do you like most about doing them?

It's easy to be funny on those shows. They just let you answer the questions, you shoot like, 12 episodes in 3 days, and you're off to the races. And they're good because people's attention spans are so short; with those shows, you get in and out and keep it moving. What I like most about them is it gives my fan base an opportunity to see me be funny. It's some of the only television I'm doing right now, but those shows keep you relevant, sharp, and you can be funny real quick.

There are many variations of those shows--if you created one, what would the subject(s) be?

I couldn't say that I would have one subject; it would constantly change because so many things keep moving in media and pop culture. I would just wanna be one of the funniest people to comment on whatever's hot. I would poke fun and lighten up serious topics because sometimes, people think comedy is limited to fun stuff, but I think even in some of the darkest situations, you can find humor.

I've heard many comedians say that some of their best material stems from dark periods in their lives.

Yeah. And I think that's one of the things that kept my family going when I was growing up--not having too much of anything. My mom had a sense of humor and was always able to make us feel good even when times weren't as good as we thought they were. But when I was growing up you had to make fun; now, you just find an 'app' for it.

Now of course, no Donnell Rawlings conversation would be complete without a "Chappelle's Show" mention. You are synonymous with that show--tell us what it means to you to have been such an integral part of a popular series.

It means that I get to pay my rent--that's the first thing it means to me! [Laughs] But it means a lot because when we were in the creative process, nobody knew exactly how it was; it was hip hop culture and we were lucky enough that Comedy Central gave us an outlet to showcase what we do. It was so fun--it was one of the best times I've had in my career. I mean, at the end of the day, it was like, "You mean we get a paycheck for this?"

How do you feel about the show's place in pop culture?

This month will be 10 years since it first came on the air. I travel the world and people still ask me if it comes on; I mean, it really was just one of those shows...

I'm sure you still get asked about "Ashy Larry," your popular character from the show...

People say, "Do you ever get tired of people calling you "Ashy Larry?"And I always say, in this business, you get more recognized for the negative things than you do the positive things. Any time you work hard enough to get a fan base and people respect and love you, I think it's important to embrace it, run with it and create a lifestyle off that God-given talent. Everybody is given a talent but not everybody knows what to do with it; people with talent who take it and manifest it into something else are special people.

What do you think set "Chappelle's Show" apart from its sketch comedy counterparts; i.e., "In Living Color," "MADtv," "Saturday Night Live," etc.?

I think the thing that set it apart was that we were on a cable network, so we didn't have as much restriction and didn't have to deal with as many people or go through as many channels as you would on a network. That creative process stayed pure to where it was coming from--it wasn't like, "Okay, we're gonna write this, but what will they think about it?" We always wrote stuff we thought was funny first; we didn't go in editing ourselves before it came out. There were topics and issues that were touchy to some people--but we were just taking chances...

Speaking of "touchy," Quentin Tarantino's latest movie, Django Unchained, has certainly touched a lot of nerves; recently, in a TMZ video, you spoke out against Spike Lee, who has been one of the many critics against the film. Why do you think this movie is causing so much controversy?

I thought it was an entertaining movie, but as much we all know that slavery was bad and how many bad things were done, in all that, there had to be something humorous about that dark stuff--there had to be something funny.

Spike Lee said the movie is "disrespectful to his ancestors"...

And he said that without even seeing the movie. I don't know if he even read the plot, but here it is: Slave gets freed. Freed slave gets a gun. Freed slave gets a gun, gets a job, gets a horse, gets a new wardrobe, gets to go find his girl, gets to kill people that were nasty to his people, blow up the plantation and this motherf**ker leaves into the sunset! You don't want to support that?

And this is why you basically told him to 'chill'?

Well, I didn't want to tell Spike to chill; I wanted to tell him to shut the f*** up! There's nothing worse than people who complain. The thing that makes me evolve as a comic and inspires me the most is mediocrity--it makes me wanna go harder. Every time I see a horrible show on TV, it makes me want to write another show. Every time I hear somebody tell a wack joke, it makes me want to write a better joke. So with Spike, I feel like, why not use that energy to want to be a better director--not to say he's a bad director--but use it to find something that appeals to the audience that you're looking for. When I came into the business, Spike Lee was one of the hottest directors, white, black or whatever; whenever you saw his name, you'd say, "Oh, there are some black people who are about to get some work." And I respect that. But you can't have that same attitude now. Give us something else.

When it comes to this subject though, do you think people, or specifically, black people, are too sensitive?

People are sensitive about everything. The way people dealt with racial issues 40, 50 or 100 years ago, isn't the same way we deal with them now. I'm not saying we don't know what our past is but I think black people and their ideas have evolved.

Well you do know, with this movie, the excessive usage of the "n-word" is at the top of the complaint list...

It was a slavery movie. You cannot have a slavery movie without "n-words" in there; I'm sorry, in a movie about this, there's just never going to be, "Get your African-American hands off me!" And with that word, I tell people that saying "n-words" doesn't hurt--it was the whips that hurt!

Let's talk about MTV2's "Guy Code"--you look like you're having a blast on that show. The third season premieres January 15th--how's that been going?

It's an easy gig. And it's fun. The subject matter is fun, even though some things we talk about are a little out there. I play around a lot and have fun, but I still think I have one of the more mature voices on the show.

Any plans for your own show someday?

For a long time, my friends have told me that I need to get a [funny] cooking show, so I'm coming up with idea because I know people like to drink spirits, have fun with family and friends, cook and laugh. I'm trying to figure out a way to put all of that into an entertaining show.

You make folks laugh and you cook, too? Nice...

One of my passions other than comedy is that I love to cook. I'm wicked with it, too. Now part of it is passion and part of it is survival; when I first started, I could do wonders with a $20 food budget. Women would think I was trying to be romantic when I'd tell them, "Why don't you come over and let me cook for you?" But I was just trying to save money!

That's pretty good that you know how to work $20...

I'm telling you--I'd get a couple of 99-cent candles, angel hair pasta, and do some pan-seared halibut or salmon, and throw a little parsley on the side of it and they'd say, "Oh I love the presentation!" And I'd say to myself, "I love the price; that whole thing cost me $13.82!"

You'll be in town next week; other comedians I've spoken with have said Chicago is a "must-stop" city when hitting the road. Is it the same for you?

I agree with that. One thing I like about Chicago is it has a lot of gainfully employed women; if you're a bum dude, it's an intimidating place to go to! I mean, if you're lucky enough to not be in Mitt Romney's "47 percent," then you've got a chance! But there are just real people in Chicago--not cosmetic like in Hollywood or super fast like New York. It's a great speed. I love Chicago.

And what can your Chicago fans expect to see during your shows at UP Comedy Club?

Well, this will be my first time at UP; all I will say is that if you enjoy what I do on the small screen, it's gonna be ridiculous when you see me live. I'm cocky about that.


See Donnell Rawlings January 18-20 at UP Comedy Club, 230 W. North Ave.; show times are 8pm and 10:30pm. Tickets are $20; for more information, call 312-337-3992.

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Walter Koslowski / January 7, 2013 11:17 AM

This is a great article and interview! I always wanted to see him live after laughing at his comedic style on the Chapelle Show. I love the questions you posed to him--they revealed he is more than "Ashey Larry"! I agree with him 100% about Spike Lee, who is a known race baiter!

Duane / January 9, 2013 10:20 AM

Very good article! I could feel his energy coming through. His UP show sounds like its going to be really funny!!

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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