Donnell Rawlings: From Ashy to Classy

Donnell Rawlings: From Ashy to Classy

Laughter is a soul cleansing act. Comedy is an art form that takes practice, patience, and creativity. In 2003, a comedic powerhouse in Dave Chappell created the Chappelle Show and gave comedian, writer, and actor Donnell Rawlings a shot at the mic. Donnell, being the ambition comedian that he is, jumped on the opportunity. Creating characters like Ashy Larry and Beautiful, Donnell was on his way to big things. Merging with fellow comedian Kevin Smith, Donnell embarked on a project that would give the power of the industry to the fans. HOLLYWEED launched its pilot episode on Rivot TV for an opportunity to be funded and greenlit by the viewers. Creating a show based on the cannabis industry, Donnell knew it was time to make a statement. The best comedians used their life stories and found a way to laugh through some of their deepest and darkest truths as well as approaching the most controversial topics in society. 

Alright, so um, just to kind of jump into your interview, how did you get into comedy?

Well, I used to have a regular nine to five [job] like most Americans and hard working people. A lot of the employees at my job but go to a comedy club just to hang out and have some fun as coworkers and everybody knew that I was funny. I used to go to comedy clubs because I was a heckler. At this particular comedy club, a majority of the audience started to come to see me as the heckler. The owner wanted me to shut up and stop ruining the show. So he invited me on stage and 24 years later that’s what I’ve been doing. Basically, I got my start like a lot of comics. It was almost a dare.

That’s hilarious. Bein that you were a heckler, do you hate hecklers at your shows?

I don’t usually have hecklers at my shows and if I do, I annihilate them. So it’s not a good idea to heckle me. You get heckled early on in your career because you don’t have the skillset to deal with certain situations. It’s like how a dog can feel fear on a person. Unless it’s somebody drunk, they don’t really come at you like that.  

You went into the air force right out of high school. What inspired that? Was it something you always wanted?

I was like a lot of kids that really didn’t know what the next step in their life was going to be after high school. I didn’t want to go to college and I didn’t really have a skillset to keep much of anything after I got out of high school. The military was a good alternative for me to get some structure in my life, to travel, and become a man.

And traveling definitely happened because you were based in Korea and learned how to speak Korean. Then you took that and you put that back into your sketches on Chappelle show.

Yeah. A lot of people think I’m fluent in Korean. I’m not, I’m just conversational. Which means that if I went on a date with a woman, I knew what type of food to order. (laughing) We were doing the Chappelle show and there was a scene when I played Beautiful, where I just ran a line in Korean. A lot of people who don’t speak Korean think I was speaking gibberish anybody that speaks the language was like ‘oh, he’s nice with it.’

Right. And that’s the thing. We thought it was just a joke that you wrote out. But this is really what you knew.

Yeah, it was funny. To hear anybody speak Korean, it’ll throw you off. But to hear a black dude from the hood speak Korean, you’re like what the hell just happened. (laughing)

Right. Once you decided to become a comedian, how did your life change? Was it a hard road? What was the transition like for you?

Getting into the industry, I instantly became broke. I mentor a lot of guys, and I make sure to let them know that if you don’t know how to be happy being broke, this is a tough field to be in. I would say with anybody in this field at least 50-60 percent of your career is not going to be money when you making connections and building to go to the next level. Now, there are some exceptions to that rule. But there aren’t many.

Right. When you are living and hustling through the broke phase because a lot of people that I’ve talked to say like it’s. It can be long. Like how long were you in that area?

I would honestly say about 60 percent of my career. But it’s a mindset and I’ve never felt it. You know what I’m saying? I was happy with the small things. I always knew it was one thing to be financially successful and not knowing where you’re going. It’s another to have a vision. There are a lot of people with a dream that they’re not going to make a reality. I knew it wasn’t going to last long because as long as I kept moving, there was going to be some light at the end of the tunnel. It was fun. It was a good time. Even in the darkest times when finances weren’t adding up, whatever. I felt blessed and it felt good that I was doing something that I enjoy. I knew it would pay off sooner or later. Not to say that I’ve made it to an amazing level of anything. But anything that I have ever done through comedy, is because I took the road that I have taken and I never regret that.

Understood. There are a lot of comedians that I’ve spoken to, over time, who have said there are moments when things are just not funny and people expect you to always be “on” and always be funny. I know you have a different perspective on this and would love for you to elaborate a bit on that.  

I don’t think there are too many situations where something is not funny. I think there are times where the joke may be too soon for a particular person, but as a person with humor, It could never be too soon for funny observation. There’s always something to chuckle about in your worst moments. Everything is funny. Everything has some type of humorous undertone in some type of way. It’s about how to find it?

How did you develop your comedic career? Did you start studying comedy after you became a comic, or were you a student of the craft beforehand?

I watched people for different styles. Martin Lawrence, he was just this guy who had the voice of the hood. He had the voice of what I came from. I was like, ‘man, this dude is talking about stuff that I see and do every day.’ I used to really appreciate Bill Cosby. This guy is destroying an audience while sitting in a chair, with no profanity or anything. I used to study Richard Pryor because he was one of the most honest comics you could ever meet? A lot of people think that he was a dirty comic, you know what I’m saying? It wasn’t that he was necessarily ‘dirty’, it was characters. These were people in his life that were the raw people. I found something in every comic that I watched. It wasn’t that I could necessarily do what they did, but, I’ve found reasons why I could do this. There are certain people that were animated, there are wordsmiths, there are certain people that are physical comics, and I find a way to find something in every comic that I could incorporate into what I do.

That’s cool. So ultimately you are a student of comedy. Now, how did you get into the acting field? How did you go from comedy into acting? I don’t think most people know you were on ‘The Wire’.

I was doing stand up and my guess was this is a part of the work. My showcase agents sent me out just to see what would happen. Nobody knew what it was gonna turn out to be, but it’s a function of training myself and thinking outside the box. Once we did this, on top of film, television agents in New York City were like, ‘something about this group, something about this guy, and let’s see what we can do with him.’ I was just starting to build this.

Success met you and placed you in front of the world. Did you find yourself dealing with a lot of the jealousy and stress that come with success in entertainment? Have you found the “lonely at the top” phrase to be true to you?

I don’t know if it’s lonely at the top, but it gets cold at the top. A lot of people won’t root for you. The more you get, the more haters come at you. And people want to see your downfall. You’ve got to have a strong base. If you have a strong base with your family and a handful of really, really good friends, you don’t have to deal with that. There are people who don’t know how to reach out to find the people that love them, people that inspire them, motivate them, and make them better. When you find those people, you’re never at the top by yourself.

That’s real. I’d even say that with anything in life, you should have that kind of a circle. So you and another comedian, Kevin Smith have a project that you have been working on and a network that is gaining some buzz. Let’s talk about that.

A lot of times, the things that people don’t see, are pilots which are funny. Sadly, maybe one or two people have the power to say if they greenlight it or not. The beauty about this platform is it gives the power to the fan base by really believing in them to say what would be the next big thing. Rivot TV is the new platform and I think HOLLYWEED was a perfect example of that. HOLLYWEED was a project that Kevin Smith came up with years ago and was excited about. I had a conversation with him and he said ‘Donnell, I don’t want to do anything in my career that I don’t have fun with and I’m not excited about.’ With that said, it doesn’t necessarily mean the people in the suits are going to believe in it same way. So, when Kevin came with this pilot three years ago, we thought it was dead. There is a lot of frustration with continuing to do stuff and not have the right people seeing it. This is something that may have been shelved or something that was created and ended up in the hands of some “important people” This platforms allowed people like Joe blow, Barbecue Beckie, Combat Tom and whoever, the chance to say ‘I like this person’.  Also, now with social media, we have this fan base. Kevin Smith had Millions of people that he could say ‘watch this and tell me what you want to do with it.’ The great thing about HOLLYWEED is 90 percent of the feedback that we had been getting has been great. So, you get a platform like Rivot TV to give those opportunities to people that produce it a win-win situation.

That’s an amazing concept for a platform to have shows picked up by the fans. Ultimately, we are the ones who will watch or not watch. When you’re able to put that platform on the map with a show like yours, do you go back and start pushing other comedians and actors in the hopes of trying to bring them into the platform as well?

Always. Always. I have people that I’ve been working with for years and we root for each other and we try to put ourselves in a position to win. Those are the only people that I have around me. When you’ve been doing this, you know who the naysayers are and who has the negative energy and you just shed them like a snake. anything that you do with your success, your ambitions, your aspirations, will always in some way help the people that you are around. Those are the people that drive you to do great things.

You’ve had the Success of the Chappelle Show and now, you have HOLLYWEED that you and Kevin Smith created together. Things are going great. You automatically start working on another show or do you focus on this one?

Kevin and I get together to have writing sessions often. That way if the show is ever picked up, we’re going to be ready. You know, we’ve already started story lines for a couple of more episodes. As we speak, we’re ahead of anybody’s decision. If people love it, it’s going to be a marriage. You are going to see some funny stuff and you’re going to find some stuff that I think people desperately need. People need quality programming, you know? We’re going to hitting some real stuff regarding the insight that we have in the cannabis industry. You know? We’re talking about how laws have changed, the medical benefits of smoking marijuana, and so forth.  HOLLYWEED is not just going to be like a pothead movie. The show is not just about ‘hey dude let’s get smoked out,’ or ‘I’m so smashed.’ This show is going to really go deep inside the whole cannabis industry. Because it’s big business, now.