Arts and Entertainment Lifestyles

Comedian stays true to himself on stage

When it comes to comedy, Donnell Rawlings knows the key to his success.

“It’s hard to be a comedian if you aren’t true to yourself,” said Rawlings, who will be in Augusta July 14 with Anthony Hamilton and Leela James at the James Brown Arena.

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Rawlings is known not only for his comedy but his dramatic chops as well. He was Ashy Larry on Chappelle’s Show, appeared on HBO’s The Wire and was the voice of Dez in the Pixar film, Soul. He’s also appeared on Law and Order and STARZ’s Black Family Mafia, and he has his own podcast, The Donnell Rawlings Show with more than 4 million views. In 2021, The African-American Humor Awards presented him with The Redd Foxx Award.

Rawlings didn’t start out to become a comedian. After serving in the Air Force in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he tried to get a job in his hometown of Washington, D.C. when comedy came calling.

“I never thought about doing comedy,” he said. “I enjoyed comedy, but I never thought about doing standup. It was by chance when I was waiting to hear back from the D.C. police department. I went to a comedy club. I was a heckler. They invited me to go on stage.”

So it began. These days Rawlings isn’t a fan of hecklers; most of them, he said, are people who want to be stand-up comedians, but don’t have the guts to do it themselves. When called out, they usually back down. When he was called out, he put his money where his mouth was.

Donnell Rawlings

“Even though I started as a heckler, once I went on stage, I really realized how hard it is to engage with people and keep them laughing for an extended period of time,” he said. “Hecklers that come to my show, one of two things are going to happen – you’re either going to want to fight me or buy me a drink. I prefer the drink.”

Comedy can be difficult to navigate. What one person finds funny, another person may find offensive, and that’s where Rawlings said it’s important for him to be true to himself.

“Dave Chappelle told me some time ago, ‘Donnell, it is our job to make fun of the things that are troubling the world,’” he said.

And that’s the stance he takes. Not everyone likes what he has to say, and he’s fine with it. If an audience of 100 has three people who don’t like his jokes, then that’s a good percentage for him.

“Comedy is what it is. I’m not a politician; I’m not an activist; I’m not a preacher; I’m not trying to teach your kids anything. I’m just trying to be funny in the way I see the world,” he said.

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 As he looks ahead, Rawlings works to build his fan base. He has a Netflix comedy special planned and gives comedy all he can. That’s the one thing he can depend on. In Hollywood, people might decide they don’t want you to work with them on the small screen or on a movie, but the live audiences will come if you focus on your audience.

“My No. 1 focus is being funnier and building my fan base and giving people what they like — a good night of entertainment. Anything else is a bonus, if I do anything on the small screen, if I do anything on the animation side or in film, it’s a bonus,” he said.  “No one can take my stand up away.”

 He hopes that people at the July 14 show will come and connect with him as a comedian, and he believes he’ll find a few more fans in Augusta’s audience.

“If you are a fan of any acting work I did, if you are a fan of things I did on Chappelle’s Show, if you come see me do live standup comedy —  in your face, feel me breathe close to you — I’m pretty sure nine times out of 10, you’ll become a lifelong fan,” he said.

The show begins at 8 p.m. For tickets, click here.

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Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News, has covered Augusta’s news for 35 years. Reach her at Sign up for the newsletter here.