Not many comedians can say they've made the transition from heckling to headlining, but that's what happened to Donnell Rawlings – whose current path looked nothing like his original one.
“I wanted to an architect, but I was (saying), like, “That's too much school: OK, I'll try to be a carpenter,'” said Rawlings. “I wasn't that handy with a hammer, but when I was working nine to five in (Washington, D.C.), I used to go comedy clubs with a co-worker – well, I blew off more steam than anybody, because I became a heckler.”
Soon, people started showing up just to hear Rawlings heckle – to rising irritation from the management. “The club owner wanted to shut up: 'This is a tough job.' They challenged me to go on – they thought it'd be the death of a career, but it was the birth of a career.”
Within six months, Rawlings was appearing on HBO's “Def Comedy Jam” – so he took the next logical step and moved to New York City, where he could develop his style in a bigger comedy market.
“I'd come up so fast, but I knew it was not challenging (in Washington, D.C.),” said Rawlings. “It was exciting – in New York, you could do shows every night. You only get stronger when you're around good competition. If you're around bums, guess what? You're gonna be a bum.”
Rawlings applies that philosophy to all his projects, whether he's on the big screen, small screen or performing live, as he's doing on his “Unchained” tour.
“I always tell people, 'If you enjoyed me as a comedic actor on 'The Chappelle Show,' I'll make you feel like a full-fledged fan.' There's no script – it's just me, unedited, or, 'unchained.' This is a good time to go out, because I feel recharged with new material, and new energy,” he said.
Rawlings's next big break came as a writer-performer on “Chappelle's Show,” where he established the character of Ashy Larry. Originally, though, the show's co-executive producer and co-head writer, Neal Brennan, wanted Rawlings for a series of films that weren't getting made – and that's when his ride got more interesting.
“I was (saying) like, 'If you can throw me a bone in the future, let me know,'” said Rawlings. “Neal made that happen, but Dave (Chappelle) had to validate it. It was awesome, because he didn't know me as a comedic actor – he just let us go, and let us be who we were. When you have somebody like Dave that trusts you, you get a chance to really stretch out.”
Rawlings is currently working on a followup to his last Comedy Central special, “Ashy to Classy,” aired in October 2010. He's hoping to build on that momentum for one like it on HBO, a network known for its selective booking policy.
However, the decision-makers should have plenty of material to go on – since Rawlings will star this fall in his own show, “Guy Court,” on MTV2, where he's returning for another season of “Guy Code.” Cartoon lovers can hear him as “Another Cat Named Rally” on the show “Black Dynamite,” and he's appearing in Queen Latifah's new movie, “Percentage.”
That multi-media approach isn't an accident. Between all of his other commitments, Rawlings has found time to fit radio co-hosting in New York City, and Washington, D.C., and dramatic roles in TV shows like “Law And Order” – which is all part of his philosophy of doing whatever it takes to get better.
“Standup comes to me naturally, but acting is a craft – I don't profess to be a great actor, but at a minimum, I just want to present myself as a person that's versatile,” he said.