Donnell Rawlings probably gets asked about his work on “Chappelle’s Show” a lot, and I didn’t want this interview to be singularly focused on that aspect of Rawlings’ multi-layered career.
I’ve been interviewing stand-up comedians for five or six years now, and I pride myself on not asking “how do you deal with a heckler” or “what is your writing process” questions. I’m genuinely interested in getting to know the comics I talk to each week and I hope that is conveyed in the interviews.
That said, I would have been remiss if I hadn’t asked Rawlings, who headlines Goodnights Comedy Club in Raleigh this week, about his “Chappelle’s Show” experience in general and his role as Ashy Larry in particular.
Thankfully, Rawlings, who was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Alexandria, Va., obliged by not only discussing the iconic sketch show, but also saying his “Chappelle’s Show” catchphrase, unprompted, in the middle of one of his answers. It was a sublime moment and one I hope you enjoy as much as I did.
In addition to “Chappelle’s Show” talk, Rawlings and I conversed about the risk and reward that comes with being a parent, how the late, great Charlie Murphy continues to inspire, Bill Maher’s choice of words and more.
Enjoy the interview, follow Rawlings on Twitter and don’t forget The Best Tweet I Can Find in Five Minutes at the end.
Tony Castleberry: Did you learn anything about yourself as a parent while shooting “Project Dad”?
Donnell Rawlings: What I learned is it’s always good to have a co-parent with you to help because it’s one of the hardest things you could ever do.
No matter how funny you are, when it’s time (for the baby) to eat and your son’s breastfeeding, no joke that anybody in the world could ever deliver can compete with the power of breast milk. [interviewer laughs] I thought I was the man, but that breast milk is on another level.
(Being a father) is the No. 1 thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s as difficult as can be, but you get moments that beat down any of (the difficulty), the changing diapers, all that stuff.
TC: While I understand that people would have liked for “Chappelle’s Show” to go on forever, don’t you think you guys had something truly unique that could only be sustained for a limited amount of time? Or am I wrong about that and there was a lot left to give and it was cut short?
DR: I think you’re absolutely wrong. I needed another year or two because I was really tryin’ to get rich, biatch! [interviewer, Rawlings laugh] I understand your political correctness or whatever, but we could have ran that joint in the dirt!
TC: Creative integrity be damned, right? Just keep pumping out episodes?
DR: Yeah, yeah. Dave Chappelle’s bank account and Donnell’s bank account are totally different. Everybody thinks as an entertainer at some point you’ll have a mental breakdown. I called my accountant and asked him if I could go crazy and he said, “You can’t afford to go crazy.” You can go mental for like a day, but going crazy is gonna kill your bottom line. I was like, “OK. I’ll maintain my sanity.”
TC: Do people call you Ashy Larry when they recognize you on the street?
DR: Yeah, every day. If it ever gets to the point where people aren’t calling me Ashy Larry, I would probably go to another country because if they don’t recognize me as the ashiest person to ever be on TV, I don’t know what I’d do. [interviewer laughs] I am grateful. I’ve been ashy my entire life. When Dave asked me what I was gonna do to prepare for the role, I told him I was just gonna take a shower and dry off and I would be the ashiest person on TV. That was true to life. Art imitates life.
TC: [laughs] I interviewed Dominique recently and she said she was shocked when she heard about Charlie Murphy’s death. Were you surprised or did you know he was in poor health?
DR: I knew his health wasn’t 100 percent, but I also knew he was getting help and trying to get things together. I didn’t know the extent of it. Charlie, that was his personality. He wanted to keep it to himself. One of the things he said was, he didn’t want his ailments to define who he was and what he had done in life.
Anytime someone passes away, whether you knew what was going on with them or not, it’s shocking. You go through mixed emotions. When it first went down that day, one minute I’d be crying. One minute I’d be laughing. Laughing, crying, laughing, crying. Then I realized that I was laughing more than I was crying and the only thing that I could do was continue living the way we were on (Chappelle’s) show and the way we were in life. That’s to try to always be the best we can be. Be funny, stay relevant and just continue to work.
I’ve heard people say (Murphy) was pretty young (when he died) and he was, but everybody’s not gonna live to 90 or 100. When we’re born, we have a birthday and then we have that dash in the middle and then we have our expiration point. At the end of the day, you’ll be known by what you did during your dash. You know what I’m saying? So I tell people, do your dash and do it the best you can.
TC: That’s really good advice. I’ve never heard it put like that. That’s beautifully put.
DR: It’s true. I’ve known some people who only lived to like 27, 28 but their impact on the world and what they did surpasses the average person who lives to 80 or 90.
Even in Charlie’s obituary and at his memorial, it was live, love and laugh. That’s all you can do. The only thing you can do is try to live the best you can because you never know what’s going to happen.
TC: What’s your take on the Bill Maher situation?
DR: First off, you’ve gotta understand that Bill Maher probably connects with the African-American community more than he does with the caucasian community. You can tell by his swag. You can tell by his dating or whatever.
I think in that moment, it was a quick snapback. It’s a live show. A comic’s mind is always thinking, what’s funny first? Not what anybody is gonna think first. What is funny first and what is the first thought that was provoked in my mind? I think the way he delivered it, everybody could have took it as, “Oh, what are you trying to say?” … As a comic, I understand. When you’ve got a quick wit, you don’t have time for censorship. They don’t have time to think about it. You’re in that moment and right in that moment, I knew how he meant it. Not one time did I think he intentionally used it as a racial slur. I don’t believe that. People that choose to believe that, that’s their choice, but people that choose to believe it don’t understand, especially in the black community, what that word means. You’ll never find the answer. Is it OK? Is it not?
With any word, we know there’s context and we know whether people are using it to hurt us. We know when people are using words to help us. I’m not gonna argue with an 80-year-old or a 21-year-old about the word. I also know that when I hear it, in music or hearing kids say it, I know how they mean it. The people that don’t understand it are probably the people who wanna use it in a hurtful way.
But the rule of thumb is, just to be on the safe side…I mean, white people got a lot of words. Maybe you just wanna put a timeout on that word. [interviewer laughs] “We had a good run with that word. Let them have it.” … There are so many words. Don’t fight over that word. Just let it go.
Here it is, The Best Tweet I Can Find in Five Minutes: