Speakeasy with Donnell Rawlings

Donnell Rawlings turned a natural ability to be funny into a craft that pays the bills. He's served in the armed forces, coined a pop-culture catchphrase ("Chappelle's Show's" "I'm rich, bitch!") and appeared in several hit shows, but he's not done yet. He performs at the Vortex's Laughing Skull Lounge March 12-15. Here, Rawlings speaks about what got him into the industry, and what his plans are going forward.

I read that your comedy career started with you heckling a comedian who then challenged you to take the stage. Is that really how it all began?
Well sort of, but it wasn't a comedian who challenged me — all the comedians were scared of me. I was going to this club in D.C. and heckling the comics so finally the manager of the club challenged me to get on stage. I came back two weeks later with a 30-minute routine that quickly became about a one-minute routine once I got up there.

So when you started were you just going up and making fun of the audience, or were you pre-writing your material?
At first I was still a heckler, and I was just going up there and clowning the audience, but once I started taking the stage more often I began working on my jokes and actually writing stuff down.

Do you enjoy the writing or performing aspect of your job more?
I'd say it's a 50-50 split. Of course I like performing, but if you can't write and create something then you won't get a chance to perform. So the two really go hand in hand.

How many weeks a year are you currently on the road?
I spend about 30 weekends a year on the road. I live in New York now so I can work a lot there, but I still travel for more than half the year.

Did you plan on becoming a comedian, or are you just a funny guy who happened to be good at making people laugh?
I'm just a funny guy who happened to be good at this. People I grew up with are surprised that this is my actual job now.

If you weren't a comedian what would you be doing?
I'd probably be a carpenter. I used to want to be an architect but that takes too much damn school.

If you're a comedian who wanted to be an architect, then how did you end up in the Air Force?
After high school I wasn't too focused on going to college so I figured I'd join the Air Force and at least get to travel.

When you were in the Air Force did your sense of humor get you into trouble, or get you out of trouble?
It definitely got me out of trouble. I was a favorite on the base, but I knew who I could and couldn't joke around with.

You're responsible for arguably the most popular phrase from "Chappelle's Show." How many times a day do people come up to you and yell, "I'm rich, bitch?"
Oh man, like three or four years ago when it first came out it happened at least 30 times a day. Now I think people finally started accepting the fact that the show's not coming back, so it doesn't happen that much. Besides, nowadays the saying is more like, "I'm broke, bitch!"

Which of the characters you played on "Chappelle's Show" is your favorite?
It has to be Ashy Larry. People just fell in love with that dude. I actually created a new series on heavy.com with a more mature version of him. He's now Ashford Lawrence.

Well aside from "Chappelle's Show" you've been in "The Wire," "Law and Order" and "Third Watch." Are you trying to become a serious actor as well as a comedian?
Whoever wants to write a check, man. I can go from comedy to drama. I was nervous about being on "The Wire," though, because it was the shows last season, and in any HBO show's last season the writers get kind of crazy. Like in "Oz" they had dudes getting raped and stuff so I didn't know what they were gonna do to me!

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