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Donnell Rawlings

Donnell Rawlings
Donnell Rawlings

Ashy Unchained

Rottofest, Vulture Culture’s annual weekend festival of comedy, film and music on Rottnest Island is back for its sixth year with over 25 comedy performers and 12 music acts set to perform across five venues on the island from Friday, September 19, through to Sunday, September 21. TEGAN JONES chats with headliner, US comedian, Donnell Rawlings.

As a massive comedy nerd, I was nervous about interviewing Donnell Rawlings about his latest show, Unchained, which he is bringing to Australia in September. 

I’d been following the veteran comedian’s work since his days as Ashy Larry on Chappelle’s Show, and was fully prepared to make an arse out of myself. Despite my trepidations, what ensued was one of the funniest conversations of my life, which included everything from the “Great Barrier Reef getting shit on” to his unique and hilarious comedic beginnings

“I used to go to comedy clubs with my co-workers and I started as a heckler. I was the guy who was trying to take the piss out of you,” he laughs. “I started to build an audience and a following and people would be like ‘Is that asshole guy going to show up, because he was funny last week’. Eventually, I was challenged to go on stage and what they thought was going to be a horrible show turned out to be a good one.”

I take a chance with Rawlings by stating how much I love that he got his break by being a jerk to people. He laughs and replies, “You don’t know the level of jerk I was. Before I’d even told a joke I tried to work a door deal with the club. I was like, ‘Listen, there has to be a fee for somebody being a jerk at the level that I am’.”

Rawlings continued to take chances in order to establish a career as a comedian. In fact, one might argue that he had to have giant figurative balls to pull off his foray into television.

“The first television show that I did was Def Comedy Jam. A friend gave me this business card for the talent executive of the show. So as the cocky person that I am, when the receptionist answered the phone I acted like I’d known the dude for 20 years,” the comedian laughs. “When she answered I was like, ‘Where’s Bob? Put Bob on the phone. Is Bob there?’ She was so nervous and scared that I was somebody she was like, ‘Oh I’m sorry, one second!’ Two weeks later I was performing in New Jersey and my friend told me that I’d booked Def Comedy Jam.”

Besides scaring the shit out of administrative staff, Rawlings states that he doesn’t have specific brand when it comes to comedy.

“If there’s something that happens in pop culture that’s really relevant, something that’s excited me about politics or something that upsets me about race, I’ll try and put my spin on it,” he explains. “I think that comics are the best people to take you to a place that you wouldn’t normally go, or you’d be afraid to go to. One of the beauties of working on Chappelle’s show was that we talked about racial issues, but we did it in a funny way. You can laugh people into anything. I don’t consider myself to be a preacher, but with my style of comedy I want people to leave with some kind of message.”

This idea is certainly relevant for his latest show title, which was inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

“The movie is about a guy that’s breaking away from the norm, breaking tradition and going to avenge something because he wants to prove a point. For me, that title just resonated with what I do.

“I’m an outspoken person; I want to take chances and I want to break away from what you think is normal. How do you do that? You gotta break the chains.”

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