Despite the state of the world around us, last year turned out all right for veteran cut-up Donnell Rawlings.
“2021 was a set up from what should have been the worst year of my career, and I made 2021 into one of the best years of my career,” the Chappelle’s Show alum reveals. “I learned how to pivot from more of like a stand-up person into being more of an entrepreneur with merchandise and stuff. But 2021 was just a great reflection of putting my mind to what I need to do, and also asking: what are the most important things in life? If people didn’t get out the importance of family and being around people and just like living your life to the fullest from what he had to deal with in the year, I don’t think they’ll ever get it.”
The comic, who will be headlining a weekend of laughs at Houston Improv from January 7-9, shares the behind-the-scenes of his upcoming hour-long stand-up special. “It’s my second special, and my first in nine years. The first one was for Comedy Central, but this is the first on what is the biggest platform for specials right now in Netflix. We shot it only two months ago in the Fillmore Theater. Dave Chappelle is an executive producer, I’m an executive producer. He told me during 2020 that it was time, I want to support you and I want to be the person to produce your next special, and he’s a man of his word — we’re looking at the release date in February.”
“It was a surprise that he wanted to,” Rawlings continues, “because most of the time, I know a million people come up to him and say will you produce my special? I never really looked at him like that. Our relationship I always tried to keep on friendship, and not the favors and everything. I know there’s times where I could have called him for certain things, but I never wanted to do that. For him to reach out to me and say ‘Don, I want to do it’ – it really made me feel good.”
Rawlings' decades-long relationship with Chappelle bloomed further over the summer of 2020, when Rawlings got the plum opportunity to do stand-up when the world shut down in the least likely of places: rural Ohio.
“Man, it was the most beautiful experience because we were doing things others were afraid to do,” he says of the already legendary run of outdoor sets that featured appearances by Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, Trevor Noah and Louis C.K.
“I think Dave was the first person to create a COVID bubble before the NBA even did it. A lot of people want to say we were being risky or something, but we were doing everything to live life as normal as could be, or as normal as we could produce it. We had rapid testing and the bubble and us doing an outdoor socially distanced show. For us, we also realized that we don’t necessarily need Hollywood, cause what we did out there is we brought Hollywood to the corn fields of Yellow Springs. What we did for the economy for the community and for your mental health was just amazing.
"It was a risky endeavor, but the rewards of it — the happiness it brought people; people wanted to come up. People wanted to be safe. I mean, we had barbecues, I became the official river ninja doing that, I got in touch with nature. I said in all my interviews, I went from the streets to the creeks. I went from the hood to the woods. I went from whores to oars, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
The historic run of Chappelle-funded shows is set to be the subject of an upcoming documentary for Netflix, which has been titled Untitled.
Beyond getting his “work out” in onstage for audience, Rawlings has been getting more into the world of podcasting, with his self-titled chat series cranking out more than 60 episodes. More importantly, 2021 was the year that the podcast added some new blood: Rawling’s five-year-old son Austen. “I thought it was gonna be an interview, but once he started talking: he became a co-host,” the 53-year-old says with a laugh.
“It was like, he’s done it before, but he had a little reservation about it and there was some nervousness. I told him, I know you like to tell jokes, but you’ve also got to listen to daddy and to what I’m talking about to respond to that. And when I tell you came through with flying colors. It’s so easy for kids to be kids, but the way he was listening to me on the podcast, he was answering questions and being responsive, this dude might have a future in this podcast game. And for me, especially being an older dad – I call myself a dino-dad – it just gives me...”
“At a point, I thought I was never gonna have kids,” Rawlings confides in a more serious tone. “I thought that I had passed that point in my life. Just to be able to have a kid, to be able to have a son, and be able to have fun with him and work, I mean, he knows what daddy does. That’s like the best feeling in the world.”
While Rawlings repeats he’d never want to “force” his son into the life of a joke-teller, he’s convinced that he would be a solid comedy instructor if called upon. “I’ve helped so many people. And I’ve been asked this question before, but I know that if this was something he wanted to do, I would make him... he would be dope. Just because of my excitement in helping with people. So for him being my flesh and blood – he would be an animal! But I don’t want to push him into it. So I’m just satisfied with the fact that he knows what daddy does for a living, he appreciates it.”
“And in fact, I had my first Zoom parent-teacher conference with his teacher. And he’s in kindergarten, he’s doing well. And they talked about all his reading and writing, and I’m a little selfish. I didn’t care about any of that. The only question I asked that teacher: ‘Is my son funny?’ And she responded with: ‘Oh my God, he’s HILARIOUS!’ And I can hear it in her tone that it was all caps, and that made me feel so good. I know there’s the importance of education, but for me to know he knows what I do, can appreciate AND he’s funny is definitely a proud dad moment.”
While the so-called “Dino-Dad” may delight in his son’s wit, likely nothing can compare with how his son feels about his old man appearing in the latest Oscar-winning animated flick, Soul. At the mere mention of the 2020 movie where the comic plays burly bearded barber Dez, Rawlings beams with second-hand joy.
“Best question I heard in the last year, bro! Look, in my eyes, I done a lot of stuff. But nothing validates your career than being in a PIXAR-Disney movie. Nothing. There’s nothing! And the funny thing is, I had an advanced copy of it before the thing came out, and this was before it was in McDonalds Happy Meals, and before they start doing the marketing. And I watched it with him and his friends, and I made the mistake of ordering happy meals for everybody before my part came up. So they didn’t even know I was in the movie. But oh my God, that is his favorite movie [now]. He tells all his friends. I got bragging rights. You gotta understand that people like Eddie Murphy or whatever, with a great career and for the most part, Eddie Murphy works blue with raunchy stuff. But I see why he wanted his kids entertainment, because that really gives you bragging points in school.”
Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Friday, January 7, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 8 and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, January 9 at Improv Comedy Club Houston, 7620 Katy Freeway, Suite 455. For information, call 713-333-8800 or visit improvhouston.com. $70-240