Donnell Rawlings Comes Back To Houston With New Material, Because Doing Old Jokes Is Like “Stealing Money”

Donnell Rawlings keeps it fresh and lets comedy come to him.
Donnell Rawlings keeps it fresh and lets comedy come to him. Photo by Paul Smith Photography

Sometimes the best things take time.

It was long ago when stand-up comics Earthquake and Donnell Rawlings first started bumping into each at comedy shows in Washington, D.C. How long? “I hate to say it’s probably been 30 years... oh my God, I’m old as hell,” Rawling reflects with a big laugh. “A 30 year friendship.”

All that time later, and finally the two friends from out East are sharing a bill and coming down to the Bayou City for a night of laughs in The Legendary Tour at The Hobby Center on Sunday, August 28.

“Both of us both came in at a time when the black comedy scene was really popping,” Rawlings continues, looking back to the hearty early cable days where stand-up was everywhere on TV.  “We’re both from the Def Jam area, the BET area. We’d run into each other in D.C., but Earthquake left, went to Atlanta, made a name for himself down there. I was just starting my career in D.C.”

Beyond their roots in comedy, Earthquake and Rawlings share a bit more in common: namely, “Netflix” and “Dave Chappelle.” In February, Netflix released the first in a series of stand-up specials dubbed “Chappelle’s Home Team,” focusing on comics who have paid their dues in the comedy world. Earthquake is star of the first hour, subtitled Legendary. Rawlings will be the second, with the special set to come out on the streamer later this year.

“You know, this is first time both of us been working this close together,” Rawlings shares. “We're always running into each other. But 30 years later, he got this opportunity to showcase his stuff on Netflix thanks to Dave and Netflix, and us coming together, it really is a dope tour because both Earthquake and I, not too many people want to work with us. When I say that it’s because we both bring so much fire to the stage.”

The question remains – who tops the bill when comics are headliners? “Some people like to give us shit because people asking: ‘Who is gonna close?’ The tour was built because of his Netflix drop, but in any given situation on any given night Earthquake could close the show or I could close the show. This is definitely for people that’s getting introduced or re-introduced to him, so this is his platform to have a place to shine. But I’m gonna do my thing also!”

It’s hard to know what Rawlings is going to tackle on stage ahead of time, because, at least according to him, his set is far from set. “Let me tell you something, things could change for me minutes before I get up on stage. I never, there’s not one show I’ve done where I say I’m gonna do this or do that, or do that. Not 50 percent of the stuff, I know bits, stuff I want to get to. But I just love the idea of creating something in the moment, taking chances, and it’s one level of laughter you can get doing your set. It’s a whole other laughter you get when the audience knows that this happened in this moment. So I try to keep myself up and open, let the comedy come to me as opposed to shoving it down people’s throats.”

But for those who saw the 53-year-old comic earlier this year at the Houston Improv in January, there is no need to fear: Rawlings has very fresh plans. “That’s been my practice since the first time I went on stage,” he says. “I’ve always been a person who is always changing his set. Anyone that’s ever seen me, like I’ve done Houston a lot, but you can rest assured I’m coming with some new material. I’m not one of those comics who run the same show for years and years, I think it's like stealing money from people. I call them  guys ‘the money grab’.

“I like the money, but I like to earn my money. I feel some people go on stage, don’t give it their all or phone it in and are just happy to get their cash. I feel ugly if that happens. There’s not a chance, not one time that I didn’t go on stage with intention of destroying it.”

Rawlings continued, offering a bit of sage advice for those younger joke tellers early in their careers. “I believe it is your job as a comic to change attitudes around, to take people from a shitty mood to a good mood.  You’ll get comics who come off stage and say ‘that crowd was weird.’ The crowd is NEVER weird. It’s always you. It is always you. Some people find a way to flip, some people can’t. But that’s what separates the men from the boys when it comes down to pound for pound who are the better stand ups out there.”

The respect that Rawlings has for long-running careers is infectious – he talks highly about his fellow comics who all started cracking wise back in the early '90s. Another icon of that era, famed rapper turned meme Snoop Dogg,  has more than earned Rawlings respect. “Snoop Dog is just a great guy, man,” praises the comic, who recently appeared on Netflix’s Snoop-led F*cn Around special in June. “He’s everybody’s uncle, man.

“What you get and what you feel about him when’s got a camera on him, that’s exactly how he is. The one thing I love about Snoop and his career, especially in hip-hop. It’s so hard to let out hip-hop legends get old. It’s always pushed in your face that you’re not relevant, old hat or anything. But it's like Dave says, 'Snoop is like the Ronald McDonald of Hip Hop.' Everybody across the world loves him, he just got that vibe. But... when my father passed away a few years ago, I had explained to Snoop how much my dad loved him. And he reached out to him, he’s just a real stand up guy.”

Despite the emotional connection, Rawling’s appearance on Snoop’s Netflix night almost didn’t happen. “I can tell you, man, I had tried to get my managers to get me a position on it, I talked to my agents about getting me on it, nobody could get me anything. I like to use the proper channels to get work. But that I was like, wait a minute, Snoop is in the phone book! So I text him, ‘You got something big coming up and I want in!’ He gave me the black pound sign, then ‘lights camera action’ and the next day, of course, my agents call me to tell me that they got me that show. I’m like y’all ain’t got me shit, man! Y’all ain’t got me a damn thing!”

This performance is scheduled for Sunday, August 28 at 7 p.m. at The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For more information, visit $55-125

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee