Donnell Rawlings is often recognized from his iconic roles on Chappelle’s Show, namely Ashy Larry. And he doesn’t mind at all. Since his days as the ashy dice roller, he has continued touring his stand-up act, making his own comedy sketch videos and more recently has appeared as a talking head on MTV’s hit show Guy Code. His newest gig is as Judge Rawlings on MTV2′s recently debuted Guy Code spin-off: Guy Court.
Rawlings is the “mature” member of the Guy Code crew and comes from an era sans talking head shows or Twitter. Unlike many comics from an older generation, he does not fight the change but embraces it. He welcomes the opportunities that YouTube and Twitter have given creative people to catapult themselves into mainstream platforms. I sat down with him and discussed this new age of comedy along with international guy code, and, of course, his days on Chappelle’s Show.
So Annie Lederman tells me you cook a mean barbecue.
She told you that? Yeah we used to barbecue a lot. I kind of berthed her career. I love when somebody says, ‘I’m thinking about doing stand-up’ because I’m on you. I’m like, ‘Let me help.’ She didn’t have a voice at the time. She was real off-beat but I knew there was something about her style that was different– that straight dead pan or whatever. The only place she started getting up was at my spot and now she’s doing well…I’m happy for everything that she’s doing. Especially for me because when I think I see a talent in somebody and they start doing it, that’s a good feeling. I used to have this crazy apartment on the Upper East Side. We used to have some killer barbecues and shit there.
Do you feel similarly when you’re around all of these younger comics on Guy Code and now Guy Court? You’ve got some dudes that have been doing it for awhile like Dan Soder and Andrew Schulz. But Chris Distefano is fairly young in comedy and there’s some others like that.
It’s a weird feeling. When I was coming up, there weren’t a lot of opportunities. When I first started out, there weren’t these talking head shows. There wasn’t a show where, say, you could be doing comedy for like two years and all of a sudden you’ve got status as if you’ve been doing it for 12 years. So me, being an older guy, it’s not resentment, but sometimes I’m like, [in grumpy old man voice] ‘You don’t know about so-and-so because when I was coming up you had to do so-and-so open mikes. We didn’t have Twitter. We had flyers!’ The only way you could be good was by being funny and having somebody else talk about you to another state. When I started off in DC, you didn’t get viral first. You got funny first. It was a thing where the way somebody found out about you was you ripped DC. Then people in Richmond would hear about it. Then people in Northrup would hear about it. Then you had to gradually go down.
But now it’s like, ‘Oh I’m on this show. I do a couple of funny jokes and now everybody wants me.’ It’s in a different place than when I first started. You didn’t have social media. So the only thing you had was your reputation. It wasn’t that you could sit in front of a computer for five hours and all of a sudden gain 500 new friends. As they say, it was hand-to-hand, flyer-to-flyer reputation. So I think that these guys are working hard but they have better opportunities to create better opportunities for themselves. When I started, a network had to validate you, a producer. But now, you can validate yourself. The best thing about where comedy is now is if you have a little bit of talent and a strong work ethic, and strong social skills, you can make a name for yourself and you can make money. You know? So when I see Chris I go, it’s like ‘I wish you could have started 12 years ago!’ But that whole team, I’m happy for any success the guys get. All of us, the Guy Code family, we support each other. Schulz gets a show, we all get a show. Duvall gets a show, we all get a show. I get a show, we all get a show. We’re still a tight-knit family. But them motherfuckers play too much.
They play too much?
Oh my god. The worst thing is I tell them that I don’t do field trips. Because we’ll do our different segments. It’ll be like, ‘Okay, Donnell you got a segment.’ But whenever they say we’ve got a segment with 10 people from Guy Code I’m like, oh my god. The worst place you want to be if you have short tolerance is in a room with 10 comics. The jokes never stop. I always yell at them. They look at me and I’m like, ‘Can we just do this shit so we can get the hell out of here?’ They’re like, ‘Why do you act like that?’ Because I want to go home. But at the end of the day, as long as we create good product, everybody wins.
You’re frustrated. You’re like, ‘I’ve been to the party. I’ve done that. Now I want to go to bed.’
Part of what you said is true. The excitement they get about certain things, I had that excitement about 15 years ago. They call me the ‘old man’ or whatever. That’s cool. As the old man, in my defense, I go, ‘You see how relevant you are after 17 years!’ You can get hot, but staying relevant is the toughest thing.
Do you think that maybe breaking out early in a career can almost stifle some of these young comics in a way because they’re already in the public eye?
I don’t think it stifles them but it’s not all the reality. It’s different now. The reason why it took 10 years to make it was because they didn’t have Twitter. They didn’t have Facebook. They didn’t have that stuff. If anything, things evolve. They turn into something else. The worst person is the person that resists change. You could be that angry older guy who can be mad about it or you can embrace it. Anytime you try something different, people are going to be like, ‘That’s not how it used to be.’ It was. Guess what? That’s how it is. You have to adapt to it. You can’t be mad.
Nowadays, you’ve got guys getting deals because they got a strong Twitter following. I was doing a Web series for a huge mogul who’s been in hip-hop entertainment for a long time. He wanted me to work with him on something and he didn’t even look at me. He Googled a couple people, not knowing what their talent was, and he saw how many followers they had and he went, ‘I want to work with him.’ Not even knowing if they’re good or not. It was tough for me because I want to work with people that think I have talent but that didn’t matter. He wanted to work with whoever had the heat.
What’s been one of the hardest things for you to have adapted to? You clearly don’t seem like you want to resist change.
It hasn’t been difficult. I embrace it. There’s two ways I could look at something: that’s not how we did it or that’s how I want to do it. I’d rather be on the better side of change than to resist it. I want to know why something is hot and things I don’t know I want to be around the people that do know it. I’m not going to be the one to push old school ideas. If there’s a young dude who’s got some heat and knows something that I don’t know, I’m not going to go against him. I’m going to put him on my team. You know?
Yeah, you embrace it. I meant like, do you ever go, ‘What the fuck is a hashtag?’
No, not really. I’m down with it. Young mind, young spirit. Somebody like Paul Mooney or Don Rickles, I don’t think Don Rickles is gonna give a fuck about what a hashtag is. Hashtag: I’m Old As Hell. Hashtag: I’ve Still Got It In Me.
It’s been about 10 years since Chappelle’s Show. I’ve read that you’re not one of those guys that gets pissed when you’re recognized as Ashy Larry. You’re just happy that they know of you as something positive. But did that role ever pigeonhole you for awhile after the show ended?
It never pigeonholed me. When I first started, you wish, dream, and want a certain kind of thing. You know what I’m saying? Then when you get it, you go against it. But with me, I know that it comes with the territory. I can’t control fame or try to say how you’re going to know me. I gotta go with it. I really feel blessed that I’m in a position where I can be a six-figure dude off of jokes. As crazy as things can get– [people yelling out] ‘I’m rich bitch! Ashy Larry!’— those are also the people that make me. Those are the people that give me the opportunity to make money. If they’re not yelling catch phrases, I’m nobody. I embrace it. My feeling on entertainers that get all upset about wanting their private life, I go, ‘You chose this business.’ If you want your private life that much, stay in the house. Don’t go to the damn club and get upset because someone wants to take pictures with you.
I consider this business like a service field. We put out a good service, people reward us with tips. If you like me, you reward me with a tip. I can’t speak for everybody, but when people are yelling certain things at me: I’m relevant. The people complaining about it, let them go three days somewhere and nobody say shit to them. They’d lose their fucking mind. Kanye West: if people didn’t jump out on him, he’d go crazy. You know what I’m saying? You can’t control that. Your fans make you. In entertainment, I don’t give a shit what you think you are, you are nothing without fans.
And with you at least it’s positive and it’s something they like about you. It’s not like Miley Cyrus where she purposefully does some crazy shit at the VMAs and then goes on TV a month later to say, ‘Well it’s working because people are still talking about me.’ That’s how she has to stay relevant.
Adding on to that, I think there’s an art to publicity. You could be talented, super talented, but if nobody knows who you are or what you do, you’ll never get to see that. Even with the Miley thing, as much as people dug her out, what she did was genius in terms of publicity. A PR person would tell her, ‘Good job. They’re talking about you.’ You know? In this business, if they’re not talking about you, you’re not doing nothing. It all depends on what level you want. You could be a person who is just comfortable with being underground but if you want the superstardom, people are gonna have to know a lot about you. I wouldn’t suggest she twerk on another show again, though. The worst thing about that is it wasn’t appealing.
So now you’ve got Guy Court. You’re the judge on that. I actually found that you’ve played a judge before on Ricki Lake, correct?
Damn! I was trying not to age me. You just took it way back! Yeah, amongst a lot of things on Ricki Lake, I was a judge. The difference between me playing a judge on Ricki Lake [versus Guy Court] is they wanted to make it more caricature. They had me with an old colonial wig or whatever. It was okay. What I like about Guy Court is that I’m just basically being myself with the wisdom of being a guy for a long time. Although it’s comedy, there’s something real about it. These guys bring these cases because they want some resolve. I’m the dude that gives it to them.
“Well if Ashy Larry says it’s true, than it must be the rule!”
Well, the weirdest thing about it is, when we were taping I had to remind people, ‘You know this is just TV, right?’ Because I had dudes crossing their hands like, ‘Oh my god. Please be not guilty! Please be not guilty!’ I’m like, ‘You know this ain’t gonna change your life, right?’ What I think is so powerful about the whole Guy Code brand is that people believe in these rules that we created and that guys have been living by for as long as time. Some of them are kind of over-the-top, but it’s guy shit. I think Ryan Ling [executive producer on Guy Code] said, ‘Sometimes simplicity is the best thing.’ It was such a simple pitch for Ryan Ling: if you violate guy code, you go to guy court. That’s one of those Hollywood pitches where they get it. One of the things that I learned from Chappelle’s Show when I used to pitch sketch ideas and they used to shit on me, I used to try to pitch an idea like, ‘Dave walks down the street. And then so and so happens. And then an animal is gonna come.’
Neal Brennan used to tell me to get that shit out of there. It was too wordy. The first thing I ever sold to Chappelle’s Show— one night I was watching Comedy Central and one of Gallagher’s specials came on. I was…in California where certain substances are legal…so I might have been under the influence of something, and I just saw Gallagher and I started seeing Dave Chappelle. I picked up the phone and I said, ‘Neal I got an idea: black Gallagher.’ That was my pitch. That was the first thing they ever bought from me. It was simple and it was right to the point. They got it.
What was your favorite sketch that they didn’t buy from you?
HBO had a mini-series called The Corner. I wanted to pitch a spoof of that. The same gritty backdrop as Baltimore, the same heroin addiction as they depicted in Baltimore. I thought it would be funny if we recreated The Corner in a comedic way. I really believed in it. Neal didn’t really believe in it. He didn’t think that it was strong enough. But The Corner went on to win three Emmys and also became the spin-off to The Wire. But they didn’t go for so much of my shit that I can’t remember it all.
I got a funny story from when I was on Chappelle’s Show. When we first did Chappelle’s Show, Dave and Neal just put their favorite comedians in, which got me on it because of Neal. We had one performer that Dave and Neal both liked that didn’t produce when the cameras were on. I remember one particular scene we did for like an hour and a half because he couldn’t get it right. So they shitcanned him. Now this is already after ‘I’m rich, bitch!’ I was already connected, but the new rule was they couldn’t just say who was going to be on the show. They had to open up for all the actors in New York to audition. I already thought I was in. So Neal told me one day, ‘Yo, D. You need to audition.’ I was like, ‘Audition?! I’m rich, bitch!’ Right? He was like, ‘Yea, yea, yea. We know. But you gotta audition.’ For a second I was going to be that diva dude to be like, ‘I don’t need to audition. I’ve proved myself.’
I had two options. I could not audition which means I won’t have a chance at it or audition. I told myself, ‘I’m gonna go to this audition, but then I’m gonna rip this shit so hard that they’ll never need me to audition again.’ Nobody was ever a cast member on that show but that’s when they really believed in me because I sucked it in, my little pride, my little ‘I’m rich, bitch,’ and went in and showed them why they should never audition me again. I killed the audition, right? And at the end of the audition, I [playfully] went, ‘Is that good enough for you, Dave and Neal?!’ That’s when they were like, ‘We like this guy.’ If I could give any advice to any youngins coming up, the way you get on in this business is you do what the other person won’t do. You can’t compromise your integrity or whatever but you gotta compromise your pride and do what’s gonna get you seen. That probably was the best decision I ever made was to suck it up and go in there from ground zero and show that my caliber was good.
What’s cool now is that if you’re on a sketch show and you pitch something and they don’t want it, you can just go shoot it yourself and put it on YouTube.
The new thing is nobody is pitching shit anymore. They’re putting it on YouTube. People aren’t pitching when you got the Canon 7D camera that you can throw a 35mm lense on and you can make it look as good as you want. You don’t have to pitch anymore. You show ‘em! That’s a better thing because you cut out a lot of bullshit…Just do it! Shoot it. What do you lose? Know what I’m saying? It’s so cheap now to shoot your own stuff. And not only that, but you don’t have to be validated by anybody. You don’t have to be cocky. Just drop your shit and when they start seeing the reactions and stuff, then people come to you.
That’s why when I talk to younger comics, and they say, ‘Well I need this and this, and I need so and so,’ I tell them they don’t need nothing. All you need is some great idea and go shoot it…You can shoot a great idea on your cell phone. A great idea is just a great idea. With social media, people are like, ‘Yeah but it’s getting over saturated.’ You have Twitter: they have a family. Instagram: they have a family. Facebook, all these people they have family and they have eyeballs, but the thing they need more than anything is content. I said six years ago, content providers for the Internet is going to be the biggest field. As much as people talk shit about reality shows, the reality of it is you can’t get away from a reality show. I said years ago, the biggest producer is going to be a reality show producer. Sitcoms, kids nowadays don’t even talk about sitcoms no more. They’re not going, ‘Yo, did you see what happened on NBC?’
Well, no one’s asking about NBC anymore.
I don’t wanna knock my chances of working with them though. We are just at such a great place for creative people that have work ethics. You control your destiny, you know? Build it; it will come.
You spent time in South Korea when you were in the Air Force. Is Guy Code universal?
The principles of guy Code translate in any culture. It’s just a language barrier. Cockblocking is an issue in Korea; it’s an issue in Japan. You have a roommate who drinks your expensive beer and he replaces it with cheap beer, that’s relevant everywhere. Guy Code is not American guy code: it’s Guy Code. It’s funny you asked that question. I’m looking at Guy Court and I’m like, if this show was in any country, if they just did subtitles people would think it was a real court case. It would be funny but it would be real. These problems are not just here. They’re all over the world. There’s always gonna be a dude who calls dibs on a chick that he knows he couldn’t possibly get. That could be in Haiti, Jamaica, wherever. [In a Rastafarian voice] ‘Yeah, ya bumbaclot ya tryin’ ta take my girl.’ Guy Code is global. The only thing you might not get is language, but it’s global.
How would you say ‘cockblocking’ in Korean?
[Ed. I wrote as phonetically as possible, but people, we don't have a Korean translator on staff.] ‘Tak san cha gee-unday.’ I didn’t say ‘cockblock’, I said ‘dick block.’ [Donnell starts speaking a lot more Korean. It's quite impressive] That was, ‘I’m Donnell Rawlings. I’m very smart.’ I’m not fluent, but I can keep myself from being ripped off by a hooker and not order-in dog.
Have you gone back to Korea to do stand-up?
I haven’t. That’s one of the things I wanna do. I think I’m a little too young to say bucket list but one of the things I want to do is go back to Korea to perform. I just want to see some of the Korean guys I was in the military with. I would love to be reconnected with them. When I was in the Air Force, they used to call me ‘bullshit man.’ They couldn’t pronounce my last name, Rawlings, because they don’t have the letter R in their alphabet. So they used to call me ‘Lollings.’ They say, ‘Lollings-sa, why you everyday too much game play?’ I used to play pranks on them. ‘You all the time, my time, yo time, day time, everybody time. Lollings, too much bullshit man!’ I would love to be connected with those guys and say they remember working at the Air Force base with me, they remember me.
On my days off, I used to go to where the Korean guys were from where they had no American culture, where they had never saw a black man before. They used to come up to me and rub my skin to see if it would rub off. I used to hustle them dudes so bad. I used to get beer from the base and they’ve never drank American beer. I’d take like a case of beer and I was trading off. I would give them one American beer for like a case of Korean beer! One American cigarette could get me like two packs of their cigarettes. I felt like I was in jail when I was in Korea.
Would you do any of your jokes in Korean?
I couldn’t do a show all in Korean, but I could drop some set-ups and some punches and some tags that’d fuck you up. I’d hit a joke where I’d throw an ‘i-e-goo’ at the end and they’d go, ‘Ohh shit!’ I could do a joke with [more Korean lines]. Sometimes I’ll see some Koreans in the audience and they’ll ask me [in Korean,] ‘Where’d you learn how to speak Korean?!’ I just had a show in Ohio and this dude was with this Korean chick. So at one point I started speaking Korean, he turned red. He didn’t know what I was talking about. He thought there was a prank going! How many black dudes you know speak a second language period? In Ohio? For me to start rocking with Korean, I’d need a Korean girlfriend so I can get fluent again. [Editor's note: the publicist sitting in the room with us is black. So Donnell put his head down and raised a fist in the air as he continued.] I meant, ‘Nothing against the African soul sistahs because there is nothing better than a positive black woman because behind every strong black man is a strong black African queen!’