Comedian Donnell Rawlings returns home to Alexandria

Ahead of his upcoming one-night-only performance at The Birchmere, we chatted with Rawlings about NoVA, fatherhood and more.

Donnell Rawlings
Donnell Rawlings (Photo courtesy of Steinberg Talent)

On Wednesday, July 3, Alexandria-native Donnell Rawlings hits The Birchmere stage for a night of laughs. Rawlings, best known for his work on Chappelle’s Show and The Wire, has been performing on stages and in front of cameras for over 20 years. In 2019, he starred in Kevin Smith’s Hollyweed, Netflix original It’s Bruno! and TBS’s The Last O.G., to name a few. Here, we find out more about the famed-comedian stopping by Northern Virginia on his Funny Moves Tour.

How do you feel about coming home to perform at The Birchmere for the third time?
Nervous as heck. It’s like … I can entertain a million people across the world but there’s something about going back to where you started, where everyone knows who you are and knows your secrets.

Tell me a little bit about your journey to fame that started over here in Northern Virginia.
For me, I don’t think anybody I grew up with is surprised I turned out to be a comedian. I was always the funniest guy in the room. I went to T.C. Williams and in the hallway there was a red carpet—it was like a hallway for roasting. That place was notorious for ruining people, it was like cyberbullying before cyberbullying ever started.

I then went into the military and, after, was waiting to be a DC police officer. In the interim I went to The Comedy Connection in Greenbelt and I was a heckler there for about two to three weeks. At one point the manager challenged me to get on stage and perform, and 24 years later I never looked back. I never thought about being famous, I just wanted to be really really good. I always tell young comics that if you’re good enough, people will take notice to it.

And was that the exact moment you knew that you wanted to pursue comedy?
People always said I should do comedy but it wasn’t what I anticipated. I don’t care what anybody says, you can be funny in front of friends but funny in front of a group of strangers with the job to make them laugh … it’s one of the scariest things anyone would ever do. If it wasn’t for that club owner trying to get me to shut up, I never would have done it.

How do you recover when a set just isn’t resonating with a crowd?
That happened to me early on in my career when I was trying to get my voice. After doing it for 24 years, there aren’t many scenarios that you don’t prepare for. I’ve had shows where I don’t think I was at my best, but sometimes that’s good enough for the crowd because they don’t know what my best is. For people that are really good, they’re never really satisfied. They always feel like there’s another level they can reach—there’s always something that pushes you to be better.

What’s it like working with Dave Chapelle?
Incredible, inspirational, motivating. As we speak, I am waiting to go do a show with him in Detroit. I guess, when you’re around people who are great and who inspire you, it inspires you to be great. I consider Dave to be one of my closest friends and any time I’m around him, we compliment each other. He knows that when he works with me, I’m going to bring out the best of him and he’s going to bring out the best of me.

How do you balance your profession as a comedian and being a father to a three-year-old?
They compliment each other. For years, I’ve pretty much just been living for myself and you know, comedy is a very ego-driven, selfish profession. But with the birth of my son, I realized that there’s something out there that I love more than myself. My son makes me want to have a long career and be great.

What can people expect from the new Netflix show you star in, It’s Bruno!?
I know a lot of people who are going to read this article are dog lovers. It’s a great, family show. It’s a show for people who love comedy, love the culture of Brooklyn and love dogs … nothing outshines Bruno. He has one of those cute, ugly faces. Every once in a while you get a show that’s just a feel-good show for everyone, and this is one of those. I also had the opportunity to work with Solvan Naim, who is going to be a big, big director in Hollywood, he’s on his way.

What is the most challenging part about writing a set for stand-up?
I think the most challenging part is to find some material that you get excited about. Every comic goes through writer’s block, and something in your life has to inspire you. It could come from a dark place or anywhere else, but once you’re excited it definitely resonates in your stand-up. People can tell when you’re having fun with it. For the past 24 years, I think I leave everything on the stage.

Do you have a favorite memory of your career in comedy?
One of the most memorable sets I’ve ever had in comedy is when I was working at the Magooby’s Joke House in Baltimore and I was on stage for two minutes before there was a power outage. There was no light, no sound and the show was going to be over. I got off stage and I told everyone in the room to pull their lights out on their cellphones. It illuminated the room enough for me to be seen and I performed an hour of material through a power outage. Right when I was getting ready to leave, the lights went on. I said, “Everybody remember this: Right now, I am God.”

To purchase tickets for Rawlings’ show at The Birchmere, click here. // The Birchmere: 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; $29.50

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