Donnell Rawlings has made a name for himself as a stand-up comedian, and has gotten industry-wide acclaim for his roles in The Wire and famously as Ashy Larry from Chappelle's Show, as well as MTV's Guy Court. But when his son Austen was born a year ago, he got to step into a new role — that of dad. Austen will co-star with Rawlings on the new series, Project Dad.
The show features celebrity dads — Rawlings, as well as soap opera star Daniel Cosgrove and musician DJ Skribble — as they play the role of both parents while their wives are away for 48 hours. As tough as things might seem at first, each is more than willing to step up to the plate to build a relationship with their kids.
Rawlings chatted with A Plus for a special edition of The A Plus Interview to offer some honest insight into pursuing a career in showbiz, how humor helps improve race relations, and the confidence of the comics you see on stage.
What is your thought on taking a clearly defined path to your goals vs. taking a divergent path? Is one procedure better than the other?
In my career, I've never had a change of plan as a plan B means I wouldn't go as hard with plan A. I heard this amazing guy who said a few years ago to me, "Don't burn bridges, because you never know when you've got to go back" ... That's not going to work for everybody, but I suggest burn them so you know you can't go back. … There's a Jamaican saying, "always forward, never backward," so it's always full-steam ahead for me, and I've been living by the rule of either go hard or go home.
Do you think it's a blessing or a curse to be attached to iconic entertainment projects?
I would say it's 95 percent a blessing and 5 percent a curse. … Being part of The Wire, which I think Entertainment Weekly ranked in the top 50 shows of all time, and Chappelle's Show, both ranked high. The thing is, we all need a platform for people to see the talent. But that platform can be so huge it takes away from the other things we did. And me being one of the main players on Chappelle's Show, it took away from of the other things I did, but … that was a great show for me. I did some things after Chappelle's Show and some people try to gauge the success of Chappelle's Show to those other things and it doesn't match. It's not too often you have a show that's iconic and it takes away from other things you did. … People see what you do, so take it for what it's worth and just live with it.
How important has the support of family been as you've built your career?
In the beginning, you want the family support, but family support — it's tough because family doesn't know trials and tribulations, the ups and the downs, and you can't share everything about your career because your family, at some point, will get depressed ... When I first started, every time I had an audition, my family would call me. I would let them know, but sometimes those opportunities wouldn't pan out, and then they'd be like, "What happened? Is he ever going to make it?" Initially, out the gate, you're just getting started, family is great, but sometimes you've got to keep some of your gift, because even in your family, in everybody's family, you're going to have people that love you and some people that are going to hate on you. So it's kind of a good thing to use it [family support] when you first start.
In discussions about race, there's often a talk that people need to be educated, that they need to interact with people of different cultures, etc. What role do you think humor plays in improving race relations?
Humor opens you up to things you wouldn't necessarily be open to, and once you open someone's brain … with a laugh, that's when you hit them with reality. That's why Chappelle's Show was such a success because his racial politics wasn't … a protest.
Does being a comic build confidence? If so, how?
Your confidence is what makes you a great comic. You don't meet too many insecure comedians. Being a great comedian is never confidence, it's controlled arrogance, and it's a controlled ego.
What else should our readers know about you?
People know me as Ashy Larry, but with Project Dad and the birth of my son, I'm going from ashy to classy. People loved me as emotionally challenged on Chappelle or a funny criminal on The Wire, but I'm ready to show them I'm a good dad.
Both A Plus and Project Dad are brought to you by Chicken Soup for the Soul.