Donnell Rawlings Nasty Show Just for Laughs JFL Montreal

Donnell Rawlings, as nasty as he wants to be

“A lot of times, when you hear a comedian is ‘nasty,’ you think about vulgarity. I think it’s just being unedited. Someone who’s unfiltered, and someone who has edge.”

If you don’t know Donnell Rawlings by name, you’ll most likely recognize his face. Rawlings has made a name for himself over the years for being Ashy Larry on Chappelle’s Show, his role as Day-Day on The Wire, and as Mr. Earl in HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. Dave Chappelle is also executive-producing Rawlings’ to-be-released Netflix special, as part of the Chappelle’s Home Team special series. 

The last time Rawlings rolled through town for Just for Laughs was in 2019, and he’s coming back to the festival this month to be part of the lineup for The Nasty Show club series.

Dave MacIntyre: You’re hosting The Nasty Show at Just for Laughs this year. What can we expect from this year’s show?

Donnell Rawlings: Somebody’s who’s unedited, unfiltered. Somebody who doesn’t subscribe to cancel culture. Somebody who’s going to bring the pain and bring the fire. That’s what you expect from me.

DM: What do you think it means to be “nasty” in comedy today?

Donnell Rawlings: A lot of times, when you hear “nasty,” you think about vulgarity. I think it’s just being unedited. Someone who’s not trying to appease a certain group of people. Someone who’s unfiltered, and someone who has edge. I don’t think it’s about going up there and doing dick and pussy jokes or whatnot. I’m thinking of comics who think outside the box — edgier comics.

DM: How much of that definition of nastiness in comedy do you think has been impacted by cancel culture?

Donnell Rawlings: A lot of it. There are people who are concerned with what people think. Sometimes, people protect certain interests. I know some comics who had relationships with networks and other things where, if they actually said some of the things they really feel, it could cost them some opportunities as far as money. But I think cancel culture’s overrated, especially when it comes to standup comedy. 

When people go see comedy, they’re not going to see somebody who thinks exactly like them. (They’re seeing) somebody with their own opinion and observations as well. That’s what I do when I do my show. I’m not going to focus on the “nasty” part of the show. I like the idea of the name of it. But if you’re going to be walking out totally disgusted — that’s not what I do. That’s not what I think “nasty” should be considered. It’s a provocative word.

DM: This is your fifth time in Montreal. What are some memories you have of being in Montreal that really stick out to you?

Donnell Rawlings: The vibe, the energy, the restaurants, the people, the excitement. The fact that, leaving Montreal [after JFL], you think that this could be an opportunity to break your career, or for people to see you. It wasn’t that for me — it was always just a showcase. I wasn’t one of those guys who walked out with a development deal or anything like that. But it gives you an opportunity for the decision-makers to see you in one area, and they could elevate or push your career.

DM: How are you feeling looking ahead to this year’s Just for Laughs?

Donnell Rawlings: For me, it’s a reunion with members of the community I haven’t seen for years — some agents, people in the business, network execs. It’s a good time for me. I’m not really looking at this as a make-or-break situation. I just want to have the best shows I can. I’ll get to establish myself in a Canadian market, and get to do something that I have fun doing.

DM: What separates a great joke for The Nasty Show from simply a good one?

Donnell Rawlings: How honest you can be with yourself. I love the type of jokes where, when I do them, people are like, “Oh my God, he’s talking about me,” or, “I share those same experiences.” Those are the jokes I like the most. That’s the way I know that I made a connection with them, and they made a connection with me.

DM: How much do you think standup comedy has actually been affected by “cancel culture”?

Donnell Rawlings: I think that, some years ago, it was trying to kill comedy. But I think people like Dave Chappelle, people like Chris Rock, people who stay true to themselves and stick to their guns — I think they’re cancelling cancel culture. Then people are realizing some of these complaints that people have are very absurd, especially when it comes to this art form of standup comedy. This trade has been around for years — it’s just comedy. We’re not trying to be activists. I ain’t trying to be a preacher, I ain’t trying to be a mentor or any of those things. I’m just trying to be true to myself, and talk about things that are fun and funny for me.

DM: What else do you have planned for JFL this year?

Donnell Rawlings: I just want to have a good time. I want to connect with some friends. I want to leave Montreal with people saying, “Donnell is one of the funnest comics I’ve seen,” and then whatever happens from there, I’ll deal with it. If something great comes out of it, cool. If nothing great (comes) in regards to a show or anything, I know I’ll have had another experience of working with one of the biggest, baddest comedy festivals in the world.

DM: And what do you have planned for the rest of 2023?

Donnell Rawlings: Just keep being funny, keep building my audience, and keep giving people a reason to want to spend their money and buy a ticket. At the end of the day, for a comic — especially in standup — if you can look at your calendar and see that you’re booked for an entire year, that’s the ultimate goal. Anything else is a bonus. The fact that you can put your name on a marquee and people want to see you, that’s a win. You can’t lose when people support you. You can’t be cancelled when people say, “I want to pay to see him.” Ultimately, for a standup comic, that’s your true goal, for people to want to pay to see you.

DM: Why is Just for Laughs such an important showcase in the world of comedy?

Donnell Rawlings: Because it’s one of those showcases that could break comics.  Years ago, when I first started, you do a five-minute set and you could walk out with a quarter-million-dollar development deal. That’s without even having a show. There’s a lot of talent out here. But for some reason, a lot of times, people don’t get to see them. This brings (together) everybody who could be influential to your career. It’s a platform to showcase what most people have been doing, and that’s making people laugh.

DM: Anything else you want to add?

Donnell Rawlings: If you’ve seen me on Chappelle’s Show, if you’ve seen me on HBO’s The Wire — any of those platforms — and you come see me do live standup, I’m pretty sure that you’ll become a lifelong fan. ■

Donnell Rawlings performs as part of Just for Laughs’ The Nasty Show at Club Soda (1225 St-Laurent), July 18–26, $58.50, and in OFFJFL’s live podcast show It’s Me at Café Cleopatra (1230 St-Laurent), July 27–28, 10:30 p.m., $35.50, as well as other ensemble shows (please click here for the complete list).

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Comedy section.