Writer, actor and comedian Donnell Rawlings made his mark on the comedy world as a cast member on the late Dave Chappelle show, and became a viewer favorite and rising star whether a background player or portraying his character Ashy Larry.
And now Philadelphia audiences can enjoy his standup comedy at Helium Comedy Club, 2031 Sansom St., May 24–26.
Rawlings said he got his chance on the Chappelle show thanks to Dave’s friend Neil Brennan, one of the show’s co-writers, who noticed an audition Rawlings had done.
“I told him if he was ever in a situation, to throw me a bone. He did, and that’s how I got on the show,” Rawlings said. “It was the perfect platform for me and gave people the ability to see the kind of characters I could do. It also allowed me to contribute to the writing staff.”
Originally from Washington, D.C., Rawlings explained that he was not necessarily the class clown, but rather the person who loved being the center of attention by telling jokes.
“I was always a small kid, so the neighborhood bullies would come around me. But I think they became more afraid of my verbal attacks, so my mouth helped keep me from being bullied,” he said.
And it was that mouth that eventually led to a career for Rawlings. “I used to work for a grocery store and was invited to a comedy club one night by a couple of the people I worked with. I enjoyed the club and kept going, and I would often heckle the comedian on the stage. One night, the club owner became so annoyed with me, that he told me to get up on the stage if I thought I could do any better,” Rawlings recalled.
And although the stares from the audience made him nervous, he did manage to get through a set and eventually make comedy his career, one that’s lasted for 14 years so far.
Over the years, professional comics he admired include Martin Lawrence, Louie Anderson and the late Richard Pryor. But Rawlings said the person who had the most influence on him was probably his own mother.
“We didn’t have much money, but she managed to bring humor into everything we did,” Rawlings said. “And her sense of humor left a lasting impression on me.”
And that comedic streak continued to grow. As an actor, Rawlings has been featured in TV shows including “The Wire,” “Law & Order” and “Third Watch.” In films, he’s been seen in “Legacy,” “Car Babes” and “Fifty Pills.” He also created the website Bootlegcomedy.com.
Today, Rawlings says, he comes alive on stage. “In fact, when I have an argument with my girlfriend, the first thing I want to do is get on stage. I feel comfortable there and in control of what I do. For me, it’s like therapy.”
Additionally, he says, for the most part, comedy has been very easy for him for several reason. “I’ve never compared myself to anybody else. I’m me, and that’s just fine. Whatever happens to me will happen in due time. Also, I’m accustomed to not having much money, so I’ve learned to live on a shoestring budget. I know I’m the bomb, so the only thing I need to learn is how to make it so that other people will see me the same way.”
His future, he concludes, is just to stay focused and to continue making people laugh. “I challenge myself to be creative and to do something that others don’t do. I do observational humor, like how people’s personalities change when they get a smart phone. And the humor is all around me. All I have to do is turn on CNN, or walk the streets, or just go meet people. Comedy is all there, so I’m never at a loss for material.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 496-9001.
He made his mark writing for comics like Richard Pryor. He also wrote for “Good Times” and “Sanford and Son” in the ’70s. In the early 1980s, he developed signature characters for “In Living Color” including Homey the Clown.
His words are known by many. Still comedian, writer, social critic, television and film actor Paul Mooney has not become a household name himself.
But that makes no difference to Mooney, set to take the stage at the Helium Comedy Club on Sansom Street, May 2-5.
“I love what I do and I always knew I would end up doing it. And that’s all I really care about,” he said.
Born in Shreveport, La., and moving to Oakland, Calif., several years later, Mooney first became a ringmaster with the Gatti-Charles Circus. During his stint as ringmaster, he always found himself writing comedy and telling jokes, which later helped him land his first professional work as a writer for Pryor.
Mooney wrote some of Pryor’s routines for his appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” co-wrote his material for the “Live on the Sunset Strip, Bicentennial Nigger,” “Is It Something I Said” albums, as well as the film “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling.”
Mooney says writing for Pryor — as well as many other young comics including Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhard, Eddie Murphy, Marsha Warfield and others — was easy once he got to know them.
“Once I got to know them, really know them, once I could really get into their heart and soul, it was easy to write for them because at that point I knew the essence of the person. And once that happens, I can write for people. Otherwise, I can’t,” he explains.
Among his other writing accomplishments, Mooney wrote for Redd Foxx’s “Sanford and Son,” acted in several cult classics including Which Way Is Up?,” “Bustin’ Loose,” “Hollywood Shuffle” and more.
He has appeared in sketches including Negrodamus, an African-American version of Nostradamus. As Negrodamus, Mooney once ad-libbed the “answers to life’s most unsolvable mysteries such as ‘Why do white people love Wayne Brady?’ (Answer: ‘Because Wayne Brady makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X.’). Mooney had planned to reprise his role as Negrodamus in the third season of the “Chappelle’s Show” before it was cancelled.
Much of Mooney’s material is based on the subject of racism in the United States. which disturbs some audience members. But controversy has always accompanied Mooney and his comic material, and he doesn’t shy away from that fact.
“I do a lot of racial stuff because we live in America and my comedy is a reflection of my environment,” he said. “I think we’re blessed to live in a country with freedom of speech so I can speak my mind. We’re blessed to live in a place where I can make fun of things I see and not be taken out and shot.”
Long considered a living legend, Mooney explains that he can’t think of any of today’s young comics he would pay to see. He says, “I’ve worked with all the great minds from Richard Pryor to Flip Wilson to Redd Foxx to Moms Mabley. The only people left are Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory. After they go, it’s all over with. I’m truly the last of my kind.”
And his followers hope he’ll be around for a long, long time to come. As does the man of comedy himself. “I’ll never retire,” he said. “I’ll be performing as long as I can. I feel most alive when I’m on stage.”
For times and ticket information call (215) 496-9001.
Though he can be described as a comedian, an actor, a writer and a social activist, Richard Pryor was, first and foremost, an artist whose groundbreaking brand of uncompromising humor enriched the lives of millions. The new box-set “No Pryor Restraint: Life in Concert” (Shout Factory, $89.99) is a celebration of the life and work of this seminal comedian.
Known for his utterly honest explorations as well as his tumultuous personal life, Pryor was a Grammy and Emmy Award-winning comedian for whom no subject was off-limits. With nine disks that deliver over 12 hours of prime Pryor hilarity spanning 1966-92 — including nearly two hours of previously unreleased stand-up performances and rare recordings from the Pryor archives — this collection features the best recordings from his early years as a still-developing stand-up, his ’70s and ’80s glory years as a profane-but-profound comic icon and one of his final onstage performances in 1992. The deluxe book contains rare photos, multiple essays, exclusive celebrity tributes, a discography, a filmography and a personal note penned by Pryor’s widow, Jennifer Lee Pryor.
Pryor’s live performances, showcased on his classic comedy albums and in his legendary concert films — the best of which are cataloged in this collection — exemplify comedic genius at its highest level. However, what’s most telling in this set are the behind-the-scene glimpses of Pryor. In an 22-minute interview simply dated 1983, we hear a reflective and soft-spoken artist pondering his material. “It’s like … pulling teeth without any anesthesia; it’s just real hard,” says Pryor. “Because every time I come here I’ll always try to do new and different stuff and sometimes I don’t get it, and I just have a difficult time. Like, sometimes I’ll analyze it while I’m doing it and ask, ‘Why are you saying that?’ I make it hard on myself, I think. I don’t leave myself alone and just let the work happen sometimes.”
Pryor used the comedy stage as both a bully pulpit and a chopping block, scrutinizing his own personal shortcomings as much as he dissected the racial hypocrisy that had defined this nation for so long. If it is true that the same things that make you laugh will make you cry, then Pryor’s comedy turned tears into unmitigated hilarity. Topics that had previously only been spoken of in private were suddenly circulating in an open forum.
Pryor proved to be his own best topic, and he scrutinized himself often to cull material for his stage routines. When the off-mic 1983 interviewer asked what Pryor’s goals were, the comedian reflected: “This might sound real stupid, but to be cool with myself is one of my first goals. Just to be nice to people and hope that they are nice in turn. And, to be able to eat every day and pay the rent and see that my kids go to school and have clothes.”
Then, as his answers are sinking in, Pryor can seem to resist the natural opening to crack a joke, laughingly saying: “And, help people across the street if they need it.”
Representing the best of the oral tradition, “No Pryor Restraint: Life in Concert” is the most comprehensive Richard Pryor collection currently available on the market. Fans who order their copy directly from ShoutFactory.com will also receive a previously unreleased Richard Pryor concert CD, “Live at the Comedy Store, October, 1973,” as a gift with their purchase.
Richard Pryor has been dead for nearly a decade, but you wouldn’t know it if you sit in an urban barbershop, or pop into a country barbecue where his famous routines are often quoted and still receive big laughs. So, when brothers David and Joe Henry tackle the profanely outspoken comedian in their book, “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him” (Algonquin Books, $25.95), they begin by acknowledging the cultural difference they have with their subject.
The sibling co-writers reveal early on that as as white kids growing up in the Midwest, Pryor intrigued and educated them. From their teen years discovering the comic, on through to the release of this book, they notice “how African-American culture had shaped everything we knew and loved.”
And then they tackle the elephant in the room: How does a white writer honestly deal with the story of a Black comedian, considered by many to be the greatest stand-up of all time, and certainly one of the most successful African-American entertainers ever?
“At times,” they write, “both of us have wondered whether Richard Pryor was truly ours to approach, ours to embrace as a game-changing force, ours to hear as part of our collective heart’s voice, an authentic part of our heritage … We knew Richard as we did and felt not a racial but human kinship to his fears and desires, triumph and failures … Richard Pryor’s gift was truth.”
The Henry brothers — one a screenwriter, one a Grammy-winning blues and folk musician — offer fresh insight into the enigma that was Pryor. This is not a definitive cradle-to-grave biography; as brothers explain, they “chose instead to go exploring, to mine the soil out of which he grew, and map the cultural landscape from which he emerged.”
Throughout the book, the brothers are on a first-name basis with the comedian, and their respect for him remains unparalleled, as evidenced in a conversion with Column McCann: “In broad terms, Richard’s influence has held sway beyond the world of comedians in much the same way that Mark Twain’s has beyond literature: The work of each issues a challenge to every American artist in every medium to be brazen and singular, to speak the individual truths that nonetheless reveal our inescapable unity. Both of us — and well before this book was a thought — have been inspired by Richard’s bravery and his insistence that we each need our own history and retell it in our own voice.”
Pryor’s childhood in Peoria, Ill. was spent just trying to survive. Yet the culture into which Richard Pryor was born — his mother was a prostitute; his grandmother ran the whorehouse — helped him evolve into one of the most innovative and outspoken performers ever, a man who attracted admiration and anger in equal parts. Both a brilliant comedian and a very astute judge of what he could get away with, Pryor was always pushing the envelope, combining anger and pathos, outrage and humor, into an art form.
As a child, he watched as his father unloaded a pistol in a man for disrespecting his grandmother, and later, while climbing over a trestle, saw his mother servicing a client. Peoria was a haven of gambling halls, speakeasies and brothels that drew hookers, winos, gamblers, musicians, politicians and street corner men. It was a rich pool of repute that Pryor never left behind, as evidenced by his endearing characters “Big Bertha” and “Mudbone.”
Despite Pryor’s fame, he struggled for decades with a cocaine addiction that both fueled and undermined his comedic genius. And while he was known as a ladies man – married seven times to five different women – he also mused about same-sex relations. In his first attempt at the 1995 memoir, “Pryor Convictions: And Other Life Sentences” he wrote, “I’ve had sex with men maybe 10 or 12 times in my life and for me they were some of the most profound experiences I’ve had in my life.” In 2002, when the Henry Brothers read the passage aloud to Jennifer Lee Pryor (who was married to Pryor, then a second time), she exclaimed, “My God! Do you think he was gay?”
Pryor’s confusion about his sexual leanings may have begun in boyhood when, as a 5-year-old playing alone in an alley behind his house, he was assaulted by a 14-year-old bully named Hoss. The abuse continued for years, and despite his attempts to hide what was happening, another neighborhood kid informed him he shouldn’t engage in fellatio. Then, days later, Pryor’s father burst into an impromptu tune at the dinner table, singing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubble.” Stunned and mortified, Pryor wondered how much his father knew and why didn’t he do something about it.
The episode was committed to silence until it was revealed by Pryor in his memoir 50 years later when recalling his return to Peoria to recreate childhood scenes for his semi-autobiographical movie, “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.”
Pryor was a man of contradictions. He was intelligent, yet he was incapable of pulling the pieces of his life together. As a performer, Pryor attracted admiration and anger in equal parts. By the time the charismatic entertainer died in 2005 at age 65, he had paved the way for the likes of Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and even Louis CK. Now, in this groundbreaking and revelatory work, Joe and David Henry bring him to life both as a man and as an artist, providing an in-depth appreciation of his talent and his lasting influence, as well as an insightful examination of the world he lived in and the influences that shaped both his persona and his art.