‘Donnell Rawlings: A New Day’ Review: Netflix Standup Is Occasionally Funny But Overall Underwhelming

I would compare Chappelle’s Home Team—Donnell Rawlings: A New Day with the usual lavish Bengali wedding food menu. The flatbread and a vegetarian side dish, in the beginning, are as good as they can be most of the time, but never really the show stoppers. Things only start to heat up with the entry of something like a fish fry. And then the magic happens—with all the mutton, chicken, and fish items around. The magic for which you basically attend weddings. No matter how amazing the dessert section in the end is, you still miss the meat and potatoes. I understand the analogy might seem crass to some of you, and my sincere apologies to the vegetarians (and the vegans), but this is the most fitting one. I could find to describe my feelings about the new Netflix special. 

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Rawlings standup is part of Chappelle Home Team,  a series of comedy specials produced by Dave Chappelle himself. That man is obviously a legend in this field, and if anything comes with his approval and backing, then you have to take it seriously. And I’m not saying Rawlings has done a bad job. Some of it really clicks and makes you laugh, all while making a lot of sense. But then some other parts fall really flat. Like I’ve said already, it starts out just about okay, then the middle part is total fire, but the ending is not so much. In the end, the whole thing doesn’t really land, if I have to be perfectly honest.

I’m not at all trying to be insensitive, but aren’t we all just tired of African-American comedians repeating the same racism-related jokes with their buoyant energy and the N-word in every single sentence? Because that’s exactly the reason why Rawlings doesn’t really hit his stride in the opening five minutes. But just when you are wondering whether you should stay with the man or move on to another comedy special because it’s you who’s paying for the Netflix; Rawlings sort of manages to turn things around. The lack of black people in New Zealand is not exactly something we should laugh about, but it is definitely amusing. And the part where Rawlings talks about pretending to be Idris Elba in order to charm Kiwi women is low-key hilarious, I would say.

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It’s not all bright and sunny from that point on, though, as Rawlings keeps going back to the same old things that we’ve heard many times before—from every other African-American comedian. And excuse me for being rude, but Rawlings is no Dave Chappelle. However, it does get better when the man brings up the topic of toxic relationships. Sure, you might argue that this is another thing that every single stand-up comedian is talking about these days, but there’s no harm in it as long as it spreads even the bare minimum of awareness. Rawlings only scratches the surface and tries too hard to conjure some laughter out of it, but his declaring it’s the men (he used the N-word instead) who are the toxic ones is important, I would say.

The meaty part of Rawlings stand-up comes at the halfway mark when he starts relating sex with power. Taking a line from the iconic Dr. Jacoby line in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which basically says all the problems society has are basically of the sexual kind, Rawlings starts talking about how a man would argue differently with their female partner based on the quality of their intimacy. Of course, Rawlings keeps gloriously uttering the P-word here, if you know what I mean. But he makes complete sense. I have this notorious habit of bringing up “The Office” in literally every context, but I absolutely couldn’t help but think about how James Spaders’ Robert California termed sex as the ultimate power in that show, and he was actually right about that!

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I haven’t taken 101 course about how to construct a stand-up set where you need to talk on stage constantly for an hour, but I have this belief that standup comedians always take the route of “getting personal” as a fail-safe. Not that I see any problem with it, as it often works out and you start seeing the comic in a new light and perceive their words from a new perspective. For Donnell Rawlings, this happens to be talking about his fathering a child with a much younger woman and co-parenting with her. He doesn’t jump into the topic right away, which is rather smart. Instead, he lays the groundwork by speaking about relationships where older men date very young women in general terms. And he actually makes a lot of fun of it. Not that the jokes are anything original, as they mostly circle around the same old pills these men have to rely on to do “the thing.” But you soon realize that it’s probably just self-trolling, and you start to feel for the man. Maybe that’s why you don’t find his jabs at co-parenting particularly offensive. In Rawlings’s defense, what he says about the topic is not particularly wrong—co-parenting, indeed, is a complicated thing. 

While watching the stand-up, I was wondering one thing: “Is it mandatory for a stand-up to be funny?” My answer would be no, but here’s the thing. I don’t think an hour-long stand-up show has the responsibility of being hilarious in its entirety; in fact, it can even be absolutely not funny in the conventional sense if it’s as relevant as Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette or maybe even Aziz Ansari’s Right Now. But the problem with Rawlings’ stand-up special is that it is neither here nor there. And I find that sad because it’s not all bad. There’s actually lots of promise in it, and some fine-tuning along with filtering out the unnecessary fluff could have made this a very enjoyable experience. Instead, it just ends up feeling like one of those buffets where you run around and take a lot of food on your plate, and some of it turns out to be really great, but the entire experience is not quite fun. Full marks for starting and ending with the “Feeling Good” song, though!

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Rohitavra Majumdar
Rohitavra Majumdar
Rohitavra likes to talk about movies, music, photography, food, and football. He has a government job to get by, but all those other things are what keep him going.

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While watching the stand-up, I was wondering one thing: “Is it mandatory for a stand-up to be funny?” My answer would be no, but here's the thing.'Donnell Rawlings: A New Day' Review: Netflix Standup Is Occasionally Funny But Overall Underwhelming