Jay Pharoah Is Pursuing Fame on His Own Terms, Just Like His Character in White Famous

Jay Pharoah got noticed for his impressions, like the one he did of Barack Obama on SNL for six years, but he's got many more tricks up his sleeve as a comedian.EXPAND
Jay Pharoah got noticed for his impressions, like the one he did of Barack Obama on SNL for six years, but he's got many more tricks up his sleeve as a comedian.
Courtesy of Arlington Improv
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Jay Pharoah performs at the Arlington Improv Friday, April 21, and Saturday, April 22

You won't see Jay Pharoah doing anymore Barack Obama impersonations on Saturday Night Live, but that's just about the only place you won't see him.

Pharoah is still doing regular stand-up gigs just like he's done since he was 15. He has a starring voiceover role in Activision's latest Call of Duty game alongside Seth Green, Ike Barinholtz, Paul Reubens and David Hasselhoff. He's working with the producer behind Beyoncé's Lemonade on a hip-hop album. And in January, Showtime ordered a new series starring Pharoah as the lead.

"I'm saving the world every day," Pharoah says with a laugh.

He first made a name for himself on the internet and in sketch comedy circles as a comedian with a gift for impressions. In 2009, a video of him impersonating former president Barack Obama went viral and caught the attention of SNL's central casting department, which hired him for the following year.

Pharoah replaced Fred Armisen as the show's official presidential impersonator and received positive marks for his other performances as well. His take on Denzel Washington was even complimented by the actual Denzel Washington.

However, anyone who is familiar with Pharoah's body of work, and particularly his stand-up, knows that impressions and voices are just one part of his talent.

"I do everything, man. ... It's a mix of everything: point-of-view and what I'm thinking about and how certain things make me feel or just me talking about my family or what's going on politically or how certain songs make me feel," he says. "I interject impressions in there but it's not an impression-heavy show. ... I have over 200 impressions so I'm not going to sit there and do that for over two hours."

Pharoah spent six seasons on SNL before a sudden cast shakeup resulted in his abrupt departure. Fellow cast members Taran Killam and Jon Rudnitsky were also let go. Pharoah says it was hard to leave because he still considers the cast and show part of his family.

"That's just how I feel," he says. "We're family, and it's a great institution to be a part of, and I was honored to be on it for six years and work with it."

Pharoah is confident that his time on the beloved sketch comedy show prepped him for things still to come in his career as an actor and comedian.

"Once you go through SNL, you are ready for pretty much anything and you get everything and understand it," he says. "It's a good training ground."

Right now, he's preparing to film the first episode of White Famous for Showtime this summer. The show explores the life of a young, African-American comedian named Floyd Mooney whose star is on the rise and threatening his personal and cultural identities.

"That's why I gravitated toward the concept because I am familiar with that same struggle," Pharoah says.

The show demonstrates how sticking to your guns can not only make you a better comedian but also a better person.

"Floyd Mooney's character is just about standing by his morals and not having to demean those morals and not having to concede to be famous, and that's kind of the reason why he's like 'I don't want to do this. I want to do this my way and make it happen my way,'" Pharoah says. "It ends up working out for him. That's the character's M.O., and ultimately by him not luring himself into that and standing by his morals, it gives him a shot to be in the industry."

Jay Pharoah, 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, April 21, and 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 22, Arlington Improv, 309 Curtis Mathes Way, No. 147, $25-$37, improvarlington.com.

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