Impressionist Jay Pharoah, in St. Pete tonight, talks on being the other black guy on Saturday Night Live
Here’s a tip if you’re going to see impressionist supreme Jay Pharoah onstage anytime soon.
Much as you might love his dead-on impersonations of everyone from Denzel Washington and Will Smith to Jay Z, Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West, do not dare shout out requests like you’re hanging at the lounge in a Las Vegas Holiday Inn.
Or you might get an answer you didn’t bargain on.
“It’s happened before; I had to get really deep on them,” said Pharoah, laughing while lapsing into an impression of Training Day star Washington delivering a beat down on a heckler. “You wanna get your a-- kicked by Denzel? I have multiple personality disorder; that means you can get you a-- whipped by 24 different people.”
Pharoah, 24, was born Jared Antonio Farrow in Virginia and started doing impressions by age 6 – he says Gilbert Gottfried’s Iago from the film Aladdin was his inspiration back then – eventually hitting the stage as a stand up comic by age 15.
He appears tonight at the Mahaffey Theatre with D.L. Hughley and Gary Owens; click here for more details.
Pharoah drew some notoriety online for a YouTube video featuring an astonishing 50 impressions at a clip, switching effortlessly from Chris Tucker to Christopher Walken, Jack Nicholson, Owen Wilson and Nicholas Cage, among others. He's also got a great clip featuring dueling Washington and Smith impressions.
Then, in 2010, he was hired to join the cast at Saturday Night Live and it began: The Spot the Black Guy Game.
That’s a cheeky way of noting that SNL has had to fight a reputation for hiring talent performers of color and underusing them – given that names such as Chris Rock, Damon Wayans, Tim Meadows and Tracy Morgan all struggled to get significant face time during their tenures on the show.
Even now, Pharoah can sometimes seem like the Other Black Guy on SNL, overshadowed by longtime veteran Keenan Thompson. But before I even finish the question, Pharoah knows what I’m asking, and he has an answer ready.
“What I’m going to do this year, is total takeover…I’m gonna go out there and do (impressions of) white people, so those people who say ‘He can’t do white people,’ Yes I can do white people,” said the comic, taking a moment to break into a decent impersonation of a confused Nicolas Cage.
“If you watch the show this year, there are a lot of changes going on,” he added. “I can’t say specifically which ones because nothing has been solidified yet. But if you watch the show this year, there’s going to be a lot of shifts and things and I can’t wait.”
Pharoah may have been talking about the departure of several castmembers after the last TV season ended in May, including Kristen Wiig, who was given a teary on camera send off. Other names not expected back: Andy Samberg, Abby Elliot and Jason Sudeikis.
Such departures might open up an opportunity for Pharoah, whose jittery impersonation of a senile high school principal – reportedly based on his own principal from school – stood out much as any of his impressions.
“Everything that you do, you just have to make sure that it’s cool or talk worthy, you know?” Pharoah said. “Like, when I first got on the show, the first thing I did was Will Smith on Weekend Update, then I had Denzel as the guy taking returns and exchanges in the department store…You just have make sure you’re getting better and you have quality stuff ready, so you’re not worrying about getting that pink slip."
In conversation, Pharoah can be mercurial as his impressions, slipping in and out of stories quickly as he dips into impersonations. One moment, the comic is describing how his grandmother falsely accused him of watching porn on her television – he wondered how she knew about scenes that occurred halfway through the tape – and the next he was describing how a fan came up and recognized him on the street.
“She said, ‘Oh my God, Have I seen you? On television? On SNL?’” Pharoah said mimicking her tones. “I say, ‘Yeah.’ She was like ‘Keenan!’
“Me and Keenan, that’s like 150 pound difference,” he says, laughing off the notion of once again being the Other Black Guy on SNL. “I guess she had one in two chances of getting it right.”