Monday, June 18, 2018
TV and Media

Impressionist Jay Pharoah talks about his role on 'SNL' before show at Mahaffey

Here's a tip if you're going to see funnyman impressionist Jay Pharoah onstage any time soon.

Much as you might love his dead-on impersonations of everyone from Denzel Washington and Will Smith to Jay Z, Lil' Wayne and Kayne 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," said Pharoah, laughing while lapsing into an impression of Training Day star Washington delivering a beat down on a heckler. "I had to say, 'You wanna get your a-- kicked by Denzel? I have multiple personality disorder; that means you can get your 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 — hitting the stage as a standup comic by age 15.

He drew some notoriety online for YouTube videos he posted offering an astonishing 50 impressions in a row, switching effortlessly from Chris Tucker to Christopher Walken, Jack Nicholson and Owen Wilson.

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 SNL's reputation for hiring talented performers of color and underusing them — as stars such as Chris Rock, Damon Wayans, Tim Meadows and Tracy Morgan all struggled for significant face time during their tenures.

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.

"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 SNL cast members after the last season ended in May, including Kristen Wiig, who was given a teary on-camera send-off, Andy Samberg, Abby Elliot and Jason Sudiekis.

"Everything that you do, you just have to make sure that it's cool or talk worthy, you know?" Pharoah said. "You just have to make sure you're getting better and you have quality stuff ready."

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 movie — 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."

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