Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC
Jay Pharoah is a Chesapeake native, an impressionist extraordinaire and, for the past three seasons, a Saturday Night Live cast member. This is a big year for Pharoah, who plays President Obama, Jay-Z, Denzel Washington and Will Smith, among other characters, on SNL. We caught up with Pharoah, who briefly attended VCU, while he was in Richmond for some standup dates in January.
Q: You're on Saturday Night Live a whole lot right now, especially since you play the president. How is it different from 2010, when you first started?
A: I would say a total 360. The powers at hand know what they're doing. Now is a perfect time for me to be on there more, because I have more experience. I know how to deliver now. I would have liked to be on there more during my first season, yeah, but we're catching up! I answered the question, right?
Q: Yeah, you did!
A: I'm just making sure. There were a lot of nights when I'd be in the back [of a scene], I mean, sipping on a lot of drinks. Now it's a brighter day, know what I'm saying? The sun is shining now.
Q: Who do you like playing the most?
A: I love playing Katt Williams. Katt will never stop. He keeps on going. So that's material for days. I like playing Barack; I just wish he'd follow me on Twitter. I'm so hurt because he sends me [fundraising] email every day, you know what I'm saying? He's like one of your cousins who keeps asking you for money. "Listen, I've already given you a thousand bucks, OK? What else do you want me to do?"
Q: How many people have you met after you've impersonated them?
A: I've met Will Smith, Chris Tucker and Stephen A. Smith [of ESPN]. I've met Kanye West. I met Chris Rock, of course. He was so funny. I was talking with him on the phone, because I was working with him on a project. [Switches to Chris Rock's voice] "Jay Pharoah, man of a thousand voices!" I said, "What's up, Chris?" He was like, "Nobody cares more about the election than yoo-ou!" I said, "Why?" He said, "If President Obama wins, you have an f'ing job!" "Well, thank you, Chris. Thanks for the vote of confidence. That brightened my day up. Now I'm going to go jump off a building."
Q: How did you react when you heard about the big pregnancy of the year, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian?
A: You know what? I can definitely see some sketches later down the line. The baby's gonna be high-strung, wear a Gucci diaper. I can see that! I don't know what the baby's going to be called, though. "Conceited." Bam! That's perfect.
Q: Yeah. With a K.
A: That's perfect. Call the baby Konceited. She can say, "I'm Konceited," and most people don't have a reason, but she does, because look at her parents. There you go! Aha!
Q: I have to ask you about Principal Frye, your character based on your high school principal.
A: [In Frye's voice] Attention, teachers and students! To me, that's one of my creations. I write those sketches with Bryan Tucker. He's a great, terrific writer on the show. It feels good that people will scream out, "Attention, teachers and students!" And then they'll fall out because they're drunk. But it feels refreshing that people are really latching onto that. They're taking that catchphrase and really going with it. That's based on some real stuff that happened back in 2001. I took it and put it in a sketch and built on it. It's good, because you need a character to stay on SNL. I've got so many characters to put on the show. I'm really excited about the second half of this season.
Q: Oh, can you tell me what's coming up?
A: I can't really tell you. [switches briefly to a high-pitched, childlike voice] "Hiii." I can do the voice, but I can't really tell you exactly what's happening. All I can tell you is that you make sure you tune in. You make sure you don't go out on Saturday nights, OK? You make sure you stay in front of that television. There's going to be some outlandish stuff. That's all I'm sayin'. Get some popcorn and sit in front of the television. After that, you can do what you want to! Get intimate, whatever you want to do!
Q: When you were growing up, did you watch Saturday Night Live?
A: Yeah. I was in the era of Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. Wayne's World was the first Saturday Night Live sketch that I saw. I kept noticing that they had on the same clothes every time I saw the sketch, so I just thought they didn't wash. They're dirty! I don't want to smell these guys. I want to send a hello from a distance. I don't want to get up next to them.
Later I discovered the Eddie Murphy stuff: Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood, Gumby. I was always a fan of his movies; I grew up watching those. SNL was pretty much what broke him.
Q: Do you feel a strong association with Eddie Murphy as a comic?
A: Yeah, he is absolutely one of my comedic heroes. I can feel myself going down the same path. He used to do impressions. I used to tour with Eddie's brother Charlie, and he told me that's all Eddie used to do. Like, he definitely expanded his repertoire. He grew as a comedian. He's a really good impressionist. Charlie said, "Jay, you've got those same chops." I said, "Aw thanks, you don't have to blow my head up." He said, "No, for real."
I can see myself going down the same path, because I love playing characters and doing stupid things, being able to come up with something and create it. I will never leave standup because it's my favorite. With watching Eddie Murphy, there's definitely some influence on my standup, and Chris Rock. You can definitely see that. And Bernie Mac and Robin Harris. Ultimately, Richard Pryor too. I really admire all of those comedians. They paved the way. I thanked Chris Rock for paving the way, and he was like, [in Rock's voice] "Why are you thanking me for?"
"For paving the way."
Rock: "Whatcha talkin' about?"
"For paving the way for young comedians."
He was doing an interview, and they asked him if he still watched [ Saturday Night Live ], and he said, "Yes, I do." They asked him if he had a favorite cast member right now, and he said, "Jay Pharoah's my favorite cast member." I was like, "Wow." He said, "I don't know why it took him two years to play Obama." That was definitely a cool thing.
Q: Has anyone expressed displeasure with one of your impressions?
A: I've never heard anything bad or anybody saying, "I'm gonna kill you, man."
Q: Jay-Z didn't send somebody to your house.
A: [Laughs.] Somebody sitting outside with a .45 and saying, "I'm gonna blow your brains away because you played me." Nobody's done that.
Q: Do you follow VCU basketball?
A: I don't get that much time to watch television. How are they doing? [We discuss the new conference, etc.] I just tell them to kick some ass. Win it!
Q: It was kind of sweet when Fred Armisen introduced you as the president at the beginning of the season. Who came up with that idea?
A: I don't know. It may have been Lorne. Whatever he says goes. That was a cool way for it to be borne out. There was definitely no beef. Fred's such a good guy. There was never any friction between us. That's just what happens. He believes in my talent; I believe in his. He said, "I think you'll do a good job."
Q: What's your favorite impression that we've never seen?
A: Richard Pryor, but you've got to keep watching.
1) Pharoah's "50 Impressions" videos from 2009, in which he mimics stars such as Chris Tucker, Nicolas Cage and Eddie Murphy, have been viewed some 2 million times [CQ before press time] on YouTube.
2) Jay Pharoah is the comedian's stage name; he was born Jared Antonio Farrow.
3) Pharoah attended VCU from fall 2008 to spring 2009.