Jay Pharoah talks 'SNL,' Obama and upcoming Rockland show
In his third season as a cast member on "SNL," and his first as a repertory player, the 25-year-old Virginia native has seen a lot more screen time, thanks in large part to his most frequent recurring character, school principal Daniel Frye, and a solid impersonation of President Barack Obama. But his skills as an impersonator don't stop there, as he's lauded for eerily accurate takes on Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington and Kanye West.
But even with those chops as an impressionist, the man who was born Jared Antonio Farrow prefers to be known as an actor-comedian.
"I'm not in this thing for being the best impressionist, or nothin' like that," Pharoah told Newsday Westchester last week. "Because people who pride themselves on having the best impression are sayin', 'I'm the best at not bein' myself,' which is not really a healthy thing to say. Because, like, if I robbed a car, I couldn't be like, 'Well, Will Smith stole that.' No!"
In chronological order, here are the top 10 questions and answers from Newsday Westchester's interview with Pharaoh, who previews his Jan. 20 show at Levity Live, praises his cast members and repeats his request for the commander In chief.
What should fans expect from your show at Levity Live?
What can they expect? Issues. They can be expecting a lot of issues. You know what you're gonna get: You're gonna get a mix of jokes, impressions and all that kind of stuff ... It's gonna be fun. I talk about everything from, like, politics to fantasies to issues with my parents to woman issues. I talk about everything, man. You know what I mean? It's a whole pot of wrong.
What was it like doing stand-up as a 15-year-old? Were the crowds ruthless?
At that time, it was mostly in front of my peers in, like, auditoriums and stuff, so it was cool. They didn't let me in the clubs yet. When I was 16, I got into the clubs: I got into the Virginia House of Comedy [in Virginia Beach, Va.], and that was my first major thing. It was a [talent] competition, and I got sixth place, and there were, like, 300 people in it. There were rappers and singers. Whatever you do, a joke is not gonna beat a voice. But if I would've got up there, and I would have been singing as well [as telling jokes], well, that's a different story! But guess what: I beat all the rappers, so [when they] were talking about Glocks and shooting people, it didn't come close to the jokes. And that made me feel good.
What was your favorite "SNL" sketch before you were on the show?
It was "Wayne's World" and a lot of the Eddie Murphy stuff, like "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood." "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" and "Wayne's World" were my two favorites, because when I was little, they had "Wayne's World" on, and [I thought they weren't characters]. I was like, "Oh, snap! Who are these guys? Who are these two ... hippies with torn jeans?" It kind of got to me, because every time I saw them, they had on the same clothes, and I was like, "Wow. They're dirty. These guys need to wash." But then I got to the show, I learned, "Oh, you need to wear the same clothes in the sketches so people will remember you."
Shortly before you landed "SNL," you made a couple of viral YouTube videos that showcased about 50 celebrity impressions and, to date, have been viewed almost 2 million times combined. Was that made for the sole purpose of auditioning for "SNL," just for fun or another reason entirely?
I would say both. About five of those were put into a little package, and then the rest of it -- when I did it, man, it was done to [prove], "Look, I know I can do this, so let me go ahead and try it." ... But I can't say that "SNL" saw that video and that's how [I got cast], because I auditioned just like everybody else. There was definitely another tape put together after that one that got me in with them to do a [screen] test.
Where were you in 2010 when Lorne Michaels told you that you'd made the cast?
I was in my momma's house. Uh-huh. [Laughs.] I was in my mom's crib -- well, you can say my dad's crib, too, but everything's in the woman's name. I was at my mom's house, and I actually missed the call ... So, I called his office back, and they were like, "Um, Lorne's been trying to call you." And I was like, you're talking about [someone else named] Lauren, right? And they're like, "No, man. Lorne." ... I was like, "Oh, OK! I hope I'm not in trouble. What'd I do, Lorne? What'd I do wrong?" He hit me up and told me I had it, and then from there, I just dropped my life in Virginia, moved up to New York, and it's been on ever since.
What's it been like working with Eastchester native and fellow "SNL" cast member Bobby Moynihan?
Bobby is great, man. He's one of the people that I hang out with, him and Taran [Killam], I would say. I hang out with them outside the show. We have some stuff together that you all haven't gotten to see yet. You know how it goes at dress rehearsal: Sometimes it doesn't make it to air, but there's some stuff that you're gonna see, because me and Bobby love working together. He's one of the greatest dudes ever, and one of the nicest dudes ever, too, man. And a funny dude!
Fred Armisen, who'd impersonated Obama on "SNL" for four years, recently told Howard Stern he was fine with your taking over the show's Obama impersonation. What do you remember most about that transition?
It was just real smooth. That's just something that the show does. There was no animosity between us at all. It was a smooth transition, and it was a cool way to be done, especially in the first episode [of this season], when he introduced it, that was really cool. [During that episode's cold open, Armisen, playing an Obama supporter, introduced Pharoah as Obama by saying, "I wouldn't want his job, right?"] Fred is the nicest dude, like, ever, man. I can't stress to you how nice everybody is, so it was nothing. He believes in my talent; I believe in his talent. And he was like, "Hey, man, you have my blessing." So, it's all good.
I've seen his; he's good. I've met him -- him and Keegan [Michael Key], very cool people ... If an impression is good, I'll definitely give you props. If you're wack at it, I'm not gonna say nothin'.
Have you heard anything from Obama himself -- or any other actors you've impersonated on the show?
I've heard from Will Smith. I've heard from Jay-Z, but not him personally; he'd never call me personally. I'm nothin' but a little grub to Jay-Z, whatever. But I've heard from Gwyneth Paltrow that he thinks it's cool and he likes it. I haven't heard anything about Kanye; good, I'm glad. I don't think that would be a good conversation. [Shifts into West impersonation:] "You know what? You know, I have feelings and I'm real sensitive, so I don't like how you're talkin' 'bout me like that. You know, I really have an image that I'm tryin' to portray my image. And you're tearin' down my image." And I'd be like, "No, I'm not tearin' down anything; you're giving me more material to work with, every time you say something."... But Obama? Never. But, I'm gonna tell you this: Obama, I know he knows I do the impression. I know he doesn't follow me on Twitter, but I keep sayin' it: I want him to follow me on Twitter.
If you had to pick one person to host "SNL" -- someone who hasn't hosted since you joined the cast -- who would it be?
Eddie Murphy. If he joins, it's good for the show, but it's good for me gettin' screen time as well. Because I know that episode, there'd be no dull moments. I'd be in every single sketch, and I could die. I could die after that episode. After he comes on the show [and] does his thing, Jay Pharoah's just gonna pass away. You're just gonna see a tear roll down my eye, and I'm just gonna die ... And then the screen will go black, and there will be a [graphic with the words], "Rest In Peace, Jay Pharoah," and there will be a picture of me smilin' with Eddie Murphy.
IF YOU GO
Who: Jay Pharoah
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20