“Dude, I’ve matured so much over the last 10 years, it’s insane,” Jay Pharoah tells me. “My friends say, ‘You’re not the same person that you were back then.’ Just because of situations I have been put in, sometimes saying much more than needs to be said.”
A whole lot of that self-improvement has occurred in the 14 months since Pharoah found out his Saturday Night Live contract was not being renewed.
When Jay Pharoah meets The Daily Beast for lunch and margaritas at El Compadre in Hollywood on a recent Friday afternoon, he’s not too interested in talking about the past. It’s one week before his 30th birthday, which he’ll be celebrating in Las Vegas the day before his new Showtime series White Famous premieres on Sunday, Oct. 15.
“The only thing I can say about SNL is that it was a great launching pad. It was a great start,” Pharoah says, stressing that last word. “And I always knew that it was a start when I first came in. Because I’m always thinking 10 years ahead and trying to figure out what’s next. As far as SNL goes, that’s my family and I ain’t got nothing bad to say about them.”
Six months earlier, he was less magnanimous.
In a long interview with New York’s Hot 97 radio station, Pharoah held nothing back while discussing the events that led to his firing from SNL. “You go where you’re appreciated,” he said at the time. “Whatever they want you to do, they expect you to do. And I’m not a ‘yes nigga.’”
“SNL is an institution. And every place has a different way of running things,” he says now, diplomatically. “There’s always politics everywhere. So I can say that.
“I think naturally you have to progress,” Pharoah adds. “And if you don’t evolve, you die. Evolution is key to any artist.”
White Famous is a dramatic step in that evolution.
The show is “loosely” based on the early career of Jamie Foxx, who helped conceive the project and appears in the series premiere. Pharoah first met Foxx when he hosted SNL in December of 2012. Foxx told him then that he was a fan and wanted to find a way to work with him in some capacity. “Then when White Famous came up, it was a no-brainer,” he says. In the series, Pharoah plays Floyd Mooney, an up-and-coming comic who is at least initially resistant to the idea of becoming so famous that he “transcends color” like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, and Will Smith, “before the Jada shit.”
“Maybe it’s not in the cards for me,” Floyd tells his agent in the premiere. “Maybe I’m just a funny motherfucker, a comic’s comic. Isn’t that enough?”
As ambitious as he is now, the actor shares his character’s reservations. “I’m not willing to sell my soul for fame,” he says. “Of course you want some fame, or whatever, but you’ve got to be able to keep your morals. And I don’t think you should compromise that.”
The first episode revolves around Floyd’s refusal to put on a dress for a movie role. It’s an issue that came up during Pharoah’s time on Saturday Night Live when the show had no black female cast members. Pharoah’s decision to speak out on the need for a more diverse cast helped lead Lorne Michaels to hire Sasheer Zamata and then Leslie Jones. Or, as he told Hot 97, “I am the reason it happened.”
“In general, the whole emasculating black men in Hollywood has been an issue for years,” Pharoah says. “It’s one of those issues that’s culturally known, and it might not seem like a big deal, but it is for our community. I’ve definitely been approached with weird things that I have said no to.”
In addition to some asking him to dress in drag, Pharoah says people in the industry have encouraged him to partake in various illegal drugs. “That’s not how I party,” he says, before clarifying, “I mean, weed ain’t a drug. All the other things, I don’t think you have to indulge in them.”
He recalls a piece of advice he received from the late Charlie Murphy, who took him on the road when he was just 19. “He said, ‘Yo, never do coke or anything like that. Stay away from it. It’s not worth it.’” Pharoah says he feels like he “owes” it to Murphy to stay away from hard drugs for the rest of his life. “I’m already naturally wacky,” he adds. “I’m already naturally energetic. I don’t need a substance to enhance that. I just don’t.
“If anything, I need to relax,” he continues, miming taking a drag on a joint. “You don’t have to compromise yourself in this industry, especially with so many avenues available to get your talent out there. You know how some folks in Hollywood are. Like, ‘You want this job?’ Shit like that! There’s people who have done that to get where they are. But I am not a person who thinks you need to do it.”
At 15 years old, Pharoah started doing stand-up at competitions near his hometown of Chesapeake, Virginia. By 19, he was performing all the time. When he got cast on SNL at just 22, he was still living at home. “I Lebron’d it,” he jokes. “Go to Second City? Nope!”
The impressions came even earlier, when he was just 6 years old. “My folks didn’t know that I could do voices, none of that stuff,” he says. “They found out at a Christmas party. They were like, ‘Oh my god!’
“It’s just observation,” Pharoah says, modestly, of his uncanny ability to channel everyone from Jay-Z to Will Smith to Chris Rock. “I just happen to be good at it, I don’t know.” In the first episode of White Famous, he flirts with his ex by flawlessly imitating Denzel Washington. And then there is his Barack Obama.
Contrary to popular myth, it was not a viral YouTube video of Pharoah imitating President Obama that landed him on SNL, but rather a standard audition tape that his agent sent to the show. That tape did include his Obama impression, but it also featured Jay Z, Chris Tucker, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, and others. “If I just had Obama, if that was the only thing I can do, they would have overlooked the audition,” he says. “They wouldn’t have even let me come in for a test.”
In fact, Pharoah didn’t even start playing Obama until he was already on the show for two years. Fred Armisen had been playing the 44th president since 2008, but in 2012, less than two months before the presidential election, Lorne Michaels decided to shake things up and give the role to Pharoah, prompting headlines like this one from The A.V. Club: “Saturday Night Live gives job of playing Barack Obama to actual black man.”
There’s a line in the pilot that Floyd’s agent, played by Pitch Perfect’s Utkarsh Ambudkar, delivers to his anxious client. “There’s never been a better time in Hollywood to be a POC.” After eight years in show business, I ask if he thinks that statement is true.
“We’re winning! We’re in style,” he says. “I don’t know what it is, but when you see shows like Insecure, Master of None. When you see Leslie Jones get nominated for an Emmy, it’s just a good time. And I have nothing but positive things to say.”
When I mention that Insecure creator Issa Rae got a lot of attention, and some flack, for saying on the Emmy red carpet this year that she was “rooting for everybody black,” Pharoah says, “I think she just meant that she sees her folks win, it’s really cool to see us get shots.
“I feel we’re just getting the looks now,” he adds. “There’s always been talent out there. But you could be the most talented person in the world. If nobody sees it, nothing’s going to happen. I feel like there’s a lot of eyes on us right now. People are waking up.”