Despite portraying the President of the United States for several years on network television via Saturday Night Live, and singlehandedly winning the MTV Video Music Awards by impersonating Kanye West, Jay-Z and Drake, Jay Pharoah may still be an unknown to many American viewers.
So he asks in the title of his first stand-up special, premiering tonight on Showtime, Jay Pharoah: Can I Be Me?
Recorded at The Cutting Room in New York City during the height of the Big Apple’s Ebola scare last year, Pharoah has an intimate crowd eager to hear what he has to say between his fifth and sixth seasons on SNL.
It’s only a couple of minutes into his hour before he slips into the first of many other voices, but it’s not one of the impersonations you might know, love and expect to hear out of him. Instead, it’s Seattle Seahawks star cornerback Richard Sherman (Pharoah at 27 is actually five months older than Sherman), and it’s only a brief snippet at that.
In fact, most of Pharoah’s vocal impressions last only a minute or two, if that, and serve to carry the joke. He employs Chris Rock’s voice and cadence to remind himself and the audience how old men behave before continuing a story about his days washing dishes at a Golden Corral. Pharoah becomes former basketballer Dikembe Mutombo for but a few seconds to swat away a joke. He describes how dangerous weed cookies are by re-creating a Gollum/Smeagol dialogue he once had with himself in the mirror, then segues into a bit of Dave Chappelle to illustrate someone who can get fully baked safely. Pharoah’s Jay-Z only surfaces briefly, too. His Kanye West segues into a Katt Williams impersonation talking to Kanye.
When Pharoah is truly himself, though, his jokes represent a scattered collection of thoughts. Among them, you’ll find he’s not a big fan of social media, and specifically not Snapchat. “I can’t jerk off in five seconds! What the hell?!” he muses.
He reveals that an SNL music video parodying the fun viral hit, “What Does the Fox Say?” as “What Does My Girl Say?” was based on his experiences with an ex-girlfriend.
Pharoah can joke about his ex now, as well as an 11-minute phone call he received from Kanye following last August’s VMAs, which he said was worth the lecturing if only for one ridiculous phrase Kanye uttered. But Pharoah says he hadn’t seen real fame until seeing 200 girls fawn and fart like crazy over One Direction during an SNL shoot.
For all of the celebrity voices Pharoah can mimic, it’s when singing and rapping that he really shines. He loves doing Drake lyrics as drake, comparing Lil Wayne to a cricket, and wondering how Eminem got so angry for a white guy. After noting that he himself is a rapper, Pharoah pauses, claiming his bluff is being called, and then spits rhymes for a hot minute. “The EP is out right now on Soundcloud,” he says in a not-so-shameful plug.
Pharoah has some of both Biggie and Tupac in him to share, as well as his more famous Denzel Washington and Will Smith impersonations. Again, they’re all briefly done and with a succinct point to make. The hour is almost over before you ever hear Pharoah’s Barack Obama. But two minutes later, Pharoah already has shifted gears to his fantasy president: Eddie Murphy.
There’s a running bit he does about “concerned white women” all being named Karen that pays off in a way that surprises even Pharoah.
He has a ready-made answer whenever anyone asks him why he started impersonating others as a teenager. “Because I had no friends. I had to make people up,” he jokes. He also reveals that when he was 17, he was 5-foot-8 and weighed 250 pounds. He remembers what it was like a decade ago to be bullied. And he’s OK with it, because look where it got him, he says. “It got me on national TV!”
Or as he says over and over in his first special: “I ain’t no punk. I’m a survivor!”
He certainly has become more comfortable in his own skin, no matter what voice is coming out of his mouth.
Jay Pharoah: Can I Be Me? premieres tonight on Showtime, and is available On Demand and Showtime Anytime afterward.
Comedy Dynamics will release an audio version of “Jay Pharoah: Can I Be Me?” on Aug. 7, 2015.