Jay Pharoah first flirted with fame when his spot-on impression of Barack Obama went viral in 2009. Today, his job is to impersonate the President, along with other celebrities like Denzel Washington, Will Smith and Jay-Z, before millions weekly on Saturday Night Live. Following his packed Sunday night show at Statler Hall, The Sun sat down with Pharoah to talk Obama’s reelection, celebrity crushes and the glory days of Nickelodeon.
The Sun: Congratulations on your reelection!
Jay Pharoah: [laughs] Thank you, brother.
Sun: How did you react to last Tuesday’s news?
J.P.: I was cool, man. You know, whatever was gonna happen was gonna happen. I didn’t stress myself about it, I was just going with the flow. If Romney was going to win, though, a lot of black people were leaving. There was a boat ready.
Sun: Where to?
J.P.: Canada and Europe and ... Africa. [silent, then laughs]
Sun: With all the talk of jobs during the campaign, few jobs are more directly dependent on Obama’s reelection than yours. Did you feel like you had a personal stake in this election?
J.P.: My boss really trusts me with the work he gives me. He gives me chances and he sees that I can perform ... I wasn’t really scared of the election, whatever was going to happen, I was going to take it. If Obama wouldn’t have won, I would have went even harder just to get on other stuff. Not saying I’m not going to go hard anyway, but just saying. It’s good to have a good writing staff around you that is willing to work with your personality to find humor in a character that sometimes may not come off as humorous unless he’s making a joke, like Barack. Just fine-tuning and finding what is funny about the dude — they work with you with that.
Sun: How do you master a celebrity impression? Do you start with voice or mannerisms?
J.P.: You stalk them. You go in [their] house and leave little bugs, you know, so you can hear. You follow them around and threaten to take the children if they don’t give you their VoiceBox number. It’s like a sport: It’s like playing basketball [or] football. You have to be intuitive, you have to listen, you have to look at the person and see what they do and try to match. I usually try to picture their face, saying stuff I would say at the same time, that kind of helps. I don’t know if that’s giving away too much, but that’s my technique.
Sun: Do you see impressions as a positive or negative exercise?
J.P.: As long as you give props afterwards, [so] they know there are no hard feelings and they understand it’s comedy, I really don’t see a problem with it or take any negative connotation to that. I feel like it can be positive, in that it can get you to be friends with those people. I met Drake and we were cool. We kicked it off right when we met each other. Chris Brown was the same way — when we met, it was all love. I don’t think he knew I did him yet [laughs].
But you got to have thick skin, especially in this business, and you [cannot] take yourself so seriously. I feel like the people who do take themselves too seriously will have a problem with that, when you impersonate them. ... Jay-Z had no problem with it and Will Smith ... how do I tell that story? I didn’t do Will Smith tonight, but it’s a part of my set and I talk about Will and meeting him. At first it was funny because he was like, [in Will Smith voice] “Yo, Jay, I don’t think you can impersonate me.” And I was like, [also in Will Smith voice] “Yo, Will, stop playing.” And he was like, “*cough* Yeah, that’s good.” And a year later he’s like, “He doesn’t sound like me, I don’t do that ‘Woo!’ ... He needs to practice a little more, spend more time with me, we’ll get it down.” ...
But it’s all love, I’ve never experienced anything negative except for one celebrity [pauses] who is short and used to be real hot and I’m not going to say who it is. [laughs]
Sun: Did you watch Kenan Thompson on Nickelodeon as a kid?
J.P.: Oh, yeah! [in Kel Mitchell voice] “Who loves orange soda? Kel loves orange soda.” And then Kenan would be like [in Thompson voice] “WHY?!” Oh, man, I used to watch All That religiously. I used to be like, “I want to be up there,” and I didn’t know how to get up there. And SNL: “I want to be up there,” but I just [didn’t] know how to do it. I would watch Kenan & Kel, man — when that came on, they were it. That’s when Nickelodeon was hot. That’s when you had Legends of the Hidden Temple, Global Guts, Hey Dude and Salute Your Shorts and Doug. Dude, yes, I used to watch him [Kenan]. It was funny, because when I was younger, I used to be a lot heavier. I used to look like kind of like Kenan ... It’s funny because I grew out of it and I’m working with him now, and we look nothing alike. But people do see me on occasion and say, “Hey, Skinny Kenan!” “Hey, I’m Jay Pharoah! Alright? Don’t call me Skinny Kenan! We’re two different people.”
Sun: It was probably a starstruck moment to meet him. Have there been other moments backstage at SNL where it hit you that you’ve “made” it?
J.P.: As far as seeing certain people, when I saw Chris Rock and he came around one of the corners outside the main stage and he was like [in uncanny Chris Rock voice] “Jay Pharoah, uh, lovely to meet you.” When that happened, I was like, “Oh, snap! You know me? You’re my idol. I look up to you, comedy-wise.” [in Rock voice] “No, everybody likes Jay Pharoah, everybody knows about you.” ... At that point, I was like, “I’m making some type of moves.” And then I met Drake ... and Kanye ... Gwenyth Paltrow. ... Anne Hathaway, of course, first time I saw her. [in a hushed voice] Because you know I got a crush on Anne Hathaway ... And a defining moment for me was when I got to do Barack, man. When I finally did it the first time, I got off-stage and I went into the back, and I was almost tearing up. It was like, “Ah, man, I did it, ah, finally!” It was so endearing. “Oh my god, I have this part now and I mean something!” You’ve seen it. There’s a lot of stuff I’ll do; I’ll be scattered around and you won’t see me. But when that happened, I felt like I was part of the family.
Sun: With Kristen Wigg and Andy Samberg gone, what sets this new cast apart from the last?
J.P.: It’s a more collaborative group of people. We all vibe together. Not taking anything away from them, but they had separate entities, kind of.
Sun: Samberg had the Digital Shorts and Wigg had—
Sun: Everything, yeah.
J.P.: [laughs] So, now, everybody is working together and there are no egos involved. We all just want to see everyone succeed. We don’t want anybody to get fired because we feel like we have a lot of talent in the cast and we can keep the show going.
Sun: Great. Thank you for speaking with me.
J.P.: Thank you, man. I know it got kind of serious, man. But behind all these voices and characters, man, I’m a cool dude, man. I’m not a butthole, a-hole. I just take life as it comes and I’m very grateful for my position.