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INTERVIEW: Jay Pharoah Talks Social Media and the Origin of Impressions

The “Saturday Night Live” cast member recalls getting flashed in Richmond the night Obama took the presidency.



Can Jay Pharoah be himself?

The Chesapeake native and “Saturday Night Live” cast member posed the question in his first stand-up special last summer, “Can I Be Me?” The Showtime program confirmed that Pharoah is a skilled impressionist, known for spot-on imitations of newsmakers such as Ben Carson and Barack Obama and entertainment icons such as Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy.

While the comedian says he’s proud of the special, he’s especially enthusiastic about the shows he’s doing now. Recently, he proved he’s pretty good at doing “Jay-[Z]” by appearing in viral parody videos (“What Does My Girl Say?”), serving as host of BET’s the Player’s Awards and rapping about education in a video with Michelle Obama.

Pharoah spoke with Style about his ass (it’s no longer an Internet meme), his last visit to Richmond (he was flashed) and the kinds of people who attend his shows.

Style: In your comedy special, you said that you didn’t have many friends growing up, and that you had to “make up” people, and that’s when the impressions started. How true is that?

Pharoah: True. You don’t get that good at doing voices by talking to other people. That comes from just watching and sitting by yourself, havin’ no life and havin’ no friends, no social life. That’s what I had for a long time. I was bullied, I was picked on, didn’t really feel like I fit in. I just kept to myself and kept the door closed and practiced and practiced and practiced until I started going on the stage with it, you know? I was a funny guy. … I was very introverted at first. … I didn’t have a lot of confidence at first. I get my feelings hurt easy, man! My feelings — I got a lot of feelings, man! I’m a very sensitive dude, you know? I don’t like people hurtin’ my feelings!

So I guess you have to stay off social media?

Oh, you know, I’ve seen bad stuff. That’s why in the past year, I’ve ... come down like 30 pounds, you know? People were putting up side-by-sides of me and Nikki Minaj, sayin’ who wore it better and we didn’t have on the same clothes. It was bad, I was like, “I gotta do something.” So the hips are gone, people, there are no more hips. I’m sorry to anybody that liked them. I don’t have them anymore, I traded them in.

SNL has a historically white audience. What kinds of people come out to your shows?

Everybody comes out to my shows. I’ve had everybody from Wall Street workers to dope boys. SNL’s audience is predominantly white, but it’s pretty broad. The turnout I had for my special — that was a little different, it was a lot of white folks. But, usually, it’s a good mix of everybody and everybody has a good time.

I know you’ve been to Richmond before — what do you remember about it?

I remember getting flashed by an old lady. That really happened. It was the night Obama won, I was in my Nissan Versa, it’s a very small car, sir. Lady, she says, “Hey baby, what do you think about this?” She pulls her breast out in front of me. I’m like, “Oh, that doesn’t look good, you should put that back in.” I didn’t say that to her because I didn’t know what she was going to do. We don’t know what level of crazy she’s at if she’s just whippin’ titties out. We don’t know. So I’m just going to nod, wait for the light to change and stay where I’m at until she safely passes me. That’s exactly what I did. I was happy Barack won, but those titties sure fucked my day up.

Speaking of the Obamas, you made a rap song and video with the first lady. How was it working with her? Did you ghost write her lyrics?

[Laughs] I did have a hand in writing her rap. It was more of a collaboration. Michelle, she was fun, she was energetic, she gave all my family hugs. She’s very tall. I’m just very grateful I got the opportunity to do that.

Anything else you want to add?

It’s going to be one of the best live shows you’ve ever seen in your life. I stand behind it. I can’t wait to see y’all. It’s going to be fun. S

Jay Pharoah performs at the National on Friday, Jan. 29, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $20 to $25 for people 18 and older.

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