Jay Pharoah on His New Standup Special and the Science Behind Celebrity Impressions

He’s best known as the guy who does Barack Obama, Kanye West, Denzel Washington, Jay Z, Will Smith, and a host of other impressions on Saturday Night Live, so it seems perfectly fitting that Jay Pharoah titled his first hourlong standup special Jay Pharoah: Can I Be Me? Filmed at The Cutting Room in New York, it’s a more personal side of Pharoah, revealing the comedian as not just a talented impersonator but a rising standup, actor, and rapper. Ahead of the special’s premiere, I recently chatted with Pharoah about how it came together at Showtime, his rise to fame on SNL, and what he’s learned from mastering so many celebrity voices.

First off, congrats on all your success at SNL. It’s been really cool watching you go from the new guy who didn’t get a lot of screentime to such a huge part of the cast.

Thank you so much! It has been a journey. At one of the after parties, Lorne was like “Who ever knew you’d be this guy now?” and I was like “Thank you!” [laughs] I guess I’ve been doing something right.

Do you feel different at all now because of that? Has it made you feel validated or more confident?

I feel like my confidence has definitely gone up within the last few years, but a lot of that is also from being on the road and in front of people and not being afraid to just be myself, you know what I mean? But yeah, SNL definitely helped with that. I’m definitely more comfortable and confident on the show now. I’m kinda cool, and then I go up there and do what I gotta do, and then try to come up with something – try to make a “Cowbell” or something, you know? Gotta come up with something like that.

How’s your summer been? I saw you’ve been touring a lot.

Yeah, summer’s been kind of crazy. I’ve done a couple animated movies, I’ve done some cartoon work, I’ve got movies coming up I’m doing next month, I’ve got the Oddball Comedy Tour, I just hosted the BET Players’ Awards, I even do music too – so yeah, it’s been really fun so far. I’ve been having a really good time, but yeah, I need to take a vacation. I would not mind going to Japan…or Europe, because Europe is phenomenal. It’s fucking insane.

[laughs] I was going to ask if you like taking time off to relax, because a lot of comedians seem to have trouble with that.

Yeah, and you know what? I have the smallest pockets of time to chill. It was a good thing I got to go back to my hometown and hang out with my family for the 4th. I needed that. Two to three to four times out of the year I get to go down there, so that’s when I try to recline and deflate, because it gets taxing being on the road all the time. But hard work pays off and you get what you put in, so I think everything’s happening at the exact time it’s supposed to happen: now.

So how did your new Showtime special come together, and why now?

I think things are bubbling and it feels like the time to do it. I mean, you have some of the greats who did the same thing – Eddie Murphy did a special when he was on [SNL], and Chris Rock did his first special when he was on the show and then the second one when he got off. I’m 27, so I just think it’s time, and the material was so strong I was just like “Why not do it?” [Chris Rock voice] “Why not do it right now? That’s my question!” I feel like I’m on this trajectory where this is the correct time for me to put it out there.

I think SNL fans in particular might find the special surprising, since most people know you from your impressions. The special is a nice mix of impressions and standup – it doesn’t really lean more toward one or the other.

You know what? That’s the perfect review I could get. I do everything in the special, and I’m really proud of it. Finesse Mitchell told me “Everything else that you’ve done on television, standup wise, forget about it,” he said. “As long as when you come out with your hour and you’re proud of it and it’s great and it makes sense and it hits, then you don’t got nothing to worry about.” And I was like “All right!” I think Chris Rock said the same thing you did: [Chris Rock voice] “Why now?!” He said that last summer, and I was like “Dude, cause it’s ready!” [back to Chris Rock] “Okay, but remember – I didn’t do anything great until I was 30 years old!”

Did you have any specific ideas in mind for the overall look of the special – venue, directing, editing?

I’m gonna tell you, honest to God, I wanted the background to be all gold and Egyptian-like, but that didn’t end up happening. And we juggled so many different venues to do it at – we were gonna do it at the Highline Ballroom, and then we were gonna do it at the Gramercy, and then finally somebody said “How about The Cutting Room?” It was like a family thing, because the SNL after-after parties used to go in there and we would, you know, drink until like 5:00am or so. I’d never thought about doing standup there, and I looked at it, and when they put all the seats in there and everything it looked dope – I was like “Great! Let’s do it! Get the people in there!” So yeah, it was like that. I think it looks really good.

The outfit…the jacket was specially designed. I’m gonna try to put that jacket in a box somewhere, probably in a glass case in my apartment, and then along with it, the pants. It’s so funny now because the pants that I wore, I was still wearing them, and I was at the studio one night and I sat on some gum so now I can’t wear the pants. So the glass case will not be turned to the point where you can see the bubble gum stain on the back of my pants. It literally looks like I fell asleep at a frat party and somebody messed with me. I’m gonna keep them turned around, and I’m never wearing those pants again, and whoever put that gum on that seat in that studio, if I ever find them I will smack them personally. [laughs] But I’m probably not gonna figure it out or take the time to go down and take the DNA sample and all that, so they got away with it. They got away with it.

That’s a piece of comedy history though. That stain will be used to verify they’re the real pants at some auction a hundred years from now.

[laughs] “Yo sir, are those the pants?!” “No these ain’t the pants, they ain’t got no bubble gum on them!” Yeah. It’s the identification spot.

I’ve got to ask you about impressions. Obviously a lot of that comes down to natural talent, but having mastered so many different voices, are there any tips or techniques you’ve learned over time?

Basically when you’re dissecting somebody’s voice, you kind of wanna think about two people who they sound like and then find the middle. Usually the middle of those two people is the exact voice. If you take Jay Z’s voice, Jay Z sounds like Christopher Walken, but he sounds like a cool Christopher Walken. So if you take Christopher Walken and you take a real swaggered-out Brooklyn accent and you put those two together, in between that you will find Jay Z’s voice. It’s scientific – you really gotta do an equation in your head. It’s kind of mathematical, it’s like the Pythagorean theorem. And if you can envision the person’s face while you’re doing the voice, usually it helps bring the character out more. That’s how I bring them to life: I visualize the person’s face saying the same stuff I’m saying at the same time. So when I’m doing an impression, I don’t even see you; I’m not looking at you. When I’m doing an impression, I’m in my brain and I’m trying to channel that person. I’m trying to match that person to what I’m saying exactly at that point. It’s kind of weird, truly…I’m a weirdo, man.

I assume you’re coming back to SNL next season, right?

I haven’t heard anything that would make me believe I’m not, but I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job. You never know with those things. So I don’t know…I don’t see why not. [laughs]

Jay Pharoah: Can I Be Me? airs on Showtime tomorrow night at 10:00pm.

Jay Pharoah on His New Standup Special and the Science […]