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Jay Pharoah on ‘White Famous,’ Culture Gaps and His Grandmother’s Meatloaf

The expression comes from Jamie Foxx, an executive producer on the series whose similar leap years ago provides a rough basis for the story. (Mr. Foxx makes cameos in the show.) But the trajectory from mostly black clubs to more mainstream venues to even more mainstream TV and movies is a familiar one to almost any breakout African-American comic, Mr. Pharoah noted.


Jay Pharoah, right, as President Obama, with Kenan Thompson as the Rev. Al Sharpton on “Saturday Night Live.”

Dana Edelson/NBC

“Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson, Chris Rock, Bernie Mac, even Eddie Murphy,” he said. “We know the chitlin circuit very well.”

A gifted mimic from a young age, Mr. Pharoah began performing standup as a teenager near his hometown, Chesapeake, Va., before being introduced to the comic Charlie Murphy (“Chappelle’s Show”), who took him on the road for several years. That led to appearances on BET and a spot in the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 2010. That stint lasted until he was fired from the show last fall, a surprising move that Lorne Michaels has said was part of an effort to refresh the cast.

In an interview with the radio station Hot 97 in April, Mr. Pharoah complained that producers tried to pigeonhole him as an impressionist and took issue when he refused certain proposals, like wearing a dress in a sketch. (The first episode of “White Famous” includes a dilemma over a cross-dressing role, a charged issue among African-American comics.) But these days he’s more diplomatic. He declined to revisit his departure from “Saturday Night Live,” calling the show a key step in a career that is “finally starting to break open” with film roles in Steven Soderbergh’s “Unsane” and the animated “The Adventures of Drunky.”

Over scrambled eggs and veggie sausage, Mr. Pharoah discussed “White Famous,” awkward culture gaps and his grandmother’s meatloaf. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Did you know Jamie Foxx before this?

When he came to ‘S.N.L.’ in 2012, he was just like [goes into frenetic Foxx impersonation], ‘You are so talented. I know what you got, you got something special.’ We’ve kept in contact over the years but we hadn’t done any projects together.

What are some of the aspects of “White Famous” that are specific to a black performer climbing the showbiz ladder?

Having to tone down certain things. I can’t walk into an office where I’m trying to get a movie and talk like I talk in the neighborhood. [Affects a classic uptight Caucasian voice] ‘He’s talking like that? And who does he hang around?’ So you’ll see both sides: You’ll see me with my best friend, Ron Balls (Jacob Ming-Trent), and we’ll be talking real neighborhood. Then you’ll see me go into a place and be a little toned down, a little cautious. That’s how it is for me. I’m talking to you right now and I’m like, ‘Ah this is The New York Times …’

This could be a scene in the show.

Yeah, really. [In the white accent] ‘So it all started when I was conceived, I was a twinkle in my father’s eye …’ Or my mother’s. I don’t know where the twinkle goes.

Have there been awkward moments that arise from that culture gap?

Maybe with people trying too hard. People you interact with on productions might try to do some weird handshake — ‘Yo, yo’ [slaps his hands together in an elaborate routine]. You’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t — I just shake like this. You’ve been watching BET too long.’

Your character is trying to boost his career but stay true to himself. Have you been able to do that?


Jamie Foxx, whose experiences provide a rough basis for the “White Famous,” makes occasional cameos in the show.

Michael Desmond/Showtime

I’m the same person I was when I left Virginia. I’ve grown in knowledge and experience, but you can still hit me up and say, ‘Hey, what up?’ I have the same friends. I still go to my grandma’s house, and she’ll cook meatloaf and I’ll eat it. [Laughs.]

My cousins might try to hit me up for more. On my Instagram some of them, they’re like ‘Hey, how you doing, cuz?’ And you know what that means: ‘How you doing, cuz?’ is ‘I need something.’ I never get hit up where it’s just, ‘How are you doing? What’s up? Are you good?’ But I love them nonetheless.

The executive producers include Mr. Foxx and Tim Story (“Barbershop,” “Fantastic Four”) but Mr. Kapinos, who wrote the series, is white. Have there been moments in the scripts that rang false?

We have the input. I’ll be like, ‘Wait a minute, black folks wouldn’t say that. Let’s change it to this.’ It’s a collaborative effort. They’re good about that: You can talk and get your point of view across. If something needs to be changed, it’ll be changed.

But did it give you pause? It’s the story of a black comic but the writer comes from a different experience.

My man, I mean, come on. Of course I know that. [Laughs.] But I feel like every situation that you get put into, you’re there for a reason. So I would say, let’s try to sift this thing out and make it as good as it can be. But there wasn’t a pause because the concept hit home. So I was like yeah, I’m down. Let’s go.

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