Saturday Night Live's Jay Pharoah Cracks the Obama Code

Jonathan Zeller

Now that the likes of Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen have left Saturday Night Live, gifted mimic Jay Pharoah—known for impersonating such figures as President Obama, Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Stephen A. Smith—suddenly finds himself as one of the show's more familiar faces, though he only came onboard in 2010.

With the 39th season premiere set to air Saturday, September 28, at 11:30pm on NBC, Pharoah took a few moments on Tuesday afternoon to chat with about the upcoming season, his stand-up act (coming to Carolines on Broadway on November 7 as part of the New York Comedy Festival) and the time he was upstaged by Donald Glover.

How's the premiere coming along? Are you in for a late night? Jay Pharoah: I'm always here for a late night. I'll be here until six o'clock in the morning.

In that spirit, can you walk us through your typical week as you prepare for the show? JP: On Monday, we have pitch, which is everybody coming up with ideas to talk to the host about. Then Tuesday is writing night. Wednesday we have read-through, Thursday and Friday are rehearsal. And then Saturday we have run-through, dress rehearsal and then the show.

There's been a big cast turnover going into this season. Do you feel like this is your chance to put your stamp on the show? What are you looking to do differently? JP: I'm looking to collaborate with the newer folks, show them the ropes and, yes, put a stamp on the show. That “I Am A Dog” [Kanye West parody] that I did a couple of weeks ago got over a million hits in four days. I'm kind of looking to do more of that kind of stuff on the show. And I've been thinking about sketches all summer. So now it's time to execute those, get with the right writers and translate those [ideas] on screen.

You'll be performing at Carolines on November 7. What's going to surprise people who've only seen you on SNL? JP: A lot of the commentary is, “Wow, we didn't know you actually did stand-up. We thought we were just going to get impressions.” I say, that's boring. I wouldn't want to come to a show and just see impressions. I'd walk out of that stuff. I'd say, “Let's go to the movies and see something we actually haven't seen before.”

Do you ever get anybody yelling out, “Do Will Smith right now”? JP: Of course. Having impressions is a gift and a curse. It's like being a major artist and having a hit song. People will always come to your show to see that.

How do you shut them down? JP: I've been doing this since I was 15, so if you call something out, I know exactly how to shut you down. I will hurt your feelings very badly. This is not Jimmy Kimmel or Johnny Carson. This is not Whose Line Is It Anyway?, where the crowd is going to interact with me—unless I pull you onstage, which I have done. I did that this past summer. I started calling a girl up onstage and doing this Trey Songz thing. I serenade the hell out of her. She loved it, whoever she is.

You have the very high-profile job of impersonating the president. What qualities do you latch onto when you're imitating him? JP: His pauses and the time he takes to say things. There's not really a lot you can poke fun at, but I think the code of Obama has been cracked. It just takes him forever to get to the point, and that's the comedic hook right there.

Have you heard anything from the president himself about your impression? JP: I talked to him directly, and he loves it.

How did that feel? JP: It was amazing, man. It was at Harvey Weinstein's charity event last spring. It was me, Jessica Biel, Justin Timberlake and Steve Martin. We did this sketch, and I was dressed as Obama. And after I finished, he said [in President Obama's voice], “Uh…that guy's pretty good. Uh…I'm glad I met him. Uh…he sounds like I do. Uh…there we go.” It's always an explosion with Barack. It's like an explosion of his voice. “Uh…there it is. Uh…there it goes again. And…uh…here I go.” So it's like that. Like, you didn't say anything, but it sounded great.

What are your favorite comedy clubs in the City? JP: There are a lot of places. UCB, I was there a couple of times; that was good. I'm always going to Stand Up New York; The Comic Strip and the Comedy Cellar are always a good places to see comedy, too. Levity Live, that's a good place in New York [but it's in West Nyack]. Carolines is the first club I ever played in New York City, so of course that's amazing as well.

When did you first play Carolines? JP: When I was 19 years old, in about 2007. That's when I was grinding. That's when Charlie Murphy first started taking me on the road with him. And then to go back there in late May and early June and sell out some shows—it just meant the world to me.

What do you say to those guys in Times Square who ask, “Do you like comedy?” JP: When they ask me that, I just laugh and keep walking. You have no idea. You have no idea that I used to be the person that you used to give out tickets for to go see at these little crappy venues. I was that person. I'm going to be honest with you: back then, I sucked [laughs]. I mean, it was okay. It was pretty good. But it wasn't like it is now. I remember one time I was at Broadway Comedy Club. At the time, I was auditioning for the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. Donald Glover was there—at the time he was 25 and I was 21. All my impressions that I was about to do, before I got onstage, he did them. And they worked. He's good. That dude is funny. He's my homeboy. But at the time…he did Obama, and his groupie fans in the audience, it was [imitates ridiculously raucous laughter]. I was like, “Oh, damn. Now I've got to go up and do the same thing two acts later, and it's already been done. I'm not going to the festival this year.” I should have just walked out, because after he did that, it was like: it's a wrap. At the time, I didn't really have a lot of jokes [laughs]. That's all I had.

Was it rough when you finally got on? JP: It was horrible [laughs]. My dad was there, and he was like, “Who does this kid think he is, going up there doing your act before you do it?” I was like, “I don't know, he think's he's Donald Glover. He [writes for] 30 Rock. He got freaking Emmy-nominated. He can do whatever he wants to do.” So that was just crazy. I didn't go to the festival that year.