Dana Edelson / NBC

Jay Pharoah plays President Barack Obama on "Saturday Night Live."

Jay Pharoah of 'SNL' brings standup act to Sacramento

Published: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8TICKET
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 4:08 pm

It's like getting to see Jay-Z, Will Smith and Barack Obama all rolled into one.

Sort of.

"Saturday Night Live" cast member Jay Pharoah is set to perform at Sacramento's Punchline Comedy Club for five shows Thursday through June 29. The Bee recently caught up with the 25-year-old comedian to ask about getting to "SNL," mastering impressions and what it's like to imitate the president when he's sitting in front of you.

When did you first realize you were funny?

I realized I was funny lookin' at like, 6. I was missing some teeth. As I got older, I got into theater. But I was 6 years old when I did my first impression.

Who was your first impression?

Iago, from "Aladdin." It was the only thing we could watch – it was Disney, know what I'm saying? I didn't have James Earl Jones down by that time, though. My voice was too light to do that.

How did you get your start?

When I was 8 years old, I got into theater. I was getting good parts – I was Powhatan in "Pocahontas." I was Tock, the watchdog in "Phantom Tollbooth." I did so many plays. ... It just kinda grew from there.

I started standup when I was 15, when I went to a private school. Everyone around was just weird, and I would just make fun of everybody and make people there laugh. It evolved into this competition when I was 16 where I got like fifth place out of around 300 people. I beat all the other comedians. I'm like, "Yeah, I like this! I'm supposed to do this!"

So how did "SNL" notice you?

My agent and I put together an audition tape. I went in there and I tested and I got it. It was crazy. I didn't expect to get it. I was 22. I was like, "Oh, snap. I'm on 'SNL'! " It was one of the greatest moments I ever felt.

You've become famous for your impressions. Which impressions are you working on these days?

Kendrick Lamar. I'm mostly there with Kendrick Lamar. Tyler the Creator, him too. Paul McCartney – I think I have Paul McCartney. Seth Rogen, that's fun.

You don't get to see me do a lot of white people because I'm not white on the show. I could pull a Sammy Sosa and get my skin bleached and come back and mess y'all up. But right now, I'm not playing any Caucasians on the show. But hey, you never know. Maybe next year.

You're coming to Sacramento to do standup. How does that differ from doing impressions?

An impression is one thing, but it's not funny unless it has a good premise behind it. Impressions do go hand-in-hand with standup – but it's not just the voice, it's the jokes that are funny with it. Who the hell wants to sit through a show of just random impressions that somebody's doing with no transition, with nothing? It's just somebody doing a voice! I want jokes!

Take Obama, but put him in another situation. Make Michelle and Obama do something wife-and-husband-like. That's funny.

Speaking of standup and Michelle Obama, one thing that both of those have in common is hecklers. How do you deal with hecklers?

I mean, if you wanna heckle me, that's fine. I'm just telling you, I'm not the one. I'm puttin' the warning out there. Do not do it. You are a piece of steak, and I am not a vegan. I will eat it raw, I don't care if I get E. coli.

You impersonate President Obama. I hear you recently met him.

Steve Martin wrote a skit for a fundraiser at (movie producer) Harvey Weinstein's house. Jessica Biel, Justin Timberlake and I were in it. And (Martin) wrote me as Obama. (Obama) was standing in my face as I'm doing the impression. Now that's pressure enough right there, but then to have to deliver the lines and remember? I couldn't look down at the paper or nothin' like that. I had to deliver my lines.

He came up afterwards and he was like (in an Obama voice), "Hey, that guy was pretty good! I'm glad I met him! He was great!"

The departure of Bill Hader and Fred Armisen and maybe Jason Sudeikis has been a big shock for "SNL" fans. What's it like losing players from the cast?

You miss people, but that's what the show is about. The show is about building starts and then sending them off into their own way, so (in a James Earl Jones voice) it's the circle of life, Simba! The circle of life!

Does this mean your role will increase next season?

I believe so. And I hope so. There's a lot of things happening and with departures and everything, people do get to move up. But I have unseen talents that I think will be rolled into "SNL" this year. So you just got to keep watching.

What have you got in store for Sacramento audiences? Are you going to be testing new material?

I'll sprinkle in little hits of new material. ... But for the most part, the core is going to be pretty much the same because I know what works. You can expect family stories, my problems, my issues, political humor, observations, person observation, my mishaps, pop-culture humor. So just don't expect to get just a lot of voices for an hour.


Where: Punchline Comedy Club, 2100 Arden Way, Ste. 225, Sacramento

When: Thursday (8 p.m),

June 28 (8 and 10 p.m.),

June 29 (8 and 10 p.m.)

Cost: $20-25

Information: (916) 925-5500, http://punchlinesac.com

Call The Bee's Jack Newsham, (916) 321-1100. On Twitter: @TheNewsHam

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