'SNL' alum Jay Pharoah: 'Making people laugh is a superpower'

Image courtesy the standup

Image courtesy the standup

Every week for the past year, the country has sat with bated breath on Saturday nights (or rushed to YouTube on Sunday morning), to see which mega-celeb will show up on SNL to skewer the political jackass of the day. Whether it’s Alec Baldwin’s now iconic Trump, Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, or Ben Stiller doing his best Michael Cohen, everyone wants to be an impressionist.

Jay Pharoah

Varsity Theater

Jay Pharoah, who became a household name during his time on SNL thanks to his spot-on impressions of people like Obama, Jay-Z, and Nicolas Cage, gets it.

“Art imitates art imitates life,” he says over the phone while preparing for his trip to Minneapolis this weekend. “It’s human nature. Impressions get people talking, so of course more people are going to give it a shot.”

This Friday, Pharoah will be at the Varsity Theater for a special one-night standup performance. His combination of stories as a budding Hollywood star and his own reflections on entering life in his 30s makes his show part comedy, party variety show, and a little bit of lyricist lounge. But what about the characters?

When asked if the influx of new impressionists making headlines is motivation to move away from doing impressions of his own, Pharoah is quick to point out that it’s only one of his many talents.

“Doing impressions for me is like being able to dunk,” he explains. “If I can dunk, I’m going to keep dunking. But that’s not going to stop me from shooting threes, making steals, assists -- everything. I still do political impressions at my shows, whether it’s Barack or Trump or Ben Carson, or one of the other 190-something I do.”

Impressions and comedy aren’t the only things he does these days. Pharoah’s acting career is blowing up, with recent roles in the thriller Unsane and the canceled-too-soon Showtime series White Famous. These, combined with upcoming films with comedy heavyweights like Kat Williams and the international comedy How to Sell a War, which wrapped filming this past week, have Pharoah’s IMDB page filling up as quickly as his calendar.

“Shit, I’m doing everything,” he says. “Making people laugh is a superpower, and it’s something I’ll never stop doing. But I’ve been doing theater since I was eight years old, and I always wanted to do different things and push my limits.”

That effort has included an intense fitness regimen (dude’s abs were literally on the front page of the New York Times back in March), helping him make the leap from working like a superhero to hopefully becoming an actual superhero.

“I’m trying to be a sex symbol,” he laughs. “I’m working on my body the same way I’m working on my acting chops because I’m trying to get Marvel. I’m trying to be in Black Panther 2 or the next Infinity War movie. That’s the goal.”


Jay Pharoah
Varsity Theater
Friday, May 11, at 8 p.m.
$20-$35, all ages