Jay Pharoah talks comedy, politics and college

Richard Drummond | Assistant Photo Editor

Jay Pharoah was the main event Thursday night at Program Board's Back to School Comedy Jam.

Pharoah is a renowned stand-up and sketch comic, spending the last six years as a feature and repertory cast member on "Saturday Night Live." He became known for his adept impression of President Barack Obama in the second half of his administration. 

Pharoah left the show in August.

Central Michigan Life sat down with Pharoah after his show to talk about politics, internet hate and the tough lessons learned as a young comic.

CM Life: If you can remember, what stands out as the funniest moment you had in college?

PHAROAH: When one of my teachers called us all idiots. Shout out to Mr. Newsom. He called us all idiots because we didn’t do well on a test.

He’d say: “If you’d just do the homework and pay attention to what I’m saying, maybe you’d pass the damn class.”

I was like, you can’t talk to us like that. We’re paying for these classes. I can go back to high school and get abused. That’s free, but you can’t abuse me when I’m paying for this. I’m a customer — you treat me well. You need to take a class in customer service, sir. That makes me laugh. He even had a row he called “the smart row." Man, I hated that class, but I love that dude. You just had to be there.

We’re students, we’re learning. You probably had a lot of learning to do when you were a younger comic. Tell me about a time you really bombed?

It was the Def Jam auditions in 2007, and I had a bullet proof vest on under my sweater. The jokes weren’t landing at all. It was so bad that I lost my hearing for a good 40 seconds.

Why were you wearing a bullet proof vest?

I had this 50 Cent bit I used to do where I’d take off my shirt and had a bullet proof vest and I start dancing. This was going to be toward the end, and it was so bad, I totally forgot about it and started blacking out. I learned to eat before the show that day, and to not put a bullet proof vest on under an academic sweater with velour lining in the hood.

You were still pretty young in 2007...

I was 19 when I did that, man, and I thought it was so terrible. My dad just told me it was OK, I had an off night, but I was like “I know but I didn’t even get to show them my bullet proof vest, daddy.” 

Tell me about a time you really killed it?

The next time, the next event following in January, I did the bit again. I didn’t have my bullet proof on, I did the bit in camo, and really killed. I had a standing ovation, and was like “thank God I didn’t wear that vest.”

So is a major tip for new comedians to not wear a bullet proof vest?

Don’t wear a bullet proof vest under a sweater, you’re going to die. I was seeing dots. I mean many shows, too. I used to go on the road with Charlie Murphy when I was younger. In the beginning, I didn’t have such a strong set. By the end, I was working so hard on my material. I had a lot of stuff, and was killing it.

This is an election season. Do comedians have a responsibility to speak out about politics and social issues through their work?

Definitely. We influence a lot of young people, in particular, who find stand-up edgy. That’s an opportunity to voice your opinion and really put it out there. Whether or not they agree with it, you still get that out. It’s going to resonate with someone.

How do you do that without picking sides?

I know a lot of people don’t want to pick sides, and I don’t really like to pick sides. You’ve got to be careful. And I know some comedians are real far right or far left, and that’s fine. But you need to make it equal. I think it’s important to have a different nucleus and then branch off so you add more body to the joke, instead of it being just about the politicians.

Explain the art of making heavy issues funny. 

You have to make a decision on what to use and how. What defines you and how you want to be perceived on stage. I feel that’s the smart thing to do. At the end of the day, it’s about you and a microphone, standing behind it and saying what you feel. You can make penis or vagina jokes, but what substance are you leaving people with?

If (the audience) can see you have some type of moral code, I think that’ll make them a bigger fan of you.

A few years back, you and Keenan Thompson implored SNL to add more people and women of color. Then we got Leslie Jones and Sasheer Zamata. What did they do for the show dynamic?

It’s so funny because I can talk about this now, but it allowed for more diversity in our sketches. You haven’t seen Keenan in a dress since Leslie and Sasheer showed up on the show. It’s awesome because you have people that can play those roles. It added substance to the show. All of it happened for the good, even Michael Che getting Weekend Update. It was really strong last year.  

I saw "Ghostbusters." Loved it. And I thought Leslie was brilliant in it. What do you make of all this awful hate she received, and have you ever faced that kind of hate?

Not hate like that. I’ve had people talk about me, but it wasn’t a barrage of messages attacking my physical appearance. When you talk about someone’s appearance like that, it’s just evil. But you always look for a positive in the negative, and a positive part of that situation is that she is so brilliant, and more attention is being brought to her.

Is it the kind of attention she deserves, though?

Leslie Jones has been in the game since the ’80s. She started doing comedy three days before I was born. She’s a sweet person, she’s funny. I’m glad Leslie got discovered. She was a writer first, and she became a cast member, and she’s kind of like the female Tracy Morgan. She’s such a powerhouse. For someone like that to finally get their notoriety, it’s dope. The hate, that was just too far. She doesn’t deserve that.

Who are three comics who aren’t on this stage tonight who we should be watching?

Neko White, AJ Foster and also KC Arora. They’re original. I’m convinced Neko’s 40, but he’s only 23. It ain’t the typical humor. Anybody can talk about (expletive) somebody, but creatively, there’s people who flip it and have so much more to talk about. That’s what I like to see in comedy. Someone who is actually cultured in comedy. Original stories, but they’re giving you something relatable.

So you just have to be real with people.

Only you can be you. Only you can deliver your story because you were there. It wouldn’t have heart or substance. It’d be like a copy machine. When someone is being real with you, you can feel it.

In terms of comedy, what do you want your legacy to be? 

I want people to say “that person can do everything.” He’s good at everything — the stand-up, the callbacks, impressions and political humor. If people have that image of me, then I’ve done my job. 

You obviously have to be funny, but do these other aspects make you a better comedian?

Definitely. It’s just like LeBron James. LeBron can shoot, dunk, pass, assist…

He can block, from halfway down the court…

Yeah! Exactly. He can do all these things. Like Dennis Rodman can assist, but that’s the only good thing he does. For me, it’s important to have that stamp of doing everything. (I want) to give people everything. (I want) to give them a show.


About Ben Solis

Ben Solis is the Managing Editor of Central Michigan Life. He has served as a city and university ...

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