In Saturday Night Live's nearly 40-year history as an American comedy and cultural touchstone, there have been many skilled impressionists who have made a name for themselves in Studio 8H. But you could argue that none of them has been quite as unusual as Jay Pharoah.
Before the 26-year-old Chesapeake, Va., native, born Jared Farrow, joined SNL in 2010, he was perfecting his craft, first hitting stand-up stages at 15 and later opening for the likes of veteran stand-ups like Corey Holcomb and Charlie Murphy. When Pharoah came on SNL for its 36th season, he brought with him a skill set that immediately made an impression (no pun intended).
SNL has always made it a point to be in touch with the times. And the show has almost always made it a point to have at least one black funny man on its roster. But the show has never had an impressionist who can hit on the different prominent figures in black culture the way Pharoah can.
He has a few sports personalities covered. On one side of the spectrum, you have the deep monotone of his impression of Shaquille O'Neal. On the other side, you have the abrasive over-enunciation of ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith. Some of the most legendary black stand-up acts (Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, the latter two SNL veterans) are also in his arsenal. His spot-on imitations of some of today's most notable black actors are always reliable, whether he's nailing the quiet intensity of Denzel Washington or the unmistakable laugh of Will Smith.
Then, there's hip-hop culture. Some of today's biggest rappers have been lampooned SNL-style, with Pharoah imitating the likes of Jay Z, Lil Wayne and Kanye West. And Pharoah joined elite comic company in 2012 when he took over Fred Armisen's role of regularly impersonating President Barack Obama.
For Pharoah, his knack for impressions has gotten him plenty of attention when he hits the road doing stand-up comedy. But he wants people to know he has more to offer.
"Having impressions is a gift and a curse," Pharoah told NYCGO.com. "It's like being a major artist with one hit song. A lot of commentary (from audiences) 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.'"
In his most recent season of SNL, Pharoah proved to be more of an all-around comedic talent. In addition to taking on roles in sketches that didn't require impressions, Pharoah played a pivotal part in one of the season's most memorable sketches as a complaining boyfriend alongside actress Kerry Washington in The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?) music video parody, What Does My Girl Say?
Pharoah is continuing to shine outside of SNL. He will be starring alongside Bryan Cranston and Anna Kendrick in the upcoming film Get a Job and has been tapped to co-star with Will Ferrell in the 2015 comedy Get Hard. He might have achieved fame on the back of some memorable voices, but it's looking more and more as if the voice that will be making people laugh just might be his own.
Blake Hannon is a Mount Sterling-based writer.