Comedian Jay Pharoah Draws on His Darkest Times

Photographed by Danielle Kosann

It always makes us happy to interview entertainers, especially comedians. Their shoots are always the happiest, and they make us – well – laugh. In this day and age more than ever, we really love when entertainment is uplifting, and actor Jay Pharoah – who stars in Showtime’s White Famous – is absolutely a guy who makes your mood lift upon meeting him, let alone watching him perform. Pharoah let us in on the advice Jamie Foxx shared with him, who he’d most like to impersonate, and how comedians bring light to dark places…

From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day? 

A hearty breakfast then light snacking the rest of the day.

What’s your go-to breakfast? 

Egg whites scrambled with sausage or in a frittata.

Did you always know you wanted to be a comedian? Did you ever want to be anything else? 

I always wanted to be an entertainer; I was never sure in what capacity, though. I used to want to be an astronaut, but math is a problem…problem being I’m trash at it.

Who are some comedians you looked up to, when you were growing up? 

The GOATS: Eddie Murphy, Robin Harris, Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, and Dave Chapelle.

What is it like, working with Jamie Foxx? 

Working with Jamie is a dream come true. He’s like a big brother – always making sure I’m comfortable with everything, keeps the laughter rolling on set. He goes there in every scene.

You’re playing a character based on him – what advice has he given you? What advice have you given him?

The advice he told me was to have fun and enjoy the ride. C’mon, can you really give advice to Jamie Foxx?

Why is the show important right now? 

White Famous approaches a lot of issues of the day in a palatable way, making for easier conversation. It also portrays a present, positive fatherly image in Floyd Mooney, which threatens the stereotype that black men are absent fathers.

What’s the difference between how you approach television and how you approach stand-up? Sketch comedy? Is there a different approach?

You’re supposed to put your best foot forward in anything you do, so I don’t think the approach is different, only the execution. Standup/rap/acting/sketch are all the same in regards of execution: Setup, delivery, punchline, aggression. All different areas work together.

What’s been the biggest obstacle in your life? How did you overcome it?

Depression, being overweight, and having low self-esteem, I think, were my biggest obstacles. When I was seventeen, I ran every day for almost four months and dropped seventy pounds in that time period. My confidence went up and depression went away soon after.

What’s been a big obstacle in your career? How did you put it into perspective?

The biggest obstacle in my career… I don’t know yet, I don’t think it’s happened. But I desire to establish myself as an artist of different genres – a comedian/lyricist/actor/impressionist.

A lot of people say in order to be a comedian you have to have had darkness in your past, do you agree with that?

That is one hundred percent true: Struggle is relatable to human beings. We as comedians make light of those dark moments in life, because we know others have been through the same shit.

If you could roast any one person, who would it be? What are some of the jokes you’d make?

No, man, we have enough issues, why come at somebody for no reason?

Is there any one celebrity you’d never want to impersonate? Why?

Everybody is fair game if I’m a fan.

What always makes you laugh, no matter what? 

Anything by Eddie Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Jim Carrey, or Robin Williams.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old self? 

You’ve got two more years until you hit SNL, don’t get anybody pregnant…okay, bye!

What’s your go to curse word? Use it in a sentence… 

Don’t make me choose; I got love for all the swears!

What is the issue you feel most passionately about right now and why?

Anything that threatens the safety of our country…which is pretty much everything right now.

If you could give us a quote of the day to sum up your mood and mode, what would it be?

“Every little thing is going to be alright.” The fact that I’m breathing today is a blessing. I’m alive, I’m well, and I’m having a great time…anything beyond that doesn’t really matter.

Jay Pharaoh, photographed at Top of the Standard (at The Standard, Highline) in New York, NY

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