Saturday Night Live alum Jay Pharoah isn’t quick to give away his best material before a big show. This Sunday he’s co-hosting the 2016 American Music Awards with model Gigi Hadid, and he’s keeping the list of people he will joke about or impersonate under wraps.
Will there be any jokes about the presidential election or specifically, Donald Trump’s win? The comedian known for his spot-on impressions of President Obama, Jay Z, and Denzel Washington prefers to keep me guessing.
“Hmmm, you never know. You better watch,” he teases, laughing. “There’s no-holds-barred, that’s all I’m saying. You got to go in. You gotta talk. You gotta address whatever is the elephant in the room. So you can expect the unexpected.”
In November 2015, the Virginia native who left SNL after six seasons collaborated with then-Republican presidential candidate Trump, when the real estate tycoon/reality star-turned-president-elect hosted the show. Pharoah spoofed Drake’s silly dance video for “Hotline Bling,” and Trump made an attention-grabbing cameo.
But Pharoah doesn’t have any memorable behind-the-scenes moments with Trump. “Uh, let’s see. What was it like on that video set? I don’t even remember,” he says when asked about shooting the clip with Trump. “It was fun. It was cool. We were having good fun, especially me and my other cast members. We were cracking each other up and Donald did that crazy dance and it was fun too.”
The actor, who has appeared in movies Ride Along, Top Five, and Get A Job, rather not share his reaction to Trump’s win. “I’m not going to give you that. I know that’s what you’re looking for,” he replies. “You could smell it in the air. You could see what was happening. You could look around and see people’s faces. Just knowing how heavy the tension is in America right now, what we’re going to do this weekend is make you forget about that for a few hours. I think that’s the most important thing.”
Pharoah, however, easily recalls his meeting with President Obama. While Pharoah says his SNL Obama sketches were more politically correct than the Obama act he does in his standup routine, he says Obama has seen some of the bits. “I don’t know if he’s seen the standup, but he said he thinks it’s pretty good when I met him,” he says.
In his standup act, Pharoah has portrayed Obama in college as a charismatic ladies’ man. “If you see me do Obama on the show and me do it on my standup, it’s totally different,” he explains. “I say what I want to say as Obama in my standup. But you can’t really get away with doing that on television. They kinda have a box that they want to keep that character in. I just read the lines and said what I was instructed to do.”
Though Pharoah is tight-lipped about the specifics of his jokes for the AMAs, there’s a chance rapper Desiigner will be the subject of a joke on Sunday. The artist signed to Kanye West’s GOOD Music is up for two awards, Video of the Year and Favorite Song – Rap/Hip Hop for his breakout track “Panda.” Desiigner’s melodic, mumbling rap style is often the brunt of jokes. Pharoah admits that he’s added a Desiigner act to his repertoire. “I got a ‘Desiigner,’” Pharoah says. “He sounds like he’s constipated and he can’t push it out,” he continues, before emulating the rapper, rattling off a few seconds of indecipherable lyrics. “‘I can’t get it out!’” he laughs. “He’s trying to get it out, but he can’t. He needs some Ex-Lax.”
Pharoah likely owes his keen ability to mimic rappers to his own music talents. Pharoah has been posting original songs online for years. The song and video for “Problems,” that portrayed Pharoah as a tough-guy rapper who can’t complete a verse without pausing for a sentimental meltdown, incorporated his comedic persona in the song that has reached more than 100,000 views on YouTube.
But he’s been working harder to present a more serious side of his music. In 2014, he released The Resurrection EP and he has recently dropped socially conscious freestyles to instrumentals of Beyoncé’s Just Blaze-produced track “Freedom” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Blacker the Berry.”
Miles Williams, who worked with Just Blaze on “Freedom” and has made tracks for Iggy Azalea, Fetty Wap, Lil Wayne, Drake, T.I., and Rick Ross, is producing Pharoah’s forthcoming album slated for a spring release. “I got some dope tracks I’m already cooking on,” Pharoah says. “I’m already half way through with the project where we actually sift out what exactly can we use and see what we need to record.”
In the meantime, Pharoah plans to start working on visuals for the album and to continue releasing freestyles on his SoundCloud page. He wants people know, however, that his raps are legitimate and that he should not be compared to another actor-rapper, Nick Cannon, dismissing the America’s Got Talent host as “pop cornball.”
Pharoah is quick to give props to another actor-rapper, Shia LaBeouf, who shocked the Internet last week, when he slayed the Sway in the Morning’s Five Fingers of Death freestyle rap challenge.
“Shia got bars,” Pharoah says with excitement. “He’s got bars.” Pharoah jokes that he’s been a fan of LaBeouf’s flow since the A-List actor rapped on the song “Dig It” from the 2003’s Walt Disney Pictures film Holes. “Listen man, we all saw it. Y’all frontin’,” Pharoah says, campaigning for LaBeouf. “People trying to act like he didn’t snap on Holes, remember that?” Pharoah then recites Shia’s lyrics: “‘With two suits, two tokens in hand / I got no respect ‘cause I’m the new man.’ He snapped on that.”
Like LaBeouf, Pharoah has some new film projects. He voices characters in the Illumination/Universal animated film SING with Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson, and Reese Witherspoon. And he has a role The Adventures of Drunky, an independent animated comedy. Other new credits include, voicing roles on Comedy Central series Legends of Chamberlain Heights and the pilot for Jamie Foxx’s Showtime/Lionsgate series White Famous.
Whether stand up comedy, acting, or music, Pharoah is working to put all his gifts to good use. “I want to let people know I do it all,” he says. “You can say whatever you want to say about me, at the end of the day, you’re going to have to be able to say he’s talented as hell.”
Pharoah may be a funny man, but that statement is no joke.