Growing up in Chesapeake, Virginia in the 2000s, comedian Jay Pharoah developed a major gift through his ability to impersonate several dozen of the most famous people in showbiz. That talent led him to a six-year run on “Saturday Night Live” from 2010-16, where he wound up playing the most powerful man on the planet: President Barack Obama.
Pharoah will be bringing his potent mix of impersonations and vividly funny tales of his personal life to the stage of Chicago’s Den Theatre August 26 as he tapes a new hourlong special. While he’s more excited about this material than anything he’s done before, he still loves telling stories of where it all began.
“I started to impersonate when I was six years old,” Pharoah says. “It was Disney characters like Iago from ‘Aladdin’ and then it was Forrest Gump, Sally Field, it was Bubba from that movie. Then it was tunes, turned into celebrities and the repertoire just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
“The reason I think I did it was I didn’t have a lot of friends when I was growing up. I had to entertain myself. That’s how I stayed afloat and didn’t go left in life. I could turn inanimate objects and things into voices, like ventriloquist-type stuff I used to do. It wasn’t even that hard to add people to the repertoire because I was just paying attention to everything.”
His first big performances were for his third-grade class, as he impersonated a teacher named Miss Danko “because her eyes would bulge out like she was getting strangled by an invisible hand. Even Godzilla would be like, ‘Damn!’” Whenever the unpopular teacher would leave the classroom, Pharoah jumped into action and got hooked on the explosive laughter that resulted.
While Pharoah also delighted in impersonating people from his family’s church, they didn’t catch on to his full talents until he was sixteen and performed Bernie Mac at his Uncle Butch’s Christmas party. His father soon took him to a talent contest, where he took fifth place in a large field, and that success inspired him to start hitting the stage at the Funny Bone club in Virginia Beach.
By age eighteen, he had impressed the late great comic Charlie Murphy so much that Murphy started taking him on the road as his opening act. While he quickly rose through the club ranks to be a headliner, it was his wildly popular YouTube impressions of President Obama that sent him to stardom at “SNL.”
“I’ve got to be a fan of the people I play, and I was a fan of Barack Obama,” he explains. “At first I was speaking more nasally but as I got a little bit older I started doing it the correct way. [‘SNL’ producer] Steve Higgins said ‘Talk from the back of your throat while doing it.’
“I started talking from the back of my throat and then it was more in the pocket, but I find it really crazy doing it on television versus doing it in stand-up because when I’m onstage and I know the dialogue so well, it’s even more in character because it’s just me with a microphone and not reading cue cards or anything like that. Being able to portray Barack Obama was a blessing in itself to be able to do that. I’m friends with him and Michelle and it’s a really good position to be in.”
Pharoah says that the material he’s performing for his special is “seventy-five percent material and twenty-five percent impressions.” He has honed his ability to tell personal stories ranging from celebrity encounters to the time a drink was drugged with absurd results to the headline-making 2020 incident in which he was manhandled by police in a case of mistaken identity.
“I’ve got Trump in there, Johnny Depp, Dave Chappelle, Biden, Obama, Kevin Hart and Katt Williams. I’ve got dark humor too, so it’s all across the spectrum. You should be able to play in any kind of court if you’re called to do so,” says Pharoah. “This show is just so authentic. It’s so real and it’s just so me and I’m so happy about working on it. I had to get those reps in but people have been talking about the new stuff and when people watch this, it’s going to be a game changer.
“When you’ve got a good product, it’s good food. People are gonna taste it and they’re gonna come back. People will see a good special and the word will spread, so I’m excited to put this out.”
Jay Pharoah performs at 7:15pm and 9:30pm August 26 at The Den Theatre, 1331 North Milwaukee. Tickets are $31. Call (773)697-3830 or visit thedentheatre.com.