In Attendance at the New York Comedy Festival: Jay Pharoah

Comedy Features

A few blocks down from the building where Jay Pharoah clocks in for his day job, people start to pack into the basement bar of Carolines on Broadway. As most of us know, that day job is as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, the most celebrated gig in the world for any stand-up or sketch comedian. Pharoah, only 26, has been delighting the nation week after week with his celebrity impressions from SNL’s hallowed stage since joining the cast in 2010.

Ah yes, the impressions. Going into Pharoah’s show, the audience knows that his impeccable, memorable impressions will be in high demand, and about 12 minutes in he delivers with Chris Rock. Everyone loses their mind. Reasonably so, because it’s perfect.

…As are most of his impressions, especially when he nails fellow black stand-up comedians like Dave Chappelle, Katt Williams and both Eddie and Charlie Murphy, the latter of which he’s toured alongside frequently over the last three years. But once you get deep enough into Pharoah’s set, you wonder if he relies too heavily on these impressions. For instance, he’ll bring up a subject like bullying or gun control and then ask the audience, “You know what Dave Chappelle would think of gun control?” Um, no I’ve never wondered that before, what would he think, Jay? It always leads to an impression. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad thing; it’s a hilarious and celebrated effort (which is why tonight’s show is sold out), but sometimes it feels too safe.

Regardless of tactics and material, a stand-up comedian gets up there and does what he does best, and Jay Pharoah is the best impressionist I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing. He’s probably the best they’ve got over at 30 Rock, too. Comedians do what they know, and Pharoah has been working at this ever since he started making up imaginary friends as a kid in his bedroom in Chesapeake, Virginia. He might not have exactly been the most popular kid in elementary school, but now everyone in the room is glad Pharoah didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. If he did, we wouldn’t be hanging out with Chappelle, Obama or the Murphys tonight.

Wearing an unzipped, sleeveless hoodie showing off a t-shirt with a golden Egyptian sphinx, Pharoah does most of the impressions that you’ll find on his rap sheet. He does the comedians, Jay-Z, knocks Lil’ John out of the park and does Denzel for a good five minutes only after convincing himself to do it at the audience’s plea. But the best bit of the night has to go to his Obama. Everyone seemed to be waiting for it and the dude did not disappoint. The only thing better than his spot-on impression is that he had POTUS in a strip club convincing girls to rethink their life choices, as well as convincing Michelle to be on board with him “uh…uh…getting it on” with Kim Kardashian.

Pharoah touched on sore subjects like the Boston bombings and the Dark Knight theater shooting and made light of them (with an Ice Age 4 line that still has me laughing), gave us a full-on Drake performance while making us all realize he’s a huge creep and advised us to “ease up on Chris Brown, it’s not like he hit you.”

After an eye-roll for a Shannon Sharp impression (which he eventually gave into) and a very heartfelt and tearful dedication to the loss of loved one, Pharoah, as Jay Pharoah, gave a grateful goodbye to a standing crowd.

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