Jay Pharoah continues 'SNL' growth onstage

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Entertainment,TV,Robert Fulton,Saturday Night Live

During a recent episode of "Saturday Night Live," Jay Pharoah appeared as retired basketball player Dikembe Mutombo. The day before the skit was to air, the show's writers asked if Pharoah could pull off an impression of the seven-footer, something he hadn't done since he was a teenager.

"I just had to go back to my 13-year-old ways to pull it off," Pharoah said. "I'd forgotten about it. Add that one to the list."

Jay Pharoah performs Friday through Sunday at the Arlington Cinema N Drafthouse.

That list that Pharoah speaks of is his wide array of celebrity impressions. Some of the most popular send-ups of stars that he's tackled as a member of "Saturday Night Live" include President Obama, Jay-Z and Denzel Washington. Pharoah said that the key to a good impression is finding something about the target that stands out.

If you go
Jay Pharoah
» Where: Arlington Cinema N Drafthouse, 2903 Columbia Pike, Arlington
» When: 10 p.m. Friday, 7:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 p.m. Sunday
» Info: $25; 703 486-2345; arlingtondrafthouse.com

Pharoah started doing impressions at the age of six while growing up in Chesapeake, Va. His first imitation was of the Gilbert Gottfried-voiced Iago from the 1992 animated film "Aladdin."

"It's crazy that my first impression was a white guy," Pharoah joked. "A lot of people are, 'He doesn't do white people.' That's not true. It's just that you're not going to be able to play a white guy on SNL when there's 12 other white cast members."

When asked who his favorite impression is, Pharoah responded "myself."

"It's so funny to hear people always competing, like 'I want to be the best impressionist,' " Pharoah continued. "I'm like, really, you want to be the best impressionist? That's like saying you want to be the best at not being myself."

That distance demonstrates Pharoah's continued comedic growth beyond his hilarious imitations. He first got into comedy at age 15 after the woman doing his hair said that he was funny and had missed his calling.

"If my calling is to be funny, I thought I should embark on that," Pharoah said.

Though he received plenty of encouragement while younger, he also had to deal with detractors.

"Somebody's always saying that you can't do something," he said. "You don't listen to that. I have that hustle and ambition. I will not stop trying."

This summer, Pharoah hopes to land some film work and continue with his stand-up. This is on top of his growing role on "SNL," which the 25-year-old has been appearing on since 2010.

"This is the greatest job you can have," Pharoah said of "SNL."

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Robert Fulton

Examiner Correspondent
The Washington Examiner