Fans who’ve missed comedian Jay Pharoah since his official exit from Saturday Night Live last year after six seasons now can have him all to themselves thanks to his new Showtime series, White Famous.
Executive-produced by Jamie Foxx and Tim Story (director of Ride Along and Think Like a Man), White Famous puts Pharoah, a native of Chesapeake, Va., in familiar territory as comedian Floyd Mooney, a black underground comedian embarking on a Hollywood career.
“I connected with this character immediately just because I know the grind of that,” says Pharoah. “I know how it is to do the chitlin circuit out here [in Los Angeles], where they pay you $25 and $15 to get onstage, or when you go to New York and you hit the circuit and you’re doing seven rooms, and they’re paying you $75 a pop or $100 a pop for that grind. I knew how that was, and the fact that’s what Floyd is, I connected with it immediately.”
For Pharoah, White Famous is slightly more than “the story of a black comedian on the underground that gets the chance to cross over to the industry.” He is just as intrigued by Floyd’s battle to “not lose himself while making himself more relevant in Hollywood.”
In the pilot, in which Jamie Foxx makes an appearance, Floyd is confronted with wearing a dress—a common Hollywood trope, especially for black men—for a lucrative career-boosting film role. Like Floyd, Pharoah also refuses to wear a dress. “Have I ever worn a dress?” he quips, shooting the question back. Then he vows, “You’re not going to see me doing that.”
Floyd’s determination to achieve fame on his own terms is one of his most appealing features, says Pharoah. “The fact that he didn’t want to give up on his moral code and standing, I thought that that was fantastic, and I feel the same way,” he says. “I don’t feel like you have to sell out to make it. I feel like talent is talent, and talent will transcend what anybody says. It will transcend politics. It breaks through. Talent always breaks through.”
Far from being alone in his journey, Floyd has a son, Trevor (Lonnie Chavis), whom he co-parents with his longtime love Sadie (Cleopatra Coleman), with whom he has a friendly, in-flux relationship. Then there’s his Indian agent, Malcolm (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who is determined to make him a star, even when Floyd doesn’t see the vision; and his friend, roommate and unofficial life and career coach Ron Balls (Jacob Ming-Trent), who filters through his projects and keeps it real with him.
The relationship Pharoah and Coleman display on-screen is one of his proudest. “You got some people who are actually working together, not fighting. [They] have a child, but they’re both putting in the hard work to do what they need to do so he is raised in a loving environment,” he explains.
“More television should be like that,” he continues. “You don’t have to perpetuate negative stereotypes. There’s no need for that when you can find a smart way to tackle a relationship. It could be good, it could be bad, but at the end of the day, when two responsible parties actually step up and they do take care and handle their business—and, by ‘business,’ I mean a child—it speaks multitudes about two people in a relationship that are constantly fighting back and forth, and the child doesn’t know where to go, feel me? I feel like the show does a real good job of showing that.”
Doing the show definitely made him appreciate his time on NBC’s iconic sketch-comedy show even more. “SNL is comedy boot camp. That place prepares you for everything,” he says. “I think that’s why I fell into my lead character so well, just because of the quickness that you have to have to adapt to certain things [on SNL]. I got that training from being over there so I’m grateful.”
Having Foxx, whom Pharoah has known since 2012, behind White Famous is very comforting, he admits. “Jamie Foxx has been nothing but a big brother to me. Honest to God,” he explains. “[To have] somebody who’s established, who is kind of on the same frequency—not saying that we’re equal, but just as far as the talents: being able to do music, being able to do comedy, being able to act—to have somebody who’s like that who’s backing you, who you kind of feel like y’all got a similar vibe, it’s really dope and it does comfort you.
“And it just lets you know,” he adds, “you’re doing exactly what you need to do, and you’re exactly where you need to be.”
White Famous premieres with two episodes on Sunday at 10 p.m. Eastern time on Showtime.