Jay Pharoah Is An Impression Jukebox
“Hey, I ain’t no jukebox, man!”
That was Jay Pharoah’s good-natured retort to a Jennifer Hudson Show audience member who shouted out an impression request on her talker this week. Hudson kept feeding him quarters anyway.
Pharoah’s ability to channel his fellow celebrities is a blessing and a curse. The blessing, of course, is he’s an extremely gifted mimic, improvising instant comedy scenes for familiar celebs like Obama and Biden, Kevin Hart, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, and Jamie Foxx. Hudson is just a little over the top here, reacting to each impersonation like Pharoah is channeling the dead.
JHud rightly notices Pharoah’s impressions begin in the face before he utters a word, and that’s part of his gift--there’s an embodiment of his targets’ physicality that really sells the masquerade. His eyes morph into Eddie Murphy’s before he tells the shouting audience member that he ain’t no jukebox--all delivered in flawless Murphy-speak.
Pharoah’s ability to trot out instant imitations makes him a slam-dunk talk show guest, but as for his comedy career, it probably holds him back as well. Unlike Darrell Hammond or Rich Little, comic impressionists who don’t seem to have much of a persona when they’re not slipped inside someone else’s, Pharoah has the potential to be funny as Jay Pharoah. Despite so-so reviews for his Showtime series White Famous, critics definitely felt like he was onto something. The Daily Beast thought the show was “a dramatic step in the evolution of Jay Pharoah.” “It does cement Pharoah’s status as a star,” agreed Decider. The Boston Globe noted that the comic “has an unexpected sadness about him that adds dimension to the show.”
Unfortunately, Pharoah hasn’t had many chances to show off that range since the show’s cancellation. So we’re with him when he shouts back “I ain’t no damn jukebox.” He has that talent, of course, but there’s a lot more hiding behind all the celebrity send-ups.
That said, we'd pay good money to see his Lorne Michaels.