Jay Pharoah impersonates Obama, Denzel, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart en route to 9:30 Club

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Jay Pharoah at 9:30 Club (Part 1)

When Jay Pharoah comes to town, he doesn’t come alone. He brings with him Barack Obama, Denzel Washington, Bernie Mac, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart and countless others.

They all live inside his brain with spot-on impersonations that he’ll bring to the 9:30 Club on Saturday. It’ll be a homecoming for Pharoah, who grew up in Chesapeake, Virginia.

“I’m from the 757, baby!” Pharoah told WTOP. “The same place that Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Lawrence Taylor, Allen Iverson, Plaxico Burress, Michael Vike, The Neptunes, D.R.A.M., also Bob Saget, rest in peace, Wanda Sykes — there’s a lot of talent that comes from my area. This is home for me! It’s the DMV. Old Bay seasoning. Let’s Old Bay it up!”

Born in 1987, he began standup at age 16, inspired by the ’90s greats, such as Eddie Murphy (although “I saw ‘Delirious’ and ‘Raw’ later because my parents were strict and didn’t allow me to watch too much”); Richard Pryor, whose tapes Pharoah’s uncle used to slip him surreptitiously, and The Kings of Comedy. “I was like, yo, I wanna do that!”

He became a household name in 2010 when his impersonation of Barack Obama went viral on YouTube around the time he was cast on “Saturday Night Live” (2010-2016).

“Once people heard that I got ‘SNL,’ they started looking at all of the videos, even though some were blowing anyway like that Will Smith and Denzel video, ‘Behind the Actor.’ When I put that up there, people hit me up 15 minutes later like, ‘Yo, you wanna put ads on this?’ I was like, ‘Sure!’ … Shoot, I just shot that in the computer room at my mom’s house.”

WTOP had him slip into his Obama impersonation: “There’s a lot going on. You got Roe vs. Wade, you got Jackson, Mississippi, where the water literally looks like Starbucks coffee without any cream. You’ve got the folks in Flint, Michigan, they still don’t have water! But you got the government putting billionaires on spaceships to fly them the hell out of here!”

He says the secret to an Obama impersonation is to pretend you have a secret that you’re slowly doling out to the audience. As for Denzel Washington, it’s a different approach.

“The secret to doing Denzel is he’s a philosopher, he’s a talker, very calculated,” Pharoah said. “He said, ‘If you watch the news you’re misinformed. If you don’t watch it, you’re uninformed, so what a task you all have to get the truth out there’ … it’s all about the face, it’s about the blinking, Denzel always has someone throwing sand in his eyes.”

Most recently, he spoofed Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars.

“I immediately made a little sketch for TikTok — that was my first million (views),” Pharoah said. “(Impersonates Rock): I got smacked man! Wow! I got smacked by the person who made ‘Summertime!’ He made ‘Summertime,’ OK! I got smacked by America’s nicest person, OK! … I’m not gonna sue, because why? But I got the footage! I could!”

These impersonations obviously work better on audio, so just listen and enjoy.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Jay Pharoah at 9:30 Club (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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