Jay Pharoah And Adam Pally: Licensed To 'Champaign ILL' SNL alum Jay Pharoah reveals the origins of his stage name and getting into stand-up. Then, he showcases his uncanny celebrity impressions in a game with his Champaign, ILL co-star Adam Pally.
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Jay Pharoah And Adam Pally: Licensed To 'Champaign ILL'

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Jay Pharoah And Adam Pally: Licensed To 'Champaign ILL'

Jay Pharoah And Adam Pally: Licensed To 'Champaign ILL'

Jay Pharoah And Adam Pally: Licensed To 'Champaign ILL'

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Jay Pharoah appears on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York. Mike Katzif/NPR hide caption

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Mike Katzif/NPR

Jay Pharoah appears on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York.

Mike Katzif/NPR

Before comedian Jay Pharoah was "Jay Pharoah," he went by another name: Jared Farrow. Why? "'Cause, man, Farrow means family of pigs," he told Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR's Ask Me Another at The Bell House in Brooklyn, New York. "On the flip side, Pharaoh — P-H-A —that means royalty. It's like a total flip personality." As for the change to his first name, Pharoah explained, "I was tired of people calling me 'Jared,' 'cause that name sucks."

Though he didn't assume his stage name until he was 19, Pharoah was doing celebrity impression — his comedic specialty — long before that. He started at age six with Iago, the animated parrot voiced by Gilbert Godfrey in the animated movie Aladdin.

From there, he added stand-up to his repertoire and at 15 was performing at the Funny Bone, a comedy club in Virginia. It was there that comedian Charlie Murphy, Eddie Murphy's brother, took notice of Pharoah. After the teenager did his Eddie impersonation, Charlie gave him some constructive criticism. "The first time I did it, he thought it was trash. He was like 'Yo man, you got the laugh, that's about it man,'" Pharoah shared. "But then years later I did it and he was like 'Yo, you been working huh?!'"

When he chose to seriously pursue comedy, Pharoah had his family's support. His sister pawned all of her jewelry to help finance his journey from club-to-club on the Chitlin Circuit — a network of clubs that have historically showcased African-American entertainers and musicians. Her encouragement paid off. Pharoah went on to become a cast member on Saturday Night Live, performing a number of celebrity impressions and characters over the span of six seasons.

Pharoah explained that the amount of time it takes him to master an impression varies. "It just depends on who it is. Like Denzel Washington: it took me three years to get that one. And I hadn't gone through puberty fully yet, so it wasn't all the way there. But a 19-year-old Jay Pharoah trying to do Denzel Washington, it didn't sound like Jay Pharoah now trying to do Denzel Washington."

Pharoah used that particular impression in a YouTube video called "Will Smith Versus Denzel Washington," where he impersonated both stars. When director Steven Soderbergh saw it in 2017, he reached out to Pharoah. "He said, 'I think you have a dramatic side, I can tell, and I want to expose that to the world,'" Pharoah recounted. That exchange eventually led to Pharoah being cast in Soderbergh's 2018 thriller, Unsane.

Ask Me Another guests Jay Pharoah and Adam Pally play a game at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York. Mike Katzif/NPR hide caption

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Mike Katzif/NPR

Ask Me Another guests Jay Pharoah and Adam Pally play a game at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York.

Mike Katzif/NPR

For Pharoah's Ask Me Another trivia challenge, he was joined on stage by actor Adam Pally. The two have a new project together, Champaign ILL, a YouTube comedy series depicting members of a rapper's entourage after their glitzy lifestyle is taken away from them and they're forced to return to normality in their hometown of Champaign, Illinois. Pally said the idea for the series came after a conversation about "when people feel that they should be treated like a superstar when they're not a superstar."

"They learn lessons, a lot of lessons along the way," Pally said of the show's characters. "But I think in comedy, if the character learns too much of a lesson, then what fun is there to watch?"

As part of their game, Pharoah performed impressions of various celebrities while Pally guessed who they were.

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