JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. He was a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" and can be seen in the YouTube series "Champaign ILL." Please welcome Jay Pharoah.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much for joining us, Jay.
JAY PHAROAH: Hi.
EISENBERG: Thanks for coming down to the Bell House in Brooklyn.
PHAROAH: Yeah, of course.
PHAROAH: Brooklyn in the house, hey. My ma's from Bed-Stuy, so - shout out. You know what I mean?
PHAROAH: Yeah, real talk, yeah.
EISENBERG: A lot of people don't know this - that your real name is Jared Farrow.
PHAROAH: Oh, don't say it too loud.
EISENBERG: But the last name's spelled F-A-R-R-O-W. Why did you change your name?
PHAROAH: 'Cause, man, farrow means bay of pigs, a family of pigs. And then on the flip side, pharaoh, P-H-A...
PHAROAH: That means royalty.
PHAROAH: It's like a total flip personality, yeah.
EISENBERG: Did you change it when you were entering into, like, a showbiz career?
PHAROAH: Yeah. When I was 19, I changed it, as a matter of fact. I was tired of people calling me Jared 'cause that name sucks.
EISENBERG: So you went for Jay Pharaoh. It's nice.
PHAROAH: Yeah, Jay Pharaoh - see; it's sexy, right?
EISENBERG: It is sexy, yep.
EISENBERG: You have been doing impressions since you were 6 years old. The first impression you did was Iago the parrot voiced by Gilbert Gottfried in "Aladdin."
PHAROAH: Yes, it was.
EISENBERG: And, you know, the kid in my class - elementary school class - that did the impressions and made fun of the teachers - that was a popular kid. Is that how it worked...
EISENBERG: ...For you?
PHAROAH: Yeah. I was popular in elementary school. It didn't really work out in middle school. It was...
PHAROAH: I got bullied. People don't know that. I was fat. Yeah, not at the moment, but I was fat, and I got picked on when I was younger. But, you know, I found comedy. And yeah, I'm good, people.
EISENBERG: So you're 15. You're doing standup. You're at the Funny Bone in Virginia. Charlie Murphy, who is Eddie Murphy's brother, sees you and takes notice of you - that you're really good at what you do.
PHAROAH: Yeah, man - Charlie Murphy, man.
EISENBERG: What did Charlie Murphy think of your impersonation of his brother?
PHAROAH: You really want to know.
PHAROAH: 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: I mean, like, years later, I did it, and he was like, you know, you been working, huh? And, like...
PHAROAH: I'm like, yeah.
EISENBERG: Yeah. How long does it take you to, you know, work on an average impression to the point where you're like, I'm liking this now?
PHAROAH: It just depends on who it is. Like...
PHAROAH: All right, like, Denzel Washington took me, like, 3 years to get down, you know? You know, and that was - and I hadn't gone through puberty fully yet, and so...
PHAROAH: It wasn't all the way there. But a 19-year-old Jay Pharoah trying to do Denzel Washington didn't sound like, you know, Jay Pharoah now trying to do Denzel Washington 'cause Jay Pharaoh now doing Denzel Washington - you know, I talk like this, and I'll look at you, and, you know, look at the ladies, and I tell them, you know it's going to be all right, OK, all right.
PHAROAH: That's what it is, my man, my man, OK, oh, OK. That's what it - you know what I'm saying? So...
EISENBERG: Jay, before you got your spot on "SNL," I read that your sister sold all of her jewelry to help finance...
EISENBERG: ...You to go on tour...
PHAROAH: Now, that's real talk
EISENBERG: ...To do some comedy.
PHAROAH: That's real talk. Both of us didn't have jobs.
PHAROAH: I had quit my job at Burlington Coat Factory. Yeah, I worked there.
PHAROAH: And yeah, man, she sold her jewelry. She pawned it. She went to Greenbrier Pawn. She got about $300 or whatever. We came up here, and we worked the Chitlin' Circuit. And, you know, when you do the Chitlin' Circuit, you can make, like, a hundred dollars a spot, but you're doing six spots a night. So you're thinking about that. That's - oh, that's, like, $600 a night. So we really caked up. And I still haven't got it back for her, but I'm going to get it back for her.
EISENBERG: OK, yeah.
PHAROAH: Like, it (laughter)...
PHAROAH: Thank you. I love the claps - you know what I mean...
EISENBERG: That's good.
PHAROAH: ...'Cause y'all are really connected. You know what I'm saying?
EISENBERG: Did you - so your family was pretty supportive. I mean...
PHAROAH: They were supportive. But, you know, look; we still - like, I - we both didn't have jobs.
PHAROAH: And they still didn't - ain't nobody be like, hey, here's some gas money for New York. You know...
PHAROAH: ...What I'm saying? Like, we had to make that ourselves. But my family is very supportive. It's crazy.
EISENBERG: So obviously we all know you from comedy, but director Steven Soderbergh watched your YouTube video of you doing Denzel...
PHAROAH: Yeah (laughter).
EISENBERG: ...Will Smith versus Denzel Washington.
PHAROAH: You know what? Before you say that, shout-out to Matt Damon because Matt Damon is the one that actually put Steven Soderbergh...
EISENBERG: Oh, no way.
PHAROAH: ...Onto my Denzel clips. And I just saw him I think at the "SNL" after-party. He was like, you know, you don't got to give me credit, but...
PHAROAH: (Laughter) Like, he's the reason that "Unsane" and everything happened - 'cause they would play that clip. He said that Soderbergh watched that clip, like, 20 times, man. And Soderbergh hit me up 2017, and he said, yo, I think you have a dramatic side.
PHAROAH: I can tell. And I want to expose that to the world. I did it for him, man, and I've gotten great reviews from that. But go ahead 'cause I don't know what you want to say.
EISENBERG: Yeah, I was just going to ask you, like, how did you - from your point of view, how did you enjoy taking on a dramatic role?
PHAROAH: Well, you know, it's funny because I started in community theater when I was 8 years old. So I did serious stuff before I did comedy. I started comedy when I was 15, but I was doing theater, school plays and everything from 8 until 15. So, you know, it was just home for me. I'm dramatic, OK, yeah.
EISENBERG: You said that your dream project is to be in the next "Black Panther" movie.
EISENBERG: Who do you want to play?
PHAROAH: I don't know - whatever was left.
PHAROAH: I mean - yo, I've - there's so many black people in there. I mean, they can spare one more. You know what I mean?
PHAROAH: It ain't like it's hard. Like, I can be - I am T'Challa. You know what I'm saying?
EISENBERG: Jay, we're going to play a game with you, but you're not playing your game alone. We are going to bring out someone from - for you to play with.
PHAROAH: Oh, great.
EISENBERG: You know him from "The Mindy Project," "Happy Endings." And he's also in "Champaign ILL." Please welcome Adam Pally.
PHAROAH: I love how you walked out then give me the dap. That's fine. That's cool.
ADAM PALLY: Yeah.
PHAROAH: Come on, man.
PALLY: Hello, white Brooklyn.
EISENBERG: Adam Pally.
PHAROAH: Wait, white Brooklyn? That's so accurate.
PALLY: I love - my favorite part of tonight was when you're like, my mom's from Bed-Stuy. And one dude who, like, just bought a brownstone there...
PALLY: ...Is like, (yelling) yeah.
EISENBERG: No, no, no.
PALLY: (Yelling) Bed-Stuy.
EISENBERG: It was...
PALLY: (Yelling) That's my hood.
EISENBERG: He was...
PALLY: Bro, he's talking about Bed.
EISENBERG: He was the developer.
EISENBERG: He's the developer, actually. Adam...
PALLY: No, I'm looking at Bed-Stuy, too. I shouldn't...
PALLY: It's the schools. It's the schools. Schools.
EISENBERG: So "Champaign ILL" is about what happens to a rapper's entourage when, basically, their glitzy life is taken away from them and they have to go back to their hometown and kind of return to their homes.
EISENBERG: And their home is in Champaign, Ill. - "Champaign ILL." So this sounds like every performer-entertainer's nightmare.
PHAROAH: For the friends.
EISENBERG: No, the...
PALLY: Yeah, for the friends...
EISENBERG: For the friends, yeah.
PALLY: ...For sure. Yeah. It's a nightmare. I mean, I can only imagine what it's like when you've built your entire world around this, like, one ecosystem, and then it just crashes, and you have to figure out where you are, you know?
EISENBERG: How did "Champaign ILL" come about?
PALLY: I had done a show with David Caspe - the creator - called "Happy Endings," and we were trying to - thank you - we were trying to work on something again. And we thought that one of the funniest things in life is when people feel that they should be treated like a superstar...
PALLY: ...When they're not a superstar. I think that's one of the funniest things in the world when I see it in real life. And so I - we thought that the best place to do that was the place where there are a bunch of superstars next to the superstar, which is hip-hop. I mean, there was a guy in Nelly's entourage that got famous for wearing half a mask.
EISENBERG: Right. So it's sort of people falling from grace and then having to rebuild their identity.
PALLY: Kind of, yes.
EISENBERG: And do they learn a lesson?
PALLY: I mean, they learn lessons - a lot of lessons - along the way. But I think in comedy, if the character learns, like, too much of a lesson, then what fun is there to watch? You know...
EISENBERG: Yeah. No, they have to repeat.
PALLY: ...We don't, like - Homer doesn't, like, get a Rosetta Stone...
PALLY: ...And, like, learn Spanish, you know? Like, that doesn't happen.
EISENBERG: Season ender.
EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly.
EISENBERG: OK. We have a game for you. Your game is called Guessing Impressions. We've given Jay Pharoah a list of impressions. Adam, it is your job simply to guess who Jay Pharoah is impersonating.
EISENBERG: And if you do well enough, Ming Lee Goon (ph) from Sioux Falls, S.D., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
EISENBERG: Let's start with the first one.
PHAROAH: All right.
PALLY: All right, yeah. All right.
PHAROAH: Are you ready?
PHAROAH: OK. (Impersonating Barack Obama) Well...
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
PHAROAH: ...When we have faced that...
PHAROAH: All right.
PALLY: I want to hear it. I don't mean to cut it off, but I'm also competitive.
EISENBERG: That's - no, that's great. We will give you that natural point for our listeners that are going to hear this across the world.
PHAROAH: Oh, OK. Cool.
EISENBERG: Can you give them a little?
PHAROAH: Let's get - (impersonating Barack Obama) well, when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people. Yes, we can.
PALLY: It's so nice.
EISENBERG: So good.
PALLY: It's so nice just to hear - so comforting...
EISENBERG: I know.
PALLY: ...Just to hear it, you know?
PHAROAH: I know.
PALLY: It's like - feels so good. It's like getting on pajamas with feetsies.
EISENBERG: All right. How about the - your next one?
PHAROAH: OK. You ready?
PHAROAH: (Impersonating Denzel Washington) We will be perfect in every aspect of the game.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
PHAROAH: Go ahead.
PALLY: Denzel Washington.
EISENBERG: Yeah, all right.
(SOUNDBITE OF DING)
PHAROAH: (Impersonating Denzel Washington) All right, so let me continue.
PHAROAH: (Impersonating Denzel Washington) We will be perfect in every aspect of the game. You drop a pass, you run a mile. You miss a blocking assignment, you run a mile. You fumble the football, and I will break my foot off in your John Brown hind parts, and then you will run a mile. Perfection. Let's go to work. My man.
PALLY: Incredible. The best.
PHAROAH: All right. Here we go. (Impersonating Stewie Griffin) Damn you, vile woman. You've impeded my work since the day...
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
PHAROAH: ...I escaped your vile womb.
PALLY: That one was amazing.
EISENBERG: That was great.
PALLY: They're all great.
EISENBERG: All right, this is your last one.
PHAROAH: (Laughter) I've never worked on this before.
EISENBERG: OK. All right.
PALLY: Oh, man. Oh, God.
PHAROAH: (Impersonating Adam Pally) All right. Oh, man. Oh, God. If Mary Tyler Moore married and then divorced Steven Tyler, then married and divorced...
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
PALLY: First of all, it's borderline anti-Semitic.
PALLY: But you're clearly doing - no, it's me. That's me, right?
EISENBERG: That was pretty amazing.
(SOUNDBITE OF DING)
PALLY: It's scary good.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much. It was a total honor.
PALLY: That was amazing.
EISENBERG: Congratulations, Jay, Adam. And Ming Lee won an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's cube. Jay and Adam's new series is called "Champaign ILL," streaming right now on YouTube. Give it up for Jay Pharoah and Adam Pally.
PALLY: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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