When Jay Pharoah started doing impressions at age 6, he viewed the hobby as a way to escape a difficult childhood. As he honed his skills, his talent turned into a tool to impress his peers – and ultimately, a springboard for a successful career in comedy.
“I would say it was a comfort blanket when I was 16,” he tells us when we sit down for a chat with Big Think. “Because I wasn’t popular in school. And then all of a sudden, somebody told somebody that I did impressions. And then people would come and ask me to do it. So it was a way for me to make people like me because obviously the person that I was… I was just quiet. They didn’t like that, you know?”
Fitting in with his peers was a challenge for the 35-year-old comedian – but his home life was even harder. “Growing up, my father, who was going through many transitions, was tough on me,” he says. “I would get beat. Sometimes my mom would have to jump in and stop things from going too far.”
Pharoah eventually let go of the resentment he held against his father and offered forgiveness instead, refusing to let the pain of the past overshadow his growth. “It all makes you who you are,” he says. “Had it been less arduous, I probably wouldn’t have tried so hard to get out of the house in that situation. Maybe I wouldn’t have worked as much to get my own source of income.”
He and his father are tight now, and he even considers him one of his best friends. Their relationship reached a milestone in 2022 when Pharoah was performing a comedy show in Australia that went particularly well.
“I was just in a different zone,” he says. “When I got off that stage, my dad came up to me and hugged me. He said, ‘I have never ever seen you like that. Watching the people’s reaction was just insane.’ And he had never said that to me until that day. He was proud.”
In addition to multiple stand-up tours, and various TV and movie roles, Pharoah’s talent led him to a six-year stint on Saturday Night Live, where he gained fame for expertly mimicking the likes of Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle, Barack Obama, and more. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, he’s able to look back on his upbringing with a new perspective.
“As a kid, the only thing that you really want to do is you just really want to fit in,” he says. “It’s not until you get older that you realize that standouts aren’t supposed to fit in. You’re not supposed to fit in. Why? Because you have a certain light that other people don’t have.”
To wrap up the conversation, we ask Pharoah what advice he’d give his younger self. His response is vulnerable and earnest.
“If I could say anything to the teenage version of myself that didn’t have friends and wasn’t popular, I would just tell him to hang in there. I’d be like, ‘Dude, hang in there because it’s all gonna flip for you in a few years.”
Then he cracks a smile. “And you haven’t got any booty yet, but it’s okay because there’s a lot of that in the future!”
We interviewed Jay Pharoah for Question Your Perception Box, a Big Think interview series created in partnership with Unlikely Collaborators. As a creative non-profit organization, they’re on a mission to help people challenge their perceptions and expand their thinking. Often that growth can start with just a single unlikely question that makes you rethink your convictions and adjust your vantage point. Watch Jay Pharoah’s full interview above, and visit Perception Box to see more in this series.
Words: Ali Gray
JAY PHAROAH: As a comedian, when you can be yourself and you can be as naked as possible, unapologetically, then you have arrived. Not physically naked.
I'm comedian, actor, rapper Jay Pharoah. How you doing today? Give you a little introspect from my introspect.
Oh, that's a good one. What's comfortable to you but also limiting? Impressions are the easiest thing for me to do. I mean, like breathing type easy. Because I have been doing impressions for 29 years of my life. It's also limiting because it doesn’t matter the amount of good material that I do have out there, when it comes to what's hot online, people are always amazed by that.
Those videos are the videos that get rotated the most. And when they get rotated, people can in their minds lock you into that box. I've always tried to get away from that, but I've learned that it's a super power. Since you're not going to get away from it. Use it. Use it to your advantage. Use it to bring people in and get them in with that and then show them something different.
Is purple. Like Prince. Oh. Oh. Would you like some pancakes? Oh that was Chapelle doing that one. When have I let go of a deeply held conviction? Dang now I'm trying to think. Now I'm really trying to think of this now. Me and my father are very tight now. He's like one of my best friends. Like, we. We could talk about anything, but growing up, my father, who was going through many transitions in life, it was a little tougher on me.
You know, discipline wise. So, you know, I would get I would get beat and all of that. And, you know, sometimes my mom would have to jump in and stop things from going too far. I guess just forgiven my father when I was 17 for like the the abuse in the house. I think that's when I let go of a deeply held conviction because it took me so long to kind of, you know, get to that point where I could forgive him because I was harboring so much of it.
But man, it all of that makes you who you are, you know? Had it been less arduous, I probably wouldn't have gone so hard to try to get out of the house in that situation. You know, and get my own and be my own source of income and everything else. Maybe I wouldn't have worked as hard. You know, so I learned to not allow not allow that pain of getting brought up to, you know, transfer over. So, yeah, what I do with it afterwards?
When did you feel truly celebrated? It happened in Australia of last year. It was Saturday night and I was at the Opera House, the Late Show, and I was just in a different zone. I don't know if you watch Dragon Ball. If you don't, you got to look that up because this is the perfect way to explain where I was onstage.
Killed it. Destroyed. Back to back to back nonstop for like an hour, hour and a half plus. I got off that stage. My dad came up to me. He hugged me. He said, I have never, ever seen you like that. He has never said that to me. Never had said that to me until that day. He was so proud of me in that moment right there, it meant the world.
What is your most consistent and greatest fear? Hmm? My most consistent and greatest fear is dying without reaching my full potential. I've always thought that there was something I'm supposed to, something I'm supposed to leave for folks. And if I don't get that out, I mean, it says in the Bible, if you don't use your talents, if you don't use your talents that God has blessed you with, then He is displeased.
So it's like if the people don't see this, if they don't see that I could do that, then it was nothing but a wasted light. And I don't want to waste any light on myself. I want everything. I want everything to be seen.
Have you ever gone through something upsetting or painful that you later viewed as a blessing?
Yeah, definitely. I was a heavy kid. I was. I was. I was bullied. And as a kid, the only thing that you really want to do is you just really want to fit in. But it's not until you get older that you realize that stand outs aren't supposed to fit in. You're not supposed to fit if you’re a stand out, you're not.
Why? Because you have a certain light that other people don't have. I thought not having friends was was a terrible thing. No, it's not bad. It ain't bad at all because I ended up making friends with my voices and became arguably the best impressionists in the world, if not one of the best impressionists in the world. This is not me saying it. This is what other people say.
So if I would have been able to, like I said, hang out, if I would have been able to party and do all of those things, I'd probably be doing something else. I'll look at my body now and I look at, you know, I look at the mirror and I see a beautiful person, not because of the reflection in the mirror, because of what that person has gone through mentally. The growth, everything I see every I see all of that when I look at myself in the mirror now and I, I summarize the last 35 years.
If I can say anything to the teenage version of myself that didn't have friends and wasn't popular, I would just tell them to hang in there, keep doing what you do, and it's going to work out and you haven't got any booty yet. But it's okay because there's a lot of that in the future. There's a lot of that in the future for you.