SNL’s Pharoah brings impressions, comedy to Helium

Comedian and celebrity impressionist Jay Pharoah will perform at Helium Comedy Club this weekend. — submitted photo

When Jay Pharoah comes to the Helium Comedy Club on Sansom Street on Aug. 16, 17 and 18, he’ll be bringing a whole collection of celebrities with him. They include Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, Kanye West and perhaps his most popular to date, President Barack Obama, the man audiences love to see Pharoah welcome on “Saturday Night Live.”

Of course, neither Obama nor any of the others will actually be at the club in person. It’ll just be actor, stand up comic and impressionist Pharoah using his voice to bring the others to life in front of welcoming audiences.

Pharoah became an Internet phenomenon when his impersonation of Obama became widely seen on YouTube. In 2010, he was hired by SNL as a featured player for the show’s 36th season, and debuted his impersonation of Obama two years later, replacing Fred Armisen.

“My agent arranged an interview at SNL,” Pharoah recalled, “and I won the spot the first time I auditioned. And believe it or not, I never folded under the pressure.”

Pharoah, born Jared Antonio Farrow in Virginia, began doing impressions at age 6, and cites Gilbert Godfried’s character in “Aladdin,” Iago, as his first voice, explaining, “My father put me in a talent competition a couple of months later, and out of the whole thing I got fifth place.”

Later, Pharoah began honing his skills at local comedy clubs, eventually going on tour in the United States, Canada and the U.K. At one point, he toured with Corey Holcomb and Charlie Murphy and became known for his many celebrity impressions.

Pharoah first flirted with real fame when his spot-on impression of Obama went viral in 2009. Today, his job to impersonate the president along with countless other celebs to the delight millions.

Explaining his ability to master a celebrity impression, Pharoah said a number of things are involved. “First you have to study and watch them very carefully. It’s like a sport. It’s like playing basketball or football. You have to be intuitive and listen carefully. I usually try to picture their face, trying stuff I would say at the same time. That kind of helps.”

With that said, Pharoah adds that some voices are more easily impersonated than others. “When I first started out I was doing Bernie Mac and that was pretty easy for me,” he said. “On the other hand, it took me about three years to do Denzel Washington.”

Describing himself as an “entertainer, full out,” Pharoah said if you come to his shows “you’ll see everything. I sing, I tell jokes, I do impressions, tell stories, everything. I get all my insecurities out there. I’m real. I produce, I write, I rap. It’s all me.”

And so with audiences seeming to really like him and his act, Pharoah said it’s all “cool, except when big stars come on SNL. I’ll admit I’m star struck, especially around certain people — especially when somebody like Chris Rock or Bill Murray or Martin Short walks in.”

And when it comes to females, “especially one I’ve had a crush one, I can hardly breathe. And I know if I saw Eddie Murphy, I’d lose it,” he admitted.

Ten years from now, Pharoah wouldn’t mind making others “lose it. By then I hope to be a major force in the film industry, with people referring to me as one of the greatest. I work toward that goal every time I get on stage.”

For times and ticket information, call (215) 496-9001.

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