Inside ‘White Famous’ with Jay Pharoah

White Famous, Showtime’s new Jamie Foxx-produced dramedy series, premieres this Sunday night at 10:00pm. The show stars Jay Pharoah as Floyd Mooney, a rising comedic star who is at a point in his career where he has to weigh his artistic integrity and personal principles against the calcified racism of the entertainment industry. As Floyd’s agent points out, the path to mainstream success is to crossover and become a favorite of white audiences. This struggle hit a chord with Pharoah, who I spoke with a few weeks ago. He told me that since season 1 of White Famous wrapped production he’s been getting back into a serious standup workout routine. “There’s nothing like the grind of New York and the standup scene out here. It’s authentic and raw. If a joke doesn’t work you’ll know it. They’ll give you the response you need.” In addition to developing a new hour of standup material, he’s also working on a couple of film projects and a forthcoming hip-hop album. “I’m a busy dude, dude.” Fortunately Pharoah wasn’t too busy to chat about the new series, shining a light on the issues facing black entertainers, and his comedy Top 5.

You just wrapped production on White Famous.

Yep, yep, we just wrapped a week and some change ago.

How did you get involved with the project?

It was summer of 2016 and I was definitely looking for something substantive that I could do. I read the script and fell in love with it immediately, because the path of my character Floyd Mooney is basically me. There were so many similarities it just clicked.

You saw a lot of things that were similar to your life in the character of Floyd, which is interesting because the show is actually based on Jamie Foxx’s experiences in show business. Did you talk to him about your shared experiences?

As far as my career, I’ve always looked to Jamie’s career. We’re very similar. We do voices, music — he’s a lot further along in that than I am — standup, and acting. I didn’t even have to ask him. People close to him had told me about some of the stuff he would do. The synopsis was, “He always tries to have fun. He’s just a fun dude.” I think Floyd Mooney — whether he gets put in an f’ed up situation, whatever happens — just wants to look at the positive and find some good in it. I feel like that dynamic definitely plays through.

What are some of the standout moments in the series that you feel resonated the most with your career?

[laughs] It’s so real. I think people saying racially insensitive things that they don’t think are racially insensitive because they “have a black friend” and all that, those scenarios I’ve experienced a lot. I’ve been to a lot of parties, a lot of upfronts, a lot of events where people come up and don’t know how to talk to you. They’ll say weird things just because they’re trying to fit in with the brand and be cool. It’s like, “No, it’s not. You can’t say that, man, C’mon. You thought that it was cool to say something like, ‘I freak with black girls all the time?'” Why would you say that shit unless you want me to say, “Yeah, I snatch snow bunnies all the time. My blood type should be caucasian.” It’s stuff like that, things that are inappropriate. I’ve dealt with a lot of that, almost on an everyday basis. Well, I can’t say everyday, but often. You meet them and they say stuff that has you like, “Really?”

There was something that came up in the first episode where you were going out for a role and they wanted you to wear a dress. It reminded me of something you had talked about with SNL where they were trying to get you to fit into a certain mold. Am I remembering that correctly?

You watched the episode, man. You know exactly what it was, the dress situation. That’s something in the black community that is kind of frowned upon. The issues in the show that we talk about are things that are definitely said behind closed doors and not really put out there, but they’re known. They always try to emasculate black males. That’s a thing. I’m not telling you anything new. It’s something that gets explored that we tackle in the first episode. The rest of the season there are other issues we tackle that are talked about behind closed doors. I think the show does a very good job of putting those things up front and making people aware of what those issues are. We do a good job of bringing those to light. I’m excited for the world to see it.

Sorry, my question wasn’t a setup. I’m just now making the connection. I remembered you saying something in an interview a while back about not wanting to wear a dress on SNL, but the actual gravity of the dress thing is new to me as a 37-year-old white dude who doesn’t work in television.

It’s an issue and it’s been one for years. We bring those to the forefront. You’ll be able to see them unfold and how Floyd Mooney navigates through that world.

I think it’s good that more people are going to see that stuff. The popularity of shows like Atlanta and Insecure provide a nuanced look at real experiences. Personally, in addition to the shows being great, they’re good for people like me to watch. For instance, I grew up not knowing about the dress thing. I remember thinking that Larry Johnson’s Grandmama was nothing but hilarious. It shouldn’t be anyone’s job to educate the ignorant, but when it happens it’s incredibly valuable.

Definitely. That was one of the goals. You want to create conversations about topics and issues that are happening. You can bat your eyes at them quickly and try to act like it’s not there, but at the end of the day it is there. I’m just glad that Tom Kapinos (writer and showrunner) has a finger on it. The cast is on it, the director is on it, everybody’s on it. It’s really dope. There’s a lot to deal with. It’s a bulk of meat. It’s like the Atkins diet. You just gotta take every piece and pace yourself.

I saw the other day that Pam Grier is working on adapting her book into a movie and had you in mind for the part of Richard Pryor. That has to feel good.

It’s an honor to even be thought about for that role. Pam is great. I got to meet her earlier this year because we ended up doing this video game together, Call of Duty. We met and chopped it up. I hope it does happen. You know, there’s another parallel to Jamie Foxx. He did Ray and got the Oscar. He has the ability to morph into different people. I have that same ability. It would be really dope to play Richard Pryor.

Would you say he’s your biggest comedy influence? I know you’ve been compared to Eddie Murphy a lot.

Pryor influenced everybody I look up to, so I put him on a higher platform. You can’t even say he’s Top 5 because he’s above that. My Top 5 is Eddie Murphy at number one, Chris Rock, Bernie Mac, Robin Harris, and Dave Chappelle. Those are my Top 5, and Pryor is above them.

Photo by Michael Desmond/Showtime.

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