Jay Pharoah Talks ‘SNL’ Finale, Plagiarism Claims, and His Best Sketch of the Season

by Stacy Lambe 6:15 AM PDT, May 14, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

If there’s been a standout performer over the past few years of Saturday Night Live, Jay Pharoah’s name definitely pops up. Thanks to his spot-on impressions of Jay Z, Kanye West, and most notably, President Barack Obama, Pharoah has carved out an irreplaceable spot in the cast.

Ahead of SNL’s 40th season finale, Pharoah took time out to help M&M kick off its Red Nose Day campaign, #MakeMLaugh. On Monday, the comedian performed in New York City’s Times Square, trying to earn as many laughs (and money) in five minutes. He joins a growing list of stars lending their support to the fight against poverty among youth, which will culminate in a live benefit on May 21 on NBC.

Pharoah talked to ETonline about the pressures of generating laughs and the sketch he’s most proud of this season.

ETonline: Considering the challenge you did for M&M and Red Nose Day, how hard is it to fill five minutes with comedy?

Jay Pharoah: It’s just fun. You have fun for five minutes and just put your point of view out there. I don’t know if it’s really hard—it’s kind of cool. You have to time it… especially for the “Make M Laugh” day because I was trying to raise money. I raised $1,220, sir, just from laughs!

What’s the best joke you’ve told under pressure?

I think when I was 21 years old -- I don’t even know if it was a joke under pressure -- I was at comedian Hamburger’s spot. There was a guy -- he was an older gentleman -- and he was security. I said, “Oh look who we’ve got here. We got a security guard for the rec center -- ain’t that a trip?” Everyone started laughing because I’m like, ”If somebody comes in here, you can’t protect us. What are you going to do? They’re going to run right past you. They’re going to run right over you and win the game.” You know what I’m saying? That was a good one. That was a situational one. I literally said [in a Judge Joe Brown voice], “Put the basketballs away.”

With Saturday Night Live’s 40th season drawing to a close, what’s the one sketch you’re most proud of doing this year?

It was a sketch I wrote with one of my co-workers. It was called -- it was the Kevin Hart episode -- and it was called “Listening Party.” When Kevin Hart was like, “Pew, pew, pew, pew. Bow, bow. Bow, bow. Gunshot sounds,” I wrote that! He delivered it perfectly. It just made me feel so good that he actually killed it. It was so late in the show and it did so well. It was a good feeling -- a genuine good feeling.

What gives you more satisfaction: acting or writing on the show?

I mean, star power-wise -- as far as followers on Twitter -- you get more joy from performing. But as far as respect and people getting the chance to hear your voice, writing is definitely, definitely cool. Writing for yourself, as well as others, is a joy.

Since this week is the finale, I was curious if there’s more pressure in doing the premiere or doing the final episode.

I guess the premiere is more pressure. The finale is a laugh off. It’s the end of the year. It’s kind of like, “OK, alright. We accomplished this and it’s time to have fun.” The pressure is on to start and kick off the season with a bang. You always want that. You don’t want a sh*tty episode to start something off. It’s much harder to come back from that. That’s why the openers are so strong—and the finales are strong just to show people through and through we’re here for a reason.

Are there any celebrity impressions that you’re ready to retire?

I can’t say there’s one that I’m ready to retire. I have fun doing all of them. It’s cool to me. But if they tell me, “You’re not doing this one anymore.” I’m going to be like, “OK cool!” It don’t make me feel different. The check’s coming, you feel me? …I’m so easygoing with this stuff.

What do you make of the plagiarism accusations that have bubbled up this week?

That wasn’t my sketch and I was so focused on the monologue and the other thing I had, the L.A. Scene sketch. I didn’t even really get a chance to pay attention to it.

Is it hard to vet your sketches to make sure they feel truly original? It must be hard to constantly come up with new ideas week to week.

Everybody has a different vibe. We have that many different comedic personalities on the show. People just have their own flavor. And you find inspiration walking down the street… It’s all on current events -- things that are happening. Like me, I have my flavor. Everybody has a different flavor on the show. That’s what it is. Some people have similar comedic tastes. What else can you say about that?

We know Rihanna is performing this weekend. Will she act in any sketches as well?

Boy I hope so because I love Rihanna. I love her. I don’t know yet. I don’t know what she’s going to do. You just have to watch.

Do you still fan out when certain performers or hosts come on the show?

Yeah, it just depends. I get star-struck around a few people. I was definitely star-struck by Kanye and Jay when they came. And the first time I met Rihanna was dope. And then Drake, of course! That's one of my favorite rappers. These people are some of my favorite artists. I definitely geek out, especially for the music, and if you find out they want to do something it's an extra cherry on top.

Check out ET's favorite moments with the SNL gang from the past 40 years of the show.