“White Famous” may be principally Jamie Foxx’s story, but it rings true for Jay Pharoah, too.
The “Saturday Night Live” alum plays a fictionalized version of Foxx in his early professional days in “White Famous,” a seriocomic Showtime series developed by Tom Kapinos (“Californication”) and premiering Sunday, Oct. 15. The show’s Floyd Mooney (Pharoah) is a comedian who has to determine how much of himself he’s willing to forsake to attain fame, especially after a video of him dressing down a major movie producer goes viral and suddenly puts his career on the fast track.
Though Foxx – an executive producer and recurring guest star on “White Famous” – is the show’s main source, Pharoah maintains the process has been “very collaborative” and also reflects his own experiences. “It’s the story of a young comic who’s getting a chance to cross over into the mainstream and be known by the world,” Pharoah says, “and I immediately connected with the material. As soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘Yeah, this is me.’ I could see myself as Floyd Mooney.
“I know how it is doing those $50(-per-gig) rooms, and you’re doing six of those a night and trying to build up while you’re just trying to survive. I used to work at Burlington Coat Factory, and that was the last job I had before everything started taking off. I did a semester at VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University), then I was pretty like, ‘Ah, forget this. Let’s get on the road and grind it out.’ There are direct parallels between Jamie Foxx’s coming-up and mine that are just undeniable.”
The earlier arrival of Showtime’s “I’m Dying Up Here” may have helped prepare audiences for “White Famous,” Pharoah concurs: “There’s definitely an avenue for shows that want to show the grittiness of being a stand-up comedian, and not just being funny all the time. Of course, comedians all joke around, but some things happen behind closed doors that we don’t talk about.”
On that note, Floyd struggles to keep his relationships with his son (Lonnie Chavis, one of Sterling K. Brown’s younger alter egos on “This Is Us”) and the youngster’s mother (Cleopatra Coleman, “The Last Man on Earth”) on solid footing. “In this business, you have to stay grounded, no matter what,” Pharoah reasons. “I still visit my grandma, and I’m really tight with my family. My sister’s my manager, and that’s not just because she’s family; she went to school for mass communications, and she knows how to navigate that world.”
Pharoah explains that he left “SNL” – on which he became known for such impersonations as President Barack Obama, Will Smith and Kanye West – at the end of its 2015-16 season because “it just felt like it was time.” He deems “White Famous” a “transitional” project for him, but also considers it more than that in certain ways.
“I really believe there’s going to be a lot of water-cooler conversation about this show on Monday mornings,” says Pharoah, “just because the things we’re bringing to light are things that have been known, but people have stayed hushed about it. Or, if people have experienced them and wanted to be vocal about it, they haven’t had the outlet to broadcast it to millions of people. I can’t wait.”