Not everyone hits the ground running on Saturday Night Live; lots of performers take a couple of years (if they are given the chance to, that is) to find their footing on the show before they become an integral part. Which is what makes the decision by Lorne Michaels to release Jay Pharoah now seem so strange, because, after a couple of seasons searching for his groove on SNL, he had not only found it, he was thriving in it.
I remember how excited I was for the start of Jay Pharoah’s SNL career, even though I had literally never heard of him until the day before his debut on September 25, 2010. It was hard not to be excited though after reading Bill Simmons, a lifelong Saturday Night Live devotee and the world’s biggest Eddie Murphy fan, write the following in his NFL Pick’s column the day before:
“EDDIE MURPHY’S SNL CAREER (-8.5) over Jay Pharoah’s SNL Career: This will all make sense Saturday night. Just wait. By the way, do NOT be afraid to take the points on this one. I know it’s heresy. And again, this will all make sense on Saturday night. I wish I could buy Jay Pharoah stock.”
For you non-sports fans, or for those of you that don’t gamble, to give you some idea of what that means imagine tonight someone said, “This new swimmer, the one you’ve never heard of before this very second, well he has a chance to be as good as Michael Phelps.”
That was crazy. Eddie Murphy might be the best cast member the show has ever had, and he’s one of the funniest people to ever live, and yet Simmons was insisting this new guy might reach that level? I immediately hopped on to YouTube and looked him up, and I could see why it made sense. This was one of the best impressionists alive. Close your eyes and you wouldn’t know if it was Jay Pharoah talking or if it was really Will Smith, Denzel Washington, or Chris Rock.
Of course, who could live up to that hype? It’s impossible–and it was unfair, but that’s partly why for the first couple of years it felt like Pharoah wasn’t living up to his potential. He was obviously an immensely talented performer, but one that hadn’t totally figured out how to maximize that talent on SNL.
Then it all came together. It’s hard to say with any certainty, but it felt like when they finally gave him Obama it all began to fall into place, and suddenly he was one of the most important people on the show, his role on SNL finally catching up to his talent.
And now, in what feels like the prime of his career with the show, he’s gone, and with him he takes a countless number of celebrities, contained within those great impressions of his.
Like his fellow departing castmate Taran Killam, we don’t get it, and we don’t like it, so to celebrate his time there here is our tribute to the SNL career of Jay Pharoah. It may have started slow, but he leaves at the top of his game.
SNL‘s never shy about being super weird, and Pharoah’s strange, somewhat inappropriate, heavy-breathing Principal Frye fits that mold. This recurring sketch was always just about waiting for him to show back up.
“What Does My Girl Say?”
Pharoah became one of the show’s go-to members for pre-taped musical numbers, and this parody of “What Did the Fox Say” is one of his most memorable.
This piece about three apparent gangsters living in gentrified Brooklyn is one of the smartest, funniest sketches from the show the last couple of years.
This is just a funny, talented actor creating laughs from nothing more than his performance.
Jay Pharoah does so many impressions that it would be impossible to do them all justice, so we’re just going rapid fire with some of our favorites, including his crazy, seemingly impossible, amazing quick barrage impressions he would do on Weekend Update.
Secret Rappers Meeting
Secret Black Comedians Meeting
My personal favorite Jay Pharoah impression. The funniest one from the 2016 campaign and it’s not even close.
That one is more than “alright.” Even if he could do an amazing impression of him, it was unfair to expect Jay Pharoah to be Eddie Murphy. And besides, he was damn good just being Jay Pharoah.
My man, you will be missed.
What’s your favorite Jay Pharoah impression or sketch? Tell us in the comments below.