Jay Pharoah Explores Racially Charged Show Business in ‘White Famous’
When a viral Barack Obama impression landed Jay Pharoah on Saturday Night Live in 2010, the show became his developmental field where he grew from talented mimic to gifted impressionist. When looking back at his turn on the long-running NBC franchise, it’s impossible to overlook the wackiness with which he brought characters like Shaquille O’Neal and, most memorably, young Ben Carson to life. When Pharoah found himself ousted from SNL, comedy connoisseurs spoke about him with a reassuring confidence, positive he would land somewhere new and more conducive to his talents. That place turned out to be Showtime, a premium network whose comedy oftentimes packs even more of a punch than its boxing content. With Jamie Foxx serving as an executive producer, Pharoah’s newest Showtime venture, the uproarious sitcom “White Famous,” fits Pharoah like a custom glove, giving him license to drop punchline after punchline in a showbiz world driven by diversity that feels incredibly modern, if not a little on the nose.
“White Famous” is both the show’s title and the very concept with which middling standup Floyd Mooney (Pharoah) grapples all through the series. He’s content to let the jokes fly at comedy clubs all over L.A. and maybe one day ink a sitcom deal in order to support his son, Trevor (Lonnie Chavis), but everyone else has bigger plans for the funny man. Those plans range from, as Floyd’s agent Malcolm (Utkarsh Ambudkar), describes as a “super gay superhero CW pilot,” to acting in a punk rock musical to wearing a dress in his first feature film, an idea he vehemently shoots down despite protests from Jamie Foxx himself. The idea of donning drag takes center stage in the show’s first episode, a trope that Floyd feels exists to emasculate black stars on the rise. “When I was thanking the academy, what those motherfuckers didn’t know is I was wearing the dress under my suit,” Foxx admits to Floyd in a rousing but ultimately unsuccessful pep talk.
Race and its love-hate relationship with show business plays a key role in “White Famous,” with Floyd often treating himself like a martyr for the black community. Malcolm couldn’t be more hyped to represent a person of color in the era of diversity, something he sees as an advantage as opposed to a hindrance. Those themes rear their heads during Floyd’s hysterical and sometimes uncomfortable run-ins with high-powered execs like Stu Beggs (Stephen Tobolowsky), who confuses Floyd for a valet and later hands him a movie deal by way of apology, “because old white men can do that,” as Malcolm says. And then there’s the time Teddy Snow (Michael Rapaport) hires an actor to play a rogue LAPD officer to mock arrest Floyd in order to bring out his ferocious side in a bizarre method acting exercise.
As much as race and identity play a part in shaping this series, family takes even more precedence, with Floyd doing his best to keep his relationship with ex Sadie (Cleopatra Coleman) healthy for Trevor’s sake. That gets turned upside down when Sadie gets involved with someone Malcolm describes as a black guy with a British accent, which leads to probably the funniest line of the first three episodes where an outraged Floyd tells Sadie “He needs to Brexit from your vagina.” Throw in the need to get Trevor into a prestigious private school, and it’s clear to Floyd that the days of goofing off at comedy clubs are over. It’s time to get serious. It might be even time to get white famous, a task that’s easier said than done.
Pharoah shines as Floyd Mooney, with every episode ladling out the laughs so quickly viewers might laugh over the next joke. But as adept as the show is about the punchlines, “White Famous” really works as a modern commentary on the contemporary family, with two former lovers who fight to preserve some semblance of peace for their son, although it’s not always a successful front. Whether its family life, show business or racial tension, the show packs a whole lot of commentary in between even more funny fodder that will have viewers rolling.
“White Famous” premiers on Showtime Oct. 15 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET.