If you read Mike Birbiglia’s memoir Sleepwalk With Me, you’ll know that a large portion of a comedian’s life is spent traveling. And long before dreams of sell-out shows at gothic theaters, a pro’s itinerary typically consists of heading from one dingy club to the next.
Jay Pharoah cut his teeth on a similar circuit and eventually rose through the ranks to earn himself a coveted spot on SNL. But he’ll be the first to tell you that many comedians are “living that grimy life,” especially when it comes to their eating habits. When the comedy club is your second home, greasy finger foods and table snacks are your inevitable standbys, says Pharoah. It can be “raunchy” stuff—not to mention monotonous.
But Pharoah hasn’t let the trauma of eating hummus every night while on the road derail his food and comedy ambitions. In addition to his most recent collaboration with Pepsi—which had him trolling customers on a live-feed video camera as they tested out the new flavor-shot Pepsi Spire machine—Pharoah has impersonated Tupac ordering at Chipotle, appeared in a Totinos skit with Larry David, and even appeared on Rachael Ray’s show with the “Bam Gawd” himself, Emeril. “There are good characters to [impersonate] from [Food] Network,” he says.
To get a better sense of his palate, here we chop it up with Pharoah to learn about where he dines with pal Charlie Murphy, which comedian nailed the ultimate food parody, and the ridiculous diet of The Rock.
We know on shows like 30 Rock, they portray late-night writing sessions as being fueled by junk food. How would you characterize the eating habits of comedians in general?
Jay Pharoah: I mean most comedians’ eating habits are horrible. It’s always those chicken wings that they have between shows, mozzarella sticks, things of that nature. It’s always club food. But me? Somebody told me I had child-bearing mother hips, so I don’t eat that stuff a lot. But most comedians eat the most raunchy stuff. It’s gluttonous, greasy, caloric. Most of us are terrible eaters, though.
Is there one food that you ate over and over again on the road that you never want to eat again?
JP: It would have to be pita and hummus. It seems like there was always like pita and hummus, and I’m like, I don’t want to eat this; it just reminds me of weird peanut butter.
Regarding SNL hosts, can you tell a lot about people by what they request on their rider?
JP: I never see the rider, but I see what people order around me. Like The Rock—he’s a total beast. He’ll eat five chicken dinners and rice because he needs the protein.
We watched your Tupac and Biggie impersonation, and noticed that when you started to impersonate Tupac you started talking about Chipotle, which recently had an e. coli scare. Do you think it’s separated the true fans from the fake fans?
JP: Ah man, I think Chipotle has a lot of problems right now, they don’t need me to talk about it. *laughs*
Do you have any favorite food-related comedy skits of all time? Who do you think nailed the perfect food joke?
Do you watch the Food Network? Do you think it’s especially ripe for comedic impersonations?
JP: Most of the time I’m browsing through channels. I saw Urkel, Jaleel White, on that channel recently. There was another dude Chef Garvin, he was like LL Cool J but a cook. I like seeing folks like that. We do a lot of cooking shows, parodying them on SNL. That’s usually the basis and the blueprint. There are good characters to get material from on that network.
Do you know who Guy Fieri is?
JP: Yes! Yes, yes, yes! That’s the dude with the blonde spiky hair, right?
JP: I don’t impersonate him but Bobby Moynihan does a killer impression of him.
Speaking of food and comedy, you were also in a Totinos skit with Larry David. What was that like?
JP: Larry David was phenomenal man! Him being able to take a small situation and turn it into a big sketch was totally genius to me. He was cracking jokes the whole time. It was fun working with him on the Bern Your Enthusiasm sketch. My J.B. Smoove impersonation floored him. It was supposed to be J.B. originally but they ended up using me after they heard my impersonation. I actually took some jobs from J.B. That’s my guy, sorry J.B.
We know you worked closely with Charlie Murphy over the years. Let’s say he’s in town and you guys are trying to meet up. Is there a certain spot you’ll take him to? What are your some of your standbys when it comes to eating in New York with your friends?
JP: Rosa Mexicano, Dos Caminos. I’m a Mexican-food guy. And if we’re talking about a good steak, Peter Luger’s. Also Ruth’s Chris. There’s this other spot—I’m going to give them a shout out so I can get some free food—called CajunSea, and it has some of the best seafood in the city. It’s like a Joe’s Crab Shack but more personal.