Jay Pharaoh spent six seasons on Saturday Night Live, mostly rattling off note-perfect impressions of celebrities like Drake, Jay-Z, Ben Carson, Katt Williams, and of course, Barack Obama, but left last year without ever getting a chance to create characters or catchphrases or do the kind of work that made people like Will Farrell or Kristen Wiig or Kate McKinnon so famous. Since leaving the show, Pharoah has spoken in interviews about feeling put in a box at SNL, the institutional racism of the place, and not being afraid to push back on requests to do things on the show that didn’t feel right.
The struggle to make in in the entertainment industry while staying true to yourself is the theme at the center of White Famous, where Pharaoh stars as mid-level standup comic Floyd Mooney — the kind of comic, he’s reminded more than once in the pilot, who brings the house down in the black clubs, but has yet to pack ‘em in in the Hollywood clubs or topline major movies. In other words, Floyd is not yet “White Famous.”
When Floyd gets a meeting with the hottest comedy director around, he spends more time messing with the guy, playing on his white guilt and cheerfully calling him racist for a couple of innocuous, if clumsy, remarks than considering the project on the table: a cross-dressing part as a grandmother.
A similar encounter with a high-powered producer (Stephen Tobolowsky), who mistakes Floyd for the parking valet and goes on to make some slightly less innocuous racist remarks, while Floyd’s pal records with his phone, leads to a meeting with Jamie Foxx, who knows a thing or two about wearing a dress on screen (recall that his breakout character, on In Living Color in the early ‘90s, was Ugly Wanda).
Pretty soon Floyd is being welcomed onto the Big Studio Movie Set on his own terms, and thus begins the quest that will presumably encompass the season: to become White Famous without selling out his black identity. The story is based loosely on Foxx’s experiences coming up in Hollywood (he’s an executive producer), and the cast is solid: Cleopatra Coleman (The Last Man On Earth) as his on-and-off girlfriend and baby-mama, patient but holding the line against his late-night, comedy-club, always-on-tour lifestyle; Jacob Ming-Trent as Ron, Floyd’s best friend and conscience, who prefers to work as a mailman and help Floyd with material rather than get on stage himself, forever bemused by Floyd’s changing fortunes; Tobolowsky reprising his coarse Californication character Stu Beggs; and Utkarsh Ambudkar as Floyd’s oft-fired agent Malcolm, frequently frustrated with Floyd’s moral stands getting in the way of their shared paydays.
Pharoah is charming in the lead, and though he gets a few chances to break out some of his amazing impressions, he mostly plays Floyd straight, as a witty, funny guy who is super skeptical of Hollywood but not immune to its temptations. Floyd’s red lines can also blur: early in the pilot, he tells his agent that if Quentin Tarantino calls, “I’ll be a cotton-picker for that visionary any day.”
There are a couple of bum notes — the dynamic between Floyd and his baby-mama is pretty close to the one between Donald Glover and Zazie Beetz on Atlanta, but not as deeply felt; and if you’re not a fan of gratuitous sexual content — the kind that could be cut out entirely without doing any damage at all to the plot — White Famous is as guilty of that as its co-creator Tom Kapinos’ previous Showtime comedy, Californication. Put it this way: if Ballers doesn’t bother you, White Famous should be fine.
But on the whole, I enjoyed the first two episodes; anyone who felt Pharoah’s talents were wasted on SNL will be happy to see him stretching out a bit, and his chemistry with the supporting cast — Ming-Trent in particular — is easy enough to make the show a good hang. Michael Rapaport shows up in the second episode as a highly respected director trying to hire Floyd for his next project, and his unusual methods of auditioning Floyd are very funny. and while trying-to-make-it-in-Hollywood stories are as old as Hollywood itself, this one has a unique enough angle that it ought to stay interesting for a while — provided it doesn’t let Floyd complain too much about all his dreams coming true.
White Famous premieres at 8:30pm ET Sunday on Showtime; the pilot is available now on-demand.