Jay Pharoah's at his best playing with others in Showtime's uneven, but promising, new comedy 'White Famous'

In "White Famous," premiering Sunday on Showtime, Jay Pharoah plays Floyd Mooney, a successful nightclub comic whose agent, Malcolm (Utkarsh Ambudkar), is eager to take him to the next level. "The goal has always been white famous," Malcolm tells Floyd, which is to say, "so famous that you transcend color." But is that what Floyd wants?

Hollywood, you may have noticed, has been in the news lately. Not for the first time have the abuses that the powerful visit on the less powerful been dragged out into the light. Indeed, the degree of humiliation one is willing to withstand to have a career — and when saying yes becomes more damaging to a performer and person than saying no — has been a thematic signature of backstage (and soundstage) dramas and comedies and musicals since forever.

The series is reportedly inspired by some of the experiences of one of its executive producers, Jamie Foxx, who appears in the opening episode as (a skirt-wearing version of) himself, and I don't doubt that at any given minute someone in show business is saying or doing something more horrible, strange or stupid than anything anyone says to Floyd in "White Famous." Indeed, I would not be surprised to learn that every awful line uttered here has been transcribed verbatim from the real world. And yet the way the show has been constructed, it undercuts its own credibility; it feels altogether too on-the-nose, a rigged game in which almost all the points are awarded to Floyd.

First there is the hot comedy director, Jason Gold (Steve Zissis), whose fumblings with handshakes and ethnic appellations Floyd offhandedly describes as “well-meaning West of the 405 racist.” Gold wants to cast him in a new film, but as an old woman — and drag is a line Floyd is loath to cross. "Every time there's a funny black brother in Hollywood they try to emasculate him," he tells Sadie (Cleopatra Clovis), his girlfriend, from whom he is semi-separated, and the mother of his son (Lonnie Chavis). "I know this might sound corny, but I don't want to sell out."

Then there is the powerful producer, Stu Beggs (Stephen Tobolowsky, reprising his “Californication” character), who mistakes Floyd for a valet, and whose not-quite apology of racial stereotypes, caught on camera, goes viral and results in an offer of a part in the Jamie Foxx movie he's making. ("He's black as the ace of spades," says the producer by way of establishing his non-racist bona fides.) Even resurrecting the character played by Tobolowsky, an actor whose resume is heavily stocked with schlemiels, seems a step too much; putting him in a tight swimsuit and bathrobe, and setting their conference against the overused hillside backdrop of Pierre Koenig's modernist Stahl house, is a jump off a little cliff into the obvious.

We're told that Floyd is a great talent; we see a fan beg a photo. But apart from a snippet of stand-up at the beginning, which seems mostly intended to establish that Floyd is a black comic with a devoted black audience ("On behalf of the black community, I adopt you," he says to the white woman in the crowd), and a Denzel Washington imitation, we don't see him at work. But suddenly, he's blowing up.

“It is pilot season in the golden age of diversity,” Malcolm tells him, “and you have a superpower. You're Black Man. There's never been a better time in Hollywood to be a POC."

The second episode does improve on the first. Happily, it dispenses with the opener’s quota of Pointlessly Naked Women of Premium Cable. (Foxx's notion was developed into a series by Tom Kapinos, who created "Californication," Showtime's quasi-celebration of toxic masculinity, along with comic-actor-comedy writers Chris Spencer and Buddy Lewis; Floyd at least apologizes for his “male bravado.”) And then there is the promising introduction of Michael Rapaport as Teddy Snow, a mad genius director who wants Floyd for his (actually quite interesting) film about the rise and fall of a 1980 black L.A. punk band. Teddy's problem isn't that he's racist, it's that he's off his rocker.

Pharoah, an "SNL" veteran who has not done much straight acting, pulls his weight throughout, but working with Rapaport, as with Coleman and the low-key excellent Jacob Ming-Trent as Floyd's wisdom-dispensing friend and roommate Ron Balls, lifts him to that vaunted next level. The more these actors are given to do, and the more their characters are developed, the better it will be for “White Famous.”

Ron is incidentally a comic-turned-postal-worker — a job change that might be a nod to the fate of Robert Townsend's character in "Hollywood Shuffle," Townsend's 1987 film of the plight of the black movie actor. Thirty years, and here we (still) are again.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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