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Television

Jay Pharoah jumps from ‘Saturday Night Live’ to the fame game of ‘White Famous’

Episode 101
Jay Pharoah, left, and Lonnie Chavis in “White Famous.”
(Michael Desmond / SHOWTIME)

Is being “White Famous” really “right famous”?

That’s the conundrum African American comedian Floyd Mooney faces when offered the opportunity to move beyond his small but devoted fan base — which is primarily black — to the kind of huge mainstream success where he starts attracting white audiences. Although the prospect is appealing, Floyd fears that tailoring his act to widen his popularity might mean damaging his integrity and selling out.

Mooney’s dilemma is the focus of Showtime’s new comedy, “White Famous,” premiering Sunday. The series stars former “Saturday Night Live” performer Jay Pharoah and is based partially on the early Hollywood experiences of Jamie Foxx. The Oscar-winning actor is an executive producer on the series and also appears in the pilot.

In addition to the show business scenarios, “White Famous” also deals with Mooney’s up-and-down relationship with his ex-girlfriend Sadie (Cleopatra Coleman) and their son, Trevor (Lonnie Chavis), and his best friend/roommate Ron (Jacob Ming-Trent), who always has insightful advice for Mooney.

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The series is a vehicle for the Virginia native, who was let go from the NBC sketch comedy series last year after a six-season run. Pharoah, 30, who was known for his impressions of, among others, President Obama and rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West, had harsh words for the series following his departure, accusing the show of pigeonholing black cast members.

In a telephone interview this week, Pharoah discussed his identification with Mooney, his current feelings about “SNL” and what he hopes viewers learn about what it means to be black in Hollywood.

How did “White Famous” come about?

My agent sent me the script. I read it and immediately connected with the material, and everything else just worked out.

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What appealed to you?

Floyd Mooney is such an upstanding guy. He’s trying to navigate through Hollywood and trying to keep himself grounded and humble. I feel like that’s how I am, so I really just felt drawn to it. The character of Ron Balls played by Jacob Ming-Trent — I really have a best friend like that. I run bits with him; he’s someone who gives me relationship advice. Then there’s Floyd’s baby mama. I felt that was a good dynamic to play. I don’t have kids myself, but I have a nephew and a little cousin. And my ex-girlfriend had a daughter and she was really close to me. The whole character just spoke to me.

What other parts did you like?

Floyd just wants everybody to be taken care of, like his best friend and his agent. That’s like me. People who have been there from the beginning who still believe in me.

What’s the challenge of playing a character as opposed to performing in sketches?

I don’t know if there really is a challenge. I started acting when I was 8. I’ve done theater. It’s just another muscle that gets used and displayed. I’m happy that the series shows so much of my talents and so much of my costars’ talents.

Was there anxiety in being the star of your own show who’s on screen so much?

There definitely was. But there’s such a strong support system at Showtime. It was a very supportive atmosphere that whatever anxiety I had quickly disappeared.

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After you left “Saturday Night Live,” you leveled quite a few shots at the show. What’s your perspective on that experience now?

Ummmm, yeah. I had a good time while I was there. It prepared me for “White Famous.”

And if you were asked to guest host someday?

Anything can happen. Who knows what the future holds?

In your career, have you been ever been asked to do something that goes against your principles or that offended you?

There’s definitely been some instances that have happened. There have been weird things. Some folks in the industry, they are who they are. I have to stay true to my brand and myself.

What message do you hope “White Famous” conveys?

Etiquette. How to handle certain situations. The ins and outs of Hollywood and the things that happen behind closed doors. I feel that the show does a very good job of putting all of that on Front Street.

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‘White Famous’

Where: Showtime

When: 10 and 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

greg.braxton@latimes.com

Twitter:@GeBraxton


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