“Saturday Night Live” has become known as a machine for cranking out comedy stars. Input a famished improv actor who does a decent George W. Bush impression, and out pops a shiny new celebrity with two book deals and a TV show already signed on for three seasons. With his new Showtime comedy, Jay Pharaoh is the most recent and former “SNL” cast member trying to take advantage of that seemingly flawless formula. Unfortunately for him, the machine is still working out some kinks.
“White Famous” has a great idea delivered through a bad TV show. Floyd Mooney (Jay Pharoah) is a young comedian trying not to betray his hometown roots as he works toward becoming “white famous.” He’s got everything you’d expect a bright-eyed, up-and-coming comedian to have: An overzealous agent (Utkarsh Ambudkar, “The Mindy Project”), an on-again / off-again relationship with the mother of his child (Cleopatra Coleman, “The Last Man on Earth” ), an implicitly racist boss (Stephen Tobolowsky, “One Day at a Time”) and even an encouraging yet slightly crazed mentor Jamie Foxx (“Baby Driver”) who plays himself. But even with a talented cast and a solid concept, the show struggles to feel like something substantive and worthy of more than just a single episode.
You know when the ticket person at the movie theater says “enjoy the movie” and you respond with “thanks, you too?” That is what it feels like to watch “White Famous.” It’s not completely wrong, but it does leave everyone involved feeling just a little bit off. Pharoah’s character seems to be stuck in a single, ongoing comedy sketch, and the joke wears down about ten minutes into the half-hour-long episode. By the time you’re done watching, there’s nothing left to look forward to. Mooney gets a job on a big movie set, him and his ex-girlfriend are on relatively friendly terms and the agent he fired at the beginning of the episode is already back working for him. Every conflict that arises as a possible storyline is resolved by the episode’s end, leaving no reason to tune in next week or any week after that.
It’s disappointing given the show’s potential to address real problems present in Hollywood. At one point, Mooney complains to Foxx that everytime a black man tries to climb the ladder in Hollywood, directors try to emasculate him by putting him in a dress. It’s a fascinating point, and one that can be seen in Dwayne Johnson’s “Tooth Fairy” and Tyler Perry’s “Madea” series, among numerous other examples. Yet instead of exploring this topic, Foxx brushes off the comment, and it’s never really addressed again.
The show’s capacity to humorously address the societal pressure of being a black man in Hollywood is also ruined by its blatant sexism. You can’t pick and choose what minority group you aren't going to offend and which one you are –– it’s kind of an all-in, all-out deal. If you can’t be funny without uncomfortable Bill Cosby jokes and an old white dude that’s racist and sexist (but we’re supposed to understand that’s wrong, so it’s a joke), than you aren’t really funny, you’re just lazy.
There’s no doubt that Jay Pharaoh is a talented young comedian whose talents extend beyond the impressions that defined his run on “SNL,” but “White Famous” is not the show to demonstrate that. If, like his character, Pharaoh wants to become the next Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock, he may have to put on that hypothetical dress and take some more daring steps to stardom.