Jay Pharoah knows a lot about being ‘White Famous’ The ‘Saturday Night Live’ alum stars in a new series about the perils of making it big

Truth is, Jay Pharoah isn’t sure if he’s “white famous” or not — yet. But he sure gets the head nod — and maybe the occasional side-eye, if he’s keeping it all-the-way honest — from some of the world’s most famous athletes, a surefire sign that the comedy he produces is landing in the inboxes and on the flat-screens of cultural tastemakers. “When LeBron James said, ‘What’s up?’ to me at the [Mayweather] fight this year,” Pharoah says, stopping to laugh, “it was like, ‘Ohh, snap! LeBron knows me! And everybody knows LeBron! So …”

“White famous.” Get it? It’s ostensibly that moment for people of color working in music, television, film or comedy (or whichever culture space) when one’s star power penetrates the mainstream: Masses of white folks know who you are. One is not just ’hood famous. Or solely Latino famous. One is not purely internet famous, or famous in some other, smaller sector. White famous means one is so famous that one has to mind all one’s p’s and q’s because everyone knows of you — which usually also means that the check is fat.

White Famous also happens to be the name of Pharoah’s new show (it premieres on Showtime on Oct. 15), inspired by the early career moves of Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx, who executive produces the show in collaboration with Californication creator Tom Kapinos. Californication creator Tom Kapinos) directs the first episode. Pharoah plays a rising comedian trying to maintain his cred with black fans while crossing over to a broader audience.

But as for himself? Pharoah made his mark starring in NBC’s Saturday Night Live — he joined in 2010 — on which he delivered memorable impersonations of President Barack Obama, Jay-Z and even First Take’s Stephen A. Smith. His tenure there ended unceremoniously before this last keystone season, in which Alec Baldwin won rave reviews in 2016 (and an Emmy last month) for his impersonation of President Donald Trump. But for Pharoah, the time was right to step away, he said.

“LeBron knows me! And everybody knows LeBron!”

“I was looking for the next-level type of thing … something that would show every aspect of Jay Pharoah, and not just from one area. I was looking for something that was going to show the spectrum. You start knowing it’s time to go when everything’s like, ‘OK, I’ve seen it all.’ When you start to get antsy.”

This new character, Floyd Mooney, of course feels familiar to Pharoah. “I immediately connected with the material,” he said. “I know how that journey is. I know how it is to being a hot, popping comic and trying to cross over. I know how that feels. I know that story.” But here’s what’s foreign: being the main guy. This is Pharoah stepping out and anchoring a show — for the first time. Pressure.

“There’s definitely less sleep [and] there’s more memorization, but I always feel like I was being groomed to be what I am now,” he said. “It’s a little nerve-wracking! But it’s not as intimidating as maybe it would’ve been when I was 22, you know? I actually had a chance to be a lead of a show. [But] I was … nervous, and nobody really [knew] me. I’d rather build my base, build a name, and then get off of that show and go do something where I’m starring. And that’s exactly what happened.” He said he feels like he’s right where he needs to be.

“I’m ready for everything. I’ve seen this industry; I’ve seen what it entails. I know what to stay away from. I know what type of vibe I don’t click with. I get that now. I’m 29. Before, I was a little more wet behind the ears … but now I feel like I’ve fallen into the position very well.”

Pharoah’s character is very principled, and in some ways it feels like a direct lift from Pharoah’s own life story. Pharoah has talked before about the back-and-forth toward the end of his tenure at SNL. “They put people into boxes,” he said in April, not long after his contract was not renewed. “Whatever they want you to do, they expect you to do. And I’m fiery. I’m not a yes n—–.”

He continues to think about things he refused to do — such as wear a dress.

“The dress conversation is a big topic in the black community,” Pharaoh said. “There’s always a conversation [about] Hollywood trying to emasculate black men.”

The series addresses that very thing, right away, with a savvy assist from Foxx. It’s one of those topics — complex, risqué — that the show wanted to have a conversation about.

“That definitely gets brought to light in this show. A lot of topics that get talked about behind closed doors, that celebrities, especially black celebrities, have to deal with,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of water cooler conversations.”

“I know how it is to being a hot, popping comic and trying to cross over.”

One conversation he likely won’t be part of with this new show, though? Uncomfortable ones with superstar athletes. This new Showtime series is scripted, of course, and doesn’t rely on his spot-on impersonations.

“I do LeBron James, I do Shannon Sharpe, I do Stephen A., of course,” Pharoah said. “I do [Floyd] Mayweather, I do [Mike] Tyson. Draymond [Green]. Charles Barkley. Shaq. I get flak from some people. I do all these folks, but it’s all on love. I never have any malicious intent. I just want everybody to have a good time and laugh at themselves. Just like if somebody impersonates me, I’ll laugh at myself.”

Five new TV shows worth watching this fall Last year’s bonanza of blackness hasn’t repeated itself, but you should still plug these shows into your DVR

What’s new in TV this season? Worth checking out? Honestly, the pickings this fall are slimmer than last year’s bonanza of blackness. Both The Carmichael Show and Pitch have been canceled. Atlanta’s second season was delayed so creator and star Donald Glover could go be Lando Calrissian, and Insecure became the most celebrated and discussed show — of the summer.

Empire, black-ish and ABC’s Shondaland lineup have been around long enough that they’ve morphed into reliable fall standards: This Is Us, though still young in television years, has clearly captured the country’s imagination — along with its appetite for Kleenex. And the OWN juggernaut and prestige drama Queen Sugar returns this week for the second half of its second season. We’ll finally get to see those episodes directed by Julie Dash!

[‘Queen Sugar’s’ second season explores a fraught mix of family and historical legacy]

So what’s left? Allow me to walk you through the best of the rest.

Big Mouth (Netflix)

Netflix’s oddball animated show about puberty is currently streaming. It features Jordan Peele as the ghost of Duke Ellington (he lives in one of the character’s attics) and Maya Rudolph as a hormone monstress. Yes, she’s a hairy, horny, imaginary monstress who puts bad ideas in the head of a 12-year-old girl named Diane.

Big Mouth follows the lives of a group of 12-year-olds navigating the hellacious road map of wet dreams, peer pressure, unfortunately timed boners, first periods and, yes, hormone monsters. Big Mouth also contains its share of meta TV and Hollywood jokes — there’s a shocking stinger about director Bryan Singer that I didn’t see coming — but mainly it really gets just how awkward, fraught, miserable — and, in hindsight, quite funny — puberty can be. It is not a show for 12-year-olds, but it is fun for anyone who felt like a mess as their hormones went bonkers for several years.

The Good Place (NBC)

If it feels like all of your favorite smart internet people are talking about The Good Place on Twitter, it’s because they are.

The Good Place, which recently began its second season on NBC, is a sitcom about ethics and philosophy — yes, the stuff Immanuel Kant spent so much time noodling in his brain about. It’s smart, funny, fresh, inventive and quite good at anticipating the questions viewers will form in their own minds. It’s also like The Good Wife in that it excels at finding ways to circumvent and poke fun at profanity restrictions on prime-time network television (and The Undefeated). You can’t curse in The Good Place, and so “f—” has been replaced by “fork.”

The show stars Ted Danson as Michael, the architect of what he hopes will be The Worst Place in the Afterlife. His grand plans for reinventing hell — or The Bad Place, as it’s known — keep getting upended by his wards, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason are all dead and have been sentenced to spend eternity in The Bad Place, though they don’t know it. They think they’re in The Good Place, although they all (except for Tahani) have a sneaking suspicion that they’re not supposed to be there.

By the end of season one, Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi and Jason have figured out that they’re in The Bad Place and that Michael is using them to experiment with a new form of torture. Rather than subjecting folks to lakes of fire — you know, your run-of-the-mill hellish unpleasantries — he’s created an elaborate scheme of psychological torture and gaslighting, mostly by making an environment that’s supposedly perfect a bit of a drag. To Michael, hell is the suburbs.

Now that we’re at season two, there’s just one problem with Michael’s scheme: Eleanor, Chidi, Jason and Tahani keep figuring out what he’s doing and Michael constantly has to erase their memories so he can start over with his experiment. Being middle management in hell is tough, man. Michael’s problems just keep compounding: Even though Eleanor and Chidi are deliberately mismatched as soul mates, Eleanor’s begun to fall for him anyway. Even Jason, the dumbest of the bunch, has independently figured out what Michael’s up to. There’s also a very helpful android named Janet (D’Arcy Carden). Every time Michael has to wipe the memories of Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason, he has to reboot Janet too.

There’s a lot to like about The Good Place, from its critique of our conceptions of utopia to its interrogation of what it means to be truly “good” or “bad.” The show follows four characters who are kind of terrible, but not genocidal maniac terrible. They’re terrible in an everyday, narcissistic, common sort of way — and they’re capable of change.

The Good Place also works in diversity in a way that doesn’t feel forced or like an afterthought, or as though it came from a network on a cookie-seeking mission. It just feels natural. Anagonye is one of the few African characters on television. (While both Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji are kids of African immigrants in real life, their ethnicity hasn’t come up in Insecure.) There’s such a dearth of characters who are Africans living in America, which is why I was disappointed to hear that HBO would not be developing the K’naan Warsame pilot Mogadishu, Minnesota.

Loosely Exactly Nicole (Facebook)

After garnering less-than-impressive ratings in its first season as an MTV comedy, Loosely Exactly Nicole, starring Nicole Byer, has moved to Facebook for its second season.

Given the return of Curb Your Enthusiasm, there’s obviously still an audience for shows about people who are awful and also unaware of (or maybe simply don’t care about) their awfulness, and the comedy that ensues as a result.

[The temerity to be terrible]

Byer is quietly daring in that the Nicole of Loosely Exactly Nicole is sexual, nervy and self-obsessed in a way that’s generally reserved for Beckys. Like Gabourey Sidibe’s Empire character (actually named Becky), Nicole hooks up with cute guys (white guys, at that). She’s not consumed with hatred of her body or her hair or her blackness, and she’s not an irritated government employee in the way that fat, dark-skinned black women often show up on television.

I want to see success for Byer, for Yvette Nicole Brown, for Retta, for Amber Riley, for Leslie Jones and for all the funny black women who don’t necessarily look like Yara Shahidi or Tracee Ellis Ross but are still bawdy, dangerous and funny. What’s more, their youth and sexuality deserve acknowledgment, and I don’t just mean in the predatory, Leslie-Jones-is-obsessed-with-Colin-Jost sort of way either.

That’s part of the reason that the summer show Claws was such a hit. In many ways, Niecy Nash is a precursor for a lot of these younger women. It’s taken years for her talents to be acknowledged, although playing Nurse Didi in Getting On may have been what it took for her to be taken seriously — she was nominated for Emmys twice for the role. Octavia Spencer is a terrific comic actress (see: Spencer as Harriet Tubman in Drunk History). There’s no doubt her career has blossomed since The Help, but I hate seeing her typecast as dowdy, matronly figures, and the more women like Byer insist on playing otherwise, the more that will hopefully change.

The Mayor (ABC)

From creator Jeremy Bronson and executive producer Daveed Diggs, The Mayor (which debuts Tuesday on ABC) stars Brandon Micheal Hall as Courtney Rose, a rapper who just wants to get some shine — so he decides to run for mayor of his hometown of Fort Grey, California. And, as you might have guessed from the title, he wins. So now you’ve got a person with zero experience or qualifications, who really just wanted a bit more fame, in public service as the head of the executive branch of a city.

I know — impossible to imagine something like that happening, right?

The Mayor reminds me of the 2003 Chris Rock movie Head of State, in which Rock stars as alderman Mays Gilliam, who is engaged in a long-shot bid for president (mostly for the publicity) with Bernie Mac as his take-no-prisoners, blackity-black hype man and brother. Head of State found comedy in the process of running for office, and the movie ends just as the awesome, weighty reality of being president is falling on Gilliam’s shoulders.

The premise of The Mayor is certainly interesting, but what I’ve seen so far doesn’t necessarily make me excited about where the show will go once Courtney has to actually start governing. It’s hard to avoid cynicism there, but maybe as the mayor, Courtney will grow into something a little more like Leslie Knope. Otherwise, there’s a scenario that’s so serious, there’s little to laugh at. Yvette Nicole Brown, who was such a treasure in Community, stars as Dina Rose, Courtney’s mother. It’s a bit of a waste to see Brown, who in real life is young and vivacious in the role of churchy, kinda sexless (though quite funny) mom. Which again, says something about the type of woman Hollywood sees as plausibly forkable.

White Famous (Showtime)

White Famous, the new comedy from creator Tom Kapinos starring former Saturday Night Live actor Jay Pharoah, joins the ranks of shows that expose, comment on and make fun of the artifice of Hollywood, such as BoJack Horseman, Episodes and Entourage.

In terms of the callouts that raise eyebrows for torching real-life relationships, White Famous, which premieres Oct. 15 on Showtime, does not disappoint. Pharoah plays an up-and-coming comic named Floyd Mooney who’s a bona fide star with black people but still gets mistaken for a restaurant valet by white Hollywood producers. Within the first 15 minutes of the show, Pharaoh has already thrown two symbolic middle fingers at director, producer and vocal Bill Cosby critic Judd Apatow.

It’s a tricky jump. Mooney has a meeting with the thinly veiled Apatow character named Jason Gold (Steve Zissis), who is directing a movie about an imaginary attorney who was the first woman Cosby assaulted. Gold wants Mooney to play the woman, a la Eddie Murphy or Tyler Perry. Mooney tells Gold that focusing solely on Cosby’s lechery is racist, although he makes the unfortunate misstep of downplaying the accusations against Cosby of drugging and sexual assault from more than 50 women.

[Why the hot black bodies on ‘Insecure’ are more revolutionary than you think]

White Famous engages in a practice I find annoying about premium cable shows: It treats naked women as mostly silent pets that can be sent to another room when their nude bodies are no longer useful to a scene. Sometimes that works as a reflection of the actual sexism that pervades Hollywood and makes pretty women disposable. For example, there’s a scene in which Mooney and Gold walk in on Jamie Foxx going to town on some unnamed woman in his trailer, and he just keeps going while continuing to hold a conversation. But sometimes, like the moment we’re introduced to a clothed Gold sleeping next to a naked woman, it’s not saying much of anything except, “Hey, I too have the power to put naked women on TV for no reason except to show boobs and butt.”

How novel.

Despite its sexist deficiencies, White Famous is still engaging. It confronts race and success in Hollywood head-on, raising questions about when and why artists end up compromising their own principles.

All eyes on the Dallas Cowboys After a weekend of NFL protests in response to President Trump’s explosive comments, America’s Team is now center stage

Not even Hollywood could script this.

On Friday night, the president of the United States takes on the National Football League. He calls players who exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully protest “son of a b—-.” The next day, the president doubles down on Twitter, demanding those same players stand for the national anthem or face harsh discipline. A far cry from what he tweeted two days after his inauguration:

Then, on Sunday, more than 130 players from various teams kneeled, sat or locked arms during the national anthem. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks remained in the locker room altogether. While all this is taking place, President Donald Trump’s administration goes on the offensive, suggesting the NFL should implement a rule with regard to anthem protests. Trump’s assertion Monday morning that kneeling for the anthem had “nothing to do with race” further sullies a yearlong campaign of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s original point: It was never about the flag. It was never about disrespecting the troops — the men and women of the military protected his right to kneel. And it was never about the anthem itself. Lost in an endless cycle of debates and purposeful misdirections is that Kaepernick wanted to bring light to police brutality and economic disparities and injustices in lower-income communities.

Which brings us to Monday night’s iteration of Monday Night Football, quite possibly the most American weekly sports tradition of all. And on this Monday, as fate has so lavishly prepared, the schedule features the NFL’s most lucrative, popular, hated and polarizing franchise: the Dallas Cowboys (visiting the Arizona Cardinals). What example, if any, does America’s Team set after a weekend of protests that had been brewing for over a year since Kaepernick decided to take a knee and then-candidate Trump suggested the quarterback “find another country” to call home?


Born in North Carolina and raised in Virginia, I should have been a Washington fan, but family ties won out — in favor of Dallas. The Cowboys, since the mid-’90s, constitute my life’s most emotionally taxing relationship: perpetual heartbreak after perpetual heartbreak after perpetual heartbreak. My deepest connection to the Cowboys is through my mother. Her favorite player was Jethro Pugh, a ferocious yet warm defensive lineman who played college ball at North Carolina’s historically black Elizabeth City State University under my grandfather, coach John Marshall, in the early ’60s.

Everything is magnified when there’s a star on the helmet.

Pugh, who died in 2015, became one of the greatest players in Dallas history and a key cog in the Cowboys’ “Doomsday Defense” that helped deliver the franchise its first two Super Bowls. A pass rushing savant, Pugh also led the team in sacks for five straight seasons, 1968-72. My mother remained a Dallas fan over the years and grew to love former coach Tom Landry (and his fedora).

In the 1990s, when football became a major facet of my life, the Cowboys were lit. They won nearly as much as Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, capturing three Super Bowls in four years. In truth, at least five Bowls were in order, had it not been for two fumbles: the first was Deion Sanders’ missed pass interference call on Michael Irvin in the 1994 NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, and the second was owner Jerry Jones’ ego-driven decision to fire Jimmy Johnson after back-to-back Super Bowl victories.

Nevertheless, the Starter Jackets were fresh and, as trivial as it sounds now, the Dallas Cowboys — featuring names such as Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Charles Haley and more — were bad boys and rock stars in the age of Tupac, Biggie, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Nirvana. Their success on the field made them seem larger than life, and this outsize brand persona was made evident by Jeff Pearlman’s fascinating exploration of the teams’ 1990s run: Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty.

America loves its reality television, and in football there is none greater than the Cowboys, a team often too comfortable operating under a veil of chaos. What spinach was to Popeye, headlines and controversy are to Dallas — despite the fact that there have been only two playoff victories since the organization’s last Super Bowl in 1996. As a fan, it’s fun to wallow in that attention. The Terrell Owens years are a prime example. The Tony Romo era is another. But at times, Jones’ willingness to embrace controversy is anything but enjoyable — most notably Greg Hardy’s signing after a graphically publicized domestic violence case. Or the frustration that came with the immensely talented but troubled linebacker Rolando McClain.

What will the Cowboys do Monday night? Not surprisingly, Jones recently said on Dallas’ 105.3 The Fan that he felt strongly about recognizing the flag and the people who sacrificed for the liberties we enjoy: “I feel very strongly that everyone should save that moment for the recognition of the flag in a positive way, so I like the way the Cowboys do it.” Glenstone Limited Partnership helped fund a $1 million donation to Trump’s inaugural committee earlier this year. Glenstone Limited Partnership is a segment of Glenstone Corp., which is led by Jones.

Despite mysterious posts on social media and conflicting statements from “inside” sources, nothing suggests the Cowboys will do anything of note. Dallas has yet to have a player engage in protest, last season or this season. The Cowboys would not be the only team to keep it business as usual.

But everything is magnified when there’s a star on the helmet. Jones has lived off that bravado since he purchased the team in 1989. The players and fan base followed suit. It’s part of the territory that comes with being a team whose stadium could pass for the eighth wonder of the world. The franchise is valued at nearly $5 billion and comes with A-list fans such as LeBron James, Jay-Z, Denzel Washington, Russell Westbrook, Jamie Foxx and Allen Iverson.

Still, the team appears unified in neutrality. Second-year quarterback Dak Prescott didn’t plan on participating in protests, saying last month, “It’s just important for me to go out there, hand over my heart, represent our country and just be thankful, and not take anything I’ve been given and my freedom for granted.” This was before ungrateful-as-the-new-uppity became a narrative. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is a Crock-Pot of moving parts, rumors and controversies. Pro-Bowl linebackers Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith provided virtually the same answer: Both disagree with Trump’s statements but refused to expand any further. And star wideout Dez Bryant seems content with his stance. “I’m not criticizing nobody,” Bryant said recently of the swelling number of players in the league joining the protest. “They’re free to do whatever they want. Hell, no, I’m not doing none of that. Their beliefs are their beliefs, and I’m not saying they’re wrong because they’re feeling a certain way. They’re supposed to.”

But this particular juncture feels different because it is different. New York Giants defensive end Damon Harrison said of the moment the president placed the entire league in his crosshairs that it was “bigger than money, bigger than the game,” and that if he didn’t voice his frustrations he “wouldn’t be able to sleep or walk with my head held high as a man or father.” And Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas was moved to tears by the magnitude of Trump’s comments, and our racial climate overall. The Cowboys have their on-field issues. They haven’t looked particularly dominant, even in their lone victory over an Odell Beckham-less Giants. And a week later, Dallas had its muffin cap peeled back by the Denver Broncos.

Kneeling at NFL games during the national anthem in protest of systemic inequalities went from being “Kaepernick’s fight” or “Michael Bennett’s problem” to a movement the leader of the free world not only monitors but also attempts to eradicate (while at the same time, Puerto Rico pleads for help in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that’s left most of the U.S. territory immobile and without electricity).

In an ideal world, the league’s most powerful owner and biggest cash cow of a team would make some sort of bold statement — more than locking arms or placing hands on shoulders. The president’s anger toward players who are not content with cashing checks and staying mum only scratches the surface of a far more cancerous issue: that players, who in the NFL are 70 percent black and are on the field destroying their bodies, are often seen as undeserving of earnings apparently awarded by owners to players who should be grateful for the money. White owners, on the other hand, are viewed as fully deserving of their billions.

The Cowboys may be fine with playing the role of an ostrich with its head buried in the turf. It’s the Cowboys I’ve come to expect. It still doesn’t make it any less weird that a franchise priding itself on being “America’s Team” remains self-muzzled during a time when America needs to be anything but, both in speech and in action. In a better world, and in a move that would shake both the league and the Oval Office to its core, the Cowboys would’ve long since signed Kaepernick — he’s of course far more polished than the team’s current backups, Kellen Moore and Cooper Rush. But this isn’t a better world. At least not yet.

Jamie Foxx is the supreme entertainer of our era, and it’s time to recognize him as such The ‘Baby Driver’ co-star is amazingly unpredictable — as usual

A staple of NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon is a segment called Musical Genre Challenge. Guests perform pop songs, but in the form of unexpected genres. Jamie Foxx appeared on the May 25 episode, and his first act was to perform Baja Men’s 2000 “Who Let The Dogs Out” in the style of a Broadway musical. He followed that up by singing Rihanna’s 2015 “B—- Better Have My Money” — operatically. Foxx absolutely nails both performances, hitting long notes with genius precision while also adding comedic timing. His performance is equal parts entrancing and hilarious.

Foxx — the former Terrell, Texas, high school star quarterback who stars in this week’s already heralded Baby Driver and hosts Fox’s new hit game show Beat Shazam — is 49 years old and has been entertaining for nearly 30 years. He has an unimpeachable catalog of accomplishments. A classic, unendingly quotable 2002 stand-up special, I Might Need Security (HBO). The Jamie Foxx Show (The WB, 1996-2001), which showcased Foxx’s supernatural knack for impersonations, and his brilliant timing. He’s created five studio albums, with millions of copies sold. His 2005 Billboard-topping Unpredictable culminated in a Grammy for the infinitely catchy “Blame it,” featuring T-Pain (and sadly one of the last bastions of auto-tuned R&B radio supremacy).

Finally and most notably, in 2005, Foxx won the Academy Award for best actor for his title role in Ray, bringing Ray Charles to life in one of the most transcendent, pitch-perfect biographical performances in movie history. Along with Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, he is one of only four black male actors to win in the lead category. To be great at one of these things — comedy, drama, singing/songwriting — would make Foxx an entertainment powerhouse. To have mastered them all makes him a once-in-a-generation talent. Foxx — not Will Smith, not Dave Chappelle, not even Beyoncé — is the supreme entertainer of our era, and it’s time to recognize him as such.

And it all started with a character called “Wanda.”

When Jamie Foxx made his television debut, on the third season of Keenan Ivory Wayans’ sketch comedy show In Living Color in 1991, it was after years of working his way through the stand-up comedy circuit, most famously at Hollywood’s The Comedy Store, a mecca for comedians such as Cedric The Entertainer and Jim Carrey, who would perform at open mics.

On Color, Foxx appeared alongside future superstars Carrey, Jennifer Lopez, Chris Rock, Kim Coles, Damon Wayans and Larry Wilmore, not to mention Anne-Marie Johnson, David Alan Grier and Tommy Davidson.

He stood out from the pack, especially in black households across the country, for playing Wanda, a homely woman with a large fake butt, humongous lips and a wonky eye. Foxx-as-Wanda would try to pick up men (most frequently played by Davidson as a well-put-together businessman) and made the faux seductive “Heyyyyy” a catchphrase. It was combined with a patented cross-eyed gaze. Foxx’s commitment to the character made Wanda a tentpole for In Living Color.

You would be forgiven for thinking the show showed off the breadth of Foxx’s talent. That is, if you hadn’t seen him on Roc.

Foxx stepped in to portray the iconic Willie Beamen, a confident, young black quarterback who replaces a worn veteran QB.

Roc (Fox, 1991-94) was a family sitcom from the people who created Cheers and Taxi; it starred Charles Dutton, Ella Joyce and Rocky Carroll as a middle-class black family in Baltimore. The show has earned cult status for Dutton’s resonant performances and Joyce’s endearing character work, and it was where it became clear that Foxx was more than Wanda. Foxx appeared for nine episodes in the second and third seasons as a neighbor with special needs: “Crazy George.” This was a three-dimensional Foxx. He still used his over-the-top comedy, but Crazy George was so lovable and full of compassion, it became clear there was more to Foxx than impressions.

Foxx continued his growth in 1993 with the HBO stand-up special Straight From The Foxxhole. The special was full of memorable lines and his mirror-image impressions. But that was to be expected. What caught audiences off guard was when, toward the end, he took to his piano (with his grandmother’s encouragement, he studied classical piano from the age of 5) and blended his stand-up act with musical compositions — and even went into straight-up, no-laughs R&B. There was a smattering of uncomfortable laughter as Foxx sang his serious music. The segment became an entry into his musical career.

“My whole plan was do the comedy however you do the comedy,” he said in 1994 on KPIX’s Bay Sunday. “Get your name out there. Get the HBO special and you control what’s going on. So I did 50 minutes of comedy, and then I take it into the music real smooth.”

The Bay Area interview, however, demonstrates the challenges Foxx faced with regard to being taken seriously as a musical artist. The Q&A segment is painfully awkward. Host Barbara Rodgers spends the first minutes pressing him to perform as Wanda, and Foxx, frustrated, refuses to resurrect his character.

The interview was to promote Foxx’s 1994 debut album Peep This (Fox Records), which was mostly written by Foxx in the vein of Jodeci and R. Kelly. It showed Foxx could hang with the greats vocally; however, the music itself was subpar, with lackluster production and clichéd lyrics. As a result, the album performed poorly on the charts. He didn’t release another album for 11 years.

Foxx couldn’t quite shake the idea that he was “just” Wanda, even as he entered his first prime of the mid-’90s. He had to face a derailment that redefined his career. Foxx had auditioned for the role of Jerry Maguire’s Rod Tidwell, the dynamic football star who played opposite Tom Cruise. But Foxx struggled in the audition.

Foxx couldn’t quite shake the idea that he was “just” Wanda, even as he entered his first prime of the mid-’90s.

“I blew it, man,” he told Playboy in 2005. “Maybe I wasn’t ready. Tom was just too famous, and I was too young. I was a stand-up comedian, and I just f—-d it up. I was reading all loud and stuff, and Tom was very quiet. So I read my lines, and then he paused for a long time. … So I said: ‘Tom, it’s your line.’ And he looked at me and said: ‘I know. I got it.’ ”

The role, of course, went to Cuba Gooding Jr., who won an Oscar for best supporting actor, launching him into the world of A-list Hollywood. Meanwhile, Foxx was making 1997’s Booty Call.

Booty Call wasn’t exactly Oscar-worthy,” Foxx said on CBS’s Sunday Morning in 2013. “I was trying to get a check.” The movie, a raucous sex comedy about mishaps that occur as two men try to seal the deal with their dates, featured Foxx doing Martin Luther King impressions while having bubble-wrapped sex with Vivica Fox, a dog licking Tommy Davidson’s rear, and a fight over a condom. While the movie is heralded as a cult classic by some, it was lambasted as crass and vapid (“It’s not that the movie is never funny. It’s just that you don’t feel very good when it is,” is how the Los Angeles Times expertly put it). The film’s biggest critic was Bill Cosby, who at the time still commanded respect as a voice in the black community. He told Newsweek in 1997: “There is no need for a Booty Call, for the stuff that shows our young people only interested in the flesh and no other depth.” Foxx spent the next two years making movies such as 1999’s Held Up (co-starring Nia Long) that mostly failed at the box office but were better than they had any right being — off the strength of Foxx’s charisma and talent.


It’s here that we have to acknowledge The Jamie Foxx Show. If you thought calling Foxx the most talented entertainer of our generation was a “hot take,” then here’s another: if Jamie Foxx had aired on the Fox Network, along with Martin, instead of on the less popular WB, it would be just as revered and beloved. At its funniest, The Jamie Foxx Show is just as hilarious as Martin. There’s the above reimagining of D’Angelo’s “Untitled” video, the O.J. Simpson impersonation, Tupac Shakur, the dance battle. The sitcom, which also starred Garrett Morris, Ella English, Christopher B. Duncan and Garcelle Beauvais as his love interest, Fancy, and aired from 1996 to 2001, is Foxx at his comedic peak.

And he could have simply stuck to being funny. His musical career had yet to take off, and he’d failed to land that life-changing role. But that changed in 1999 when Sean Combs was excused from the set of Any Given Sunday. “Puff Daddy threw like a girl, so they put him on a plane,” said co-star Andrew Bryniarski in 2015. Foxx stepped in to portray the iconic Willie Beamen, a confident, young black quarterback who replaces a worn veteran QB — think the cinematic version of Dak Prescott replacing Tony Romo with a little extra Hollywood flair and an instantly repeatable theme song that Foxx recorded himself.

Foxx had done it: a leading role in a film opposite Al Pacino, with superstar director Oliver Stone at the helm. The movie is sort of a mess, overproduced and melodramatic, but Foxx’s star turn was widely praised. “In a broken-field role,” said movie critic Roger Ebert, “that requires him to be unsure and vulnerable, then cocky and insufferable, then political, then repentant, Foxx doesn’t step wrong.”

Foxx followed Beamen up by portraying trainer Drew Bundini Brown in 2001’s Ali. The role was pivotal. Foxx displayed his ability to transform into an entirely unrecognizable character. And he was beginning to truly combine his talents. In Any Given Sunday, he’d mixed in his musical talents with serious acting, and in Ali he used his uncanny ability as an impersonator to make his roles pop. What allowed him to play Brown is from the skill set that allowed him to “be” Mike Tyson on stage in so many of his stand-up performances. All of this, of course, culminated in Ray.

Foxx’s portrayal of Charles is a three-hour acting masterpiece. Foxx was a one-man Golden State Warriors team putting his multiple talents together for one legendary performance. He used his ability for imitation, which he perfected on the comedy circuit, to bring Charles to life on the screen. He used his dramatic acting to translate that imitation into a serious and emotionally resonant performance. And finally, Foxx performed the music himself, truly channeling Charles’ soul. “It demeans Foxx to say he was born to play this role,” said Ken Tucker in The New Yorker. “Rather, he invented a Ray Charles that anyone, from a nostalgic baby boomer to a skeptical Jay Z fan, can understand and respect.”

In winning his best actor Oscar, becoming just the third African-American to do so, he beat out Don Cheadle’s electric Hotel Rwanda performance, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator and Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby. Foxx had arrived. But he wouldn’t dwell on his successes. He had a musical career to revitalize.


A chance meeting with Kanye West at one of Foxx’s infamous house parties led to Foxx being featured on a 20o4 Twista single featuring Kanye entitled “Slow Jamz.” It became a No. 1 pop single, with Foxx singing the hook. “Young people who hadn’t seen me on In Living Color or the The Jamie Foxx Show thought I had just come on with Kanye West, so that gave me new life,” he said in a 2015 radio interview. He followed that collaboration by singing the hook on West’s 2004 “Gold Digger,” and on Dec. 27, 2005, 10 months after winning his Oscar, Foxx released his own Unpredictable album (J Records). It debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album charts and went to No. 1 the very next week. It’s double platinum.

Yet all of the success was affecting his personal life, and not in good ways. An intervention by black celebrity royalty set him on a different path.

“ ‘You’re blowing it, Jamie Foxx,’ ” Oprah Winfrey told Foxx in 2004, as he explained in an interview with Howard Stern earlier this year. “ ‘All of this gallivanting and all this kind of s—, that’s not what you want to do. … I want to take you somewhere. Make you understand the significance of what you’re doing.’ Foxx recounts going into a house filled with black actors from the ’60s and ’70s. “[They] look like they just want to say … Don’t blow it.” Foxx was introduced to Sidney Poitier, the first African-American to win an Oscar, who told him, “ ‘I want to give you responsibility. … When I saw your performance, it made me grow 2 inches.’ To this day, it’s the most significant time in my life where it was, like, a chance to grow up.”

Today, Foxx seems as comfortable in his own skin as ever. When he wants to be serious, he’s the titular character in 2012’s Django Unchained, stone-faced, stoic and out for vengeance. Or he is a villain in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. He’s released three albums since Unpredictable, with a Grammy to boot for 2010’s “Blame It.” And when he wants to make people laugh, Foxx still pops up at places such as The Comedy Store.

Two years ago, this time on Fallon’s “The Wheel Of Musical Impressions,” he did Mick Jagger singing “Hakuna Matata,” Jennifer Hudson singing “On Top Of Spaghetti” and John Legend singing the Toys R Us theme song, complete with a full-on re-enactment of Legend’s on-stage posture. And he somehow managed to mix in a Doc Rivers impersonation. The video for this fantastical and amazing series of performances has amassed 40 million views on YouTube. It’s classic Foxx, mixing his flair for the dramatic with his unparalleled voice and mastery of comedy. His is an unpredictable blend of musicianship, comedy and acting. He’s a powerhouse. A master of all trades. And we may never see anything like him again.