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SNL's Jay Pharoah Sketches Himself in 2D at Cobb's

SNL prodigy Jay Pharoah ran through a gauntlet of impressions of pop culture idols on Thursday at Cobb's. He'll be performing two sets apiece tonight and tomorrow at the comedy club.

If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, Jay Pharoah sure loves to kiss some arse. Thursday night at Cobb’s Comedy Club, the SNL prodigy spent the first 40 minutes of his set mimicking the patriarchs of hip-hop and Hollywood, as if he were rehearsing for a hosting gig at the BET Awards. The kid is clearly skilled, if a tad one-dimensional.

The 23-year-old Virginia native tills the same comedic soil as MadTV’s Aries Spears, who brought a very similar routine to Cobb’s earlier this year. Both are virtuoso impersonators, holding up mirrors to high-profile rappers and other idiosyncratic personalities of urban culture.

His growing list of impressions is substantial. He riffed on comedians — Katt Williams, Dave Chappelle and Eddie Murphy (whom he bears a vague resemblance to); he sent up the usual suspects of the rap game — Drake, Lil Wayne, Jay Z, Kanye, etc.; he took on the personas of Hollywood’s finest African-American actors — Wesley Snipes, Will Smith and Denzel; and took the occasional detour — Charles Barkley, virtually the whole Family Guy character lineup, and perhaps his most famous impression, President Obama.

In a way, he’s an ideal fit for Saturday Night Live, which depends on celebrity mimicry for sketches. Pharoah’s impressions are careful, nuanced studies of his adolescent heroes, no question.

But in a comedy club, employing impersonation after impersonation felt like a crutch. Segues from one to the next seemed contrived; there’s no need for the pretext. By the time he ditched the impression routine, his credibility was shot, and material about an ex-girlfriend and his grandmother might have well been read from a dream journal.

A vocal minority of fans were thoroughly entertained, but it seemed like the rest of the club was left wondering, “I know nothing about this guy who I just spent an hour with.”

Opener Chris Tinkle got laughs in a somewhat more traditional manner. Somewhat. He came out to music from The Price is Right, and called out the DJ for singling out the only white comedian with game-show tunes. He worked the crowd unflinchingly and conjured disturbing imagery, which, of course, we happen to like.

Tinkle talked about a few of his previous jobs, one of which included a teaching gig in Oakland (and how he had to use a “stage name,” Mr. Tinkle being a bit too… obvious). Teachers make good money, he said, except that they have to spend $700 a month on weed and booze so they don’t choke out those little troublemakers.

He bore a strong resemblance to Nick Swardson (of Reno 911/Grandma’s Boy fame), with a menacing voice and a believably crude persona. Discussions of internet porn and another former job as a telephone operator for the deaf  quickly morphed into surreal, deranged stories. Thumbs up.

And the name Reggie Steele sure sounds like a porn star name (and his build suggested a past life as a, um….stud of some sort), but he was clothed as our host for the evening. The San Franciscan has a relaxed, charming demeanor, and could be a name to watch out for in the coming years on the local scene.