Glenn Garvin TV Reviews

White Famous Hilariously Tackles the Racial Tensions of Comedy

Jay Pharoah gets space to shine on Showtime.


'White Famous'
'White Famous,' Showtime

White Famous. Showtime. Sunday, October 15, 10 p.m.

Young black comedian Floyd Mooney is unfamiliar with the concept of "white famous," so his agent explains it for him: a fame so singular that the name alone obliterates all ethnic boundaries: "Obama. Tiger Woods. Will Smith before the Jada shit." And it is within Floyd's grasp, the agent cheerily adds: "All you gotta do is be willing to wrap your lips around a little white dick now and then."

That exchange pretty much sums up White Famous, a scathingly funny cocktail of hardball racial humor, caustic Hollywood self-lampoon and general filthy talk. It hits gender and race hot-buttons like Ali and Frazier hit each other—fast, hard and bloody—and if you're interested, you might want to see it soon, because even on premium cable, its life span may be short.

Jay Pharoah (whose impressions of Barack Obama, Kanye West, Chris Rock and others have been a staple of Saturday Night Live the past few years) plays Floyd, an Eddie Murphy-ish stand-up comedian who's popular in Los Angeles' black clubs but hasn't had much crossover success.

Still, with a steady income, a little son he loves like crazy and a pretty ex-girlfriend (Cleopatra Coleman, The Last Man On Earth) he can talk back into bed on a semi-routine basis, Floyd's life rolls along on a pleasant-enough track. His biggest challenge seems to be deadpan during his regular encounters with white Hollywood big kahunas who cringingly try to show how woke they are by saying "motherfucker" a lot and botching attempts at giving dap.

When a tape of a particularly surreal exchange with a director finds its way onto the Internet, Floyd quickly becomes a viral sensation and even gets a movie offer. The catch: He has to play the role in drag, a prospect that horrifies him. "Every time there's a funny black brother in Hollywood, they try to emasculate him," Floyd complains to his sharkish agent Malcolm (Utkarsh Ambudkar, The Mindy Project), who responds with his definition of "white famous" and his prescription for what's required to attain it.

Floyd doesn't buy it, and the ensuing argument—like virtually every frame of White Famous—is drenched in profound obscenity and scorched-earth racial invective until it ends with Floyd firing his agent in the middle of a posh restaurant while screaming, "Go ride a carpet!" (Malcolm's shrieked rejoinder: "How is that insulting? You know how dope it would be to have a carpet that flies?")

White Famous was created by Tom Kapinos, and it embraces ethnic obloquy with the same manic zeal his show Californication did sexual depravity. Likewise with its gloriously cascading tides of obscenities, embedded in even the most mundane dialogue ("The heart wants what the heart wants, motherfucker") with such frequency that it may revive the fucks-per-minute meters that many websites used to monitor the old HBO Western Deadwood.

Another meter may be necessary to track—or even identify—the political agenda of White Famous. Some gender warriors, for instance, have already identified Floyd's complaint about having to cross-dress to get a role as hetero-norming fascism.

Others may think it's a shot at Tyler Perry's crotchety grandma character Madea, who's either an appalling modern incarnation of the mammy stereotype or the heroic, politically incorrect voice of the black working class, depending on which side of the debate you fall on.

Actually, though, there's a tradition of male black comedians in cross-dressing roles going back at least half a century to Flip Wilson's Geraldine. Whether they've been a cultural positive, allowing for the presentation of alternative voices, or just a modern Stepin Fetchit device to give white people a laugh at the expense of blacks is a long-standing debate that's a lot more complex than modern moralists will acknowledge.

But whatever Kapinos or his characters really think about putting black men in dresses, at the bottom line it's a Hitchockian MacGuffin—a plot element that triggers action without being of much innate importance to viewers.

What White Famous is really about is compromise and career, identifying the line between settling and selling out. Even when the disputation over cross-dressing is settled, Floyd is uncertain about whether he's pursing his own dream or somebody else's. "A lot of that stuff," he says, referring to the scripts he's being offered, "is like a dick punch to the soul."

Pharoah, freed from the constraints of the two-minute impression, does a nice job in White Famous, displaying a good sense of when to go over the top and when to show restraint. His foil, most often, is the soulless agent played with manic relish by Ambudkar.

But there are also a host of recurring guest stars for Pharoah to trade comic punches with, including Jamie Foxx (who is also one of the show's producers and had a cross-dressing cycle of his own back in his In Living Color days) and Michael Rapaport.

Playing slimy producers and directors, they trash their own industry with undisguised glee. "He once had a year-long relationship with a blow-up doll of his ex-wife," says Rapaport's character of another director. "He brought her everywhere—showed up to a red carpet with it once." He pauses in contemplation, then adds: "Huge horse cock, though." Harvey Weinstein please note: In Hollywood, redemption is always possible.