Shaking Tables & Stepping Up: How Ego Nwodim Broke Through On ‘SNL’ – Q&A

The table isn’t shaking but Ego Nwodim does have a steak salad in front of her.

Nwodim has been part of the repertory players on Saturday Night Live since season 46 in 2020, having joined as a featured player in 2018.

She has played Dionne Warwick and Edith Puthie, but over the last year she has broken through in her star turn as Lisa from Temecula, a lawyer whose predilection for overcooked meat has implications for the stability of her dining environment.

When I sit down to lunch with Nwodim, days after what turned out to be the season finale of SNL, which was forced to cancel its final three shows of the season as a result of the writers strike, she’s aware of what she just ordered. “I can see this is pretty well done,” she says. “I’m using my core as to not shake the table.”

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Lisa is “near and dear to my heart,” she adds.

Nwodim, a pre-med student who was part of UCB before scoring the SNL gig, is proud of what turned out to be the final episode of season 48. “I got to have a lot of fun,” she says. “I’m proud of the work I did.”

We were speaking days before the writers strike. Nwodim says she supports the WGA members and they should be given what they “deserve”.  “Here’s my big headline, we can’t make this art without each other,” she says.

Nwodim discusses season 48, which is battling against new category peer Last Week Tonight and shows such as A Black Lady Sketch Show and Inside Amy Schumer in the Scripted Variety Series category at the Emmys, how she got into SNL, exploring work outside of Studio 8H, and, of course, Lisa.

DEADLINE: This season felt like it went by so fast; how was it for you?

EGO NWODIM: It was a little scary having all of our anchors and everyone who has been there for so long, who were sort of the face and the voice of the show for so long, leave. But on the other hand, that was exciting because it meant like there’s more room for us to do our thing, there’s more room for Heidi [Gardner] and me and Bowen [Yang].

DEADLINE: The three of you have almost become the veterans.

NWODIM: I know it’s just so crazy. It’s been nice with everyone gone to be able to showcase our own skill set and make room for our voices as well. That’s what’s cool about the show. Any good human is constantly evolving, right? We would hope. So, the show, with the exodus that occurred, has allowed for that. It’s scary. I know the audience gets very worried that their beloved cast members and writers are leaving, but hopefully Lorne has done a good job of picking talent he feels could fill those shoes and also reshape those shoes. I think this season shows he has [done that] in my opinion.

DEADLINE: Did you feel pressure when everyone was leaving at the end of last season?

NWODIM: People were talking about leaving for some time, and then they didn’t. COVID was allowing people to go off and do other jobs and come back, so there was no pressure per se to get out of there and make that change. I was excited, and then I was worried, a little, about how the audience would respond to us kind of more in the spotlight. How will the audience respond to the stuff that I do and what’s still left in the tank? But then it was exciting to be like, I’m really gonna get a shot here, there’s really room for me to show what I do.

DEADLINE: Did you approach it any differently as a result of that?

NWODIM: Well, in some sense, yes. I was tempted to say no, but in some sense, yes. Because there’s room for me here. The show is sort of like this blank canvas. It’s not totally blank, right. But it feels like there’s a lot has been erased from the canvas, in a sense. How are you gonna fill it in? I did approach it differently in September, because I’m I’m a senior now, which is crazy. I don’t know where the time went. That’s insane to me. I still have not conceptualized or wrapped my mind around that one. But I play. I’ve been on the cast. I’ve been supporting. And I’ve had my moments here and there. But now there’s room for me to really play. And I don’t want to squander this opportunity to really play and be as silly as I actually am, as goofy as I actually am, as funny as I actually think I can be. I think I approached it with a bit more boldness and confidence.

DEADLINE: Do you speak to others that have been in your position to get their advice on that shift?

NWODIM: I certainly have talked to those people, but not about that topic, because one thing I’ve found is that, as much as anyone might give you advice at SNL, some of it can stand the test of time, but so much of your experience at SNL is going to be uniquely yours. It’s partially like this is just the recipe for this time. The other part of it is, you get to figure that out for yourself. That’s exciting and exhilarating and terrifying all at once. I haven’t gotten to talk to anybody who was in this exact position to what that felt like about their experience with this. But what was nice was sometimes you could have information overload, right, where you’re taking someone else’s experience, and now trying to morph yours to look like that or resemble that. One of the best things I’ve found that I’ve been able to do, especially now that I’m a senior there, is to go about it the way I need to go about it for me, with the experience I’ve had in life, with the body I’m inhabiting, and with the things I think are funny, and the way I would like to leave a legacy at SNL. That’s been it’s been liberating in some sense. I’ve gotten so much advice over the years, and a lot of it has been so incredibly useful. I wanted to use this opportunity to [think] ‘How do I want to navigate it?’ Now that I understand the lay of the land. I understand how this machine works.

DEADLINE: Essentially, what you’re saying is that everyone’s experience on SNL is different.

NWODIM: You’d drive yourself insane, trying to replicate someone else’s experiences, you’re just not going to have that experience. Some people aren’t even watching the show, and they’re just watching it on YouTube. Somebody who was at the show 20 years ago, can’t really speak to that, they don’t know the context. Times are changing, and especially with technology, and how that’s impacting our show, and even the voice of our show. There’s only so much advice, you can try to garner and hoard. Because at a certain point, you have to just have the experience for yourself in a real way.

DEADLINE: Lisa from Temecula is a perfect example of that, given how viral those sketches have gone?

NWODIM: That is remarkable to me. I’ll be on Instagram sometimes, and I’ve seen clips of Lisa from Temecula on other Instagram accounts that repost funny, silly clips, or creating memes from them and it blows my mind. My brain is like what reality am I living in? I’m just the girl on Instagram right now scrolling through killing time and then here’s my face on a post I wasn’t expecting to see and that is so cool

DEADLINE: Talk me through Lisa from Temecula; it first launched in February and returned in April.

NWODIM: If I could have not had her appear a second time just yet, I would have waited. I love getting to do Lisa, I love her so much, it’s so cool to see something you enjoy doing so much, deep down in your bones, resonate with people. Using resonate and Lisa in the same sentence is just funny to me. Watching her resonate with people and have people enjoy it as much as you enjoy doing it is that moment… this is the perfect marriage between the content and the audience. Alex English and Gary Richardson and Michael Che wrote that piece for me. They told me they had something fun for me that week.

DEADLINE: Had you been dining with them?

NWODIM: To be clear, I’m no longer ordering my steaks well done. We’re medium. I got bullied out of it. I’m grateful for those bullies because the steak is better. They told me this idea was inspired by Alex’s actual cousin, apparently. He’ll be upset that I’ve shared that. I’ve told everyone, every chance I get, that it’s Alex’s cousin. I feel like we all know that person. Normally I’d say ‘Where does it go from there? How do we sell that at our table read?’. But I let them take care of it. It’s actually a lesson for relinquishing, as a person who writes too and as a performer, it was a really beautiful lesson for me that I’ll carry forever that sometimes some real magic happens and I don’t even mean this in terms of entertainment, in my career, some real magic happens when you relinquish control. I didn’t ask any questions. Then on table read day, they had a steak delivered to me at our table read, for me to play with. I could not make it through the sketch without laughing. The whole last two pages, I was just dying laughing. I was losing my mind.


DEADLINE: Making sure you don’t break seems like one of the hardest things.

NWODIM: Normally we’re all such pros at not breaking. By the time we do a sketch for air, we’ve heard it [up] to six times. The table [didn’t] really shake at dress rehearsal, but it was a T-bone steak and the person under the table shaking it didn’t get the instructions that we really wanted it to shake again. At dress rehearsal, I have a T-bone and the table is not moving on top of all of that. The joke of it is not happening, the physical bit isn’t happening right now. When we were doing it at run through earlier in the day, we were all losing our shit. The laughs were were genuine. That whole process was just so incredible to watch it all come together. Because I remember Saturday when I woke up, I’m literally praying, God help me perform this well.

DEADLINE: Is there more pressure on certain sketches compared to others?

NWODIM: I say a prayer every day before I go to the show on Saturday. People ask me about rituals and I don’t really have one, but I pray every day. I certainly pray before I go do a live television program. That one, I loved it so much, I wanted it to go well and Lorne had this spidey-sense that it was going to go on to be something people want to see again. He had the sense that might happen. I wanted it to live up to it because everyone all week was like that sketch is incredible. I think that’s kiss of death on any sketch. When everyone passes you in the hall, like, that’s happening this week. You’re like, ‘Uh, oh, it’s gonna tank’. Honestly, in some way my theory sort of held up because in dress rehearsal, everything that could go wrong went wrong, but I flipped it. That was a real steak, by the way. At table read, they gave me a lovely steak, it was a lovely steak, it was well seasoned. I thought this is delicious. At air, that was a real steak that they had grilled as well. Then they put it in the microwave so when it hit the table and sounds like a hockey puck and I actually could not cut through it.

DEADLINE: It’s funny you mention Lorne’s spidey-sense because you never know what character is going to pop.

NWODIM: No. It’s so crazy. What’s so wild to me about it, if you told me that was going to make the rounds the way it did and have people from all walks of life just cracking up, I don’t know how you know that or could foresee that. That’s so freaking magical to me. Even now, as I’m describing the steak to you, I’m tickled when I think about how it hit the table. That wasn’t planned. All the like improv in there, man, I feel fortunate.

DEADLINE: When did you first start watching SNL?

NWODIM: I loved Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, I was probably too young to be enjoying it. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler era was my jam, that was my class. As Lorne says, everyone’s favorite cast is the one that was on when they were in high school.

DEADLINE: SNL will always be funnier when you’re younger, getting high etc.

NWODIM: Exactly. You’ll still see those comments saying it’s not funny anymore. It used to be funny. Of course, you’ve grown up. It’s a matter of what your interests are at the time. The show has been able to stay young because they are cycling in writers from different walks of life and from different generations, a couple of our writers are 22 years old right now. It’s cool that people still give a damn what happens on the show even enough to comment. You’re still invested in what’s going on on the show, because it’s interesting.

DEADLINE: When you’re working on SNL, how aware are you that this institution has been going for nearly 50 years?

NWODIM: It takes a hiatus and to step back and go, ‘Oh, that’s crazy, what we just did and it’s crazy that I’m a part of it’. I had some friends come to this last episode and they were so energized and excited and they came backstage after the show. I just did a day at work and they were saying ‘This is amazing. We’re so proud of you. You’re a part of an institution’. Then we walked down the hall to leave the building and my friend, he goes to take a picture of the cast headshots and every day I walk past that, and it’s just a wall to me, but it takes leaving the show, going on hiatus or being around your friends who are inspired by this to be reminded of that, because it just becomes work for us at a certain point.

Once you get out of the bubble, you think how incredible that I’m part of that. What an honor to be part of it. I feel really fortunate daily. Heidi texted me earlier this season and said, ‘We have the same job that Eddie Murphy had.’ Are you kidding me? That’s the way to put it. That’s the way to frame it. That’s the way to be reminded to stay grateful.

I walk down the hall and I see pictures of Adam Sandler, David Spade, Danitra Vance. These are black and white photos, my photo’s on there. Keenan said years ago to me, wait until you see more photos added after you and just this week I walked by and more photos have been added.

DEADLINE: You realize there’s a group of people who don’t know Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler were on SNL, but they want to grow up to be like you, Heidi and Bowen.

NWODIM: That’s crazy to me. When you’re in the bubble, it can be so hard to remember or recognize the impact you’re having. That’s why some things like Lisa from Temecula, one of the myriad of reasons why that was so spectacular, and such a special experience for me is having people reach out and say, ‘This was amazing. I look up to you. I’m inspired by you. I want to do comedy.’ When those moments happen and something pops like that, and you get to hear from people, it’s really validating, and really meaningful to me.

DEADLINE: Are you able to think of work outside of SNL? You referenced Lorne letting people go and do other things.

NWODIM: Absolutely. I have such high hopes for myself and big old dreams for myself and getting to be on this show is one part of that dream. Dream come true. I want my other dreams to come true. I want to be in films and I want to do more TV as well. In terms of how that happens and when that happens, this is where the relinquishing comes in to play a little bit for me. Love Life worked out with my schedule and that was such a gift to get to do that job. I just recently got to work with Sam Boyd again on a film he’s doing with Melissa McCarthy. That was really great. I missed a pitch day on a Monday to pop out and do a little cameo. I’m going to be working on a film, writing a film with my sister, which is very exciting. Hopefully we’ll shoot that at some point.

DEADLINE: Will you shoot that this summer?

NWODIM: That conversation is still ongoing in terms of what exactly I’ll be doing. I have some very cool opportunities, which is exciting for me. That’s kind of what the summer is for a little recalibrating, a little relaxing and a lot of working. I love working.

DEADLINE: The logistics seem like the trickiest bit.

NWODIM: It is the scheduling and the Tetris of it. It’s not just a matter of what works for your schedule. There’s so many projects, too, that have happened while we’re in production at SNL, but SNL is my priority. SNL has given me so much. I want to keep pouring into that show the way it’s given to me and gifted me so many opportunities. But it’s a matter of figuring out what is going to be shooting when and can they make a slight adjustment for your schedule? It doesn’t always work out.

DEADLINE: When a new class comes in, how long does it take to figure out what they’re good at?

NWODIM: It’s so fascinating to me. I really believe Lorne only hires talented people. He has such an eye for talent, if I may say so myself. It doesn’t always work out that someone works at the show, because maybe their brand of comedy, or what they do can’t quite find a fit, doesn’t mesh. It’s a bit of a dance because people come in doing what they do. But they also have to figure out how to marry that thing they do to what the show does. The show is a 50 year old institution. Or you can say a 50 year old person and 50 year olds, I feel like by the time you’re 50, you’re a little set in your ways. But because the show is a good person, if I could put it that way, it’s evolving, but it takes a bit, it takes a bit to evolve. It’s not easy to evolve. It’s not easy to morph. It’s not just up to the others, it’s also up to that new cast member to be like, ‘How can I offer my skill set and my talents in a way that is of service to what the show is trying to do as well and how can I be of service to other pieces’. Truly the fastest way to what you actually want is like trying to be of service.

DEADLINE: When did you feel comfortable on the show?

NWODIM: Oh, my gosh, I would say I felt I felt comfortable my third season a lot. Then last season, I felt a little less comfortable. This season, I feel more comfortable.

DEADLINE: What changed between your third and fourth season?

NWODIM: A lot of those seniors were in and out in my third season, their absence was quite palpable at times. That left room for me to play and kind of show up the way I am now. But I know we will have to make room on your return again. That’s what that last season [47] felt like where it was like, OK, so the seniors are back, they’re here more consistently. This is going to be a farewell season for them, so we have to create that space for them

DEADLINE: Did you know going in to last season that a lot of people would leave?

NWODIM: I got a real hunch. You don’t get a ton of information about it. People keep it close to their chest, but you can start to get a sense. People did start to talk about it towards the end of season.

DEADLINE: Do you worry more people will leave this summer or do you just take it as it comes?

NWODIM: This grand exodus has been a lesson. People know that a lot of cast left, but a lot of writers left as well in the last couple of years. SNL just calls for adaptability. The nature of the program just calls for adaptability, you have to be willing to adapt, and you have to be malleable, you have to be flexible. So now, if anyone were to go, because of this experience we just had to coming into this season and the uncertainty around it, I know that we can do anything. I’m really proud of the season we had and I’m proud of what my new cast members have done and how they’ve shown up. I just love them all so much. We’re gonna be okay, because we have so many talented people there. I now have lived the version of the show that sees a grand exodus and got through it.

Change is so scary. Our nature is to want consistency and stability but truly the only consistent thing is change so the show for 10 or 12 years will have a cast member on that you’ve fallen in love with but that cast member is going to leave at some point. Unless they’re Kenan and he doesn’t have to, he’s perfect. It’s an opportunity to fall in love with somebody else on the show. There is just boundless talent in that building. I really do think our new cast members have done such a good job of being bold. These new cast members have brought something really unique and special to the table.

DEADLINE: Do you genuinely enjoy working on SNL?

NWODIM: I do. This is a job that makes you WORK and it’s exciting. I’m learning so much there too, which is cool. I have all these lofty goals for myself And I feel like I’m getting a skill set that is going to be transferable. You learn how to produce, you learn a little bit about directing yourself. I’m learning skills that I didn’t want to learn and no one can take that away from me. You could only feel so fortunate to have a job that is one of a kind and then that is going to give you skills that like you can take with you and you’ll have with you for a lifetime.

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