Ego Nwodim takes us inside that uncontrolled ‘SNL’ giggle fit with Lisa from Temecula

Ego Nwodim poses for a portrait.
“I love to play an indignant, disruptive character who just doesn’t have time for nonsense,” says “Saturday Night Live’s” Ego Nwodim. “It’s fun to me, because I’m not quite like that. Strong and wrong is just so funny to me.”
(Kayla James / For The Times)
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All we know about Lisa is that she’s from Temecula and she’s a lawyer. She wears a pink sweater, her hair is dyed orange and, for some reason, she likes her meat cooked. How that simple premise sent a bunch of seasoned comedians and actor Pedro Pascal into an uncontrollable giggle fit on a February episode of “Saturday Night Live” is all thanks to the woman who plays Lisa — Ego Nwodim.

“Anytime I put on that sweater, I’m like: Here she go,” laughs Nwodim, who reprised Lisa in a recent episode hosted by Ana de Armas. “I love to play an indignant, disruptive character who just doesn’t have time for nonsense. It’s fun to me, because I’m not quite like that. Strong and wrong is just so funny to me.”

In that first sketch, Nwodim’s character asks for a steak “extra extra well done,” and proceeds to saw into her entree as peas fly off her plate and sangria sloshes and spills all over the table like there’s a 6.1 earthquake happening, all while fending off what she perceives are Pascal’s advances and acting like she’s the only sane person in the restaurant.

Pascal started to titter, then completely break. Bowen Yang covered his face but couldn’t suppress his laughter, and the whole train accelerated and derailed into a delightfully silly hot mess for both the cast and live audience.


“So much of the show, I feel like, runs on charm,” Nwodim says. “People love to see you having fun. And so I felt like ultimately people were tickled by how tickled we were.”

Ego Nwodim.
(Kayla James / For The Times)

Nwodim, 35, started on “SNL” as a featured player in 2018 and joined the repertory cast in 2020. She has played an older lady named Edith Puthie, a weary mother in her darkest hour at Disneyland, Ariel the mermaid, Dionne Warwick and Lupito Nyong’o’s character from “Us” — and she specializes in a type of aggrieved woman who doesn’t suffer fools.

She has consistently popped on the show, but Lisa might have been her big breakout — and Nwodim wasn’t even sure the sketch would make it to air.

It was written by Alex English, Gary Richardson and Michael Ché, who told Nwodim about it a few days before the table read with Pascal — and even arranged to have a steak brought in.


“So I’m prepared to do it,” she says. “OK, the steak is coming to me — which is just wild. Well-seasoned steak, by the way.” But she couldn’t keep it together. “I’m breaking at our table read. And I don’t do that.”

She kept breaking all week. On Friday, “SNL” executive producer Lorne Michaels summoned her and the writers to discuss the sketch, which was then called “Birthday Dinner.”

“I thought he was gonna be like, ‘This is a mess. You have to get through the sketch and you have to be able to do it without laughing.’” Instead, Michaels said: “We think people will want to see this character again. Let’s try to give her a more memorable name.”

Thus, “Lisa from Temecula.”

The sketch killed when it played at the very end of the night on Feb. 4 — despite, or maybe thanks to, all of the chaos. A whole minute of dialogue had been cut for time; Nwodim dropped a line and then dropped the prop steak; she accidentally knocked her chair over and improvised by placing her foot on Pascal’s knee for leverage while still trying to cut the charcoal-like meat.

Nwodim read an online commenter say they were convinced someone was tickling Pascal under the table.

“That wasn’t happening,” she says. “It was just mayhem.”

Growing up in Baltimore, Nwodim never dreamed of being a professional comedian. Her mother, a Nigerian immigrant, raised four kids as a single mom while going through medical school and then practicing family medicine.


“She’s a superhero,” says Nwodim. “Yeah, she’s unreal.”

Ego Nwodim.
(Kayla James / For The Times)

Ego — which means “money” in Igbo and is pronounced like the frozen waffle — practiced violin and ballet as a kid. She loved watching “Martin” and “The Jamie Foxx Show,” and decided she wanted to be a dramatic actor. To satisfy her mom’s desire for security and stability, Nwodim got a college degree in biology — but she did it at USC so she could immediately pivot into showbiz.

At an agent’s insistence she took her first improv class “begrudgingly” — and fell in love. She made her mark on the stages of UCB and the improv podcast “Comedy Bang! Bang!” where she quickly built a fandom playing delusional and fed-up characters like Entrée P. Neur and Pastor Pasta.

Lisa felt like an anarchic “Bang! Bang!” character, and the infectious group laughter — which she often incites on the podcast but is a rarity on “SNL” — was like a televised coronation.

“There’s something so magical about that, that you can’t know what’s going to work and what’s going to hit hard,” Nwodim says. “And hit that hard — I could have never guessed it.”