Ego Nwodim Didn't Know She Was Funny Until a Stranger Told Her She Was
Whether she's going viral playing an Us-style Discover Card employee, a "thirsty" cop, or a "bad girl" named Rae Rae, Ego Nwodim's intention remains the same: to make people laugh.
The word "intention" comes up a lot during our conversation. It's something the Saturday Night Live star is keenly focused on when it comes to comedy and the figurative line that separates well-meaning, funny jokes from offensive ones. It's a discussion many people have had in regard to Shane Gillis, the comedian who was hired and subsequently fired from SNL after homophobic and racist jokes he'd made in 2018 resurfaced. "You have to be sure you're saying something for a reason," she tells me, thoughtfully.
While she's still early in her tenure on SNL, Nwodim's performances feel intrinsic to the show. The characters she embodies feel like they belong to her and her alone — even ones that parody existing personalities. Seeing her comfort before a live audience, it's hard to believe that a career in comedy wasn't always the plan — in fact, it wasn't until she was in her twenties that she realized she was funny.
The "she's a natural" air of her performances translates on set, too. Nwodim flashes a smile for the photographer and a collective "oh my God," or "yassss" reverberates through the studio. But she's careful when we speak, as any member of a show under such constant and close scrutiny would be — she repeats my questions back to me, re-starting her sentences when she needs to, meticulous in her effort to say exactly what it is that she means.
Read on as Nwodim discusses the politics of comedy, her favorite SNL sketch, and her personal style.
InStyle: So when did you first realize you were funny?
Ego Nwodim: Oh my gosh. This is weird, but there was a girl subletting in my apartment in L.A., I would say around 2011. Her name was Rose and she said one day, "You're so funny!" And I was like, "Huh ... I am!" Rose always wanted to hang out and stuff. And she's a really cool girl. I was telling my friend at the time, I was like, "Why does Rose like me so much?" And then one day we were all downstairs in the living room and Rose goes, "You're so funny!" And I go, "That's what this is!"
That's the first time?
I kid you not. I'm goofy and in my mind everyone's got goofy in them. And so for her to give me the words for that at the time, I was like, "Oh, I'm funny." This stranger I met three weeks ago who has spent a lot of time with me is like, "you're funny." That's what it is.
I will say, it's the first time it hit me that other people thought as much. I feel like I've always been entertaining. But funny? I had never really thought about it specifically in that way.
So, is that when you decided to pursue comedy as a career?
No, that'd be a fun segue to say, but no, it wasn't. I started taking improv in 2012 per the urging of my managers and agents at the time and I was a little resistant at first. And then I took improv and I was like, "Oh, this is where I want to be. This is where I feel the most me and I'm having the most fun."
So you graduated with a degree in biology, is that right?
Was that like you trying to please your parents, or ... ?
Yeah, so I'm a first generation Nigerian American, born in Baltimore. My family is from Nigeria and a lot of people I think share this experience who are children of immigrants. Parents want you to do something stable. And so my family wanted me to be a doctor. I come from a family of doctors and so they wanted me to be one as well. So the intention there is good and it's like, you just want your child to be stable and secure and able to take care of themselves without you. So I studied biology to appease my family. I was pre-med.
Have you ever thought of incorporating that into a sketch?
There's a character that I do that is a play on like a first generation parent and so that's part of it. But then as far as like the biology of it ... I'm sure it somehow influences my comedy. You spend four years doing a thing … I'm sure it impacts you in some way.
What's the culture like on set with all these people with different experience levels and backgrounds all spending so much time together?
The culture is pretty amazing. We have a pretty big cast right now and it's all people that are so incredibly talented. Some people I grew up watching, so that's pretty remarkable. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and be like, "Wait, I'm here working with this person, what?"
But the cast is a bunch of really kind, talented people and just having that energy around you, it's so exciting all the time. And then when we have a new host come in every week, that injects a new exciting energy every time too. And it's nice to try to incorporate them and envelop them and make them feel welcome as well. So it's just so fun. It's always changing and that makes it really special.
Every time I watch SNL, I literally think about everyone's schedules and I get stressed out. It's just Sunday that you have off — what does that day look like?
My Sunday looks like waking up at 3:00 p.m.because I feel like if I'm lucky I'm in bed by 4:30 a.m. But I wake up at like 3:00 p.m. and I decide is this going to be a day when I leave my apartment, or not? And if I'm not leaving my apartment, I'm ordering Postmates. If I'm leaving my apartment, I have arranged plans with a friend to like, get outside and breathe air and walk around and enjoy the city. But generally speaking, I keep it low-key and stress free. Not too much on the schedule or agenda.
Which sketch do people approach you about the most?
I get approached the most about "Thirsty Cops" ["Traffic Stop"], I would say. That was a fun one.
So I loved the "Mid-Day News" sketch that you co-wrote. Do you have any conflicting feelings about finding humor in stereotypes?
Well, the reality is I think stereotypes are based in truth. I think it gets dangerous when you start to assume you know or understand a person's experience just based on a stereotype. Because you have to remember everyone is their own individual. So sure, generalizations are a reality because they are based in some sense of truth. But you have to take each individual for who they are. I love that sketch because we got to poke fun at stereotypes and sort of upset some of them. And then sometimes be like, yeah, we all know that this is a stereotype and so we can all laugh about it together.
So Shane Gillis was infamously hired and fired from the show because of the resurfaced racist and homophobic jokes that he made, and sort of invoked this "comedy's too woke" conversation. Where do you stand on that? Where do you draw the line between funny and offensive?
The intention matters. I think that you have to be sure you're saying something for a reason and you also need to make sure you're not abusing your privilege. And you have to be aware of your privilege in order to know whether or not you're abusing it. And I think these are the kind of introspective assessments people need to be making with themselves. So it's hard to draw any hard and fast rules in any case.
Have you ever felt like you personally went too far?
No, I have not. A lot of my humor comes from a very, very lighthearted place. And as a minority myself, I think there's an awareness that just comes with my experience and how I move about this world and have lived my life until this point. So no, I haven't found myself in a situation where I feel like I've gone too far.
So sort of along these same lines, there's a trend where people have been getting in trouble for things that they said 10 years ago, 20 years ago, that resurface. What are your thoughts on the sort of statute of limitations in comedy?
I feel like at some point we've all said or done things that we're not particularly proud of. So that's a thing we need to consider. But we also have to be responsible for the things we have done and said that we're not proud of. So again, there's no hard and fast rule for me when it comes to the statute of limitations or how people react. I think everyone can react how they'd like to, just the way we're all allowed to say what we'd like to.
So on a lighter note … They say never meet your heroes, which I feel like is like an occupational hazard for you.
Do you get starstruck still?
I've never really been a starstruck person to begin with. There's a few people who, if I met, I'd probably be at a loss for words and gasping for air, but there are very few people that would have me that way.
Who's one of those people?
I would freak out if I got to meet Jamie Foxx. He's just the best! He's the best to me.
Backtracking a little, you looked incredible at the Emmys in September. Was there some sort of inspiration behind that look?
Oh man. The inspiration behind that look was like last minute desperation, am I going to be able to find a dress at all. It's so funny how it all ultimately comes together and looks like, "Oh, we've been planning this forever … " Girl, we barely made it. Just barely made it.
So many people that have been on SNL and moved on, or are currently on SNL, like Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant, are involved in so many projects aside from the show. What sort of projects are you excited about working on in the future?
Ultimately, I would love to be in a series that I help write and star in. That would be exciting. Because I look to like what Aidy's done with Shrill, which is an amazing show, and that's exciting to see. I got to do an episode of season two. So I went to Portland to do that, and to see her work and to be on that set was really remarkable.
Way down the line I hope to direct. But like we're talking down the line. Down the road. Down, way down.
How would you describe your personal style?
I would say my personal style is like comfortable with a touch of sexy. I love to be comfortable, but I also like to be a little sexy and if I can have the two merge, we're at my sweet spot.
What is your favorite item of clothing that you own?
Ooh, my favorite item of clothing has to be a pair of high-waisted Levi's that I got from a vintage store in L.A. They're straight leg, so they're like old school. They don't even make Levi's like this anymore. They're special. Those are my favorite.
Is there an Instagram account you're obsessed with right now?
At all times, always obsessed with Rihanna's Instagram. Bad gal Riri. I mean, my God!
Her comments are so good, too. I don't know how she has time for this.
Oh listen, when you're in the car and you got time, you're in between things, you're like, I'm going to check Instagram and maybe I'll comment … Yes, she's the best.
Astrology — yes or no?
Can I say maybe? [Laughs.] Yes and no at the same damn time. That's my vote.
Who's your first celebrity crush?
First celebrity crush was probably Justin Timberlake. I was certain, I was like, "I'm going to marry that man" when I was like 10 years old. Every girl thought that.
What did your childhood bedroom look like?
My childhood bedroom had a bunch of Scholastic posters, a boombox — like one of the newer boomboxes for the times. And I had a Penny Hardaway poster. But I also don't know much about basketball, but I just loved the poster. There's something about athleticism that excites me. I had posters, I had a twin sized bed, a little window looking into the backyard, and I had a TV. And every morning getting ready for school I'd watch Saved by the Bell.
What was your last binge-watch?
My last binge-watch was Euphoria. Last week. It's incredible. That's a very good show.
What's your favorite SNL sketch of all time?
Favorite SNL sketch of all time ... Oh boy. This is a hard question.
Let's start there. Let me acknowledge that it's a hard question. But if I have to pick, if you're forcing me to pick ... I'm going to say Kerry Washington in the Miss Universe pageant sketch. It's where she plays Miss Uganda. I made a bunch of my friends watch it recently and I will make anyone who's willing watch it.
What's your go-to nail color?
My go-to nail color is Essie's Mademoiselle — It's like a very faded, almost translucent pink.
What's one thing you wish more people knew about you?
Oh boy. This is stupid, but I wish people knew how much I love hip hop. Yeah, I really love hip hop.
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photographs by Ed Maximus. Hair by Theo Barrett. Makeup by Renee Garnes. Art direction and production by Kelly Chiello.