NICK DANLAG – STAFF WRITER
Ego Nwodim’s parents wanted her to be a doctor, since much of her family works in the medical field or are engineers. Nwodim chose to study biology — but across the country so she would have the room to explore acting.
When Nwodim graduated, she made a deal with her mother — give Nwodim four years to make something of herself.
“I didn’t,” said Nwodim, a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” “But there was really no turning back at that point.”
And her dream? To become an actor.
“I’ve never seen anyone close to me pursuing any sort of art or anything outside of the sciences, so I truly didn’t even think of comedy as a possibility for me,” Nwodim said.
Eventually, her manager convinced Nwodim to take an improv class, something that she had no interest in.
“I begrudgingly took my 101 improv course,” Nwodim said. “It took two years of convincing from a manager I had. I wanted to get them off my case, so I was like, ‘I’ll take the stupid class.’ ”
She fell in love with it.
“I sort of stumbled into improv comedy, but I think once I discovered it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is where I want to be. This is what is most true to me,’ ” Nwodim said.
At 10:30 a.m. Monday, July 27 in the Amphitheater, Eric Deggans, NPR’s first full-time TV critic, interviewed Nwodim for the Chautauqua Lecture Series week “The Authentic Comedic Voice,” in partnership with the National Comedy Center. Deggans also will deliver a solo lecture at 10:30 a.m. today, July 28, in the Amp.
In their conversation, Deggans and Nwodim discussed her career, from her biology undergraduate degree to becoming a main cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” and representation of Black people in comedy and entertainment, as well as their own experiences working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A large challenge lay in front of Nwodim: getting into the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, a program whose mainstage shows are said to be harder to get into than Harvard. A UCB Diversity Fellow, she also dealt with the lack of diversity among her peers. To succeed with improv, Nwodim and the seven other actors in her group needed to be on the same page, to know the references and cultural touchstones they each used. Nwodim was the only nonwhite person in the group.
“Those seven did (understand each other), and I was oftentimes on the outskirts,” Nwodim said. “I didn’t feel supported, I didn’t feel they understood my voice or what I think is funny.”
The crowds were sometimes rough, too. They were often composed of people who didn’t make it into the UCB programs. Nwodim had never quit anything in her life, even things she hated, like her biology undergraduate. The day before a big performance, she called her brother, telling him that she would quit. Now it was her brother’s turn to make a deal with her — before she quit, give that performance all she got.
So Nwodim decided to do something new: be loud, be annoying, be heard.
“I remember that night saying to myself, ‘I am not going to be ignored onstage by my teammates. I am going to be very loud. I am going to be so loud that if you ignore me, you look like an idiot,’ ” Nwodim said. “So I went out and did a show like that and it was such a game-changer for me. It gave me the permission and encouragement to be loud.”
Deggans asked Nwodim to talk about her one-woman show, Great Black Women … and Then There’s Me.
Black women in entertainment, Nwodim said, are often portrayed as two extremes: Oprah Winfrey and Kimberly Wilkins, the woman behind the “ain’t nobody got time for that” meme. In her show, Nwodim asks where the room is for Black women to be average.
“It sort of ends with me trying to decide which I am,” Nwodim said. “Am I excellent or am I not excellent?”
Deggans asked Nwodim about her experience working and filming during COVID-19.
When the cast of “SNL” worked from home during the early period of the pandemic, Nwodim and others received equipment to set up in their houses, such as cameras and greenscreens.
“I was doing everything in my power to stay sane and centered. Doing shows from home completely upended that,” Nwodim said. “I live in a studio (apartment), and the green screen took up the entire studio, but I didn’t know how to close it. Every time they told me I was going to shoot with a green screen, I’d go, ‘Oh no.’ ”
Despite this change, their work was still rewarding.
“Ultimately what was rewarding was hearing people say that seeing ‘SNL’ attempt to do shows from home represented some sort of normalcy and offer them some sense of calm,” Nwodim said.
As a fan of Nwodim’s work, Deggans said she really hit her stride on “SNL” in the most recent season. He asked Nwodim how she found her comedic voice.
“In short, I would say that my comedic voice is that I enjoy playing disruptive, indignant, loud, wrong people,” Nwodim said.
Everyone knows what they, themselves, find funny, but comedians have the task of balancing their own voice with what the audience finds funny. Nwodim also had to balance “SNL” ’s 47-year long aesthetic with her own voice, as well as talking to the writers to make sure skits showcase her talents and skills.
Deggans then asked Nwodim about her experience auditioning for “SNL.”
She said the first audition didn’t go well.
“They were actually looking for a white guy. … They said, ‘Oh, we thought you were a guy because of your name,’ ” Nwodim said. During the audition, she remembers being very still and nervous.
This was not the case with her second audition in 2018. Nwodim felt much more comfortable. She had created several characters to perform: Maya Angelou telling “yo mama” jokes, a 911 dispatcher who gossips about calls she receives and a mother at Lebron James’ I Promise School who only sent her child there so she could meet the basketball star.
In the audition itself, Nwodim felt like she could talk more freely and have more fun. And then she got the job as a featured player.
Deggans then asked Nwodim about her sense of “SNL” ’s relationship with Black women, both when she started and currently.
“When I was coming in, I tried to be as present as possible,” she said. “I am telling you guys, this was the most stressful time in my life. I was worried about a million other things.”
Nwodim was the seventh Black featured or cast player on “SNL,” which had at that point run for 44 seasons. She was promoted to a full cast member in 2020.
“I said I would like to make it easier for the next Black woman joining the cast,” Nwodim said. “I want to position myself in a way that the audience doesn’t watch us like, ‘What are you doing up there?’, and they are excited for us in the same way they are excited for other cast members.”
As part of the Q-and-A session, Emily Morris, senior vice president and chief brand officer, asked Nwodim what aspects of pandemic life she wants to take forward with her, and which ones she wants to leave behind.
Nwodim said the pandemic gave her a lot of time to slow down — mainly because nothing was happening.
“What was really nice was being forced to slow down, and realize all the benefits of slowing down, and how powerful that is — to just be showing up in the world to do my job as a daughter, sister and friend,” Nwodim said.
But she would like to leave behind the immense isolation.
“I’d like to get back to a place where I am getting together with friends more,” Nwodim said. “I feel like if I do one activity in the city, I think, ‘What a full day.’ ”
Morris’ last question to Nwodim was: What would she like to be remembered for?
“I want to show young girls that look like me that their goals are possible,” Nwodim said. “Keep on going, fight through adversity.”