SNL Has Struck Gold With ‘Lisa From Temecula’

A second appearance from Ego Nwodim’s instant-classic character felt significant.

A still from the 'SNL' sketch 'Lisa From Temecula: Wedding'
Will Heath / NBC

When the Saturday Night Live sketch “Lisa From Temecula” first aired in February, it spawned not just a major viral moment for the show but also a slew of digital Valentine’s Day cards that helped solidify catchphrases for the cantankerous titular character (played by Ego Nwodim). Against a bright-pink background dotted with purple hearts, the cards proclaimed “Cook My Meat!” and “You Tryna Get Some Butt Tonite?” among other bits of dialogue. Beyond circulating the internet at a dizzying pace, viral sketches can spawn a level of adoration that generates near-instant fandom. And in Lisa’s case, viewers appeared to connect with her disdainful side-eye and vociferous meat cutting right away.

Last night, SNL gave her a second run. The sketch felt particularly rare in a season absent the sorts of characters that were once a show staple, and that the recent cast member and heavyweight Kate McKinnon was so adept at inhabiting. When McKinnon, along with a slew of her long-standing peers, departed SNL last May, the show seemed more invested in getting its now relatively green cast to gel rather than develop recurring characters that could pop—but also pull the spotlight away from the ensemble. It couldn’t be seen, in the derisive words Lisa once launched at a man she thought was hitting on her, as “doing the most.”

But much of what made “Lisa From Temecula” a breakout hit, besides Nwodim’s razor-sharp physical comedy, was the way her scene partners responded. Nwodim cracked open a kind of jollity. As Shirley Li pointed out at the time, the sketch was an exuberant reminder about the vibrancy of live TV. Bowen Yang didn’t just break; he gave up trying to hold it together, threw down his fork, and resigned himself to the moment, while the episode’s host, Pedro Pascal, jubilantly strained to keep the sketch going amid Lisa’s steak-cutting ferment. In that way, Lisa recalled characters such as Rachel Dratch’s Debbie Downer and McKinnon’s “Close Encounter” abductee, each of whom regularly caused their scene partners to stifle their giggles—or laugh outright. They highlighted, in other words, the group effort of SNL.

Lisa’s second appearance found her at a wedding reception, as her older sister Shayna’s plus-one. The cast didn’t lose it to the same extent, which was understandable, given that the surprise of the original sketch—the table shaking wildly in response to Lisa carving her “extra-extra-well-done” steak; the wine sloshing every which way—was, this time, expected. But Nwodim captivated with a haughtier attitude, more exaggerated antics, and catchphrases old and new. Where previously she mistook the friendly warmth of her sister’s friend (played by Pascal) as flirtation, this time Lisa’s sister’s friend Kelly (played by the host, Ana de Armas) felt the steely chill of her rebuff. When Kelly genially welcomed Lisa, mentioning how sweet it was that she had accompanied her sister, who had just gone through a hard breakup, Lisa retorted, “Yeah, that’s cute. But my box is closed tonight.” Nwodim’s matter-of-fact delivery and boundary-setting body language compounded the humor of her misunderstanding.

The sketch followed the structure of the original almost exactly. This time, Lisa set about tossing a large salad for the table, using a bottle of dressing she’d specially asked the waiter for, because she preferred her lettuce drenched. (“Everybody knows lettuce is nasty without ranch.”) She brought back one of her original catchphrases, “Cook my meat!,” after discovering a piece of smoked salmon—which she awkwardly pronounced “sal-mon”—on the salad, and developed a comparable one with “Toss my salad!” The way Nwodim embellished Lisa’s particular dining preferences further added to the character’s still-emerging backstory.

Nwodim has been having a stellar season at a time when SNL’s next breakout star hasn’t yet been identified. Watching her get the opportunity to continue developing Lisa feels significant. Not since Maya Rudolph has a Black woman on the show really gotten that opportunity. When Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones both joined the cast in 2014, they were better known for big impersonations than memorable original characters.

As much as it promises variety, Saturday Night Live is a show that bends toward routine (look at how many episodes’ first sketches end up having a game-show premise); a big part of that regularity has been established over the years through a pantheon of classic recurring characters. Last night felt like a turning point for the season, if only because it hinted at the possibility of “Lisa From Temecula” joining those ranks.