Twenty-two years ago, Lucy Lawless wasn’t just playing Xena, she was part of one of SNL’s greatest ever sketches. Sam Brooks pays tribute to Stevie Nicks Fajita Round-Up.
The year is 1998. Jenny Shipley is prime minister, we win zero medals at the Olympics, and an actress named Lucy Lawless is the first New Zealander to host American TV sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. We’re at the height of Xenamania, and Lawless is not just the most famous person in New Zealand, but the most famous New Zealander in the world.
Looking back at the episode feels more like looking into some strange funhouse mirror rather than into a part of television history. Lawless’ monologue, New Zealand accent fully intact, rests entirely on a stretched-out joke about how Xena is a lesbian, complete with Tina Fey dressed like a trucker. It has not aged well, to put it nicely. Elliott Smith (RIP) is the musical guest. The sketches include one where Will Ferrell plays a sexually aggressive nude model, and one where Lawless plays a stripper clown who has to argue a case in front of Judge Judy. I guess we expected different things from our comedy in 1998.
Saturday Night Live is one of those cultural institutions that never quite properly reached our shores. One obvious reason is that it was never regularly broadcast here; another is that we don’t share a tradition of watching televised sketch comedy at midnight on a Saturday. I don’t count this as a flaw in New Zealand culture, trust me.
Every now and then a sketch breaks out and make headlines here – think Tina Fey and Amy Poehler playing Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton, or Alec Baldwin puckering his lips and calling it an impression of Donald Trump. But mostly SNL is something that comes over here in drips, drabs and YouTube clips, free of episode-long context. And in the pre-YouTube era? Forget about it, with the exception of legendary clips like ‘More Cowbell!’ or the Debbie Downer sketches.
The other reason it never really took off here? A lot of SNL stuff is by design disposable. It’s a fast turnaround sketch show hosted by somebody who might not necessarily be very funny or good at live comedy. When SNL hits, it hits hard – any episode with Melissa McCarthy is wall-to-wall gold solely due to her commitment to the material she’s given – but it misses about as much as you’d expect it to, given that it’s a full 90 minutes of comedy written and performed in a single week.
But I’m not here to talk about Saturday Night Live. I’m here to talk about one of the best sketches that the show has ever done, one of the greatest pieces of comedy involving a New Zealander ever, and one has dug deep into my brain since I saw it on some off-brand video hosting website a few years ago: Stevie Nicks Fajita Round-Up.
The concept is very, very dumb, right from the intro line:
“Hello, I’m Stevie Nicks. Do you like the music of my band, Fleetwood Mac? And do you like fajitas, flautas, quesadillas, and other Tex-Mex specialties? ”
Yup. That’s the sketch. It’s a commercial for a Stevie Nicks Tex-Mex restaurant called Stevie Nicks Fajita Round-Up. Lucy Lawless, commits to Nicks’ goat-bleat of a voice and flowy mannerisms (complete with fan blowing her hair around all witch-like) and sings Fleetwood Mac songs turned into jingles that hawk burritos, fajitas and other Mexican food “for an affordable dining experience you’ll never forget”.
You placed an order, I wrote it down.
Three enchiladas, the best in town.
Then I saw my reflection in a big pile of nachos.
Until a landslide brought it down
It’s dumb as hell, and in an interview a few years ago, Lawless herself admits that she doesn’t really get it. I was also surprised that she came to SNL with a Nicks impression prepared, because a Stevie Nicks tex-mex restaurant feels like the kind of idea that some impossibly outre homosexual (I say this from a place of identification, not judgement) would have had in his back pocket for five years, rather than something that comes from the host.
It’s one of those sketches that shouldn’t work. Lawless wasn’t known for her comedy, and I doubt anybody was expecting her to pull a spot-on Stevie Nicks out of her Xena armour. It’s also one of the rare SNL sketches that not only doesn’t outstay its welcome at a crisp two and a half minutes but rests entirely on the guest host’s shoulders. Then add the fact that it relies on one of the hackiest comedy tropes in the book: swapping out serious lyrics for funny lyrics that rhyme. By rights, Stevie Nicks Fajita Round-Up should have been forgotten alongside the hundreds of sketches performed by hosts who can’t even read cue-cards convincingly, let alone carry a sketch.
But damn if it’s not one of the best comedy clips I’ve ever seen, and one that I could watch on repeat quite comfortably for the rest of my life. Every time I pick up something new, whether it’s the way Lawless elongates the second syllable of “cocaaaaaine” or how truly spot-on and awful the photos of the food are.
And it’s solely thanks to the commitment of one plucky New Zealander, doing her damnedest not just to mimic Stevie Nicks, but to show us what it would be like if music’s most notorious sorceress truly did open a Tex-Mex restaurant in the heart of Arizona. Bless you, Lucy. You’re more than Xena, you’re more than one of New Zealand’s most iconic performers and climate change activists. You’re also the bastion of one of New Zealand’s greatest comedy exports, and I bow down to you for it.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.