The main thing Lucy Lawless wants me to know is that she’s a liar.
“I mean, I’ve lived my entire career untruthful,” she says. “I never knew how to stunt fight. I never knew how to ride horses over fucking burning logs. When the camera’s rolling, I just do what I’m told.”
Lawless tells me this during a phone interview that I’m surprised is even happening. I hadn’t reached out to talk about the project she’s best known for (still Xena: Warrior Princess, after all these years) or the one in which she has most recently appeared (My Life Is Murder, an Australian mystery series in which she plays “fearless private investigator Alexa Crowe”). Instead, I called to ask about a sketch she starred in during an episode of Saturday Night Live that she hosted more than 21 years ago—one that she says she never really “got,” and that she can’t believe anybody still remembers.
But she’s game, so I’m on the phone with Xena. Thank you very much, I say, for making time for something so silly.
“Well,” she says. “Only for something this silly.”
I’m not the first person to ask Lawless about “Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup.” “I want to say 10 years ago, somebody brought it up,” she says. “It wasn’t you, was it?” (It was not, though Lawless did discuss it during a 2013 interview for the Archive of American Television.) “Somebody did reach out, and I did actually go and look it up on YouTube, and I went, ‘Oh, yeah, that was great.’ But then I just forgot about it until this moment.”
A lot of people have. The sketch aired midway through the October 17, 1998, episode of Saturday Night Live, nestled between a pair of recurring bits: SNL legend Robert Smigel’s animated short “TV Funhouse” and Chris Kattan as Antonio Banderas hosting a talk show.
“Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup” did not become a recurring bit. The sketch—in which Lawless portrays the Fleetwood Mac chanteuse as the proprietor of a fast-casual Tex-Mex restaurant in Sedona, Arizona—can’t be found on YouTube or NBC.com; you’ve got to go to the Wild West of DailyMotion to find it. It started, was weird for two and a half minutes, and went away.
Except—for some SNL viewers, at least—it didn’t.
I just realized the design motif for my apartment is "Stevie Nicks' Fajita Roundup."— Julieanne Smolinski (@BoobsRadley) April 5, 2015
Stevie Nicks Fajita RoundUp is the single best SNL sketch ever.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) March 30, 2018
Feels like a good time to once again share the best sketch in SNL history https://t.co/9wjwDEtTVN— DL (@davelozo) April 17, 2020
I reflect on Stevie Nicks' Fajita Roundup the way most people reflect on their wedding day.— Louis Virtel (@louisvirtel) May 10, 2019
All I can think about is Stevie Nicks' Fajita Roundup pic.twitter.com/FcY3Z7KhoZ— KOLEVID-19 (@kolsvein) February 2, 2018
"Stevie Nicks' Fajita Roundup" is a top five all time SNL sketch and I will fight you if you disagree.— Clue Heywood (@ClueHeywood) June 4, 2016
Sure, sex is great, but have you ever introduced people to Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup with Lucy Lawless?https://t.co/wVnfFFcgEG— Charley Feldman (@charley_feldman) August 2, 2019
@RyanCreed "The Oral History of Stevie Nicks' Fajita Roundup" is the only oral history that I'm desperate to read.— Tyler Coates (@tylercoates) July 23, 2015
“I tell you what: I didn’t really realize it had a life of its own,” Lawless tells me.
Honestly? It’s pretty wild that it does. “Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup” wasn’t prescient. It didn’t put its finger on the pulse of 1998, or anticipate the ways in which pop culture would shift in the years to come. It didn’t point toward some broader universal truth, or teach us something about ourselves.
It just … started, and was weird for two and a half minutes. But it was really weird for those two and a half minutes, blithely absurd and blissfully silly in a way that cuts through the clutter and nestles itself into your gray matter. We can’t always explain why something sticks in our brains; sometimes, it just works. And for a lot of people, “Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup”—something that probably shouldn’t have worked for anybody—just worked.
Matthew Amador is a psychotherapist who lives in Chicago, but grew up in San Diego, “so I had my fair share of Tex-Mex and just standard Mexican restaurants, like, everywhere.” Like me, Amador vividly remembers seeing “Fajita Roundup” when it first aired. Like me, he “was just so taken aback by how much that skit works.”
“It shouldn’t. It’s clearly, like, a bunch of people got stoned the day before they had to put something on air, is what it feels like,” he says. “Somehow, it’s just bonkers enough that it all kind of works. And it just stuck in my head.”
It stuck to the point that, for nearly eight years, Amador operated the Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup Facebook page—an account where he embodied/parodied/cosplayed as the restaurant and its employees.
“I just thought, ‘What if Stevie Nicks needed a side hustle?’ You know, she’s just a struggling restaurateur,” he laughs. “Why not? Susan Sarandon has that pingpong thing.”
Back in 2012, Amador was a casting director, finding talent for “on-camera stuff—commercials, films, voice-overs.” His company had just held a year-end party for its interns, and catered it with Mexican food. Suddenly, the memory of Lawless’s performance came unstuck. He found it on DailyMotion and showed a coworker, who agreed that it was hilarious. And then, as if wafting in on the Sedona winds: inspiration.
“I just started—maybe after a beer or two—I started the page, very quickly, just to tag to Fajita Roundup as being [the restaurant that] catered the interns’ party,” he says.
Amador set up the page with the phone number and address of a real Mexican restaurant in Sedona, Arizona—“If anyone was curious, I was like, ‘Hopefully they’ll get business and they will profit from this’”—and began writing as if he were posting on the wall of an actual restaurant owned and operated by the actual Stevie Nicks. (He eventually had to change the number and address, though, when the real restaurant joined Facebook.)
He posted to amuse himself and his interns—who, he now admits, “probably liked it more out of obligation than anything else.” Before long, though, the audience started to grow. Eventually, more than 1,200 people decided they wanted regular updates from this fake restaurant, all of whom at some point had that same “Wait, what the hell am I watching?” experience that Amador and I haven’t been able to shake for the past couple of decades.
Well, maybe not all. “I’ll randomly get messages from people asking me if it’s a real restaurant,” he says. One example: “Do you have a restaurant in Texas? If so, is there a waiting list?”
Other inquiries were less credulous, and more intent on exposing the truth.
“Here we go,” Amador says as he pulls up a message from a Sedonian named Mike: “I have lived here a long time. Never heard of this place. The map shows a residential hood. This is a bullshit con.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, bro.’”
Like many bullshit cons, eventually the fuzz caught on. Facebook recently pulled the plug on the page, claiming that Amador violated the site’s terms of service by seeming to speak on behalf of Nicks. He says he downloaded the contents of his eight years of handiwork before the page got yanked, but that they’d lived on a laptop that recently died. With some extra time on his hands due to the coronavirus pandemic, he recently began rebuilding the account bit by bit on Twitter, determined to keep the fever dream of Nicks’s oasis in the desert alive.
“If I only reach three people instead of 300, that’s cool. I’ve never been in this for notoriety,” he says. “It’s like, if you tell a joke to a group of people and only one person gets it? But, like, they really get it? Then it’s worth it. That’s all I want, really: just to share a really good laugh with one person. There’s oddly something intimate about that.”
It started as so many things do: with somebody canceling plans.
“The way I got on SNL was because Michael Richards, Kramer [from Seinfeld], pulled out at the last moment—as they feared he probably would, you know, that he was going to flake out on them,” Lawless says. “And reliably, he flaked out, and I ended up there.”
Hugh Fink, a member of the SNL writing staff from 1995 through 2002, explains that writers could request one-on-one meetings with guest hosts on Tuesdays, ahead of the big Wednesday table read, “where all the sketches for the week are read aloud and with the cast in front of the entire crew and Lorne Michaels.” Fink “always requested that meeting, even if I didn’t have a huge idea for them,” in part because it always seemed smart to try to sit down with an incredibly famous person, and in part because those meetings allowed him to find out whether a host had some hidden talents, which might spark some fresh ideas for material.
Like Lawless, Fink wasn’t aware that “Fajita Roundup” still had admirers. It was one of his favorite things to work on in the seven seasons he spent as a writer at SNL—“People who saw it and know I wrote it always appreciated it,” he says—but viewer response to sketches wasn’t instantaneous and overwhelming in the years before YouTube and social media. Fink had no idea that anybody remembered it, or would be interested in how it wound up smack dab in the middle of an episode of the most popular sketch comedy show ever, until I called him.
So, that Tuesday morning, Fink asked for some face time, and then asked Lawless whether she did any impressions.
“I was just, like, this country bumpkin Labrador in among these lavish, sophisticated New York thinkers and, you know, all the comedy cognoscenti sort of thing, right?” Lawless says. “And they asked me, ‘Can you do any voices? Or, you know, any mimicry or something?’ I said, ‘Well, as a kid, I used to do this homage to Stevie Nicks and Chrissie Hynde [of the Pretenders].’ They were the hugest music stars in the world when I was a kid, and I used to practice doing them and harmonizing—just on my own, for fun. I never did it for anybody.”
Fink didn’t have any “Brass in Pocket”–inspired bits on deck. But he’d grown up listening to Nicks—his dad was “a huge Fleetwood Mac fan”—and he thought that even though Nicks wasn’t exactly at the peak of her pop cultural relevance in 1998, he might be able to put something together before the Wednesday table read. Lawless, who’d grown up worshiping Nicks (“Without understanding the concept of sexiness, she was just so sexy, and so warm and earthy, and … rock and roll”), was on board.
After writing a few other sketches, including a monologue that played on the popularity of Lawless and Xena with LGBTQ audiences, Fink turned his attention to the Stevie Nicks idea at “probably midnight or 1 a.m.” (Which is to say: If this bit feels like something that came together in the wee hours of the morning, that’s because it did.) He enlisted fellow SNL writer Scott Wainio, a ’70s pop music aficionado and fan of Nicks’s work, to help infuse “her whole vibe” into the sketch while also finding some way to make it make sense in 1998.
“I told Scott, ‘Look, she’s not relevant anyway, so we’ve got to come up with something that sort of embraces all the stereotypes that she’s known for, to people who are unaware of Stevie Nicks,’” Fink said.
So: Where would a “sort of new age,” “sort of hippie” who is very “into auras” rest her flowing locks when she wasn’t on stage? Drawing on his experience as a touring comedian, Fink settled on Sedona—“That town sort of embraces the Stevie Nicks vibe”—and quickly thought about the Mexican restaurants he’d go to when doing standup around Arizona. (That Nicks was actually born in Phoenix, and is, by one surely reputable measurement, the richest celebrity born in the Grand Canyon State, was a happy accident.)
“I sort of put two and two together and thought, ‘Holy crap!’ That’s such an outside-the-box idea: that it’s a Mexican restaurant in Sedona, and that’s what Stevie’s doing now,” Fink said. He wasn’t sure it would play, but figured that if they could pull off this weird non sequitur premise, then “people would be blown away.”
Pulling it off meant getting the music right. Fink and Wainio started reworking the lyrics to Fleetwood Mac songs, trying to top one another with increasingly ridiculous means of inserting lines about Mexican cuisine into some of the most well-known pop songs of the late 1970s.
With a non sequitur sketch that has no topical news or pop cultural peg, Fink says, the goal is to write it in a way that’s not linear. It’s not telling a traditional story; there’s no need to move the narrative along from point A to point B to point C, because there’s not really anywhere to go. Instead, Fink wanted to pile up jokes, to build them on top of each other until the audience was thinking less about why they were watching this specific thing at this specific moment and more about what each joke and each song was saying about the nonsense premise being executed.
“By the time we got to ‘Landslide,’ that deserved to be the most over-the-top, absurdist one,” Fink says. “I put ‘Landslide’ last, because I think it’s the funniest—the notion that, by that time, it’s so absurd that she’s looking at a fucking [pile of nachos] and seeing her reflection. And she’s gotten so lazy with changing her own lyrics—she says, ‘Landslide brought me down.’ Well, what the hell does a landslide have anything to do with Mexican food? It doesn’t, but she’s just being so lazy, it doesn’t matter. I found that really funny.”
With a handful of wee-hours parody lyrics on the page, Fink got the bit moving and brought Lawless into the fold. “We went into the music office where the music producer was, and this is the first time that I was hearing her do her impression,” Fink says. “That’s when I knew that it was going to be successful—because her impression was amazing. It was absolutely amazing to see this beautiful, dark-haired, New Zealand actress transform herself to do that voice. It just kind of came out of nowhere.”
After some rehearsing and a reminder for Lawless to adopt a Nicksian sway while she sang, “Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup” made it to table read, where Fink’s hunch bore out: “It did kill. Got huge laughs.” That convinced SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels and the show’s brain trust to keep it in consideration, which gave Fink and Co. the time to rehearse and tweak the look of the production.
They brought in a wind machine to blow Lawless’s hair and costume all over the place, just like Nicks in the video for the 1983 hit “Stand Back.” (The idea: Sure, she’s just running this crappy restaurant right now, but that doesn’t mean she’s not a star.) They also got to work on the look of the food Nicks would be hawking.
“I wanted this commercial to come off as not a classy, nationally produced ad, but clearly a cheap, locally produced commercial for a shitty restaurant,” Fink says. “And that’s why, even in the script, at the time, I put in those cutaways of, like, really unappealing, bad-looking food with the price, and advertising specials. Comedically, I thought it’d be even funnier if the restaurant was cheap.”
“The research department had to get me photos of the Mexican food, which I would approve,” Fink says. “I would tell them, ‘No, I want it to look shittier than that. That looks too good.’”
From the table read through the Saturday 8 p.m. pre-show dress rehearsal, the bit just kept getting big laughs—from everyone, that is, but Lawless.
“I did not get the joke,” she says. “Not being from America, barely having ever eaten proper Mexican food, or Tex-Mex or anything.” She was adamant enough about not thinking the bit would work that she brought her concerns to Michaels, SNL’s grand arbiter of what does and doesn’t make the final cut.
“I said, ‘Oh, Lorne, like—mate, you know, it’s not funny. Just, please, please, just drop it. No harm, no foul,’” Lawless says. But the boss stuck behind the absurd showcase that Fink had cooked up.
“[Lorne was] like, ‘No, no, no. I think it’s a keeper here. I think it’s a keeper. It’s going to do good,’” Lawless says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘OK, it’s your show.’ And he was like, ‘It’s your funeral.’” (Michaels declined comment through an SNL spokesperson.)
Lawless might not have gotten the gag, but she wasn’t about to let that stop her from committing completely. The sketch hung entirely on her ability to draw and keep the audience’s attention; it’s just her double-barreling the camera, with silent waiters and restaurant-goers filling in the background. (One notable exception: Jimmy Fallon, in just his third episode as a featured player on SNL, appears as the piano player soundtracking Nicks’s songs. He “was so supportive,” Lawless says.) If she didn’t go all in, it would’ve been the longest two and a half minutes in television history.
“Well, you only have two choices,” says Lawless, who actually got her start on television in sketch comedy, in the late-’80s New Zealand series Funny Business. “Which is to flame out, publicly and embarrassingly—to go out and be huge and risk flaming out—or you can curl up into a ball and never be hired again. It’s kind of death either way, so you might as well go out in a blaze of glory—at least be open to it being a complete freefall. And that’s how inspiration happens.”
And so Lawless threw herself into the minutiae of the performance. She figured that, if Nicks was down on her luck enough that she was trying to get a fajita joint off the ground, she … might not be taking the best care of herself.
“A thing that was one of my ideas was that she should have these really dilated pupils, like she was on a lot of drugs or something,” she says. “So they gave me—apparently, in the lobby of 30 Rock, there is an optometrist. And they came, and they measured me, and they bonded these [contact lenses] to my eyes in like 15 seconds flat, you know, because that’s all the time you have to prepare.” (Fink remembers thinking, “Wow, she is such a good sport.”)
The good news: The new lenses helped Lawless go a bit deeper into character. The bad news: They made it a lot tougher to go anywhere else.
“I couldn’t see anything,” she says. “I didn’t get the joke, I’m completely blind, and I just … winged it. And somehow, it worked.”
Lawless swears she couldn’t see the studio audience—something she thinks might have helped her performance, because it kept her from being too aware of how they were responding. Not that she needed to worry. If she’d been able to, she’d have seen a room full of people getting increasingly on board with one of the more ridiculous things presented to them that night; you can hear the laughter rise as the sketch progresses, and it becomes clear that yes, Stevie Nicks singing about Mexican food really is all we’re doing here.
Lawless says our conversation is bringing back the memory of “the sensation of being in free fall” she felt during the sketch—“like, you’re so terrified that you’re never more alive, you know?” But she didn’t die. She killed.
The live audience in Studio 8H bought all the way in; by the end of “Landslide,” they were roaring. SNL writing legend Smigel told me via email that Lawless’s Nicks was “an amazing surprise that really made the sketch fly,” and “the performance of the night.” Michael Schur, who was on the SNL staff that season and would later cocreate Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place, said via email that the success of “Fajita Roundup” helped start “a run of celebrity-owned restaurant sketches that played out over many years,” leading other SNL writers (like himself, Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, and Tonight Show announcer Steve Higgins) to float pure nonsense bits like ”Derek Jeter’s Taco Hole” and “Trump’s House of Wings.”
The sketch also played really well with the one viewer you might not have expected. Back in 2011, Stevie Nicks did an interview with since-shuttered Madison magazine before kicking off the Australian leg of her world tour for the album In Your Dreams. When the interviewer asked whether Nicks recalled the sketch, she quickly replied, “Oh, with the enchiladas?” and called it “one of my all-time favourite things ever.”
“Saturday Night Live can go either way,” Nicks said. “They can nail you to the wall or they can be really nice. So when everybody told me, I was like, ‘Oh no, it’s going to be just awful …’ But it wasn’t. Lucy looked amazing, and she was amazing as me. So I could not have been happier.”
When I talked to him last fall, Fink told me he didn’t know that Nicks had seen and liked the bit; it thrilled him, and surprised him. “I thought you were going to tell me the opposite, because I did have to clear it with NBC legal—the joke about, ‘In the ’70s, I [dedicated myself to witchcraft,] Lindsey Buckingham, and cocaine,’” he says.
“It’s so interesting—when my mother was pregnant with me, the only thing she could keep down was enchiladas and refried beans,” Nicks told Madison magazine. “As for me, whenever I’m sick, the only thing I can tolerate is Mexican food! So the fact that they actually pulled that out of the air was so great. Because if I was ever going to have a restaurant, that’s what it would be.”
And hey, if Nicks ever does decide to open one, she’s already got a reputation established. According to Restaurant Guru, Stevie Nicks’ Fajita Roundup is the no. 101-ranked eatery in all of Sedona, Arizona. That might not seem all that great, considering there are only 161 establishments on the site’s list. When you consider that the restaurant has never existed, though, it seems pretty good.
Lawless says she didn’t know Nicks had seen the sketch, either. As somebody who’s been a Nicks fan since adolescence, she’s pretty pumped about it.
“Awww, that is so big! I didn’t know that! Wow!” she exclaims. “Well, you know what, I’ve got a little tear in each eye, actually.
“I can’t believe she even said my name. Like, she could go, ‘Oh, it was somebody,’ or ‘that woman,’ or whatever. But she actually said my name. … That blows my mind.”