Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: A Saturday Night Live alum who’s since gone on to appear in some of television’s most off-the-wall shows, Chris Parnell is a jack-of-all-comedic trades. As Rick And Morty’s Jerry, he’s bounced through both dimensions and rocky patches in his marriage, and as Archer’s Cyril, Parnell plays a gray-flanneled company man who’s often the butt of the titular character’s jokes. Parnell has also brought dry absurdity to 30 Rock as Dr. Leo Spaceman, and provided strong support in two of the early 2000s most underrated comedies, Hot Rod and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. With over 150 roles under his belt, Parnell is one of comedy’s most reliable players.
Rick And Morty (2013-present)—“Jerry Smith”
The A.V. Club: We have seen a bunch of different Jerrys throughout the different dimensions. And in fact, the Jerry we saw most recently isn’t even the Jerry that we met in season one. As a voice actor, are you trying to bring something different to each iteration of Jerry?
Chris Parnell: I am not, because Jerry is mostly the same across all dimensions. When we had the Jerry daycare episode, I asked if they wanted a little bit of a different voice for each different kind of Jerry, and they were like, “Nope. We just want Jerry to sound like he always sounds.”
There have probably been moments where I brought a little bit of a different something here or there as needed for Jerry. But Jerry in general gets to play a pretty wide range of emotions, and because of that, it’s always a fun sort of acting challenge to do Jerry.
AVC: Is there a specific episode or Jerry plotline that you’ve been surprised by when you’ve gotten the script?
CP: With Jerry, I’m never very surprised. I mean, it was fun, I guess, to get to see Jerry in the episode where he and Rick go to the planet with the Stasis Field where nobody can die, and you get to see them bond a little bit. And then you get to see Jerry be a little cunning when he’s willing to participate in the assassination of Rick, and to see him walk that back and change his mind, that he really doesn’t want that. So that was a fun episode, and I’m sure reading that, I was like, “Oh! This is nice to see these other sides of Jerry.”
AVC: Are you getting full scripts or just your lines for the show?
CP: No, no. I always get the full scripts.
AVC: So the show has been on for seven years, but we’re only halfway through season four. Have you noticed the fanbase of the show changing? Have people recognized you as Jerry?
CP: They have for sure. In terms of seeing a change in the fanbase, other than it getting larger, I don’t know that I have seen a change. I’m kind of oblivious. I’m not on social media, so I don’t interact that way. The only time I really come in contact with fans is at Comic-Con or some other kind of convention like that. So I notice it if we’re doing a panel or we’re doing a signing, and it’s great to do that, and to get to interact with actual human beings. But other than just them being really enthusiastic and excited about the show, I don’t know that I’ve been able to track a change.
Archer (2009-present)—“Cyril Figgis”
AVC: Cyril on Archer, he’s a complicated guy. How challenging is it to keep that character’s backstory together?
CP: Well, the writers do most of the keeping of the backstory together. You just play it episode by episode.
Everything that he’s gone through is going to inform him on some level but given the different eras they’ve moved to in Archer’s mind, the basic elements of Cyril are always there, with the exception of the time that I was the Nazi crazy guy. But Cyril is pretty much always there in one form or another. I guess we saw him get to be a bit of a bad guy in one season, or maybe more than one.
It’s not something that I feel like I have to think about consciously too much. It’s not like I’m having to do this in my brain, because it’s there on the page. As long as I’m true to that and true to who Cyril has been in general, that usually takes care of it. I hope.
AVC: Have you seen any great Cyril cosplay? Does anyone dress up as you?
CP: I’ve seen a few. You know, it’s not the number one character that people want to cosplay as, but yeah. Pretty much every year at Comic-Con, I’ll see at least two or three Cyrils.
(2006-2013) —“Dr. Leo Spaceman”
AVC: When we last saw Dr. Spaceman, he was surgeon general, which seems right. What was it like playing that role, and where do you think he would have gone in life? Other than jail.
CP: Yeah, jail would be a pretty likely place, but he always managed to seem to evade that, surprisingly. Dr. Spaceman was a role that was certainly one of the best written roles I’ve ever gotten to play, just because anything can come out of his mouth, pretty much. It was just a delight to get to play him. And to say the things that he said, and to be that insane, and to try to do it in a way that sounded believable and in a way that made it sound like it made sense for Leo Spaceman? But I don’t know where he’d be. I mean, I guess if he became the surgeon general, maybe president after that? That wouldn’t be out of the question.
CP: Paula Pell plays a sort of Murder, She Wrote kind of character, but very over-the-top and very ridiculous. And John Lutz plays a local sheriff. J.B. Smoove is another sheriff. There are a ton of folks in it, so I’m not even aware of everybody. I just did one episode where I played a rather mean-spirited butcher. But it is nuts. It’s crazy. It’s well-written, but the content is nuts, and so I’m very eager to see it.
I don’t know when it’s going to come out, but it’s fun to see Paula play that role, because she started as a performer. She’s become more known as a writer, but now she’s gotten back into the performing more and the writing. It’s fun to get to see her play that kind of crazy, over-the-top character. And then fun to see John Lutz do something other than be Lutz in 30 Rock.
Saturday Night Live
AVC: Did you get to be friends with Paula when you were at SNL?
CP: I did, I did. Paula was one of my favorite people to write with. Some of my most fun writing nights were when Paula and I would get together and work on some sketch or the other, and that was always a treat. Paula is hilarious, and also lovely, and just a delight to be around. A lot of laughs.
AVC: I’ve always wondered if past cast members ever think to themselves, “Oh, this is what I would do with this moment,” or “Here’s how I’d do a Zoom sketch for the at-home shows.” Do you armchair-quarterback?
CP: I don’t. I watch every show and quite enjoy it, and I’ve really enjoyed these SNLs At Home. I’m so impressed with how those have come off. But no.
One of the nice things about not being on the show is to not have to think about all of that. I remember going back to play Tom Brokaw or Jim Lehrer or somebody for a debate sketch after I was off the show. I wasn’t in the cast anymore, but they had me come back and do that. And I remember after the show was over, and just sort of being aware, “Oh I don’t have to go in on Monday and pitch ideas in Lorne’s office,” and just the sense of relief I found, and the sense of closure as like, “Oh, yeah. I did my time, and it’s okay to be done with this.” It was fun to come back and do it, but I’m very glad I don’t have to keep trying to come up with ideas and bits like that. So it’s nice to just watch the show as a fan.
AVC: Speaking of SNL, can you believe “Lazy Sunday” came out 15 years ago?
CP: I mostly just feel lucky that they asked me to be a part of it and that it found the following that it did and all that. The Lonely Island did a little tour last year and had me come along for some of the dates to do a live version of “Lazy Sunday.” So I had to definitely re-familiarize myself with it and get to the point where I could do it live without screwing up. Andy [Samberg] and Akiva [Schaffer] and Jorma [Taccone] were pros at that after having done several tour dates. But that was a blast. The fan response was incredible.
The idea that it was 15 years ago... First of all, that was my last season on the show, and that I left SNL 15 years ago is crazy, in that I started 23 years ago or something. I just feel old. I just feel so old.
AVC: Did you update the song at all for the live show, or did you keep the debate about MapQuest versus Yahoo Maps versus Google?
CP: The only thing we updated was in the break where we’re talking about the $10 bills and referring to them as “Hamiltons.” They wrote in a break where they would sing some sections from Hamilton the musical. And then I respond to that like, “What the hell are you guys doing? What is this?” It was pretty great, I think. The fans seemed to really love it. And [The Lonely Island] can all kind of sing fairly well. I mean, good enough for comedy.
AVC: You’ve been in a few movies that maybe weren’t deemed super successful when they came out, but they have these huge cult followings now. Hot Rod is one of them. What do you remember about making that movie, and then about the reception after it came out?
CP: Well, I kind of have some memory of shooting the scenes around the track where they were doing the big jump of the motorcycle or the bike. I guess it was a motorcycle. So I remember that and getting the script that day, because a lot of my dialogue was what Akiva and Seth Meyers had added, and they gave me the little speeches they did about the tattoo on my belly, and the AM radio and all that. So that was a great treat and a delight to get that material from those guys, and then to do it. Being up onstage with the band was pretty fun. It was very disappointing that it didn’t do much out of the gate, or at all in the theaters. I don’t know if it was marketing or what it was. But it’s certainly been gratifying and rewarding to see how it’s gotten this cult following over the years, as it should have. It’s an awesome little movie.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)—“Theo”
CP: I remember that fairly well, just because there was so much emphasis put on me and Matt Besser and Tim Meadows learning to play the songs on our respective instruments. They and we wanted it to look believable and real, so we actually learned all the songs. John [C. Reilly] is a very talented musician to begin with. I wasn’t a bass player. I think Matt Besser played some guitar, and Tim played some drums. So I kind of learned the upright bass.
It was fun. It was really a blast. I remember one of the final numbers of the movie, being up onstage when we’re all old. We were at some auditorium in, I think, downtown L.A. shooting, and they were playing the track, and we were just playing along to it, but it was fun, because I was actually playing the notes for real, and matching the song. I was up there, kind of pretending to be a rock star for a little bit. I get to do that every now and then in my weird acting career.
Also, I got to know Tim Meadows a lot better on that show than I had on SNL, because we passed so briefly on SNL, and he’d been there for so long. Nothing unfriendly, but it wasn’t until we did Walk Hard that it was like, “Oh, yeah. I really like you. You’re an awesome dude.” It was fun, and we’ve gotten to work together periodically over the years. And then every now and then, I’ll run into Matt Besser, and he’s great. Jake Kasdan was a fun, awesome director to work with. And Judd [Apatow] was around a lot. It was just another one of those things, though. Obviously, a lot of people now have realized what an awesome, fantastic, brilliant movie it is, and John just really sold it so well. It was a shame to see that it just sort of was dead in the water when it premiered. But thankfully, again, it’s found its following.
The Ladies Man (2000)—“Phil Swanson”
AVC: It’s funny that you weren’t tight with Tim Meadows, because you were in The Ladies Man movie, too.
CP: Well, I think the way that happened—and, honestly, I don’t know for sure—but there was a table read for the movie. Will Ferrell had some obligation and wasn’t able to do it, so I filled in for Will in what was a pretty big part for the table read. It went really well, and I think Tim and the writers really appreciated me stepping in for that, so they threw me that part of that guy, which was really sweet.
AVC: Your dad was a radio announcer. You did radio. You also did the high school announcements. Is “narrator voice” or “radio voice” something you always did?
CP: I don’t know that I did. I certainly saw and heard my dad do it. I would hear him on the radio and TV from time to time. And then, yeah, I worked as a disc jockey for a few summers back in Memphis, and then also in Hernando, Mississippi, which I really enjoyed. But no, I don’t know if, as a kid, I would play at that. I’m not sure that that was something that I did. My older son isn’t an announcer, but he’s amazing at coming up with stories and things, and just playing with his Lego characters. I think he got a lot of that from my wife, who is a writer. He’s got such an imagination. I don’t know that I had that as a child.
AVC: When you came to L.A., you were in The Groundlings, and then you had a run from 1996 to 1998 where you were doing bit parts in things that were fairly popular. You were in Jingle All The Way. You were on Seinfeld. You did two episodes of Murphy Brown. Was that stuff you were auditioning for?
CP: Yeah, yeah. It was all just great, because that’s what I wanted to be doing. And it all really came out of The Groundlings. Tony Sepulveda, who was directing me in the Sunday show at one point is or was a major guy at Warner Bros.—I think he’s still at Warner Bros. So he brought me in to read for a part on the show Hope & Gloria. And I got it, and it was great. And from that, I got a manager, and ultimately an agent and that all led to these little guest star roles on sitcoms. It was fun to do, and it was exciting every time one of those would come up. It felt kind of spread out. It wasn’t job after job after job, but it was very validating. Because it’s like, you know, you’re not crazy to have moved to L.A. and tried to make it as an actor. You’re actually making it, on a modest scale.
Jingle All The Way came even before I was in the Sunday company at The Groundlings. That was one of my first big things. I was actually working at an FAO Schwarz toy store in the Beverly Center at the time when I got that just completely by chance. But yeah, that was exciting, obviously. SNL saw me while I was at The Groundlings performing, and that’s how I got that audition. It was fun to be wanted, and to sort of see that building. I had gotten onto a show called Conrad Bloom. I was in the pilot, and they decided to bring me back. They were going to supposedly make me a recurring character, but then I actually got on SNL. So it was like, “Okay, yeah. This could work.”
AVC: Who was in your Groundlings Sunday night show?
CP: I crossed paths with Ana Gasteyer. Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, and Chris Kattan were ahead of me a bit. Scott Wainio, who wrote at Saturday Night Live for many years. Roy Jenkins, who wrote at Conan, we were in there together. Mike MacDonald, who has gone on to do a lot of amazing things like MADtv, not to mention all his directing and producing and stuff. Who else? I mean, a lot of great people. Cheryl Hines, I don’t know if we ever performed together. I think she was a little bit after me. And then I knew Maya [Rudolph] and Will Forte and those guys. Kristen Wiig and I were actually roommates at one point. We platonically just ended up as roommates. That was before she was who she is now, but she was always so funny. It wasn’t until she got onto SNL that I really saw any of her work. I’d heard she’d done great stuff at The Groundlings, but it wasn’t until she got on there that I was like, “Holy moly, wow. Okay!”
AVC: Certainly one of the most pervasive roles you’ve had is as the voice of the Progressive Box in commercials. How did that come about?
CP: Like pretty much all the voice-over commercial jobs that I’ve done, it was an audition. It was so long ago that I started doing them. Sadly, I’m actually not the box anymore.
AVC: Oh, I’m so sorry.
CP: That’s okay. I had a very good run. I was very lucky. I’m sad that the box is no longer with us, but it was a great run while it lasted. It was fun to do, and they were so well written, and written to my voice. It was a treat to do those.
AVC: You’ve done a few shows specifically aimed at kids in recent years. You’ve done Mr. Peabody And Sherman, which brought the old classic back, and then WordGirl, which you did for a while. What do you like about doing shows aimed at kids?
CP: It calls on different parts of me than what Rick And Morty and Archer call on, and most other things that I do. It’s a little sillier, and a little bigger, and a little crazier. One of the things I feel very lucky about as an actor is I get to do a pretty good variety of things. Being able to do children’s animation is just part of that. I mean, it’s a big part of it. I do occasional voices on Nature Cat. I did a voice on Elena Of Avalor, and there are other things. I’m just starting a new series called Dogs In Space that is so far fantastic. My older son likes Nature Cat, and so when he watches that, he’ll hear me on it, and he’ll say, “Is that you?” So that’s the first time that he’s able to hear what I do, if not see me. That’ll hopefully continue to be the case, and he’ll be able to watch more stuff as he gets older, and that’s a lot of fun.
AVC: You’ll get recognized at children’s birthday parties by confused children.
CP: I already do! Some of the neighborhood kids, their parents will tell me, “Paloma heard you on Nature Cat or WordGirl,” or whatever. “So and so loves you on that, and they wanted me to tell you.” And then they’ll tell me now, because they’re old enough. They’re all 6 or whatever. So it’s fun.