From Dr. Leo Spacemen on 30 Rock to Jerry Smith on Rick and Morty to Cyril Figgis on Archer, Chris Parnell has mastered the art of delivering ridiculous lines with a perfect deadpan. He’s the consummate comedic straight man who makes every scene he’s in better with his earnest delivery.
We recently spoke to Parnell about his journey to become an actor, his experience at the Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special and the wavering of his Christian faith.
[To hear the audio version of this interview, click here.]
How did you get into acting?
I started when I was in junior high. I auditioned for a school play and got in. I surprisingly got the lead. That first school wasn’t that much of a theatre program. It wasn’t that hard. Yeah, I started with that. I continued on into high school, I switched schools in high school. The one I went to had an amazing theatre program as well as a television studio. I’d get all the musicals that I could there. I had a teacher, Mr. Bloomstein, who became my mentor, who really encouraged me. By my junior or senior year, he said, “If you really wanted this, you could pursue this and make a career out of this.” He gave me a lot of encouragement.
From there, were you just full speed ahead?
Well, from there, I was going to audition for several different theatre schools, for different colleges. He recommended a particular North Carolina school of the arts. A former student of his had gone there and had a great experience. So, I was originally going to do a big group audition where you audition one time and representatives from different schools come and see you. But he urged me to go to the school so I could look at it and potentially increase my odds of getting in. I went and auditioned at the school. I had everything really hanging on that. And then luckily, I got in.
Was it after school that you ended up joining up with the Groundlings or was there a gap there?
There was a little gap. I did some summer theatre while I was in school and also I came back to Germantown, Tennessee, right outside of Memphis, which is where I went to high school. I went back and taught under Mr. Bloomstein at my high school. I taught acting and the film and video classes I had taken. It wasn’t for me and I really wanted to try to be an actor.
Actually, the first thing I did was I went down to Houston to the Alley Theater and I auditioned for and got into their apprentice program, which was sort of a way to get your equity points and all of that. I did that for a season and that was fun. But I left there a little disenchanted with the theater world. I hadn’t received the notice that I thought I deserved there. Some other people get asked to stick around and be in the next production and I knew, objectively, I was actually better than they were. They were much better at socializing and hobnobbing than I was. So that’s when I came back and I taught high school for a year.
During that year, I was like, “No, I’ve really got to go give this a shot.” I decided to move out to LA. Shortly after arriving here, some friends said, “You need to go to the Groundlings, you need to take classes at the Groundlings.” Among other things, they said, “Do student films, take workshops, do everything you can, just do everything.” So I did. It paid off hugely with the Groundlings.
When you’re in the Groundlings, do people see it as a stepping stone to Saturday Night Live or is that even in your brain at that point? Are you just focusing on the work?
Well, you know, you go through these classes. You start at level one. If you make it from that, they move you up to level two. And then three, and at three you start writing. You do a show, you perform a show. Based on that, you hopefully get moved into level four and you do two shows. Based on that, you hopefully get moved into the Sunday show and you do that for awhile.
So when you’re in the Sunday Show, it’s like a show every Sunday night and casting directors and people are actually coming to that show to check out the cast. From that, I got an agent and a manager and my first part in a sitcom. It didn’t hurt that my director was Tony Sepulveda who was a big casting director at Warner Brothers and is even bigger now. He was directing the show.
And then that moved me up to the main company and I don’t know that I ever really had SNL as a goal, per se. I mean, I watched SNL, I enjoyed SNL. When Cheri Oteri and Chris Kattan and Will Ferrel got on Saturday Night Live straight out of the Groundlings, I remember watching that first show backstage when they were on because that was the first time in some time the Groundlings had made it onto SNL. So that was pretty exciting.
From that point on, I think people sort of started to realize that this could be a path to SNL. And then Ana Gasteyer got on. At the time that she got on they asked for some tape on me as well and I sent it in but never heard anything and figured,”Oh well, that was my SNL shot. I’ll hopefully be able to keep working in sitcom stuff and all that.” Then a year or so later, I got a call from my agent, they had seen another show and I wasn’t aware of that happening. They flew me out to audition.
What is that like? You’re a working actor, you do the Groundlings, then you go and do this audition and then you’re on Saturday Night Live. Is that a pretty abrupt change in your life? What did that feel like?
It was a pretty big change. It means moving to New York and then being on a show as a cast member, something that people can tune into many Saturdays out of the year and watch you. It’s a whole other level of pressure so there was a lot of happiness, obviously, getting on the show, but also a lot of fear. Because you know there are a lot of people who are on the show for not very long, it doesn’t pan out for them, sadly. That could easily be your fate. So it took awhile to sort of find my footing there. Then, kind of as I found my footing, I got fired and then rehired later, in which would be my fourth season and I was there for four more seasons.
So did you ever feel comfortable or was there always this uncertainty about your future?
I think after I got rehired, after a couple of seasons – especially after the first two seasons – I think I felt pretty comfortable. You never feel completely comfortable because you don’t know what kind of a show you’re going to have on any given Saturday night. You might be in the show, you might not be in the show. You can have a great show in dress rehearsal.
One time I was in six pieces in dress rehearsal and I thought, “I’m going to have a great show tonight.” By the time air rolled around, between pieces that got cut (as pieces always get cut between dress and air) and pieces that got cut for time while we were on the air, I ended up in one piece. That was a particularly dramatic example of that. Yeah, you never know what kind of a show you’re going to have. Everyone’s always expected to write, so you’re always trying to write stuff every week. And that’s hard. I wrote at the Groundlings and stuff. I have somewhat of a knack for that. But I didn’t get into this to be a writer. But nonetheless, you have to give the best you can. And also, really hope that other people want to write for you and put you in their sketches, which happily they did.
How does that work with them pitching sketches? Do you have to show them how you are? Or it takes awhile for them to be like, “This is what Chris Parnell can do if we need a guy for this sketch.” Is there a period of them not really sure what to do with you?
Exactly. A lot of them, if not all of them, watch the auditions that we do. So they have an opportunity to see what we do in the auditions and get an idea from that. And then, usually when you’re new, you’re more likely to be put in commercial parodies. They involve getting up very early on a Thursday morning after everything else in the week has been very later. You have to get up early and drive out to some place by the Hudson River and shoot this commercial parody so a lot of times new cast members do that stuff. That’s a way also that they sort of see how you do with that. They get a sense of what you can do.
Also, I always took the table read very seriously. Not that everybody doesn’t. Of course, you have to. But the table read on Wednesdays where all the pieces get read and you always want to perform at your best there so that the piece that you’re in, whether you wrote it or someone else wrote it, has a shot of getting in the show, or at least dress rehearsal. So I would always read all of the sketches before I came to the table, if I could, so I wasn’t reading them cold.
Now, if it was something I’d written, obviously, I wasn’t going to be cold. Some of the writers were good about coming around and giving you a heads up about the sketch and what you’re going to be doing in it, but a lot of times you’re just reading it cold so it helped a lot to have an idea of what was coming in the packet.
How did you become involved with the “Lazy Sunday” video and then what was it like to see the reaction to that?
I had done a few raps on the show on Weekend Update. When Andy [Samberg] and Akiva [Schaffer] and Jorma [Taccone] came on the show (Akiva and Jorma has writers and Andy as a cast member, of course), they had seen the raps and they said, “We do these raps, too. Would you want to work on one with us?”
I was like, “Yeah, absolutely, of course,” not even really being fully aware of the skill set that they brought to the show with all of the stuff that they had made for Lonely [Island] and maybe Channel 101 and a lot of stuff they had already done. Then the reaction – I think we all had a little idea that this was something special. I don’t think any of us imagined that it would be the hit that it turned out to be.
What has the 40th anniversary stuff been like for you? Has it been cool to see the show getting celebrated? Obviously you weren’t super involved with the broadcast, but what was the experience like of having this 40th anniversary special?
It was pretty cool. I was really happy that, again, Andy came to me and said, “Do you want to do this part of this video that [Adam] Sandler and I are doing?”
I was like, “Yeah, of course, absolutely.”
That was my little contribution to the show. Besides clips and stuff, which you know, I was happy my face was in there a few other places.
At first, I honestly wasn’t sure if I wanted to go, it was going to be such a celebrity-fest and there are going to be a lot of people who are a lot more important and more famous than me, both from the cast and the hosts, obviously. So I just didn’t know how that was going to feel to go watch all of that. I thought about it more and talked about it a lot with my wife. She encouraged me to go and I thought, “Put your insecurities and all that aside, and just go and have fun with it because you’ll definitely see people that you want to see and haven’t seen in awhile.” And that’s what it was. I got to see and talk to a lot of people I haven’t seen. It was also frustrating just because there were so many people there – cast members and writers and former hosts – who I wanted to say hi to and go talk to and just couldn’t. There wasn’t time. There’s so many people. It was a little overwhelming. There were a lot of folks.
Did you go out to the after-party or anything?
I did, I went there and that’s where you hoped to catch up and talk with people but yeah, it was tough because there were so many folks.
You mentioned that you were in the video with Samberg and Sandler on the show. It was kind of funny that you popped up because you have a reputation for never breaking on the show. Did you actually break? You seemed like you held it together pretty well.
Yeah, I don’t think I did. I kind of have that reputation for not having broken. So yeah, you know, its just what it was. I might have fared better if i had broken now and then. Not to be pretentious, but I approached it like an actor.
That’s what you’re supposed to do. It can be charming to break, but at the same time, the goal is to be able to get through the sketches.
But at the same time, when you break, as long as it’s a genuine break, then the audience can tell that you’re trying to keep it together. I think it really sort of humanizes you in a way and allows the audience to connect with you in a certain way. I don’t know, I think people like what I did enough, but I think there might actually be some advantage to breaking. That’s just my theory, anyway. It didn’t hurt Jimmy Fallon any.
What was it like getting to portray Dr. Leo Spaceman on 30 Rock?
He was amazing. It was such a wonderful part. So incredibly well-written. And written I think, kind of for me and to my strength. You can’t ask for a much better part than that. You’re really just trying to not screw it up. Such good material to work with. And it’s such a good show overall. It was a show that I really liked watching, it was really sad to see it go, as a performer and as an audience member.
How did you become involved in Archer? Was voice acting an interest of yours or was it just a direction your career veered into?
My dad is a voice over guy back in Memphis. He’s always done that. He would have me do voice over stuff when I was a kid, like if he needed the voice of a kid, then he’d use me or my sister. But it is sort of a hard business to break into and I never gave it too much of a shot before SNL.
While I was on SNL, they started to use me for voice overs and commercial parodies and things. Sometimes live stuff. I talked to somebody who was affiliated with the show, I don’t remember who they were, but they recommended that I go in and see some people at the station CCSD, I think it was CED at the time, now CCSD. I honestly think, because I was on SNL, that kind of opened the door up completely and allowed me to get in there.
But then they started to send me out for stuff and I started to book commercials and voice over stuff. And then somewhere along the way, after I’d moved back to LA, post-SNL, I had done a few little animated things and then I got this audition for a part in the pilot of Archer, which was not Cyril. I think it was a German or a Russian bad guy or something. And I did that and probably not very well. I didn’t get that and, to my surprise, a little later on, the offer for Cyril just came through.
And having read the script – actually, I think that was the first time I had gotten the whole script, maybe – but reading it and seeing how really well it was written and how dense it was with jokes and always making esoteric references and things [made me want to get involved]. And it was a job, so I was all too happy to be involved. We realized when we went to our first Comic-Con, I guess it was after the first season, I don’t know, just to see this large room of people who are fans, I think it sort of brought it home to those of us who weren’t necessarily keeping up with the numbers or the ratings. “Oh, it has a nice following!”
How was it for you to get to do fan events like Archer Live?
Those are really fun, because we don’t record together. We record separately whereever we are. You know, me in LA and Jon [Benjamin] and Jessica [Walter] in New York and Amber [Nash] and Lucky [Yates] and Adam [Reed] record in Georgia. So when we do the live shows, it’s actually pretty fun. We actually all like each other, we get along and it’s fun to hang out and drink and whatever. So, it’s great. We haven’t done any in awhile. There’s talk of doing a couple more somewhere on the East Coast. Not sure where, but yeah, I’m looking forward to that, hoping that happens.
You also portray Jerry on Rick and Morty. Jerry’s an interesting character. You root for him, but he’s just so sad. He’s such a defeated man.
Yeah, he is. He really knows it, in a way. He knows it, somewhat. Yeah, I’m really proud of that show, too. That is another show that’s so well-written and so [fun]. It’s another one I really like to watch. And you know, we also had a really great fan reaction to that. So this last Comic-Con, in addition to doing big a room full of people for Archer, we did a big panel for Rick and Morty as well. I’m just eager for season two to start airing, which, I’m not sure when it is, but I think it’s coming up in the summer maybe? I’m not sure.
One of the funny things that Justin Roiland said is that they had to, in the writers’ room, stop writing Jerry stories because it got to the point where the B-story was like, “and then we can put Jerry in this situation” and it was almost like they had to fight to get the other cast members in there instead. You became the go to for the B-story.
It was really nice, it was great because I love doing it. I love being that guy. When you have Spencer [Grammer] and Sarah [Chalke] in there, you better use them too. They’re pretty talented themselves.
Do you guys record the lines separately for that too? Or is that done as an ensemble?
That’s separate. Justin is usually there directing the sessions. Then occasionally, Dan [Harmon] will direct. Then sometimes, one of the writers will direct, whoever wrote the episode, will be the director for it. Typically it’s been Justin, but I think they’ve been training Ryan Ridley and some of the other guys to take on that role so it’s pretty cool. You get a variety of directors.
Archer is on now and Rick and Morty is coming up. Is there anything you can tell people about either show about what to expect?
I wish I could. Archer is going to be it’s fantastic self. I think the the one with Pam and her sister has already aired. I’ve got three on my TiVo, I haven’t watched yet. There’s just a lot of great stories. The end of the season is a two-parter. That’s going to be pretty cool. More of the same, we’ll have some interesting guest voices on there. More of Mr. Slater. Exploring the characters. There’s some little relationship changes that happen.
With Rick and Morty, I can say that there are a lot of other dimensions and multiple dimensions again, and things that are happening at once, simultaneously, in multiple dimensions. I think are probably proving to be a real monster for the animators to depict. I’m excited to see it.
What do you think you’d be doing for a living if you never got into acting? Obviously, you mentioned that you were teaching for a little while. Do you think it would have been that or do you think you’d have ended up doing something else?
It’s kind of scary to think of what else I’d be doing. I worked at a toy store for five years when I moved to LA and when I was taking classes at the Groudlings, that was my day job. There used to be an FAO Schwarz in the Beverly Center, this mall in LA. I don’t know that I could have stood it to go on and move up the management chain in retail. That’s a tough business, for me, anyway. My little hobby, as it is for a lot of people, is photography. I might have tried to pursue that. I’d be like a high-end photographer. That’s a pretty hard world to break into as well.
Is there anywhere people can see your photography?
Just on my computer. My family’s computers and phones.
You never thought about doing a show or anything? Putting them online?
No. I aspire to make a photo book for my wife and my family. Things like that. It’s just very time consuming. You have to kind of make a big commitment to it. I tried to make a photo book of my trip to Italy my wife and I took quite a few years ago. Hoping to one day to finish that, but I haven’t yet. I also want to print some of my stuff just to hang around the house, but I’m lazy.
What is something that most people don’t know about you?
I grew up Baptist and was pretty serious about my faith. That’s not a part of my life anymore. I departed from that world and I’m happy that I did. I certainly don’t judge people who are believers but I am no longer among them. That’s probably a big one that people don’t know.
Was there a specific moment? Or was it just over time you just drifted away?
I always took my faith very seriously and I went to Baptist church. I went to Baptist elementary schools. My first year of high school was at a private baptist school before I moved for the theatre department of a public school. I was a chaplain of my class, Southern Baptist Educational Center, for one or two of my years, which is one of the class offices you can hold. I was a believer, a real believer. I took that very seriously and took my faith very literally and my belief in God and the written Bible and all of that.
As I got older, it just didn’t quite make sense to me. Partly as a product of my being a somewhat literal, logical person. I just couldn’t figure it out. I just couldn’t figure out how believing in this guy and Jesus and accepting him as your lord and savior would get you into Heaven. But everyone else who didn’t do that was damned to eternal torment in a lake of fire. That was just hard to process.
So I’d lay in bed at night as a kid, just trying to imagine this lake of fire and torment that never ends. A God that would condemn somebody to that for the crime of not believing in his son as the lord and savior seems worse than any destiny on Earth could ever be. To have the power to convict somebody to that for eternity is pretty awful. All the evils and ills of the world; how could the Holocaust have happened if there is a God who gives half a shit about humanity? If He or She or whatever is up there, then I don’t think they have too much concern of the comings and goings of man. And given that, I never came to really see any evidence. And also I came to terms with the idea of Jesus as a rabbi, a teacher who actually, legitimately had important things to say. You know, love your neighbor as yourself and all of that. Not everything was evil, certainly, but there’s some good lessons in there.
There’s actually a book called Q, which is all of the quotes that are attributed to Jesus in Matthew and Luke without anything else, which is really interesting to read.
There’s a book called the Gospel According to Jesus that was sort of put together by a bunch of scholars from different faiths, or different branches of Christianity, and part of what they did was to highlight sections in different ways. There were four different ways it could be highlighted. One was something that they very strongly believed were the words of Jesus. Something that might have been. Something that probably wasn’t and then something that almost assuredly was not something that Jesus said. And yeah, you end up with a very different Jesus when you read it that way.
It is so different when you’re raised religious and when you actually learn about the history of the Bible. There’s all this stuff, like how the apple isn’t actually in the Bible. The word “apple” never appears. It’s an American interpretation of “fruit.” It’s fascinating what people thinks is in the Bible versus what is actually in the Bible.
The original text and how it was translated and the books that were left out and the ones that were voted in and all of that stuff.
That’s the big thing that people don’t think about. There was never an original “Bible.” Someone transcribed someone else’s material and left stuff out or added stuff.
Is there anything else you want to mention that I didn’t bring up? Any other future projects or anything?
I don’t know if I’m supposed to say it, but we’ve recorded enough now – Dreamworks Television Animation is doing a Mr. Peabody and Sherman series. We’ve been recording those for awhile now and those I think will be on Netflix sometime maybe next year. I’m not sure when, but that’s been a lot of fun.
Then, I’ve done a few guest star parts on another Dreamworks show called The Croods, a TV-version of the movie. Ana Gasteyer plays my wife, she’s delightful.
There’s another show for PBS called Major Cat that I’ve done a few guest voices on. Taryn Killam, Bobby Moynihan and I think Kate Micucci and maybe Kate McKinnon have a part in as regulars and I come in every now and then and do guest voices on Major Cat. But you know, that’s obviously for kids.
I did another episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which I’m not sure when that’s going to air, but that was fun. And then, next week I’m going to Santa Fe to shoot a small part in this Adam Sandler movie called Ridiculous Six. That’ll have some other SNL folks in it. A lot of celebrities, actually. It should be fun.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Archer airs Thursdays at 10 pm on FX. You can find more interviews with Archer cast members here.