Chris Parnell Chats About SNL, '30 Rock,' Lindsay Lohan, Will Ferrell & More
Regardless, Chris was nice enough to join me the day after his birthday and discuss everything from his time on Saturday Night Live, helping put YouTube on the map with "Lazy Sunday," his role as Dr. Leo Spaceman on 30 Rock and his upcoming film co-starring Lindsay Lohan.
Mike: OK, first thing, happy birthday yesterday.
Chris: Thank you very much.
Mike: Did you do anything exciting?
Chris: Well, I went to Disneyland with my girlfriend and two other friends of mine who share the same birthday. You know, you get in free on your birthday; so, we took advantage of that.
Mike: So, when I was doing research for this the one thing I didn't know ... you grew up in Tennessee right?
Mike: You don't have a southern accent so I found that a bit surprising, actually.
Chris: Well, I used to. Prior to going to college I had a pretty strong accent and that was one of the things I had to work on a lot. I went to North Carolina School of the Arts; my speech teacher ... that was one of the things we really had to work on over the years and thankfully I think it finally worked. Sometimes, if I'm back home or if I'm drinking some I might slip into it a little bit.
Mike: That's a good point about the drinking. I have, as it's been described, the "nondescript Midwest accent" but, every now and then, I will say words a little bit differently after a few drinks and people will say, "Oh that's not the 'Missouri' coming out, but the 'Missoura' coming out."
Mike: You were with the Groundlings in Los Angeles. What's the process like to get from that to Saturday Night Live?
Chris: Well, it's four levels of classes. You do an audition to get in but it's not a difficult thing to get into the basic class ... unless you seem like you are dangerous or insane.
Mike: So it's a lot like UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) in New York?
Chris: Well I guess. I've been to UCB a few times and I know a number of people involved ... I'm sure there are some parallels.
I think the Groundlings might be a little more structured; which for some people is good and for some people it's not. You have to take this basic class, then once you make it through that you have to get approved by your teacher to get through to the next class, which is intermediate.
Then you go into the last class, in which you end up doing a show at the end of that. Your teacher ultimately makes that decision whether you move on to the final level: advanced. Then you do two shows and all the people in the Groundlings company are voting on whether or not you go into the Sunday show.
Then, you do the Sunday show from anywhere from six months to, maybe, two years. You either get extended each six months, or moved up into the main company, or booted out.
Mike: You make it sound like a reality show; if you don't make the cut, you're just gone.
Chris: Yeah, it's true. It's one of the great things about the Groundlings, it has a specific structure to it but you have to make it to each level. By the time you make it to the Sunday show you have a certain caliber of people in there.
For me, that's where everything started to happen. That's how I was able to get an agent and first started getting parts on sitcoms. Then I got into the main company and that's where I eventually -- unbeknown to me -- got seen by some of the producers for Saturday Night Live.
Mike: From there, do they invite you out [to New York] for an interview?
Chris: I got a call from my agent one day and she said, "SNL wants to fly you to New York for an audition, they saw you at the Groundlings." So then, yes, I had to get an audition together and flew to New York. It went well.
Mike: Once you were on SNL, what was your favorite character? And there is one I have in mind...
Chris: I guess ... hmm ... Merv the Perv.
Mike: Ha! Yes, I'm happy. Thank you.
Chris: I didn't have that many reoccurring characters of my own by myself. I did the Bloder Brothers with Jimmy Fallon, the DeMarco brothers with (Chris) Kattan ... which, I love doing those. I had a character named Terry Funk that I only got on the air twice that I really love. It was just hard to get him on the show.
Yep, I guess Merv he Perv.
Mike: Reoccurring or not, your favorite skit you were in during your time there. And it doesn't have to be one that is universally known; just the most fun you have had...
Chris: Well, this is one that fit the category you described, but the "Cowbell" sketch...
Mike: Right, though, I didn't want to bring that one up, but I had a feeling that might be one of them.
Chris: That one was really fun to do and with the way it has stayed so popular over the years. I guess on some levels it has become a classic. You know, you feel lucky to be a part of something like that.
We did a sketch called "Superbuzzers" where almost, if not, everybody in the cast was playing a celebrity from the 1970's [or] early 1980's. It was a game show and I was the host ... I always found whenever you had a lot of the cast in a sketch and everybody had a chance to do a little something ... that was the most fun. Both the rehearsing of it and the performing of it, it's when you had the best sense of ensemble with the whole group.
And, obviously, "Lazy Sunday" was a blast to do with Andy (Samberg), Akiva (Schaffer) and Jorma (Taccone). The fact that it, sort of, gained the popularity that it did...
Mike: I was going to ask: Do you take pride in helping to create YouTube?
Chris: Well, I guess (laughs). The Lonely Island guys ... they were already so good at making videos for the site. Akiva was so good at directing ... and the music by Jorma, he was so good at that. They're all good at the lyrics. I just feel lucky they brought me in to [help] write it.
Mike: Well, that's the first time I ever heard the word "viral," as related to the Internet, with "Lazy Sunday."
Chris: Yeah, I guess it was for me, too. I mean, I didn't even know the whole thing was happening. We had done this show -- the last show before Christmas break -- I was at home in Memphis and one of the publicity guys from the show called and said The New York Times wanted to do an interview about it ... and I was like: what? Then we started to hear more and more that everybody is watching this thing. That was very unexpected, but cool.
Mike: YouTube seems such a part of our lives now but that was the first time I ever went on YouTube. Even though, technically, it wasn't supposed to be on YouTube...
Chris: Yeah, I've heard other people say that and I have some sense of that, for sure. I think (laughs) that was my first exposure to YouTube, as well. Yeah, I'm still hoping that Google/YouTube will cut me in for a little bit of the billions ... I'm not holding my breath.
Mike: You rap in "Lazy Sunday" and, obviously, you preformed raps before that -- my personal favorite is the Kirsten Dunst version -- but when did you realize you actually had the ability to rap?
Chris: You know, it's kind of a strange thing. It's so stupid how it started; I was doing this email exchange with a friend of mine back home, we were talking about ... I think it was actually about Liv Tyler at the time. He just wrote a line like, "She's so fine she blows my mind" or something ... then I just wrote this whole rap. Then I had that but I didn't think much of it; then I got on the show; then Britney Spears was hosting and I was like: huh, I wonder if I can do anything with that with her? Then I just sort of adapted it for her.
I don't know, it just ... I guess I realized the rap thing a bit when I was at the Groundlings. We would sometimes improvise rap and that's the first time I had a sense that I could do that on some level. It's very gratifying people enjoyed it.
Mike: In Tom Shales's book Live From New York you mention meeting Tom Brokaw. Is that odd to meet people you parody? Do you have any other examples?
Chris: He may be the only example of someone I actually met. It was in the NBC gym of all places.
Mike: I like how in the book you made sure to mention: no, he was not nude.
Chris: (Laughs) Yeah. I think it was my first season on the show or something and he didn't know who I was. I just said, "Hey Mr. Brokaw, I'm Chris Parnell. I just wanted to say hi; I do an impression of you on Saturday Night Live.
Mike: That has to be a little bit awkward?
Chris: A little bit. But he was very nice and he sort of went into this story about how one of his daughters used to hang out at the show and went to (SNL Producer and daughter of Calvin Klein) Marci Klein's sweet 16 birthday party and talked about Belushi and this and that. It was cool to hear his perspective on it and his sense of it.
Mike: SNL is its own entity in a way. People come and go, the show always survives. It even made it through that infamous era of the early 80's -- the first couple of years -- when Lorne Michaels was not there. It's funny, when you originally left the show, obviously the show goes on ... but I remember watching an episode of Friends, of all things, and I think -- correct me if I'm wrong because I didn't research this, I'm just going from memory -- didn't you play one of Chandler Bing's co-workers? And I remember thinking to myself: Oh, there's Chris Parnell! It was like I didn't realize how much I missed you on SNL until I saw that episode of Friends. Then, a few months later, you are back on Saturday Night Live.
Chris: No, you're right [about Friends] and that's a really nice thing to say, thank you. I don't honestly know how that happened; I don't know if somebody at NBC (laughs) just felt bad for me having been fired. But I just got the offer to do the part, which was probably a first for me for a sitcom; certainly something of the caliber of Friends.
I was devastated about the SNL thing. I was pretty down about that because it was just very unexpected. So, obviously I was very happy to go back. But it's funny how many people know Friends and sometimes will recognize me from that, as opposed to SNL.
Mike: On Will Ferrell's last episode of SNL you gave a pretty heartfelt speech about how Will was a big part of you getting back on Saturday Night Live. I've always wondered what went on behind the scenes.
Chris: I think it was Andrew Steele that wrote that sketch ... or maybe it was Will. But, I didn't write it but it was based on truth. What I heard was that Will and Chris Kattan went to bat for me ... I believe when Will heard about it he called Lorne (Michaels) and was like: hey, what's going on here? I heard both of them went to bat for me to some NBC executive ... And I never really went into it with them; I think I thanked them on some level.
It was a weird thing, I never got to the bottom of what it was. I think the closest that I ever got was maybe an NBC guy -- a higher up -- who wasn't that into me or something ... I don't know. That was one thing that sort of made it bearable; that there was such a surprise reaction from the cast and the writers. One of the writers, T. Sean Shannon, wrote a sketch that I only heard about, I finally read it later... (laughs) he wrote this pretty scathing sketch where it was about going into a Benihana; these people go in to see their favorite chef and the favorite chef had been fired. They were asking why ... and there were all these references to all of these specific people: either Lorne, or the head writers ... He was kind of calling people to task for letting it happen.
Mike: I'm going to assume that one never aired.
Chris: No, it did not air. Apparently it met with quite a bit of silence at the table. But I've always, you know, admired and appreciated and loved T. Sean for doing that.
Mike: You had one [season], after Will left, to take over the role of George W. Bush. Do you wish they would have given you more of an opportunity? Will's version is so iconic, but, it seems like they ushered in a lot of people after he left.
Chris: I actually did it a few times; I did it for one season. I don't know I did it that much because it was not the greatest impression. Yeah, it was a disappointment because I had worked on it.
Mike: Darrell Hammond just did it the one time.
Chris: Yeah, Darrell tried it. It was one of the weird things; it was one of the very rare things Darrell couldn't get a handle on -- which he fully admits -- and I think it had to with the fact of seeing Will do it, you know, so many times.
I felt like I really made an effort to work on it that summer after that one season I'd done it ... I was really trying to get a better handle on it. Then, after having done the work and like: OK, I think I can do this better... I got the call that they're going to give this to somebody else.
Mike: Well, it's tough following something like that when it is so well known. I mean, Will's still doing it down the street from me [on Broadway].
Chris: I know, I know. It's fantastic. I mean, Will's a genius .... I'm hoping I can get out there to see it but I think HBO is going to cover it, so I'm looking forward to seeing it one way or another.
Mike: Speaking of Will Ferrell and a Will Ferrell movie: In the circles that I run in, at least once every two to four weeks I hear the line, "Ooh, now that's a hot lead" from your character, Garth, in Anchorman. You know, that line itself isn't that inherently funny... but you seem to have a nice niche of making a small line memorable.
Chris: Well thanks. That's funny, I had to think for a minute where I even said the line in the movie but now I remember what you are saying.
Mike: It's funny, I mentioned to a friend that I was talking to you today and that was his only response: "That's a hot lead." So, I had to mention that.
Chris: Wow. That's really cool. Honestly, I've never heard anybody mention that line before. People sometimes bring up the 'poop mouth' line. But yeah, I haven't heard ... that's (laughs) very flattering.
Mike: Well, that leads me to my next question: With your role as Dr. Leo Spaceman on 30 Rock ... you're not on every episode but every time that character is on it is always something quite hilarious that people talk about the next day. You're given limited time but you still make an impression. How do you do that?
Chris: Well thanks. There are people out there like Will, Adam McKay, Tina (Fey) and Robert Carlock -- who's one of the other head writers at 30 Rock -- they are people who have a sense of me from SNL and, kind of, what my strengths are I guess. They know how to write for that, I mean, on a certain level.
With something like 30 Rock ... I think the role was created with me in mind, I can't swear to that. I know I'm one of the first people they came to with the part. The great thing about Spaceman [pronounced Spe-che-men] is that pretty much anything can come out of his mouth. I think it's fun for the writers to write because they can go nuts with it and I just have to try to deliver it in a believable and sincere way, more or less. Yeah, it's fantastic. And I'm only on three or four episodes a season and the audience never has a chance to get tired of the character (laughs).
Mike: If I remember, the last episode you were in -- and this may be the one before -- was the one where you ask Alec Baldwin to drop his pants yet you give him a shot in the arm.
Chris: There was that one and I did a small part the week after that, where I consult with Tracy (Morgan) about his diabetes. I think I've got one more somewhere before the end of the season.
I'm like, genuinely honored and I feel lucky to be a small part of that ship. "Ship" I said, S-H-I-P.
Mike: I appreciate you clarifying that. When I transcribe this, yes, there could be some scorn if I put a "T" at the end of that word instead of a "P." Any upcoming projects we should know about?
Chris: I did a movie last year with Lindsay Lohan called Labor Pains where I play her curmudgeonly boss at a military publishing company; she fakes being pregnant to avoid being fired by me ... so that was really fun to do. I think it's coming out in the not too distant future.
I did a little part in a movie Kevin Farley wrote and directed called Hollywood and Wine. A very small part that I think hopefully will be funny and not too offensive. My friends Kieran and Michele Mulroney wrote and directed this fantastic script called Paper Man with Jeff Daniels, Lisa Kudrow and Ryan Reynolds that, again, I have a small part in but was lucky and happy to be a part of that.
I did a few guest voice roles on this new animated show called Glen Martin DDS that's going to be on Nick at Night starting sometime later in the spring. And I do the voice of the narrator on this show, Wordgirl, on PBS. It's a really good show, it's one of those kid shows that parents cannot be bored watching because it's got a couple of different levels of humor going on...
Mike: And just for my own benefit, I'm just going to say this so when I do transcribe this that it is on record: With you starring in a movie with Lindsay Lohan, that opens up another avenue of questions that I'm sure neither of us have time for.
Chris: (Laughs) I mean, honestly, I know she has, perhaps, not always been on her game in terms of some other movies. She was a pro on this one. For whatever reason she completely ... she was there, she was present, she was fun, she did her thing. I had worked with her a few times on SNL so I knew her a little bit. There was never any weird stuff or bad stuff or anything.
Mike: OK, last question: You still make appearances on Saturday Night Live; you did a few this year, I think you did Jim Lehrer?
Chris: Yeah, I did Jim Lehrer and Brokaw and Bob Schiffer for the debate sketches.
Mike: I know you have mentioned how much you absolutely love Saturday Night Live. I know there are a lot of people that are glad that you still come back; under the circumstances of what happened I think a lot of lesser people might hold some resentment?
Chris: Yeah. Well, the truth is, like I said, I was pretty upset the first time I got fired; I was really not prepared for that and I did not see it coming. The second time ... by then I had been on the show, on and off, for eight seasons. I was really debating whether to go back myself. I was like: Well, if they want me back, I'll come back. NBC came in with these pretty massive budget cuts and they let me and Heratio (Sans) and Rachel (Dratch) go. And we were all by that time making pretty decent money as the ladder of making money on SNL goes. Look, you never want to be told: hey, we're not bringing you back. But ultimately it was OK.
And having gone back to do the debate sketches -- the presidential election stuff -- the really nice thing about it for me was getting to go back and be a part of the show and see everybody ... and then not have to stick around the following week for the grueling rest of the process ... The rigors like: is my sketch going to get on the air? Is it not? How much of a show am I going to have?
Lorne ... has always been very decent and has always been very kind. It would have been idiotic to burn that bridge. I'm happy they want to have me back every now and then ... we will see if they do it again (laughs).
"Mike's Pulse" is a column written by transplanted Midwesterner and current New Yorker Mike Ryan. For any compliments or complaints -- preferably the former -- you may contact Mike directly at email@example.com
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