Chris Parnell first made a name for himself during his eight-year stint as a cast member of Saturday Night Live, but in the intervening years, he’s carved out quite a career for himself as a go-to comedic character actor in both television and film. In addition to his hilarious recurring role as the quacky Dr. Leo Spaceman on 30 Rock, Parnell is contributing his voice talents to FX’s new animated spy spoof, Archer. Vulture spoke to him about his Method preparation for playing a cartoon character with a twelve-inch wang, what it was like to be fired by Lorne Michaels not once but twice (!), and whether he’s on Team Conan or Team Leno.
In Archer, you play a numbers-crunching bureaucrat with jealousy issues who works in the office of a company that specializes in spying and international intrigue. We’re assuming you’ve never held a position like that in real life, so where do you draw your inspiration from?
Oh gosh. I appreciate and enjoy mathematics and science and all that side of things. I definitely have that side of me even though I’m not by any means an expert, but I love reading about physics and math and that kind of stuff. I wish I knew more than I did. I mean, I read books written for laymen, not textbooks or anything. So that and just drawing on my own insecurities and nerdishness.
Does it take any special preparation to play an extremely well-endowed cartoon character, one that the ladies in the office gossip about being twelve inches down there? Or is it totally just a Method thing?
Well, I guess it’s something you keep in your pocket, so to speak. It only occasionally, probably, colors how he presents himself. It gives him a little extra confidence at times, but he’s so insecure about Lana and Archer’s relationship that it doesn’t quite make up for that.
Most of America first came to know you during your eight-year stint on SNL. That was one of the longest runs in the history of the program, but it also meant that Lorne Michaels had to let you go on two separate occasions. What was it like leaving the first time, then going back, then having to leave again?
Yeah, well, overall SNL was fantastic. I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to do that for the amount of time that I was between the job itself, what it got for me professionally, but even a lot of ways more importantly, the people that I worked with and that I’ve met, the friendships that I’ve made there and all the hosts that came through and getting to work with all those people. It wasn’t always great, there were definitely tough times, the toughest of which was when I was fired the first time and which really came out of left field and was pretty devastating.
I’d been on for three seasons and, some people go in there with guns blazing like Will Ferrell and Jimmy [Fallon], too, they’re just right there and off with the gun. For me, it took me a bit longer to build up my confidence and find my footing and as soon as I was feeling like I had done that I got cut loose and that was pretty hard.
Was it a tough decision to go back?
Not at all. There was no consideration, I was absolutely going back, I absolutely wanted to. There had been such an outpouring of support from both the cast and the writers, people were just like, I can’t believe this happened and from what I hear Will [Ferrell] and [Chris] Kattan went to bat for me and certainly one of the writers did. There were a lot of people who were in my camp and you know Lorne, to his credit, at the TCA panel we did the next year, it came up and Lorne admitted that he made a mistake, which was really cool of him.
From what we have heard, he rarely does stuff like that.
So I appreciated that and our relationship is still good. When I got let go the second time, I was pretty okay with it. It still stung a little because you don’t ever want to be let go, but it was me, Horatio [Sanz], [Rachel] Dratch, and I knew they had to cut $10 million out of the budget. I was a little burnt out, so it was all right.
Something we felt you never got the proper credit for was the runaway success of “Lazy Sunday.” That came out towards the end of your run, and the way we see it, you really pioneered that form with your “Weekend Update” raps about Britney Spears and Jennifer Garner.
Yeah, well Akiva [Schaffer] and Andy [Samberg] and Jorma [Taccone], you know they had had this website already, the Lonely Island, and they had been making music videos and stuff for the site, so they came to SNL with the skill set already. They had seen the raps I had done previously so they came to me and said, “Hey, we want to try and do a rap and do you want to do it with us.” And I said, “Yeah, of course, absolutely.” So the four of us sat down in their office and wrote it over the course of a Monday and Tuesday and recorded it that Tuesday night, went out and shot it all on Thursday. Akiva was doing the camera work and Jorma was sort of doing everything else, holding the playback of what we recorded on Tuesday night and just sort of running around New York shooting it. That was my involvement with it.
And then Saturday night, I got to see what they had come up with, what they put together and it was just crazy. It got a really nice response from the audience and I was like, “Ah, that was gratifying, that was fun.” I knew they were going to post it to their site, I didn’t know that it was going to be posted necessarily to YouTube, I don’t think. That was the last show before Christmas and I went back to Memphis for the holidays, and I was there with my family and I got a call from Marc Liepis from NBC publicity saying, “Hey, the New York Times wants to interview you about this music video, it’s become this thing,” and I was like, “What?” I really had no idea, that was my first hint that it had become a phenomenon.
So, can you tell us what the future holds for Dr. Spacemen on 30 Rock? What do you think he does in his off time?
I’m always up to exploring more aspects of Leo’s personality, but they do a pretty good job of going there for me. As for his off time, I’m sure he’s involved in some shady research or he’s off in a foreign country doing something questionable medically.
One last question for you. Are you team Conan or team Leno?
Well, Conan clearly is the one that’s gotten screwed in all of this, along with everyone who had jobs for those five one-hour blocks on NBC and all the NBC affiliates. I definitely feel for Conan on this one. Clearly, this is something that meant a lot to him, being a host of the Tonight Show and he did earn his way up there. I can’t completely fault NBC; I think the deal that happened back in 2004 whenever it was, was probably questionable to assume that Leno was going to be ready to retire in 2009 and all of that. Yeah, it’s a mess, but my heart goes out to Conan and all the people that work on the show, he’s the one who’s been wronged. I’d love to see him go to Fox, I’d love to continue to see him do a great show, wherever it is.