Saturday Night’s Children: Chris Parnell (1998-2006)

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Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

Chris Parnell has a unique Saturday Night Live record in that he is one of the longest-tenured cast members, and the only one to be fired twice. During his run from 1998-2006 he brought an excitable energy and emcee presence to SNL that helped the show transition into the new millennium, whether as the perfect game show host, hillbilly, rapper, pervert, or news anchor.

Parnell grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and earned a degree in Drama from UNC’s School of the Arts. After graduating, he moved to Houston and performed in regional theater for several years, but without much mainstream success he returned to Tennessee and taught acting and film at his former high school for a year. In 2008, he told Jesse Thorn on The Sound of Young America that he “wasn’t cut out” for the teaching job, and he moved to Los Angeles to give his acting career another shot. He joined The Groundlings and was hired as a SNL featured player in 1998. (Click here to watch a video made by his high school students before he left for LA – video includes both Parnell’s Tennessee accent and Piggly Wiggly commercial.)

Parnell’s SNL popularity didn’t initially come from his natural talent for playing hosts and weirdos but for his rapping skills, which began with a 2000 Weekend Update appearance where he raps about an imaginary date with host Britney Spears. He continued these segments with rap odes to Jennifer Garner, Demi Moore, and Kirsten Dunst, and he hit mainstream popularity alongside Andy Samberg with “Lazy Sunday” in December 2005.

Aside from his rapping segments, Parnell’s long list of characters includes the flamboyant interpretive dancer Sean DeMarco of The Demarco Brothers (with Chris Kattan as his brother Kyle), butt-curious hick Tyler in the Appalachian Emergency Room sketches, and Wayne of The Bloder Brothers (with Jimmy Fallon as Kip), two nerdy refrigerator repairmen who quip back and forth at bars and punctuate their jokes with uneasy laughter. Parnell also impersonated many celebrities including Eminem, Charles Gibson, George W. Bush, Lance Bass, Simon Cowell, and Tom Brokaw, and he played Blue Oyster Cult lead singer Eric Bloom in the famous cowbell sketch with Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken.

Parnell was fired first in 2001 alongside featured player Jerry Minor due to budget cuts and has credited Will Ferrell with helping him get back on the show in 2002. He stayed on until 2006, when he was fired again alongside Finesse Mitchell and Horatio Sanz. He’s appeared in films including Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy, Hot Rod, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and The Ladies Man, and in shows Curb Your Enthusiasm, Workaholics, Friends, Seinfeld, Robot Chicken, and Jon Benjamin Has a Van. He is a series regular on Big Lake, Archer, and 30 Rock, where he plays Dr. Leo Spaceman. He is set to appear alongside SNL cast mate Ana Gasteyer in ABC’s new comedy Suburgatory, which premieres Wednesday, September 28th at 8:30PM.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.