When Will Ferrell left Saturday Night Live in May 2002, his final episode ended with his castmates sharing stories about their time working with him. One such story came from Chris Parnell, who revealed that after he had been fired from the show following the 2001 season, it was actually Ferrell who had convinced Lorne Michaels to bring him back midway through the following season. It’s a nice story because it lets us know that Ferrell is as nice a guy as we’d want him to be, but it also begs a question: How could Chris Parnell have ever been fired from SNL in the first place?
Parnell has been underrated throughout his career. In his time on SNL (which would eventually stretch out to eight seasons), he was never the highest profile cast member, but he improved any sketch he was in. A big part of this was his nimble ability to switch from straight man to comedic presence seemingly on a dime. Consider the memorable “Dr. Beaman’s Office” sketch – often considered to be one of Ferrell’s best – where Ferrell’s character has to tell a young couple that he lost their baby. Parnell plays it straight the entire time, reacting to Ferrell’s exaggerated incompetence. Then he suddenly turns to Molly Shannon and says, “Now let’s go start makin’ another one!” in a voice far too sexually aggressive for someone who just found out they lost a child. It comes out of nowhere and provides the perfect ending to the sketch. The scene was largely a showcase of Ferrell’s skills, but Parnell’s expert ability to switch tones gives it an extra bit of comedic power. It’s exactly the type of thing that would make you want him in your cast for the better part of a decade.
Indeed, a lot of Parnell’s best SNL work came from him being funny in ways that you’d least expect. Towards the end of his second season, when a young Britney Spears hosted the show, he showed up on Weekend Update to perform what initially looked like a sincere love song to Spears but turned into more of a gangsta rap. Once again, the element of surprise drove the bit, as did the fact that Parnell is a better rapper than his Businesslike White Guy appearance would have you believe. He repeated the bit with Kirsten Dunst, Jennifer Garner, and eventually Ashton Kutcher, but even after we knew what was coming, it still worked because Parnell is just a damn good rapper. In his final season, he famously appeared with Andy Samberg in “Lazy Sunday,” which proved to bridge two eras of comedy rap on the show.
Since leaving SNL in 2006, Parnell has appeared a handful of shows and has always been a vital addition to any cast. On 30 Rock, he gave us one of his most memorably whimsical roles as Dr. Leo Spaceman, who reminds us that we have no way of knowing where the human heart is, and who can forge a prescription faster than you can say “Oxycontin.” Conversely, on Rick and Morty, he brings life to perpetual sad sack Jerry Smith, who failed at keeping his job and his marriage and is always hanging by a thread. Parnell’s performance as Jerry is likely his finest work as an actor since he can be pathetic enough to make you sympathize with him, but also sniveling and underhanded enough to make you understand why Rick despises him so much.
These two characters are polar opposites and a fine demonstration of Parnell’s versatility. Spaceman is a deeply unstable person full of dangerous ideas whose saving grace is his confidence, while Jerry is a reasonably intelligent person who is completely neutered by his lack of inspiration and over-dependence on others. Just as Parnell could transform from straight man to comedic centerpiece, he’s equally adept at playing a manically creative but ultimately incompetent doctor and an ad salesman whose best idea is to rip off the “Got Milk?” campaign for apples. Parnell is essential to both shows, playing two men who failed in life for directly opposing reasons.
At the age of 50, and 19 years removed from his SNL debut, Parnell has quietly put together a remarkably impressive career. Between Dr. Spaceman, Jerry Smith, Merv the Perv, Archer’s Cyril Figgis (who is right up there with Jerry in the sad-sack department), and yes, even the animated box of insurance forms he plays in those Progressive commercials, he has brought life to a wide array of memorable characters full of differing personality traits. At this point in his career, it’s unlikely that he’ll ever be the lead in a major film or sitcom, but that’s no matter; he’s the type of actor and comedic presence who can improve just about anything he’s in, and that’s as valuable as any skill in show business.