Chris Parnell is a normcore comedy assassin. After a career in improvisation, two passages on Saturday Night Live, and countless roles on sitcoms like 30 Rock and animated shows like Rick and Morty, Parnell perfected the art of using his extremely average appearance and voice to deliver a disarming, strange, ridiculous and emotionless comedy. Few are better at doing the act of looking like a relatively normal guy and keeping a straight face so funny (“The Chronicle – what – the keys of Narnia!”).
This is why, like Jerry Smith, Parnell is an essential part of what makes Rick and Morty job. His ability to adopt an aw-shucks assignment even if he testifies to some of the weirdest things about animation makes him one of the most endearing aspects of the series.
Parnell recently spoke with The edge in a phone call from Los Angeles, where the actor is currently in quarantine with his family, for a conversation about Jerry’s chances of quarantine, Rick and Morty fans, and what he does during solitary confinement.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
The edge: Rick and Morty often has an extremely long break between seasons, how was it to return to Jerry at such an irregular rate?
Chris Parnell: You know, every time I do it after a long break, I have to find it a little bit, but the voice is not that different from mine and it’s just sort of tapping into Jerry. But the writing is so good, it’s so much joy on the page and what the writers are creating to make it really just sort of trying to bring this to life. As long as I’m faithful to it and I’m there while I’m recording and all that, it’s not too difficult to come back to Jerry.
Is there anything about the animation that you find interesting or particularly fun to do when it comes to comedy?
Pretty much everything I do is just solo recording sessions, which I love. The hardest thing, I think, is just remembering to be really there and trying to do the right thing, not just saying the lines. So there’s a lot of visualization in my head and I’m trying to put myself in there and see it. And it’s very liberating because there is no camera on me, so no matter what I do with my hands and arms and how I gesture or whatever, what I do quite often when I record the voice over. So you really take all of this energy and transmit it through your voice without being able to see anything that you are physically doing. Although, obviously, what I do physically with my face and body will affect the sound of my voice.
But yeah, I mean, I’m lucky I can do both things. Both live action and animation. Obviously, these days, it tends to be mostly animation, but I make enough guest star appearances in sitcoms or in occasional movie parties or things like that. I can have this one-on-one interaction with other actors, in fact, we look at each other and we say things, so it’s nice to be able to do both.
Would you do a character like Jerry live?
Should i? Sure. I mean, I probably have it at some level. I mean, I certainly did a lot of characters that weren’t completely different from Jerry.
Was there anything you had to say as Jerry that made you do a double take?
I honestly don’t think so. Not being Mr. Tough Guy, but when you have experience with The Groundlings like me and once you do improvisational gigs and stuff like that, there is really … almost everything happens. So what Saturday Night Live. I mean, people who have been in comedy for a long time, like I was fortunate enough to be, for the vast majority of us anyway, there aren’t really many- something that shocks us. Part of the comedy is doing shocking, surprising, and ridiculous things, so I don’t know I’ve ever met anything with Jerry that I thought, “Oh boy. Sensational. “
Do you have any idea how people react to Jerry? Do you often interact with fans?
I don’t interact much with the fans, mainly because I’m not on social media, and the only real moment for this interaction is during an occasional convention, like Comic-Con or whatever Adult Swim will send us . And it’s great and it’s really fun and it’s a great time to see the crowd reacting to the projection of an episode or to make a panel and hear their questions, so it becomes tangible in a way that doesn’t is not usual.
But I actually find it free to not have to try to do something for an immediate reaction from the audience and just to hope that what I do is funny or whatever it is supposed to be. And once everything is set up and animated – obviously animation is a big part of it – people will react the right way and laugh at [Jerry]. I don’t mind not having this immediate reaction, in a strange way.
You mentioned that you are not on social media, so do you know what Rick and Morty are the fans like online? Because they have a little bit of a representative.
I don’t really have one. I mean, every once in a while I hear someone is mean or misogynistic or something, but I don’t … apart from the big colors like that. I know it’s really the minority, but yeah, I don’t have a huge idea of what it is.
You also have people who have just run around with the weirdest parts of the show, like Pickle Rick. Pickle Rick is a huge thing online.
Yeah? I believe that.
Does this surprise you a little? What is your vision of the show?
Well, Rick is pretty amoral. He makes a lot of questionable or downright terrible choices, so I guess there will be some people who relate to this in a very special way and who rejoice.
Whenever people get really excited and, dare I say, enraged about something, there will likely be some wickedness involved – and also inherent, obviously, in social media and people who communicate without looking at someone face to face. So maybe just the nihilistic nature of Rick and Morty and the obscurity of this genre brings something more to some fans.
Does your family tell you about your role in the series? Do they like Jerry?
My sons are six and three years old, so they don’t watch Rick and Morty, even if they have stuffed animals and small hard plastic figures. I mean, my six year old kid knows who Mr. Poopy Butthole is, you know? Aside from watching the show with my wife and the little feedback I get from her, but we don’t really take the show apart or anything. I don’t know if my sister is watching it. Certainly not my parents.
What do you think it would be like to face this whole situation of isolation and pandemic with Jerry if he was in this position?
Well, I think Jerry would do pretty well. I think he would just find a few small plans to get involved and focus on these and feel proud of his little victories he could have. I know that he will start, at some level, beekeeping in these next episodes. So yes, I don’t think it would be too hard with Jerry.
And you, what do you do? Do you have a favorite show right now? Read something good?
Well i’m on the fourth book of the Hyperion Dan Simmons series. I don’t know at all if you know, but this is a very big science fiction series. I mean, just extraordinary. So I’m going through the fourth and final book in this series, and then my wife and I have to find some shows that we both want to watch at night after the kids are in bed. We love John Oliver, like so many people. We love Bill Maher and Samantha Bee, we’re fans of his, and we also watch Real housewives in Beverly Hills and New York. My wife introduced me to these shows many years ago, so even if I didn’t think I would watch reality TV, I think so. I am now lightly invested in the lives of these women.
Yeah. Yeah. I can’t watch many of them. Like, I have no interest in The single person or some shows where I feel like people are not particularly interesting, but yes. And lately, my wife has had these kinds of meetings with some of the other women in our neighborhood where they just sit on the street in lawn chairs and keep their distance, their social distance and chat. But I always catch up with this show, In the Badlands.
Oh, it shows rules.
Right? I still have a few episodes of, what, season 3, I guess? But yes, it’s a little treat.