Chris Parnell is a normcore comedy assassin. After a career in improv, two stints on Saturday Night Live, and countless roles on sitcoms like 30 Rock and animated shows like Rick and Morty, Parnell has perfected the art of using his extremely average appearance — and voice — to deliver disarmingly strange, ridiculous and deadpan comedy. Few are better at making the act of looking like a relatively normal dude and keeping a straight face so funny (“the Chronic — what — cles of Narnia!”).
This is why, as Jerry Smith, Parnell is an essential part of what makes Rick and Morty work. His ability to adopt an aw-shucks affectation even as he bears witness to some of the most bizarre things committed to animation makes him one of the most endearing aspects of the show.
Recently, Parnell spoke with The Verge in a phone call from Los Angeles, where the actor is currently self-quarantined with his family, for a conversation about Jerry’s quarantine odds, Rick and Morty fans, and what he’s up to during isolation.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Verge: Rick and Morty often has an extremely long break between seasons, what’s it been like coming back to Jerry at such an irregular pace?
Chris Parnell: You know, every time that I do it after it’s been a long break, I have to find it a little bit, but the voice is not that different than my voice and it’s just sort of tapping into Jerry. But the writing is so good, it’s so much of joy on the page and what the writers create so that it’s really just kind of trying to bring that to life. As long as I’m true to that and being present while I’m recording and all that, it’s not too challenging to get back into Jerry.
Is there anything about animation that you find interesting or particularly fun to do as far as comedy goes?
Pretty much everything that I do is just solo record sessions, which I enjoy. The hardest thing I think is just remembering to really be present and try to act it well and not just kind of say the lines. So there’s a fair bit of visualization going on in my head and trying to sort of put myself in that place and see it. And it’s very freeing in that there’s no camera on me, so it doesn’t matter what I’m doing with my hands and arms and the way I’m gesticulating or whatever, which I do a fair bit of when I record voiceover. So you’re really just taking all of this energy and funneling it through your voice without being able to see anything which you’re doing physically. Although, obviously, what I do physically with my face and my body is going to affect how my voice sounds.
But yeah, I mean, I feel lucky that I get to do both things. Both the live action and the animated stuff. Obviously, these days it tends to be mostly the animation, but I get to do enough guest star appearances on sitcoms or the occasional movie part or things like that. I get to have that one-on-one interaction with other actors actually with us looking at each other and saying things to each other, so that’s very nice to get to do both.
Would you do a character like Jerry in live action?
Would I? Sure. I mean, I probably have at some level. I mean, I’ve certainly done a lot of characters that are not completely dissimilar to Jerry.
Is there anything that you’ve had to say as Jerry that made you do a double take?
I don’t think so, honestly. Not to be Mr. Tough Guy, but when you’ve had a background doing The Groundlings like I have and once you do live improv shows and stuff like that, there’s really… almost anything goes. And then Saturday Night Live. I mean, people who have been a part of comedy for an extended period of time, as I’ve been fortunate enough to be, for the vast majority of us anyway, there’s not really much that shocks us. Part of doing comedy is doing things that are shocking and surprising and ridiculous, so I don’t know I’ve ever actually encountered anything with Jerry that I was like, “Oh boy. Wow.”
Do you have a sense of how people react to Jerry? Do you interact with fans a lot?
I don’t interact with fans a lot mainly because I’m not on social media, and the only real time for that interaction is at the occasional convention, like Comic-Con or whatever that Adult Swim will send us to. And that’s awesome and that’s really fun and that’s a great time to get to see the crowd react to the screening of an episode or in doing a panel and hearing their questions, so it becomes tangible in a way that it’s not usually.
But I actually find it freeing to not have to try to do something for an immediate audience reaction and just sort of hope that what I’m doing is funny or whatever it’s supposed to be. And once it’s all put together and animated — obviously, the animation is a big part of it — that people will react in a good way and laugh at [Jerry]. I don’t mind not having that immediate reaction, in a strange way.
You mentioned that you’re not on social media, so do you know what Rick and Morty fans are like online? Because they have a bit of a rep.
I don’t, really. I mean, occasionally I’ll hear that somebody is being nasty or misogynistic or something, but I don’t… other than the broad colors like that. I know that’s very much the minority, but yeah, I don’t have a huge sense of what it’s like.
You also have people who just run with the most oddball parts of the show, like Pickle Rick. Pickle Rick is a huge thing online.
Yeah? I believe that.
Does any of this surprise you a little bit? What’s your take on the show?
Well, Rick is fairly amoral. He makes a lot of questionable or outright terrible choices, so I guess there’s going to be people that relate to that in a very particular way and sort of revel in that.
Any time people get really excited and, dare I say, rabid about something, there’s probably going to be some nastiness involved — and also just inherent in, obviously, social media and people communicating without having to be looking at somebody face to face. Then maybe just the nihilistic nature of Rick and Morty and the darkness of it sort of brings something extra out of some of the fans.
Does your family talk to you about your role on the show? Do they like Jerry?
My sons are six and three, so they don’t watch Rick and Morty, even though they do have some of the plushies and little hard plastic figurines. I mean, my six-year-old knows who Mr. Poopy Butthole is, you know? Other than watching the show with my wife and the bit of feedback I get from her, but we don’t really take the show apart or anything. I’m not sure if my sister watches it. My parents definitely don’t.
What would you think it would be like to deal with this whole isolation, pandemic situation with Jerry if he were in this position?
Well, I think Jerry would actually do pretty well with it. I think he would just find some little projects to engage himself with and focus on those and feel proud of his little victories he might have. I know he’s going to be taking up, on some level, beekeeping in these upcoming episodes. So yeah, I don’t think it would be too rough on Jerry.
What about you, what are you up to? Do you have a favorite show right now? Reading anything good?
Well, I’m on the fourth book of the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons. I don’t know if you know that at all, but it’s a great, great science fiction series. I mean, just extraordinary. So I’m making my way through the fourth and last book of that series, and then my wife and I, we have to find shows that we both want to watch at night after the kids are in bed. We love John Oliver, like so many people do. We love Bill Maher and Samantha Bee, we’re fans of hers, and we also watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and New York. My wife turned me on to those shows back many years ago, and so, although I never thought I’d be watching reality TV, I do. I am now invested slightly in the lives of those women.
Yeah. Yeah. A lot of it I cannot watch. Like, I have no interest in The Bachelor or certain shows where I just feel like people are not particularly interesting, but yeah. And then lately my wife’s been having these sort of meetups with some of the other ladies in our neighborhood where they’ll just sit out on the street in lawn chairs and keep their distance, their social distance, and chat. But I’m still catching up with this show, Into the Badlands.
Oh, that show rules.
Right? I’ve still got a couple more episodes of, what, season 3, I guess? But yeah, that’s a little treat.