Chris Parnell Talks 'Archer', '30 Rock', and 'SNL'

Tuesday, 21 February 2012 12:48 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Chris Parnell Talks 'Archer', '30 Rock', and 'SNL'

The FX animated series Archer, created by Adam Reed, revolves around ISIS, a private espionage company populated exclusively by venal, self-centered sociopaths and degenerates.  On any other series, the character of Cyril Figgis would be the butt of every joke, nothing more than a sweater-vest-wearing do-gooder.  Even in the comedy's first season, the unadventurous accountant and comptroller showed himself to be in their league as a betrayal-prone sex addict with serious Freudian issues.  With the series in its third season, Cryil, voiced by Chris Parnell, has been promoted to Field Agent, allowing Parnell to play whole new levels of awkwardness. 

Even if you don't know Parnell by name, it's almost guaranteed that he has made you laugh repeatedly over the years. A veteran of the improv institution The Groundlings, Parnell was a castmember on Saturday Night Live from 1998 to 2006, where he threw down regular recurring characters and notable impressions.  At the show, he became inextricably associated with the emergence of the viral video thanks to "Lazy Sunday," the insanely-popular SNL Digital Short starring Parnell and Andy Samberg.  In addition to Archer and Saturday Night Live, Parnell's extensive television credits include series such as Suburgatory, Big Lake, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and 30 Rock, on which he appears as the beloved Dr. Leo Spaceman.  On the cinematic side, he has appeared in films such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Hot Rod, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

As Cyril on Archer, though, Parnell is now an indispensable part of television's most delightfully deranged series.  IAR and a number of other outlets were lucky enough to participate in an interview with Chris Parnell, who discussed his relationship to the character, SNL, table reads, Funny or Die, screenwriting, and what's coming up on Archer.

Here's what he had to say:

You show up on a bunch of series and you guest star on a bunch of shows besides Archer. How do you find the time to work on everything or show up on everything all of a sudden?

Parnell: I’m glad it seems like I’m constantly working. I do okay. I can’t complain. But it’s kind of scattered around, so there’s usually not too much trouble fitting stuff in. Every now and then things will get in a bit of a press and it will be a little hurried and maybe not as much sleep involved, but normally things fit in without too much trouble.

A quick follow up, how did you actually get involved with the show?

Parnell: Well, I originally auditioned for a different role for the pilot for Archer, I believe it was maybe a Russian interrogator, like the fake interrogator who’s testing Archer, and I didn’t get that, I guess my Russian’s not that great, my Russian accent, and I thought that was it. And then, lo and behold, not too much later after that I found out that Adam Reed, he was making me the offer to play Cyril. And I didn’t even have to think about it because I knew the pilot was great, so yes, it was kind of great.

Can you tell us the origin of the character Dr. Leo Spaceman on 30 Rock? Then another follow up, if I may, how did the “Lazy Sunday” viral video smash affect your career or change your views on comedy in the Internet age?

Parnell: Dr. Spaceman, I’m not sure who created it. I don’t know if it was Tina [Fey], or Robert Carlock, or one of the other writers. My sense is that it was Tina and Robert mainly since they’re kind of the captains of that ship. When the show first came on I watched it and I was like, "Oh, man, this is so good, I wish I was a part of this." Then a little ways in I got the call that they wanted me to do Dr. Spaceman, and for all I knew it was just going to be a one-off thing, and happily it turned into a recurring bit. Then with “Lazy Sunday” in the time that I had been on SNL up to that point, certainly people knew who I was and recognized me and this and that kind of thing, but “Lazy Sunday” just blasted all that to a whole other level. And often people still, if they see me and want to acknowledge something they say, “I love ‘Lazy Sunday,’ man, ‘Lazy Sunday’.” And also, interestingly, and I’m not just saying this because it’s a conference call, but a lot of people know me from Archer, like not even seeing my face on there, so that’s kind of cool.


As I understand it, everybody on Archer and most animated shows, for that matter, record in isolation. I know that you have a background in sketch and ensemble comedy with the Groundlings and obviously Saturday Night Live, so being in a booth alone recording lines for Cyril, does that ever present a challenge for you? What is that like?

Parnell: It’s a little challenging, in the sense that it’s very easy to go in there and then just do the lines in a variety of ways without actually connecting to the lines, to use a little actor speak, so I have to remind myself to try to be present while I’m there. I sometimes picture the other actors there with me and try to imagine that I’m really speaking to them. Adam Reed will, if it’s a long back and forth kind of sequence I’m usually on the phone with him in Casey, or Matt Thompson, and we will read back and forth, I’ll do my part and he’ll do the other parts. But I’ve also found, having recorded in more group kind of situations, especially if it’s scripted like Archer is, you probably don’t have the lines memorized anyway, and so trying to actually look at or make contact with somebody while you’re reading these lines, yes, there’s a certain energy that can happen there that is helpful and it probably in some ways makes it easier. But once you get used to it, it’s fine. I enjoy it. Time wise, it’s fantastic. If we recorded it all together in a room it would certainly be a lot of fun, because we actually all really like each other, but it would take a long, long time. And this way I’m usually done in less than an hour.

What has been the most enjoyable part of playing Cyril?

Parnell: I guess watching it after it’s done, because usually between the time we record it and the time that it airs, or I see it on DVD or something that FX will send me, I’ve probably forgotten a decent amount of it. So to actually then see it animated and see the facial expressions and the things that the animators do with Cyril, it adds a whole other dimension to the character. I bring as much as I can vocally and acting wise to it, but they add a whole other level to it, so that’s really fun. I like doing voice over stuff. I like acting obviously. But to do a voice over character like that you don’t have to worry about what you look like, you can just be ridiculous physically and focus all your energy into this vocal performance, and that’s kind of freeing in a certain way, so I quite enjoy that.

Would you say are there any similarities in terms of personality between you and Cyril?

Parnell: Certainly there’s some insecurity there that I can relate to. I don’t think I’m too much like Cyril otherwise. I’m not whiny, I don’t think. God, I hope not. I do not commit infidelities. I haven’t gone on any missions like an agent. And I don’t really know that much about accounting and comptrolling and such. So he’s a pretty different person than me, which is also part of what’s fun about doing it.

I was just wondering, Archer has been around for three seasons now and it’s taken a while but you guys are finally really starting to get a great groundswell, a really great cult following. I was wondering if you had a take on why it took this much time, or if you just think it’s getting better, or your opinion on that.

Parnell: I think it’s true with pretty much any show, and obviously a lot of people have cable now, but a cable show is going to almost always have less viewership than a primetime network show. But we went to Comic-Con, I guess for the second season, I don’t even know, we might have gone at some point in the first season, but even from the very beginning the rooms were filled, we had a bigger room this year, but it definitely had an audience from the beginning, it feels like. And, yes, it’s definitely grown and I think a lot of it’s just word of mouth. My parents even, or my sisters, they’ll say, "Hey, somebody told me they really like you on Archer," so it spreads. I think people that watch it almost always like it and want to continue to watch it and then tell other people about it. Hopefully that will just continue. I think it’s been a strong show from the start. I don’t know that it’s gotten better. I think probably the actors have gotten better. Adam was writing stuff from the beginning, but I think in some ways we’ve settled into our performances more, certainly I like to think I have, and have a better footing for the character and are thus able to add more personality, more nuance, and that kind of thing to it. But, no, it’s great. Last year at Comic-Con it was a pretty good size room and it was packed and to be able to watch an episode with a room full of people like that who are really enthusiastic and love the show and hear how they respond to it is pretty fun, it’s pretty exciting, because I really haven’t had that kind of experience before with a television show or something.

What is your favorite of the show's running gags or the running jokes?

Parnell: Oh boy.

If you had to choose one?

Parnell: If I had to choose one I guess it would be Cyril’s quietly scoffing at Archer and then Archer usually slugs him or something, or shuts him up in some way. But, yes, I like the scorn and disdain that Cyril often gets to express for Archer.

When you’re reading a script and you have really different types of interactions with each of the characters on the show, which characters do you find the most enjoyable and why?

Parnell: Well, most of my interactions I guess tend to, at least I feel like they do tend to happen between Archer, or Lana, or Malory, so those are the first ones that come to mind. Malory is such an evil b****, so that’s very specific to respond to and to deal with, although we did have a romance, a bit of an afternoon of love last season. Lana is a very strong, interesting character, and we of course have our history. Then, like I said before, with Archer, Archer  is also not the nicest guy and it’s fun to play that reaction to him and just let all my feelings about him come out. Adam writes subtly, so it’s not all black and white. There’s definitely a range of reactions there to the different characters. Cheryl, and Pam, and Gillette, they also make me laugh a lot. I don’t interact with them as much, I guess, but I don’t know that I could pick favorites exactly.


Do you think there’s any area in being an actual agent that Cyril will ever become confident at?

Parnell: You know, we found out in “El Contador,” which I think was two or three of this  season, that Cyril actually is surprisingly competent at this mission. I don’t know that he’ll ever be a well rounded agent, and I don’t know how far Adam’s going to explore his being an agent. It definitely comes up some more. I hope I continue to get to do that. But, yes, he actually pulls off some stuff surprisingly well. He cuts it really close a few times in that episode doing things that aren’t that smart, but overall he impresses Lana and Archer, and I think himself at a certain level. It impressed me when I read it. I was impressed with him.

What do you look for in a screenplay, whether it’s television or a feature screenplay, and maybe if you can say which scripts you’ve read that really, really jumped out at you and seemed great to you over the years?

Parnell: Wow! The truth is, if I’m going to get a part it’s often because somebody offers it to me. I’ve certainly gotten things that I’ve auditioned for, but I think about Anchorman, that was brilliant and fantastic and I felt lucky to be a part of that. Misguided, a show I did for ABC a few years ago, which I actually did have to audition for and was able to make it through to that even though it was very short-lived, that was a great script. Every 30 Rock script is fantastic. Suburgatory, the show I’m working on now, that was happily an offer, even though I came in later on as just a guest star this season, it made me laugh, and I guess that’s what I look for. Archer, when I read it, it was just so dense with nuance and specificity and comedy and all these characters that he just weaves into this little compact, tight 30 minute thing, I guess actually less with commercials, but at the end of the day I’m hopefully going to laugh at it, assuming it’s a comedy, which is most of what I am going to audition for or be offered if I am. Lately, I’ve got a little part in 21 Jump Street and The Five-Year Engagement that are coming out in the spring and I got into those through table reads, but when I read them I was like, oh yes, these can be really funny, I knew who some of the actors were and could picture those. But I got those parts due to doing table reads, which I wish I could get all my parts that way that weren’t offers. But it also helps too if I know who has been cast in it thus far, who the leads are or whatever and then I can picture that actor doing it, and that makes it come to life a lot more in my mind.

Can you talk about the table read process in comedy?

Parnell: Yes. Happily, I had a lot of experience doing it at Saturday Night Live. Every Wednesday that we had a show we’d read all of the pieces that had been written in the writers’ room at this big table with everybody around listening and watching, and so we’d do about 40 pieces and you’re probably not going to be in every piece by any stretch of the imagination, but you’re going to be in quite a few. And then you’re playing different characters in each one, and you may or may not have seen the script before, so sometimes it’s a cold read, so you’re called upon to make these choices that are quick and hopefully strong and right. And then doing a table read for 21 Jump Street and The Five-Year Engagement, because they’re not going to have the whole cast there, generally it’s a table read because it’s at an earlier stage in the making of a movie and casting it even, you are asked to play multiple roles in that setting, at least one of which you’re hopefully being considered for as a possible real role, and then these other parts, so it calls on those same SNL skills of making character choices and all this. So it gets to show a range of what you can do, which is fun. You also have time to prepare. It’s not like SNL, where it’s kind of a very quick thing, but you can actually read the script and look at it and think about the choices you’re going to make for each character. So in a way you’re not just doing the part that you might actually get, but you’re also doing these other parts that show a range, and hopefully if you can get laughs on those other parts too it builds up that sense to the people watching, that oh, he’s funny, he can do this, and he can bring something to it. But it’s fun. I like doing table reads.

This is a two-pronged question. The first is, are there any shows or any roles that you’d like to revisit, you mentioned Misguided earlier and there was Big Lake back a couple of years ago now.

Parnell: Oh, yes.

So are there any roles that you’d like to revisit? And the second part to that question, are there any roles outside of the realm of comedy that you’d like to explore?

Parnell: Well, Misguided was a good one. I really loved that show and I loved the cast. I loved Judy [Greer] and everybody. So it’s nice, even though Judy and I don’t typically read together, well, we don’t ever read together in the same room, but we do get to see each other at quite a few events each year, and that was fantastic. I loved that. I really had fun doing Big Lake with Horatio [Sanz] and Chris Gethard and everybody. That was the kind of a deal where if we had gotten the ratings we needed to get for those first ten episodes we would have done 90 more.

Because of a syndication deal, right?

Parnell: Exactly. So I was really hoping that was going to come together, because that was a blast and it was fun to be in New York. I was living back there for two months. That was nice. Gosh, what other things to revisit, there are definitely things that you do and then you go back and you watch them, and this is almost always the case, "Oh, I could have made that funnier if I’d done this. That wasn’t necessarily the best take on that line." But I don’t know, like I think a lot of actors, certainly comedic actors who don’t do dramatic roles as much, that has a certain appeal. I auditioned for a pilot just a few weeks ago that was mostly, it was a heavier show, it was a medical drama, but the character I was auditioning for had some humor and that other element to him. I don’t think I got it, but I thought, "Well, okay, this could be fun. This could be interesting. And it’s a challenge." But I also have to say at the end of the day I really love doing comedy. If I imagine doing a procedural kind of show or something, which granted I’m not likely to get that part anyway, but if I were to I’m sure it would be fantastic and cool and fun, but there’s just something about doing comedy that provides an inherent lightness and joy. You’re making each other laugh, hopefully, not necessarily on camera ideally, but the fun is built in there and it’s not like this heavy hitting sort of thing. Hopefully it’s got heart and some real emotion and some things like that to it. But, yes, I guess, does that answer the question?


With the breadth of your comedy experience and with all the different things that you’ve done so far, do you still find that you’re shocked or surprised by how outrageous some of these Archer storylines are?

Parnell: Adam does surprise me sometimes, yes. Part of it is not being used to having these kinds of freedoms of what is said and the content and the subject matter and all that, that you can do on a late night table show like Archer, versus what we can even get away with on Saturday Night Live. The censorship on SNL, the NBC censor was a lot more censoring than what happens on Archer. And so that’s always a little bit of a surprise and a delight to see what comes up in that. But honestly, not much surprises me, and now certainly having a pretty good sense of what Adam is capable of and his sense of humor and what he can get away with, there’s not too much that surprises me on that anymore. But I guess I sometimes read it, and although I’m not shocked, but I am like, "Oh, okay, cool, nice. I wouldn’t have thought you would have gone there, but it’s cool."

Is there any specific storyline that Cyril has had so far that you’ve really, really enjoyed?

Parnell: Yes, the one that comes to mind immediately is “El Contador,” where I believe it’s Cyril’s first mission out in the field, he goes out with Lana and Archer to try to catch this drug lord, and so just on a practical level it was a lot more to do for me in that episode. It was more challenging and I got to try to do a bad Spanish accent. But there were different parts of Cyril, and Cyril actually being good at something surprisingly. Yes, that was fun. I was like, "Oh wow." And I guess there was one last season where Cyril made some bad moral choices, well, he does that a lot, but he was tempted by a bad guy, I guess a rival spy maybe, and he put a virus on the ISIS internal server and that was, again, a darker side of Cyril that was fun to explore and all that.

Can you talk about working with the Funny or Die people?

Parnell: Well, you know, obviously I know Adam [McKay] and Will [Ferrell] and I know Mike Sera, who runs it, but to be honest I haven’t done that much for Funny or Die beyond what has been done for the HBO Funny or Die series. For one thing, obviously it’s a venue for people who want to write their own stuff, write little bits and things, and it’s a way to get that out there in a way that a lot of people are actually going to see it and it’s going to go on a website that people respect and enjoy and see a lot of very funny material on. Then sometimes you’ll have actors who are more known for their dramatic work who get a chance to show a comedic side to themselves, and so I think that’s probably really rewarding for them. At a certain level it’s potentially exposing yourself, especially for a dramatic actor, to people seeing you in a different light and maybe even to a bit of a different audience. I think it’s just fun. They’ve got a great setup over there. They know what they’re doing. It’s really kind of amazing what they’ve built in such a short period of time, but they’ve been so smart about it and they’ve got this great ability to put these productions together in a short amount of time. They’re not like big budget, but they look good, and people can come in with a script and say, hey, would you guys be interested in helping me to make this for Funny or Die, and then it’s like, "Yes, and here’s how we’ll do it." They’ve got this fantastic production team going on there that just facilitates the making of these videos and things in a very efficient way. I think they’ve got their writers there, but a lot of people are bringing in their own material and content, and yes, it’s a great model that they’ve created, and people have responded to it really well.

Could could tease a little of what’s coming up for Cyril over the rest of this season.

Parnell: I knew somebody was going to ask me that. We have recorded them all. We have finished them. And I don’t remember much. Cyril has a little more to do in the way of agenting. It’s a fantastic third season. There’s a two-part season finale, that I won’t give away, but it’s very exciting, and I was even surprised about what all happens in that. But, yes, I am sorry, I cannot remember – FX always sends out DVD screeners of what’s been produced and done up to that point, but I think I’ve only made it through watching four of those. So I cannot honestly remember that much about what happens further on with Cyril, but I’m excited to see.

Have you ever done any screen writing, and if so what kinds of things have you written or what would you like to write?

Parnell: Well, it’s funny you bring that up. I just turned 45 and so I think calling it a midlife crisis is a bit overstated, but I wrote a lot when I was at the Groundlings and I wrote a lot when I was at Saturday Night Live. I’ve never tried to write a screenplay or a pilot or anything like that. Honestly, since SNL I’ve done almost no writing, and I know that that is something that I probably should do. It’s a confidence issue, frankly. It’s like you have to believe in the idea and you have to believe in yourself enough to actually put the energy it takes into trying to write something, certainly something as massive as a screenplay. I’ve got my book, Story by Robert McKee, that is largely unread, and it’s something I would like to do if I can ever get it together and ever had the idea that was right and that I felt strongly about. What it would be, I don’t know. I would try to avoid clichés as much as possible. I would try to avoid doing things that I see in other movies. I would definitely try to avoid quirk for quirk’s sake, even though a lot of those movies are funny too. I know that’s a weird answer, but I guess that’s the most honest answer I can give. I haven’t, but I aspire to.


You can hear Chris Parnell as Cyril Figgis as the third season of Archer continues with new episodes every Thursday at 10:00 pm on FX. 

And, because it's worth it, here's a vintage bit of Parnell rapping on SNL that ties into the tone of Archer:

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