Chris Parnell is the only cast member to ever be fired twice from Saturday Night Live. And as he explains in this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, it was only after Lorne Michaels admitted his mistake and brought him back into the fold that he really started to take off on the show.
During our conversation, Parnell also opens up about why he may have never decided to leave SNL on his own and breaks down highlights from his prolific career since, including iconic roles as Dr. Spaceman on 30 Rock, the “poop mouth” guy from Anchorman and Rebel Wilson’s dad in the new Netflix movie Senior Year, as well as his brilliant animation voiceover work as Cyril Figgis on Archer and Jerry Smith on Rick and Morty.
There is a familiar story that many comedians tell about not being sure when they were officially hired or fired from SNL. “Well, I knew both,” Parnell says with a dry laugh when I ask about his experience at the show, which began in 1998 and ended eight seasons later after he was let go and then welcomed back into the cast a few months later.
Along the way, the Memphis-born comedian appeared in countless iconic sketches, many with his friend Will Ferrell, whether it was moderating the first presidential debate between Ferrell’s George W. Bush and Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore or playing guitar in the “more cowbell” sketch. When you watch that all-time classic, you will notice only two people not openly laughing by the end: host Christopher Walken and Chris Parnell.
“It was difficult,” he says now. “I mean, I just tried to be there as that character and that character wouldn’t find any of those things funny. I was able to focus straight ahead, mostly. The hardest part, of course, was when Will had his belly over next to me and was whacking the cowbell in my face. And honestly, when the camera was off me for a moment, I did look down and kind of smile. But it was hard.”
Parnell earned the SNL nickname “Ice Man” from castmate Colin Quinn, who recognized how cool he was under pressure from his very first episode. “He was very impressed that I was so relaxed and not showing nerves in the cold open,” Parnell recalls “He was like, ‘Wow, he’s like an Ice Man.’”
Parnell’s ability to remain deadpan in scenes opposite outrageous co-stars also serves him well in his latest project, playing the father of Rebel Wilson’s character who awakens from a coma 20 years after she was supposed to graduate high school in the Netflix movie Senior Year.
“Sometimes you don’t know what she’s going to do, but you can always trust her because her instincts are so, so good comedically and you just roll with it,” Parnell says. In one scene where she flips out after he decides to take away her new iPhone so she will focus on her studies, the actor says he thought to himself, “This might be over the top, this might be a bit much, but then when I saw it, I was like, oh no, this is hilarious. She knew exactly what she was doing.”
As ridiculous as Senior Year is at times, it also gave Parnell the rare opportunity to try out his dramatic acting chops, especially in a touching scene opposite Wilson near the end of the film.
“I love doing comedy and given my druthers, I would do comedy over drama,” he tells me. “But you know, hopefully I’ll have some opportunities to do other dramatic stuff as well because that’s also very rewarding.”
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to the whole thing—including stories about Parnell’s SNL audition, the origins of Dr. Spaceman and more—by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.
You have the very distinct experience of being the only cast member to be fired twice from SNL. So what is the story there? You were on for how many seasons before they let you go and then they ultimately brought you back?
Yeah, I was on for three seasons and you know, just starting to really feel more confident.
Just when you were starting to get your footing…
Exactly. And there would always be this thing that would happen every summer where we were supposed to be notified by July 1st, I think, whether our contracts were getting picked up for the next season, but that never happened. It was always like, “Hey, Lorne needs more time, he’s been traveling.” And, of course, what are you going to say, “No, I need to know right now!” So then you’re kind of in contact with the other cast members who are waiting to find out. I remember being in touch with Rachel Dratch and we just all thought, well, I think we’ll all probably get on again. And then I got the call from Jimmy Miller, who was my manager at the time, and he said, “Buddy, I don’t know what to tell you, but they’re not bringing you back.” And it was pretty rough. I had come to realize how much of my identity at that point was wrapped up in being a Saturday Night Live cast member. And then very shortly thereafter I started to hear from people who worked on the show—Will [Ferrell], Tim Meadows, some other folks—that the door wasn’t completely shut, that I might be going back. So it was this roller coaster for a while. And I just got tired of that roller coaster. I said, “Look, if he wants to bring me back I’d love to go back, but I don’t want to hear any more of this, ‘Maybe, maybe, maybe.’”
Yeah, it sounds torturous.
Yeah, I moved all my stuff back to L.A. and then got rehired. I think it was the 13th episode of what would be my fourth season.
So you missed about a half a season, or something like that?
I missed 12 episodes out of a 20- episode season.
Did it feel different when you came back? Was that a vote of confidence or now you were even more on edge because you’d already been fired once?
Well, one of the things that made it easier to wrap my head around it was there was such an outpouring of support from the cast and writers. They were just like, “Dude, I can’t believe this, it doesn’t make any sense.” And one of the writers, T. Sean Shannon, wrote a very scathing sketch set at a Benihana, where he basically just took Lorne and the producers and everybody to task for firing me, veiled in this Benihana sketch.
Did that air?
No! God, no. It was just for the table read, just to send a message.
But Lorne heard it at the table read.
Oh yeah. Lorne had to read the stage directions. I think it was probably fairly quiet at the table, but I remember there being a line like, “Why did you fire the chef? Why did you find Chris? I mean, he was great!” And then, I think Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan went to bat for me too. And I’m sure all of that helped a lot.
That must have felt good at least, that all those guys had your back.
Yeah, and everybody seemed surprised by it, so I didn’t feel like I was an idiot to be surprised by it.
And did Lorne have anything to say to you about it when you came back?
He did. He had me in the office and said, “You know, I made a mistake.”
I know, which is amazing.
So then you were there for eight seasons total in the end and I think it was not your choice to leave the second time either. How did you feel about it at the time? And at that time, eight seasons was like the longest anyone stayed at the show. Of course, now there are people like Kenan Thompson, who has been there for like 20 years. Do you think you would have stayed indefinitely if they had let you or what do you think you would have done?
I mean, you know, I think Kevin Nealon had been on a long time, Darrell Hammond had been on a long time, and definitely Tim Meadows had been on a very long time. But basically, my attitude was, they gave me the opportunity to leave on my own, but I couldn’t really do it. It was a job. And you know it was a job I quite enjoyed. And by that point, it was actually paying pretty well. So I just didn’t feel like, “Nah, I don’t need that.” I never felt like that. I was like, if they’ll have me back, I’ll come back. But they didn’t. But it was OK. It was much easier to take that time because I had a sense that it might be coming and I’d gotten to go back for five more seasons and do a lot more stuff.
Listen to the episode now and subscribe to ‘The Last Laugh’ on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.