Few folks are as ubiquitous in comedy as Chris Parnell. The SNL alum is one of those rare comedic voices that has appeared in countless projects, usually in a clutch supporting role, without necessarily getting the credit he deserves. What would 30 Rock be without the insane medical advice of Dr. Leo Spacemen? Where would SNL’s digital shorts be without his killer flow on “Lazy Sunday?” What would Archer be without the straitlaced milquetoastery of Cyril Figgis? Parnell is a quietly kind comedic workhorse, turning out memorable character after character with his trademark affability. And now, he’s taking his talents on the road once more.
Since its debut in 2009, Archer has built up a massive cult following, thanks to its preposterous quotability and its whip-smart skewering of the spy genre. Now, five seasons later, the show has a legion of diehard fans and the cast has taken its talents on the road in a series of live events aptly titled Archer Live. Blending fan Q&A, t-shirt cannons, and live readings, the events sell out like hotcakes and lead enterprising fans to attempt ISIS-like maneuvers to acquire them. To help get you appropriately stoked for tomorrow night’s Archer Live in Los Angeles, I caught up with Parnell to talk about how the show has evolved, the unique language of the show, and close encounters with cosplayers.
Nerdist: When the Archer pilot first aired unannounced after an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in 2009, I was in college and my roommates and I quickly became obsessed with it. We watched it an upsetting amount of times, and now you guys are entering into your fifth season, which is crazy to think about. How has the response been and how has the show evolved?
Chris Parnell: Well, it’s been pretty fantastic. I guess the most tangible form that takes is Comic-Con and these Archer Live shows because the turnouts are so nice. To be able to interact with people who clearly love the show and see how much they love it is pretty swell, you know? It seems to keep growing as we’re on for more seasons. I think as long as Adam Reed keeps wanting to write them, we’ll just keep going and going.
N: I’m hoping he doesn’t get tired anytime soon.
CP: Me, too.
N: I feel like this is a show that rewards long-term viewing as well because there’s so many callbacks and in-jokes. The longer you watch, the more threads you’ll pick up.
CP: Absolutely. He does a lot of that.
N: So, tell me about these Archer Live shows – what exactly are they and what can fans expect?
CP: Well, we’ve done quite a few in different cities around the country. The first one we’ve ever done was in L.A., actually. There’s about six of us from the cast up there and one of the producers – either Matt Thompson or Casey Willis – helps run the whole thing as sort of a master of ceremonies. We do some scenes from the show that we’ll read as an ensemble, then we’ll do scenes from the show where we have audience members come up and interact with the cast by playing one of our parts. There’s a t-shirt cannon, which causes great excitement. There’s a lot of ridiculousness. It’s kind of chaos, but it’s generally pretty fun and everyone seems to really enjoy it.
N: You had me at “t-shirt cannon.”
CP: Absolutely – you can’t go wrong with a t-shirt cannon.
N: I imagine you have a lot of people showing up in costume – I ran into several Archer costumes this Halloween. Do you have a favorite fan interaction, whether it be from Archer Live or Comic-Con?
CP: The dressing up happens somewhat at Archer Live. It happens a bit more at Comic-Con, as you may expect. We, the cast, that were there this last year went and got our pictures taken with people that were dressed up as our individual characters. That was interesting – the guy that did Cyril does a number of different characters and gave me his business card. I think he’s clearly got a day job, but but that’s his hobby. It was kind of fun; it was interesting.
N: Is it weird to see people dressing up as Cyril since he’s a character that seems to be so clearly visually modeled after yourself?
CP: I can’t honestly say that I see that many. I don’t really go out on the floor at Comic-Con the last few years; it’s too overwhelming. Then, I go out and do the signing that we do so, I really haven’t seen too many. There’s actually a completely different guy in Atlanta, GA they use as the model for Cyril. When you see his picture, we actually don’t look that much alike, but I think you tweak it some to make it look a little more like me.
N: Oh, wow. Perhaps when you hear your voice coming out of Cyril’s mouth, the brain also makes those connections naturally.
CP: Yeah, exactly.
N: Archer has such a hyperspecific language and rhythm to it, and I know you folks record from different cities. Does that make it more challenging at all?
CP: Actually, it doesn’t. I actually prefer it even though we like to see each other; we get along when we see each other. This way of recording is so much more efficient, because if there’s a big back-and-forth in the scene, like a lot of two people talking, I will read the scene with Casey Willis in Atlanta, and that helps a lot. It makes a big difference. I’m familiar enough with the characters by now that we have a pretty good sense of how the other person might say that line, what their attitude might be. So, you just react off of them. It’s actually not that difficult; you just have to really commit when you’re in there in the booth to being in the moment… you know, all that acting stuff. [laughs]
N: [laughs] Oh, yeah, a lot of sense memory…
CP: Sometimes I imagine if I’m talking to Aisha’s character Lana, I imagine Lana rather than Aisha.
N: It’s nice that it’s not distracting. I can imagine getting a lot of actors and comedians together results in a lot of goofing off. Going back to Archer’s specific style, you’ve done a lot of work – SNL and 30 Rock, for example – that is very different, but also has a very unique language and sensibility. How does working on Archer compare to working on something like that?
CP: Obviously on SNL there were a whole bunch of characters, and on 30 Rock, Dr. Spaceman had his own vibe. In some ways, 30 Rock and Archer are comparable in terms of the density of the jokes. In 30 Rock, there was just so much packed into every scene in terms of jokes and funniness, and I think Adam does that well himself. So, in that way, it’s a little similar, but Cyril is such a different character than Dr. Spaceman. He’s got such a different energy and vibe. I guess in some ways, Dr. Spaceman comes a little easier to me, but I’m pretty comfortable with Cyril now and all his insecurities and neuroses.
N: Is Adam Reed still the primary writer on the show?
CP: Yes, he’s still the main writer on the show. Every so often, I’ll see a script that says “Adam Reed and somebody else” on the top, but I believe he’s the main guy. There are one or two others he works with on the scripts, but nine out of ten scripts are just Adam Reed. I think he’d love to turn over writing to other people and share that burden more, but his voice is so specific, the tone of it and the density of the jokes. It’s hard for another writer to capture that, apparently.
N: With Archer Live, how many dates are you planning on doing?
CP: Just two on this go-round, I believe. There’s one in L.A. on Saturday, November 9th, and one the night before in Austin, TX. I’m not going to be there because of Suburgatory, though. Just the two for now. I guess we’re doing bigger halls and they’ve revamped the show for us, the cast, as much as anything.
N: This is such an incredibly quotable show that’s really permeated pop culture in a meaningful way. Do you have a favorite Archer-ism?
CP: Hmm… geez. I mean, I always like the references to “phrasing”. Someone usually comments on something off-color and Archer usually replies with, “Phrasing.” I like that. I like a lot of it, but I can’t honestly say that much jumps out in particular.
N: Any hints you can tell us about season 5?
CP: I can tell you that ISIS’ whole operating mode – well, I shouldn’t even say ISIS. This group of characters, their mode of operating, their purpose changes pretty dramatically in season 5. Even though they go out on “missions” – and I say “missions” with big quotes. They’ve gotten in enough trouble with the law and the federal government that they need to change their tack a bit.
N: I know you’re busy appearing in pretty much everything known to man, but apart from Archer, are there any upcoming projects you can share with us?
CP: Yeah, I did a series for Cartoon Network called Rick and Morty that I’m very proud of and hopefully is going to be very popular. I play, not surprisingly, the voice of the dad of this family, and it’s about the adventure of my father-in-law and my son. Rick is the father-in-law. He’s a genius scientist and able to travel between different dimensions and go to different parts of the universe, just like anything your brain can imagine. I think that’s going to be very satisfying and funny to watch.
I did a movie with Jeremy Sisto called Break Point, about a middle-aged tennis player. It’s a small part, but I think it’s going to be pretty good. What else? I’m still doing Word Girl. It’s a show on PBS for kids and we had done it for a few seasons, then we got so many episodes banked that we quit recording in the hope they would bring us back, and sure enough they just did, a few months ago. That’s been great.
N: Awesome, well, I’m glad your dance card is full because more Chris Parnell is always a good thing.
CP: Thank you. I think so too.
What a nice guy, huh? Unfortunately, we still have to wait until Cyril Figgis comes back into our lives, but in the meantime, let this upcoming clip from season 5 tide you over until Archer makes its triumphant return on Monday, January 13th.
Are you excited for season 5 to return? Let us know in the comments below!