Chris Parnell

Live From New York

He's a guaranteed laugh generator on one of television's most iconic shows. He's appeared in movies such as The Ladies Man and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and guest-starred on sitcoms like Friends and Seinfeld. But before he made his mark in the entertainment world, Chris Parnell was a Memphis kid with a passion for theater.

In this phone interview from his SoHo apartment, Parnell speaks reverently about his days in the Germantown High drama program, and Frank Bluestein, the instructor there who coaxed the best work possible from the young actor, encouraging him to pursue his acting dream.

He did just that.

After a few false starts, Parnell found himself in Los Angeles, hawking toys at the Beverly Center by day, and honing his craft with the country's most famous improv troupe, the Groundlings, by night. There, Parnell caught the eye of a Saturday Night Live scout, which led to an audition for the show's iconic creator and producer, Lorne Michaels. Needless to say, he got the gig. Since his first season in 1998, Parnell has riffed on everyone from Eminem to Al Gore, grossed us out as Tyler, the unfortunate hillbilly who "falls on" all manner of inanimate objects in the "Appalachian Emergency Room" sketches, and rapped about Demi Moore and Britney Spears. But it was his faux-gangsta rap with co-star Andy Samberg, "Lazy Sunday," which chronicles two less-than-dangerous dudes macking on cupcakes and Google-mapping their way to the movies, that sent him into orbit this year. If you missed it, no worries. Any search engine on the Web will pull up countless copies of the now --infamous video, as well as hundreds of amateur efforts in homage.

Sounds like a dream come true, huh? Well, yes and no.

Parnell has the distinction of being the only cast member fired, then re-hired, in the show's 30-year run.

Leave it to the kid from Memphis to make history.

We asked Chris about his high school hangouts and crushes, the inside dope on what happens behind-the-scenes at Rockefeller Center's legendary Studio 8-H, and the long road that led him there. Here's what he had to say.

MHT: So where in Memphis did you grow up?

CP: We lived in Whitehaven until I was about 13 or 14, and then we moved out to Germantown. My parents have been there ever since.

MHT: So you were a Red Devil?

CP: Yes, I was.

MHT: Who was the big Germantown rival back then?

CP: Wow . . . MUS maybe?

MHT: Did you play sports?

CP: Oh, no . . . [laughing] No. I was severely lacking. When I started at Germantown, I went to four wrestling practices, but then they were holding auditions for the fall play -- and so I had to make a big decision. I opted for the latter.

MHT: How hard of a decision was that?

CP: It wasn"t that hard. At that point, even before I came to Germantown, I had done a couple of plays at SBEC -- Southern Baptist Educational Center --  so I already had the acting bug a little bit. I was really lucky that we moved to Germantown -- and I went to Germantown -- because as I"m sure you know, they have an amazing program, run by Frank Bluestein.

MHT: What were the hang-out spots back then?

CP: Mostly at the high school, for me. I kind of lived up there -- at either the theater or the TV studio. There was always something going on. There would be a few late nights that we would go to Steak and Egg, "cause that was the only place that was open 24 hours. But I didn"t have much of a social life outside of the theater and TV department. It was a great place to be. I mean, there were so many people involved, and that's where -- you know, where my friends were.

MHT: Do you remember any of the girls you had a crush on in high school?

CP: Well, sure . . . there was Laura Skeen. She was in the theater department with me. Then there were the girls I had crushes on that I was able to actually go out with, and there were those that were sort of unreachable . . .

MHT: After high school, you went to the North Carolina School of the Arts. Was that at Bluestein's recommendation?

CP: Oh, he was hugely responsible, almost completely. He was very encouraging about pursuing a career as an actor, and he's the one who told me about School of the Arts. There was a PBS special about the school, and once I watched I, well, I was completely enraptured. Thankfully I got a place in there.

MHT: After college, then what?

CP: I saw a poster in the drama department for the Alley Theater in Houston. They had an apprentice program for people like me coming out of theater schools. I think it paid $200 a week. So I went to audition and got in and -- I had initially planned with my friend Adam to try to do the New York thing -- and he fell in love and moved to Pennsylvania. I didn"t want to go to New York on my own, and then this Houston thing came up. I had a good time, but frankly, I left pretty disenchanted because in my youthful naivete, I thought they"d think I was brilliant and ask me to be in the resident company. We did a version of Romeo and Juliet, and I was Romeo, and thought I"d done some really good work with that. Well, this other guy -- who was very talented -- got this big musical they were workshopping that eventually went to Broadway. He was very good at talking to people, schmoozing and networking, and sort of working that angle of it, which I was not so good at. So, I left thinking, "I don"t know about the theater, I don"t know what I"m doing." At the time, Germantown needed a theater teacher. So I thought hey -- why not?

MHT: Was it odd for you to be on the other side of the spectrum?

CP: A little. The teaching thing, well, I wasn"t cut out for it. It takes a special soul. I don"t think I was a bad teacher, but I realized I really missed acting. I knew I had to give this a go. So in early "92, I drove out to LA with one of my best friends from college. We lived right in Hollywood. It wasn"t terrible, but it certainly wasn"t the nicest part of town at all.

MHT: You said before that you wanted to go to New York before your friend got sidetracked. why not New York, now that you"ve got a friend to go along?

CP: Good question. I hadn"t really considered LA as a possibility for a few reasons. I can pinpoint one of them for you, which is a little embarrassing, but I had this fear of earthquakes, and of California falling into the ocean, which, of course, it can"t do. I guess I thought of New York as the place where, you know, real theater is. I don"t know who suggested LA first. I got on a plane to visit Adam and his family out there, and we went to Disneyland the next day, which is amazing, so my initial impression of LA was fantastic. It made sense for a lot of reasons. Plus, it seemed a lot less intimidating than New York, you know?

MHT: So, what did you do when you got to LA?

CP: I ended up at an FAO Schwartz toy store for five years. I worked my way up to operations manager.

MHT: Upper management?

CP: Totally! But you know, some new friends gave me the best advice ever, which was to do everything . . . student films, workshops, and definitely the Groundlings. So I started taking classes and was able to make it through the program. It's a great showcase for agents to see new actors, especially comedic actors. And so I started to get guest star parts in sitcoms, just little things here and there. But stuff was happening. Then the SNL people saw me, and my agent sent them a tape, all unbeknownst to me. So when asked if I wanted to fly to New York to audition, it was a very, very big surprise.

MHT: Tell me about some of those early parts on sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends. Do any stand out in your memory?

CP:The very first one I did, an episode of Hope and Gloria. It was an episode that involved a group called the "Young Pennsylvanians," which was like an Up With People, singing, feel-good group. It went well -- and it was fun -- and from that I got a manager. And from that I got an agent . . . eventually.

MHT: So that was the first real acting job you got?

CP:I had done this Piggly Wiggly commercial my junior or senior year of high school. I had to say: [he breaks into radio-voice] "I"m a sacker now, but someday I"ll be manager."

{ hysterical laughing }

It was a big deal! I was on a TV commercial. That's exciting, and helpful with the SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card thing. It was so nice not to have that hurdle in LA.

MHT: So, you got that SNL call and they flew you up to New York. Were you freaking out?

CP: I was terrified from the moment I got the call. I was very lucky because I knew Cheri Oteri, Ana Gasteyer, and Will Ferrell from the Groundlings, and they gave me some good advice. I flew out with another actor named Mike McDonald to audition at the same time, and we helped each other. Our hotel rooms were next to each other, and we"d audition for each other, deliberately not laughing. I was told not to expect any [response] during the audition, and that can be kind of jarring. Thankfully, I had a good audition. It was where the hosts come out and do their monologue, so, it was great for me, cause it was like a little stage. And Lorne [Michaels] and everyone were so far back I didn"t have to look at them. So they decided to bring me on board. Mike got on Mad TV, so, it worked out for both of us.

MHT: Who was the first person you called when you found out?

CP: I"m pretty sure it was my parents. I had lunch at the California Pizza Kitchen, and I didn"t have a cell phone. I called my agent from the pay phone and got the news.

MHT: Who was the host on your first episode?

CP: It was Cameron Diaz, and Smashing Pumpkins was the musical guest.

MHT: How many parts did you have that first show?

CP: One live sketch and one pre-taped commercial. I was Kenneth Starr, which for somebody who didn"t pride himself on his impressions . . . . The other sketch was some Oprah bit, with Bill Clinton and, oh, who was it he got into trouble with? The girl with the beret?

MHT: Monica Lewinsky. I guess the beret is one way to remember her.

CP: [laughing] I only remember her for her lovely berets.

MHT: How hectic is getting a live show together in a matter of days?

CP: There's a lot of work involved, of course. Typically, Monday afternoons, we all pile into Lorne's office -- cast, the writers, producers, and the host, and we throw out our pitches. We come back Tuesday at whatever time we want, and usually write all night. I mean, after I get off the phone with you, I"m going in and I"ll be there "til probably six in the morning. Then Wednesday, we come in about 2:30 and do a read-through of our sketches around a big table, and everyone is there. Hopefully what you wrote gets laughs. Then, Lorne and the head writers decide what's gonna be in the show. Thursday, starting at around one, all the scenes that have been picked get re-written . . . sometimes substantially, you know, just try to punch them up. Also, on Thursday the musical guest does their rehearsal, so if it's a band that you really wanna see, you can check them out. But it's usually an early day -- we"re usually gone by 8 or so. Friday we rehearse for about nine hours. Saturday we come in at 1, and rehearse in full costume. We break for dinner, then come back for a live dress rehearsal in front of an audience. Then we do it for a second time, for a whole new audience. Then there's another round of cuts, and then we finally know what makes it into the show. Lorne gives us our last round of notes, and then we have about 30 minutes to get ready for the air show. By 1 a.m. -- it's over.

MHT: Can we talk a little bit about when you left the show in 2001? What happened?

CP: Well, every summer, you either renew or don"t renew your option on your contract. July 1st rolls around, which is contractually the day that they"re supposed to say: Okay. They"re either renewing your option, or they"re not. Lorne will often drag it out and ask for a couple more weeks to decide. Assuming you want the job, you"re probably gonna say, "You can take as much time as you need." So, it kinda drags out. That summer there were other people in the boat with me that didn"t get their contracts renewed right away. I think most of us thought that we would all just end up coming back, but I heard that Jerry Minor -- who was only on the show one season -- but he was so talented and so brilliant . . . and also a fantastic writer. I heard that Jerry had gotten fired. All of a sudden I was really scared. He had a really impressive first season, and if they let this guy go, then nobody's safe. And then, sure enough, I found that my contract had not been renewed and I was -- I was gone. It was pretty devastating. I mean, I had never been fired from a job before.

I had no hint that anybody was anything less than pleased with the work I"d been doing on the show. And there was a bit of an outcry from the cast members and writers. Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan went to bat for me too. And I kept hearing mixed messages from my manager "I talked to Lorne, he's saying he might bring you back . . . ." It became a roller-coaster ride. I would get my hopes up and then nothing would happen. Finally I told my manager unless they are really serious, and they have an offer, let's just forget about it, because I need to move on. I"d put my stuff into storage in New York. I"d given up my lease on my apartment. And I went to LA, got an apartment, and was sleeping on a sleeping bag, you know, kind of living this half-life. Finally, I just decided I"m not gonna do this anymore. So, I moved everything out to LA, got settled, and then a few months later, I got re-hired on the show. I came back to New York and lived in a hotel for the rest of the season. When I got re-hired [in March 2002], I decided to buy a place here.

MHT: So, were you surprised by the success of "Lazy Sunday"?

CP: Yeah, it was a huge surprise. We did that on the last show before Christmas break, and I came home to Memphis. Then I got a call from the guy in publicity at SNL, saying the New York Times wanted to do an interview. It had really blown up, you know? People were making T-shirts, and making take-offs on it and putting them all over the Web. It was all news to me. When Andy [Samberg] and I did that, we felt good about it, and were excited that it was received so well on the show that night, but I had no idea it would take off like that.

MHT: What about the paparazzi? Do they bother you much?

CP: You know what? They don"t. I don"t do a lot of on-camera interviews or phone interviews, for that matter. I"ve kind of -- maybe to the detriment of my career -- shied away from all that. I just did Conan O"Brien for the first time -- most people are doing Conan within their first season on the show, you know, but I always sort of avoided it. I"m, I don"t know, I"m antisocial or something, but I"d rather hang out with friends or my girlfriend. So, my profile isn"t high enough for them to care. I don"t think putting me on the cover of a tabloid is gonna sell magazines . . . which may not be good news for you.

MHT: We"ll see about that. How often do you make it back home?

CP: I"m usually home for Christmas for at least two weeks, sometimes three. My sister had a daughter last year, so that's an added impetus to come home. I actually just came in a few weeks ago and we all drove down to Destin for a family vacation. I get back maybe three times a year, or something like that.

MHT: Anything that you absolutely have to do when you"re here?

CP: Chick-Fil-A! And I like to try to make it downtown if I can. I like Germantown a lot, but I try to actually get into Memphis proper. When I was just there I went to Cooper-Young and had dinner at Bluefish. Every now and then, we"ll go to Folk's Folly, and I usually end up at the Majestic movie theater with my sister, "cause she lives over there. Oh, and I love that place Cielo -- it's so beautiful.

MHT: Well, I know that you gotta get to the studio, so there's just one more little thing, if you"re up to it.

CP: O-kaaaay.

MHT: It's a little "would you rather" type game.

CP: I"m ready.

MHT: Ribs: wet or dry?

CP: Dry.

MHT: Sno-cones or ice cream?

CP: Ice cream.

MHT: Radio: XM or Sirius?

CP: Sirius.

MHT: Taxi or subway?

CP: Subway -- whenever possible.

MHT: Cupcakes: chocolate or vanilla?

CP: Vanilla.

MHT: Sisters: Ashlee or Jessica?

CP: Jessica.

MHT: Summer or winter?

CP: Summer.

MHT: Blondes or brunettes?

CP: That's hard, but I guess I"ve tended to date brunettes.

MHT: Blues Brothers: Aykroyd or Belushi?

CP: Aykroyd.

MHT: Beach or the pool?

CP: The beach.

MHT: Elvis or Justin Timberlake?

CP: Elvis.

MHT: Colbert or Stewart?

CP: Stewart.

MHT: Bush or Cheney?

CP: Bush or Cheney? Oh, well, goodness gracious. I guess . . . I guess, um . . .

MHT: You don"t have to answer that. In fact, they might be listening to us right now.

CP: It's entirely possible.

MHT: We should probably stop talking about it.

CP: I know. We will.

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