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Chris Parnell explains why Jerry — Rick and Morty's Jar Jar Binks — is the ideal quarantine buddy

By Josh Weiss
Jerry Rick and Morty Season 4

Rick and Morty concluded its fourth season last night and, to everyone's surprise, Jerry (Chris Parnell) helped save the day when he commandeered Tammy Guterman's (Cassie Steele) corpse and distracted Phoenix Person (Dan Harmon) from a deadly rampage. And Jerry's desire to bring sock puppets to the family therapy session? Not so crazy after all after resulting in what Beth (Earth Beth, not Space Rebel Beth, although both are voiced by Sarah Chalke) describes as the only "decent" character arc of the entire finale.

Throughout the latest season, the Smith family patriarch got himself into more than a few wacky (and not-so-wacky) situations. He hung out with a talking cat, took up beekeeping as a hobby, had his atomic matrix made lighter than air, served as a surrogate dad to Rick's seemingly illegitimate clay children, and by the end of Episode 10, briefly helped people out with an invisible garbage truck.

Say what you will, but the dude has his moments. SYFY WIRE recently caught up with Parnell for a chat about the most ridiculed member of the Rick and Morty roster and why he doesn't suck half as much as you think he does.

What have you learned from voicing Jerry for four seasons?

I've learned that it's not too challenging for me to play a pathetic, put-upon guy. That, somehow, is easily in my wheelhouse, it seems.

Jerry's a bit of a sad sack, but he's not a bad guy. He doesn't always make the best choices, but he tries to be fun and he tries to better himself in little ways. It doesn't take a lot to make Jerry feel satisfied. He's used to living with not a lot in terms of positive reinforcement or encouragement or that kind of thing.

I think he would be doing well, for instance, during this stay-at-home COVID-19 quarantine stuff. I don't think it would hit Jerry too hard.

Jerry Smith Rick and Morty Season 4

What do you love most about playing Jerry so far?

I love that he is kind of pathetic and a sad sack and a loser. I think that's a funny setup and a fun kind of character to play. I love that Jerry gets to go to some sort of wild places ... dimensionally and planet-wise, but also emotionally and psychologically. All of the very heartfelt stuff he's had with Beth is fun to get to play. It's fun to play Jerry in the same way [that] it's fun to just watch the show — this crazy sci-fi part to it ... and then you've got this family element that humanizes it.

It's fun to be a part of that, and obviously, it's exciting to be a part of something that so many people love, especially now that we've got this much-deserved deal with Adult Swim for all these episodes. That's a good feeling.

How big of a sci-fi fan were you before joining Rick and Morty? What are some of your favorite sci-fi films, shows, and books?

Oh, yeah. I've always been a big sci-fi fan. Back when I was quite young, I got a compilation of stories by Isaac Asimov, and I was just completely taken with them. On a much different level, I love the Tom Swift books — it was sort of in the spirit of the Hardy Boys, but it was all sci-fi. And Dune, the David Lynch [film] is one of my favorite movies of all time.

And obviously, I love all the big stuff [like] Star Wars, most of the Star Trek movies. I was always a big Star Trek fan as a kid; the original Star Trek, that was one of my favorite things to watch. Book-wise, right now, over the last year or so, I've been reading Dan Simmons' Hyperion series. I'm on the fourth one right now, The Rise of Endymion, and that has been wildly satisfying and exciting and fun. Andy Samberg actually turned me on to those, so that was a nice gift from him.

Jerry Smith Rick and Morty Season 4

So you must be excited for the big Dune adaptation coming up?

I am very excited. I haven't read too much about it, other than who the cast is and all that. I don't honestly know how much information there is about it out there, but I'm excited to see what Mr. Denis is going to do with it. I'm glad it's getting a remake, and as much as I love the Lynch version, I think [it's great] to sort of bring it back into the cultural mind again.

Which character would you compare Jerry to in terms of the list of sci-fi stuff you just mentioned?

Um, I don't know, Jar Jar Binks maybe. I guess that's the only one that comes to mind. Maybe C-3PO a little bit, but he's a lot more capable than Jerry is by a long shot. Those are the only ones, I guess, because most of the characters — whether it's TV or film in science fiction — they're usually tough characters and smart and capable and all that, so you don't meet too many doofuses. At least in the science fiction that I'm familiar with.

How do you get into Jerry's headspace?

It's not a hard headspace for me to get into. I'm not too much like Jerry, I hope, but I think I've played enough doofus/loser/inept characters that it's not a hard space for me to tap into.

So much of Jerry is just there on the page, it's just in the script and I have this, hopefully, innate sense now of how to play Jerry and what to bring to the lines or what to bring to the material. If I'm just taking the lead of the script, they make it easy for me to play Jerry because of the way they write him. Which is also why it's hard to improvise Jerry. So much of the mind of Jerry comes from the writers and I just interpret that.

Jerry Smith Rick and Morty Season 4

What's the biggest takeaway you've gotten from collaborating with creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon? What are their working styles like?

These days, usually, they're not in the booth. Justin might be, [but] Dan very, very rarely is. On the occasions when Dan has directed, he takes a lot of time with it. He often has a very specific idea of what he wants from the scene and wants from my performance. It's a different thing, it's nice. I like to be directed, and it's nice when people have a specific idea and they know what they're doing.

And then Justin is, not surprising, a little more freewheeling, but he also has a pretty specific idea of what he wants out of a line, what he wants out of a scene, and what they envisioned when they wrote it. They also trust me. I think they write it with my voice in mind and trust me to bring different colors to it, different aspects to it, even than what they might have thought that I would when they wrote it.

What do you think makes Jerry worthy of going toe to toe with the other characters on the show week in and week out?

Jerry's generally a pretty sincere character. With only a few exceptions, he's a "what you see is what you get" kind of guy. I feel like he's a pretty humanizing element to the show. They're a challenging family to live with, and then, obviously, to have your father-in-law be the smartest being in the universe, it can be a bit intimidating. But Jerry somehow has enough belief in himself and sense of his own rights, that he can challenge Rick and Beth and the kids as needed from time to time.

[Oftentimes] he is not as confident as he might be in that, but he does have [his] moments. I think it's also a certain amount of obliviousness on his part or choosing not to look into the face of the incredible brilliance of Rick and sort of see him for the human that he is and being able to relate to that rather than this almost all-powerful being.

Jerry Smith Rick and Morty Season 4

What's it like to have seen Rick and Morty blow up into this massive cultural phenomenon?

It's pretty fantastic. It's something that I experienced mostly just sort of as a thought experiment. I know that it's out there. I'm only kind of vaguely aware of it. When we go to Comic-Con or some other convention and seeing the fans there and their reaction and their reaction watching an episode with [us] and then getting to interact with the [them] at a panel or signing or something, that makes it real in a very different way. It was the same way with Archer. It's like, "I know people love this, I know they dig it," but it wasn't until we did our first Comic-Con and saw the crowd reaction to the show.

And obviously the same with Rick and Morty. Hearing about the McDonald's Szechuan Sauce thing, that was pretty mind-blowing, because that was a very crazy manifestation of popularity for a show. I think it was very smart on McDonald's part, but to see that the fans were able to demand a product come back and then have them bring it back was pretty amazing.

Going off that, where would you like to see the character go in future seasons?

I guess it would be fun to see Jerry maybe find something that he is more competent [at], to see him excel at something that's at least mildly impressive. But at the same time, that kind of goes against the grain of who Jerry is, so I don't know if that'll ever make sense for him. I guess that would be a fun thing to get to do.

One of my favorite episodes was when Jerry and Rick went to the planet with the "nobody dies" stasis field on it. And to see them get to hang out and kind of connect in a way that's different for them and then also to get to see Jerry be cunning and thinking about helping assassinate Rick and deciding he doesn't want that … Rick is not the most moral character, so anytime that there are these little moments of connection and sincerity, I think those are really fun and those are really nice — whether it's Jerry and Beth or Jerry and Rick. I don't know that he's had too many of those moments with his kids, but I guess that would be nice to see, too.