Chris Parnell's Favorite 30 Rock Scenes Show What Worked So Well About Dr. Spaceman

On "30 Rock," jokes were blasted at the viewer at a rapid rate. There were more gags, in-jokes, and puns in every scene than could be seen by the naked eye. While the show was initially meant to more reflect creator Tina Fey's time on "Saturday Night Live," as it went on, the show took on a life as its own as the most joke-dense show on television.

In a show as tightly written as "30 Rock," every character played their part, from Jane Krakowski's attention-seeking and dramatic Jenna Maroney to Alec Baldwin's domineering and confident Jack Donaghy. But one of the show's most consistently funny recurring side characters was Chris Parnell's Dr. Leo Spaceman.

A grossly and dangerously incompetent physician, Dr. Spaceman (pronounced "spuh-chem-in" by everyone except Tracy Morgan's goofy Tracy Jordan) would appear whenever the show's characters needed medical advice or attention, often providing both very poorly. Parnell stole scenes as Spaceman, a fantastically simple yet effective recurring character on the level of Lionel Hutz on "The Simpsons."

Not only did Chris Parnell play Dr. Spaceman perfectly, but he loved the part. "It's a pretty dreamy role," the actor said in a TV Guide interview. "Anything can come out of Spaceman's mouth. You never know what crazy place he's going to or what scheme he's got up his sleeve — he's a nutbird!"

Whether he was diagnosing Tracy Jordan with symptoms only found in corpses or proclaiming that medicine "isn't a science," Spaceman had so many excellent moments. Parnell recalled a few of his favorites in a Looper interview, all of which exemplified what was so great about the seemingly one-note joke character.

Subverting expectations

Part of the greatness that was Dr. Spaceman was his complete unpredictability. He would enter a scene where a sitcom would normally just bring in a doctor to move along the plot and turn all any expectations on their heads. One scene Parnell referred to in the Looper interview as one of his favorites is one where his character arrives to check on Jack Donaghy after he has a heart attack. He enters the room with his usual lab coat, but it's covered in blood.

When everyone is shocked, he explains he was at a costume party. You think that's the end of it, the characters relax. But Spaceman continues, "The hostess' dog attacked me, so I had to stab it." He completely swerves the audience, leading them in one direction just to perfectly pivot and make a much, much darker joke. It's an extremely simple subversion of expectations, but the lack of limits to how ridiculous anything Spaceman can say or do can be heightens the joke to its maximum potential hilarity.

When recalling the scene, Parnell marveled at the script's quality. "I remember doing that scene and reading it, and then seeing it and being like 'Oh that's a pretty clever bit of writing there.' That was the case of [30 Rock] all the time, and I just tried to serve the lines well."

A professional buffoon

Along with his complete absurdity, another reliable source of humor for Dr. Spaceman is his complete lack of medical knowledge. It's a common comedy trope, taking a person with a very prestigious profession and making them a bumbling buffoon (see again, Lionel Hutz). Another joke Parnell often cites as one of his favorites that exemplifies this is when Spaceman is tasked with reviving Don Geiss, played by Rip Torn, from a diabetic coma. When asked why they can't inject something into his heart to revive him, Spaceman patronizingly replies, "We have no way of knowing where the heart is. Every human is different."

To see a figure usually portrayed as a powerful, educated professional, like a doctor, portrayed as an idiot creates another naturally funny contrast. When done well, these characters can provide endless gags, once again based on the subversion of expectations.

To create a brilliant comedic character is not rocket science. All it requires is the use of some simple formulas and some creative writing, though that's easier said than done. While Dr. Spaceman isn't complex enough to merit his own series, like Baldwin's Jack Donaghy almost got, he's the sort of character who steals every scene he's in and makes the already hilarious show even funnier.