Jerry's 'Pathetic' Nature Is Chris Parnell's Favorite Part Of Rick And Morty

Every sitcom tends to base its main characters around a familiar archetype. With Jerry Smith, voiced by "Saturday Night Live" alum Chris Parnell, it's clear the creators went for the bumbling dad archetype. From day one, he's a dopey, incompetent father figure. Jerry's also meant as a foil for Rick, who's extremely competent but also a huge jerk.  

Throughout the first season, Jerry gets the occasional moment where he rises to the occasion and shows us why Beth (Sarah Chalke) sticks by him, but for the most part, he's a loser who's far less intelligent than the rest of the main cast. As a video essay from CJ the X points out, throughout season 1, Jerry's often seen playing a children's game on his iPad in the background of a scene, one where he's just tapping the balloons on the screen. "There aren't even visible points or rules at all," CJ muses. "This is enough for him."

It might seem mean-spirited at times, but Jerry's unimpressive nature is a major appeal to the voice actor playing him. "I love that he is kind of pathetic and a sad sack and a loser," Parnell explained to Syfy. "I think that's a funny setup and a fun kind of character to play." 

It's not the first time Parnell has played this sort of character; he starred in the classic "SNL" sketch "Natalie's Rap," where Parnell plays a meek, confused interviewer as Natalie Portman starts rapping about doing drugs and murdering people. At the end, Parnell's character tries to playfully ask Natalie a sexist question about which Hollywood guy she'd like to kiss, and Portman responds by swinging her chair at him full force. Parnell's played many characters in his career, but he might be at his best as a character everyone else walks over.

Maybe a little too pathetic though

As the show went into season 2, however, the writers seemed to lean a little too hard into the "Jerry's a loser" schtick. The love holding him and Beth together is nearly gone, and neither Morty nor Summer even pretend to respect him. To be fair, Jerry rarely does anything to warrant respect, but that just makes his scenes even more unpleasant to watch. Over and over again, Jerry only inspires pity and disgust. 

Much like Toby from "The Office" or Ted from "Scrubs," Jerry is the show's clear punching bag by the third season. It's funny, the show tells us, when bad things happen to this guy. This is made most clear at the end of season 3's "Rickmancing the Stone," in which a divorced Jerry is picking up his unemployment check when he's mugged by a wild wolf. Jerry tries to offer the wolf his chips, saying, "But this is actual food, and this would nourish you!" But no, the wolf is only interested in his check. It chews it up and immediately spits it out. As the wolf walks away, a gust of wind blows by, whispering "Loser!" in Jerry's ear.

It's a funny scene, but it's the sort of humor that has an expiration date. After a certain point, it stops being funny to endlessly pile onto this guy who's only crime is being mildly mediocre. The "Rick and Morty" writers seemed aware of this, however, which is why Jerry's standing in the family improves permanently in the season 3 finale.

Learning to appreciate a well-meaning if mediocre man

After Jerry and Beth get back together, the Smith family as a whole gets a lot healthier. Rick is no longer allowed to boss Morty around quite as often, and Beth and Jerry actually seem to, y'know, like each other. As staff writer Siobhan Thompson explained about their marriage in season 5, taking their relationship in a more optimistic direction was far more interesting than repeating their usual season 2 bickering: "No one wants to see this sad couple existing in this weird purgatory of not liking each other. That's fun for a little bit, but at a certain point you have to make a choice."

And as Parnell put it, Jerry is a character who's pretty good at finding joy in the simple pleasures of life. "He's used to living with not a lot in terms of positive reinforcement or encouragement or that kind of thing," he said. "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."

One of Parnell's wishes in the 2020 interview was that Jerry would finally get to "excel at something that's at least mildly impressive," and he did sort of get that wish in the season 5 episode, "Rickdependence Spray." A lot of weird stuff happens in that episode, but at least we get the wholesome subplot of Jerry excelling at his job of pouring everyone glasses of water. He even receives the praise of the President of the United States for his competence. 

Treating Jerry with kindness

The show's also gotten more critical of the rest of the family's sense of superiority towards Jerry. In season 5's "Amortycan Grickfitti," Rick (and a reluctant Beth) use Jerry's inherent uncoolness to pay off a debt to a bunch of pain-seeking demons. This backfires a little when the demons tell them that as cringe-inducing as Jerry's behavior is, Rick and Beth are even worse. "You think Jerry is lame and you're cool, but the lamest thing of all is thinking that," the demon says. "The two of you combined is what we call the lamest thing ever!"

The episode feels almost like an apology for Jerry's earlier treatment. In a way, thinking you're better than another person inherently makes you at least a little bit worse than them, and that realization seems reflected in the show's changing treatment of the character. In season 2's "Look Who's Purging Now," Summer (Spencer Grammer) ruthlessly shuts down her father's attempts at conversation and the show presents this as a cool moment; when Summer tears Jerry down in a Rick-esque rant in season 4's "Childrick of Mort," it's presented more as Summer being a jerk. 

As the seasons go on, we still get to laugh at Jerry's expense, but nowadays the humor is borne out of affection rather than disdain. Despite his flaws, the show's made it clear that Jerry isn't really a loser in the way that counts. He's dependable, humble, and emotionally vulnerable, which are things the rest of the family is rarely capable of being. From that perspective, Jerry is currently the least pathetic character in the Smith family.