A simple handkerchief is all Nick Offerman needs to save the day.
That may seem like an outlandish claim for anyone else, yet the actor, author and humorist is utterly convincing when he lists an array of situations where a hankie might come in handy; you can only admire his Scout-like preparedness.
A journeyman character actor with deep roots in the Chicago theater community, Offerman's career fortunes changed when he landed the role of Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation, thereby earning a cozy spot in the pantheon of great sitcom characters. While he shares many of his most famous character's qualities —Swanson's affinity for woodworking and smooth-jazz saxophone were reportedly inspired by Offerman's own experiences — Offerman has fully emerged from the mustachioed shadow of his endlessly quotable and meme-worthy co-creation.
Having subsequently appeared in Fargo, The Founder, and the upcoming Devs, Offerman has excelled in a diverse range of roles since Swanson's swan song, but he's arguably most charming when he plays himself, like on the feel-good reality-TV crafting competition Making It or on live comedy specials like American Ham.
Offerman is headed to Denver's Paramount Theatre on Thursday, December 12, with the All Rise tour; Westword caught up with the busy actor via telephone to discuss why he calls himself a "humorist"; working with writers like Michael Schur, Noah Hawley and Alex Garland; and, of course, the myriad ways to use a handkerchief.
Westword: How would you characterize the hour you’re performing on the All Rise tour? Is the ecclesiastical tone of the name intentional?
Nick Offerman: It's ninety minutes of ruminations about the hilariously stupid habits that we human beings tend to get up to. And so the idea of the title is to suggest that, you know, because we are human, we will always require scrutiny and improvement. I could really title any show of mine All Rise, because I immediately start with the mirror and move out from there — the things we've accomplished and the things we still have to do.
I thought your advice was to avoid mirrors.
It is. And part of the reason why is [because] then you'll have to reckon with your own foibles.
Do you think you’ll eventually film this material for a live special, along the lines of American Ham?
Yes I will. I'm actually just about to launch a website with American Ham and my second special, which is called Full Bush. It'll be available soon. And, yeah, I'm going to shoot this one soon. You know, I'm no Kevin Hart, but there are a handful of curious initiates who want to see this material but weren't able to make it to Wichita. So I do like shooting them for posterity.
I’ve noticed that for your live shows, you tend to refer to yourself as a “humorist” rather than a “comedian.” When did you make that distinction, and why is it important?
Well, I first began to tour as a humorist or comedian only six or seven years ago, and I was invited to do so by mistake, because I'm a theater-trained actor from the Chicago theater. But colleges were inviting me to perform based on their enjoyment of the Ron Swanson character, so they'd say, "Hey, do you want to come perform standup for our students?"
They just assumed you were a standup?
Yeah. So after a few such invitations, I said, "Sure, I would love the chance to bring my standup to Ohio State." I sort of jumped at the chance to get to write an evening of comedy, to see if I could do that. I've always wanted to write funny songs, perform them on the guitar and make people laugh. But from the get-go I thought, "I'm friends with some of the great standups of our era." Zach Galifianakis, Tig Notaro, Sarah Silverman, Nick Kroll — you know? And I marvel at their ability to A, write incredible jokes, and B, to be able to –— in the absence of those incredible jokes — walk on stage with a microphone and just slay an audience. I've seen Zach or Tig just pick a random audience member and do twenty minutes on their choice of shirt, and it'll just destroy. And I love that. Like any oxygen-breathing human being, I love that brand of entertainment.
And I'm also poignantly aware that I don't have that particular skill. So when I said, "Okay, I'm going to write a show called American Ham and come perform it at your college," to sort of assuage my own insecurity, I called myself a humorist. I think it sounds a little bit funny, and my brand in general is to state things in a slightly over-serious way, so people usually get the joke behind it. So calling myself a humorist takes me out of trying to qualify as a standup and makes me sound humorously pompous.
It's kind of an old-timey, Mark Twain-y word.
It certainly is.
You mentioned how you started out in the Chicago theater community around the same time as actors like Carrie Coon and Michael Shannon; what do you think makes companies like Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Chicago in particular such an ideal launching pad for great actors?
That's a great question. The simple answer, as far as I can tell, is the work ethic. The thing about Chicago is, there's no ulterior motive. There's no Broadway and very little film or TV business. No Hollywood. If you're doing theater in Chicago, it's because you love the art form and you want to deliver medicine to the audience, in one way or another.
I grew up in an agricultural family in Illinois, and then I had a small theater company in Chicago called the Defiant Theatre, and I eventually noticed the similarity between the farm community that I grew up in and the world of non-equity storefront theater. Both involve a sizable group of people working hard together to make something that will benefit others, whether it's growing food or baling hay or mounting a Samuel Beckett play. Chicago is rich with those ethics.
So when I first got to Los Angeles, casting directors — particularly for the great one-hour dramas of the day like E.R. and The West Wing — would always say, "We love Chicago actors because there's a reality to them." There's nothing particularly cute or shiny to them; they're real people who want to deliver truth in a way that's maybe a couple notches truth-ier than your dancing Floridians.
[Laughs.] Sorry, I just really enjoy the phrase "dancing Floridians." Anyway, do you think you and Amy Poehler will be doing a second season of Making It?
Well, I think that pretty strongly, because it's premiering in about a month [December 2 on NBC]. We've shot it, and they're doing a cool thing: They're dropping the whole season across ten or twelve days. I'm sure that information is findable.
Rest assured, the finished article will include the correct premiere date. It seems like there’s been a quiet renaissance in reality TV of shows that are just nice, like your show or Queer Eye, or the Great British Bake-Off. Why do you think the viewing public is clamoring for shows where the people are just there to make friends?
Well, I can't begin to wrap my head around the larger scope of popular culture, or even just reality TV, because I experience so little of it, but I feel like the answer is not unrelated to the popularity of Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, which were kind of born from the same wellspring; Amy and Michael Schur, the creator of those comedies, worked together on Saturday Night Live. So to my way of thinking, they're two of the founders of this new school — if you will — of nice entertainment. What I learned from Mike is that you can make people laugh while saying "I love you."
And I think, more succinctly, the answer to your question is that entertainment went through this sweeping trend of building cynicism, where we delighted ourselves in insulting one another and taking nothing seriously. Earnestness was a cardinal sin. And I feel like we're experiencing a rebound from that sort of national sensibility. Those of us who thought, "Wait a minute, I actually like people and like things; isn't there entertainment for me?" found something special on a show like Parks and Recreation. And in a way, I feel like Making It is a strange sort of spin-off of Parks and Recreation.
The premise essentially came from us just saying, "You guys! What if we just have fun and make stuff, and joke around like you know we like to do?" Can't that be a show? Do we have to make people cry or watch people punch each other to qualify as entertainment? I say no.
You’ve worked with a lot of interesting writers, like Mike Schur (whom you've mentioned) and Noah Hawley, for example, whose work sort of blurs the lines between comedy and drama. What qualities do you typically look for in a script before signing on to appear in something?
Simply saying yes to your question would be giving myself far too much credit. I'm not a great brain. Not like those guys are. I'm not nearly so analytical. But what does come through when I read a script from someone like Mike or Noah is their great brain. And their audacity in this sort of brave exploration of genre-bending material. So succinctly, no, I'm not analytical enough to say yes to your question. But less succinctly, the answer sort of is yes. Once Parks and Rec happened, it sort of moved my life into this unfathomable echelon, and after I was done playing Ron Swanson, I said, "The last thing I want to do is another TV series, because anything is bound to be a disappointment after this incredible experience."
So in order for me to sign on to anything, the writing had to make me say, "Holy cow, this is fresh. This is evolutionary. This feels like it might help push us forward to wherever we're going, hopefully somewhere better."
So when I read something like what Noah did with Fargo or — I'll add another name to your list of great writers: Alex Garland. He made the films Ex Machina and Annihilation. I'm in a sci-fi thriller he made that's coming out on FX in the spring. So when I read something like Alex's script for Devs, which is the name of the show, I can't help but want to be a part of it. My rule with my agents is that if I can say no to the material, then I do. If I say yes, it's because I have no other choice.
On a slightly unrelated note, what tend to be the best-selling items over at Offerman Woodshop?
It depends on the season, but we're generally a two-tiered business. We tend to get a lot of fan traffic, so we'll make more affordable items. It's important to me not to exploit Ron Swanson at the woodshop; there's never been any mention of Parks and Rec on the site. But fans who want to buy a set of coasters from my woodshop as a present for their dad do it because they love the show. Or perhaps they love my woodworking. That contingent does exist, thankfully. So we sell a lot of gift items, like cutting boards — or "meat paddles," as we call them — and lots of signed copies of my books; I've written four at this point. On the other tier of the shop, we build custom-designed furniture, and that, of course, is more expensive. It's a much more curated set of items. Our bread and butter seems to be dining and coffee tables built from one single slab of a tree. And we take a lot of pride in that work; they're by and large pieces that could exist in an art museum. So both tiers are equally busy, but we probably have to sell 200 cutting boards to match the price of one coffee table. But overall, the meat paddle is probably our biggest seller. It's a gorgeous slab of walnut that you can serve whatever meat or cheese you choose upon. Or you could even slice up some crudite and put it on there if you're silly like that.
A lot of people dress up as Ron Swanson for Halloween, and you haven’t been shy about sharing your opinions with them on social media. What does it take to pull off a Ron Swanson costume worthy of your esteem?
Well, people do different versions of Ron. They do straight-up Ron. They do "befuddled by Tammy Two Ron," also known as "kimono Ron" or "cornrows Ron." They do drunk Ron wearing Janet Snakehole's pillbox hat. So the aesthetics can vary and the accessories are usually pretty easy to spot. What a good costume truly requires is intention and demeanor. With me, you'll score the most points for comportment. That means presenting a humorless rictus. If you come across as someone who's not prepared to suffer any Halloween fools, you'll get a big thumbs-up from these quarters.
One of your ten tips for prosperity is carrying a handkerchief. What are the virtues of the handkerchief-carrying lifestyle?
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It's just like carrying a Swiss Army knife. The virtues are limitless. In your pocket, you are carrying an accessory that assists one in having good manners and being a good neighbor. Whether it's a person who is crying and could use a wiping cloth, or any sort of — you know, a human beings sometimes emit fluids from their persons unexpectedly, and if you can stand by with a clean rag, you can save somebody's day. With any faux pas involving spilled liquids, you can step up to the plate and be of assistance. I carry these Japanese handkerchiefs that are sort of double-long, so they can be worn as a headscarf or a neckerchief in chilly weather. You can use them as a flag and train yourself in the art of semaphore. You can communicate with your handkerchief. In a pinch, if you're light enough, you can rip it and tie it into lengths of rope in case you need to make an escape from an abbreviated tower, should you find yourself imprisoned in one. The list goes on and on. You know what I use my handkerchief a ton for? When you're out and about and you happen upon a patch of huckleberries or ripe cherries, or even a ground festooned with acorns you'd like to collect, you have a ready-made basket.
Tie it into a bindle and be on your way!
It's a hot pad for when you need to change a radiator or take your hard-boiled eggs off the stove. I could go on and on.
Nick Offerman returns to the Paramount Theatre on Thursday, December 12. Due to popular demand, a second 9:30 p.m. performance has been added to the nearly sold-out 7:30 p.m. show. Visit Altitude to find tickets, $49.50-$65, and go to the Paramount events calendar to learn more.