an interview with Nick Offerman who is bringing his show ‘American Ham’ to NYC this weekend
In my opinion, the most prolific and iconic television character of the 21st century has got to be Ron Swanson from TV show Parks and Recreation. Mr. Swanson is played with pitch-perfect intensity and effortlessness by the great Nick Offerman and has become a towering icon of manliness, independence, self-reliance as well as an antidote to the disease of twinkish metrosexualism that has co-opted and threatens to redefine the sanctity of Red Wings, flannel shirts, and raw denim dungarees. Ron Swanson Forever, Forever Ron Swanson.
But that’s just a character. Nick Offerman is a real person. And though there are some similarities between Offerman and Swanson, the character is hardly an autobiographical representation of Offerman. Nick started acting in theater companies in Chicago in the mid-90s. He was also a fight choreographer and master carpenter at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago. In the late 90s he started getting work in movies and television shows. In the decade leading up to his breakthrough role in as Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation Nick amassed a massive CV of acting roles, including that of wannabe Wild Bill Hickock assassin Tom Mason in my favorite all-time show Deadwood. He’s also a master woodworker.
In addition to all of that, it turns out that Nick is also a master song-writer and storyteller, as evidenced in his brilliant one man show American Ham. Last year Nick brought his one man show to small stages in places like Los Angeles and New York and I happened to catch one of these shows at the UCB East. Without exaggeration, that show was one of the funniest, most satisfying show-going experiences in my life. In it, Nick elucidates the 10 basic tenets for prosperity through story and song and I cannot think of any other time that I was so entertained for such a sustained amount of time. American Ham is now on a large theater tour and will make it’s way to New York City‘s Town Hall for two shows on Saturday March 2. The 7:00pm show is just about sold out, and the 10pm show is close to a sell out as well. I urge you to get tickets now for one of his NYC shows or a show that’s happening at a venue near you.
I had a quick cyber-sit-down with Nick recently where we discussed cutting your teeth in Hollywood, the genius machine behind Ron Swanson, the brilliance of people like Corn Mo and Garret Dillahunt, a day’s worth of meals that will have Vegans running for the bathroom gagging, and much much more. Read it below…
KK: You are one of the world’s most well-known carnivores. Before I go any further, does being interviewed by a website called BrooklynVegan.com violate any of your personal codes?
Nick Offerman: By merely beginning to type this response, I am in violation of sixteen by-laws and one secondary directive of the American Carnage Collective. Therefore, I’ll thank you to please keep this between us. Personally, I believe that an open dialogue between warring factions can be a healthy and productive way to share the planet we all have to call home, but some of the ACC members (the Frankfurters) do not share my liberal viewpoint. In truth (again please keep under your hat), I love vegetarians and vegans, because they leave a greater portion of the planet’s meat FOR ME TO EAT.
I saw your American Ham performance at the UCB Theater in the East Village last year and it was absolutely brilliant. The show covers the 10 basic tenets for prosperity which include:
- Practice romantic love
- Say “please” and “thank you”
- Carry a handkerchief
- Have a hobby
- Eat red meat
- Go outside
- Avoid the mirror
- Maintain a relationship with Jesus Christ
- Use intoxicants
- Paddle your own canoe
Even though the show is hilarious from start to finish, these are very earnest tenets and clearly something you’ve thought long and hard about. Can you elaborate a little on how you were able to whittle down so many of life’s requirements into 10 easy to swallow bites?
Well. First of all, thanks for the compliment, I appreciate it. Secondly, you’re missing a pretty key addendum to number 8, which is “Maintain a relationship with Jesus Christ…if it is getting you sex.” Gives it a slightly different feel. Thirdly, these were the first 10 tips that came to mind, apparently the lessons that were most successfully laced into my spirit, but I could probably do another 10. I would like to speak in a little more detail about the privilege of hard work, for example. Also, the underestimated value to the morale of our nation of oral sex.
I find that most people are spineless, opinionless, wishy-washy, helpless, self-centered, oblivious creatures and as a result I find myself forever disappointed and angry with most everyone. You seem to be such a staunch person; how do you abide people who can’t seem to commit to even a single tip for prosperity and live aimlessly?
I reckon that I have been all of those low things at one time or another. We humans all have the capacity for acts of integrity and exemplary behavior as well as that for acts of weakness, shiftlessness and impotence. I have some patience with my fellow primates perhaps because I see myself in their failings. Having said that, I am quick to point out that I don’t always manage to travel the high road. It’s not uncommon that a person will anger me to the point of fantasizing a solid face-punch, at which point I try to go outside and examine a Sycamore leaf. I try to remind myself that “we’re all in this together”.
American Ham has some GREAT songs (with the help of Klaus favorite Corn Mo). Is writing and playing music a huge part of your life? Do you plan on expanding on music a bit more in the future?
Your kudos are suggesting to me that you are a very discerning person of taste and élan. I doff my cap. I very much love to play music for myself and others, and I hope to write more songs down the road, likely with a focus upon corn and/or oral sex. Coincidentally, CornMo is a prolific songwriter and performer whom I hold in the highest esteem, and I would expect to see his delicious rock opera about Grizzly Adams long before you hear tell of further music from me. My wife [Megan Mullally] is also a singer of the highest order, and her titillating new band, Nancy and Beth, fills our house with a far more delightful musical flavor than that of my own vulgar clanging.
I know that when you were settling into the Los Angeles acting game, you basically rejected the notion that you had to sacrifice your personal, God-given natural human traits in order get gigs. Did you ever come close to giving in and becoming a flashy, preening, douchey actor just to get some bread on the table? How difficult was it to stay true to yourself in that climate?
It wasn’t too tough, simply because I didn’t have it in me. Also, I wasn’t cute enough to take a run at it. My friends did a much better job of reading fashion magazines and buying Italian shoes to cultivate a “coolness” that seemed to elude me at every turn. It’s just plain good fortune that I received a lot of love throughout my life from my family in Minooka, Illinois, and my theater community in Chicago, and so I knew that I could probably still get a hug and a sandwich from Los Angeles, even if I wasn’t particularly cool, which I believe succored my self-confidence. When I first arrived in Hollywood, I was told by agents to watch one episode of every show on TV, so that I would know “what they were looking for”, the producers, if I should score an audition. My notion was that if ignored every show on TV, then I would guarantee myself a take on the scene material that would be unique from all the guys trying to give the producers “what they were looking for”. It apparently worked out after 10 years of practice in L.A.
You had the great fortune of playing a character called Tom Mason in HBO’s Deadwood, which happens to be my absolute favorite show of all time. Even though it was a small part, it required a lot from you; nudity as well as some very real crying. Did that experience have a more profound, long term effect on you as an actor (and a human) than other roles you were getting at the time?
That’s still some of my favorite dramatic work. Working with David Milch was an incredible schooling, one that I would jump at the chance to further, and I remain intensely jealous to this day of my friend, the excellent actor and dirty s.o.b. Garret Dillahunt, for playing not one, but TWO roles on Deadwood with long, delectable character arcs. Damn it. Working on Deadwood had a profound effect on my life in many ways, not the least of which was befriending some other filthy, bearded men, as well as the great director Davis Guggenheim.
Ron Swanson is one of the most iconic television characters in recent memory and can probably be described as my male generation’s Oprah Winfrey. Is Ron a fairly autobiographical representation of you? Or more of an exaggerated caricature of you?
Wow, I have suffered some hyperbole in my day, but never an Oprah comparison! I believe I’ll tell my mother of this. Ron is a character masterfully crafted by our writers, employing some of my own attributes, but I am woefully effeminate in comparison. Ron is an edifice. I am a clown who happens to own 3 chainsaws.
Duke Silver is an absolutely brilliant alter-ego for Ron Swanson. For me it’s one of the most genius side-bars in Parks and Recreation. Who the hell came up with that?
I believe it was the genius who calls himself “Dana Gould“, a writer on our show in it’s early years who first floated the sex-machine that is Duke, and the venerated Simpsons chuckle-smith Mike Scully had a strong hand as well in the conception of Duke’s albums, but it must be said that our show is written so collaboratively, that few can ever recall exactly “who came up with what”. One thing for certain is that the phrase, “…and Mike Schur” should be added onto anyone’s contribution, because he is the ultimate overseer and mad scientist behind the giggles and heart-tuggings that we all enjoy so richly. Dana probably proffered “Duke”, and Mike added the “Silver”. Mike’s very good at funny names. The fact that our writers have not yet received a trophy for their spun gold makes about as much sense as Amy Poehler also boasting a fireplace mantel devoid of accolades, as yet anyway. I aver that the entertainment community will come around shortly to finally see what we refer to as “the light”.
If you were granted the opportunity to cast someone to do a cameo (or even become a new, recurring character) on Parks and Recreation who would that actor be, and what would their character be like?
That actor would be Zach Galifinakis, and he would play Don Swanson, Ron’s ne’er-do-well brother who is the polar opposite of everything Ron stands for, and therefore the bane of Ron’s existence. Of course, whenever I float such a conceit, our writers take it, neatly fold it 8 times, and hand me back an origami grizzly bear, the complexities and pelt of which I never could have imagined.
You’ve got a successful woodworking business called Offerman Woodshop. When Parks and Rec is done taping for a season, do you switch hats and devote a full-time work schedule to the shop? You’ve got a good staff there to keep it moving all year round no matter what.
I love my shop dearly, and my talented woodworkers and elves there are turning out some truly exquisite work. On any given day off, I can be found carving an axe from mahogany or just watching them make beautiful shavings.
A lot of what the Offerman Woodshop offers is very large and heavy, but you also make smaller “Shop Kindlin’ items”. Can we expect an Offerman Woodshop merch table at your shows?
I have not found a way to travel merchandise on a tour that requires of me only a guitar and a backpack. Instead, I simply mention the website, offermanwoodshop.com, at my shows, where we have items available for all income levels, as well as American Ham tour t-shirts! They’re comfy as shit!
I am 6′ 3″, 240 lbs of man and I desperately want to contract the Offerman Woodshop to build my coffin. What can someone my size expect to pay for such a vessel for my eternal rest?
I can put you in touch with Lee, my shop manager, to discuss your options. On the higher end, we could craft you a paneled box of the finest American White Oak, easily the most kickass and durable of our domestic hardwoods, rendering your remains protected from any possible danger, up to and including meteors and dragons. We could also go old-school dugout coffin, and excavate a hollow in an enormous Red Cedar from the Pacific Northwest, then set you adrift in the sea of your choosing. When you approach the horizon, your friends and loved ones will unleash flaming arrows that will send you into the sunset, a ball of flame, ash, and glory. On the low end, we embalm you real nice-like in RECYCLED packing materials then box you up neat as a pin in one of the vehicle shipping crates that Charlie Sheen gives us every time he orders a new Hummer.
Would you mind telling me how you envision a perfect day’s worth of meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, nightcap)?
First off, let me gently admonish your rather thin list of daily mealtimes. Breakfast is, clearly, bacon and eggs in a large portion (possibly all you have), then Second Breakfast would be a rasher of bacon with some biscuits and gravy, then Elevensies is a light pre-lunch snack of beef jerky and Virginia blister peanuts. At Luncheon, I need to load up on calories, so I’ll enjoy a thick cheeseburger (Gruyere) with a side of Ham and a corn dish. The next meal is called “1:30 Food”, and it is just some nice lamb chops or perhaps a Veal Milanese, with corn on the cob. Tea Time is up next, with maybe Black Tea or coffee, with pork ribs accompanying my Blueberry, Pecan or Key Lime Pie and cornbread. For Dinner, I enjoy a steak or two, some pesto ravioli, with creamed corn and a potato side, either mashed or au gratin or hash browns, or all 3. After Dinner comes Supper, where I indulge my taste for pork, with a few chops and a loin, hopefully sliced open to secret some garlic cloves and pancetta within, a loaf of fresh bread with butter, lobster mac-n-cheese, a couple of pop-overs, and my specialty: Corn…My Way. For dessert, I like Bread Pudding with caramel sauce. As a nightcap to send me off to the land of Morpheus, I prefer a nice Wisconsin bratwurst and a tumbler of a Scotch of distinction. Followed by some cheese curds and polenta.
Your absolute, 100%, hands-down favorite whiskey of all time is…
Lagavulin is the first good Scotch I ever tasted, and I have not been able to shake it. I am also quite fond of The Balvenie.
This is a music blog mostly so I reckon it’s only proper for me to ask what bands really float your boat. Or, canoe.
Music fuels, and has fueled a great deal of my creative life, so I glean a lot of inspiration from artists like: Tom Waits, Neil Young, Iron and Wine, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, They Might Be Giants, Talking Heads, Dead Can Dance, Willie Nelson, The Gourds, Johnny Cash, The Mills Brothers, Robyn Hitchcock, Laurie Anderson, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Parliament, The Meters… I’m afraid I could go on and on. We listen to a lot of great music at the shop.
I know you are somewhat of a neo-luddite and I cannot tell you how greatly I appreciate you taking the time to answer my stupid questions.
My pleasure, certainly. These are some of the better questions I’ve run across recently, hence my inclination to answer them with substance. Thanks for having me. N
Tribute to Ron Swanson
One of Klaus Kinski’s Favorite Ron Swanson Moments of All Time