Interview: Nick Offerman — Renaissance Man

- 09-19-12Featured, Interviews, TV Posted by Jason Tabrys

Picture originally appeared in GQ

He’s not Ron Swanson, he’s better. Actor Nick Offerman has become a cult hero thanks to his proud carnivorism, his love of woodworking, his enviable marriage, and his general gruff and furry way. As I found out though, this humble canoe maker, poet, classically trained actor, musician, and writer is so much more than a poster boy for plaid and brisket — Nick Offerman is a renaissance man.

In the below interview, Offerman and I talk about some of his interests (Tom Waits, baseball, and the insanity of shaving) while also touching on the upcoming season of Parks and Rec (which he compares to corn beef), the possible return of Duke Silver, dealing with nearly getting cancelled, his American Ham tour, fame, and his aversion to modern conveniences and the techno ties that bind.

You seem to be having fun with the uncommon level of notoriety that you’ve attained. This summer you went out on the road with the American Ham tour and delivered your “tips for prosperity”, and you’re obviously an advocate for manliness. So you’re trying to do some good with it too. When did you decide that you were going to do more with your fame than simply try to grow it out?

Nick Offerman: Well, I don’t suppose there was ever a moment where I made a cognizant decision to flip a switch and say “Okay, I’m gonna go for this.” I think, just as the opportunities have presented themselves, some of them have really appealed to me. I had no intention of becoming known for growing whiskers. I think all the manliness subject matter is kind of embarrassing… for the public. I think it’s sad about our society that I’m considered exceptional because I can hammer a nail, so that’s something I never really went after, you know?

I encourage our society to get back to a place where a hairy man is normal. I think we’ve just grown too used to our leading men having their chest waxed and so, for a beast to come along with a hairy torso, people say “Oh my God, how did you do that?”

Are you kinda taken aback by how famous you’ve become? I mean while doing research for this — over the course of a couple of minutes — I found a tee shirt with your face on it and an article in the LA Times about your house going up on the market. That’s kind of a weird level of fame. Does it strike you as odd that you’ve gotten to that point?

Offerman: Um… yes. It’s certainly bizarre in many ways. It’s been very interesting living with my wife Megan [Mullally] and watching her go through her version of achieving popularity with Will & Grace, sort of before the internet took off, and then just inexplicably getting on an incredible popular show myself. I just assumed that lighting could never strike the same house twice, so it came as a very welcome surprise and it has been really bizarre.

I am trying to ride it as best as I can and reap the good parts and try to eschew the bad parts as much as possible. I have successfully resisted becoming addicted to any narcotics so far, fingers crossed.

You’ve also done a good job of avoiding an addiction to social media, I see.

Offerman: It’s an ongoing battle. My wife and I are right now considering giving up e-mail because we have just been reminiscing about our lives before we were ruled by computers, and for the two of us we generally — this is a small estimate — but we spend at least an hour a day tending to the business e-mails we are obligated to process.

I’ll come home from work and say “Okay, 84 unread e-mails.” What if I came home 15 years ago and my answering machine said “84 messages”? I would think that the President had come over to my house and then been shot. How the hell am I supposed to call eighty-four people back and why? The fact that it’s become the norm, that you’re expected to be able to get back to anybody within three or four hours, I think is really damaging to living a free life, and so it’s something we’re constantly focused on.

I have a second part of my answer here to your first question which was taking advantage of this sort of strange new popularity. When — about a year ago — some colleges started inviting me to come speak, which was apparently something that’s done, I was incredibly excited because I had some things I wanted to say to the young folks of our nation. So I took it as an opportunity and it was a scary leap to make because I had never performed as myself. I’m an actor. I’m a classically trained theater actor and I love playing with my “safety net”, I love hiding inside another person. That gives me the freedom to do anything. I can kill, I can commit rapacious acts of violence, and it’s okay because everybody knows that I’m just playing that guy.

And so the notion of doing 90 minutes in front of an audience just as Nick was daunting, but I really had an agenda, so I wrote this show — American Ham –that is my ten tips to prosperity and I managed to flesh it out in a way that everybody seems to have a pretty good time while being fed the broccoli of my life advice.

I stumbled upon the profile that you wrote on Dan Winters in TIME, and that was just fantastic. The phrase “Pregant with pathos” made me extremely jealous as a writer. You know how to turn a phrase.

Offerman: Oh well thank you, I really appreciate that.

It was really great. Any possibility that we’ll see more from your pen, be it on TV, or a film, essays, or a book?

Offerman: Well, yes. First of all thank you, I really, really appreciate that because I’ve always enjoyed reading. I’ve always enjoyed words and language and I’ve only dabbled in writing in my life [over] the last couple of years.

Again, I suddenly had the opportunity to, you know… “Men’s Health wants you to write a page about tools” and I said “You know what? Okay, I’d like to take a crack at that.” And so it’s something that I feel very much a freshman at, but I’m really enjoying it.

I was really touched that Dan asked me to write that piece and I think it’s evident in the piece how profoundly I’m moved by his art and his lifestyle, He’s a very heroic person to me and so it was pretty easy to write. I knew that I would be moved to create some phrases about him and his work.

Um, I guess I’m in talks to do a book. I’m just finishing a proposal so I’m in the early stages of making a deal and the book will be inspired by my American Ham show, it’ll be something in the vein of a jackass’ tips to living the good life.

My wife is also a great writer and she has a much better organizational head then I do which makes us a great team and so we have lots of ideas for things to write together. The problem is this pesky day job that we both have as actors, [it] doesn’t leave us a lot of writing time. We definitely have that in our bucket of hopes.

Speaking of the day job, what will you tell me about this season? Any details on Ron’s proposed love interest? Are we going to see more Duke Silver?

Offerman: Well, I’m always hopeful that Duke will re-emerge. That’s one of my absolute favorite aspects of Ron’s personality. And it’s funny, I can think of very few people in this world that I hold in a higher regard than Mike Schur. Not only for his sense of humor and his astonishing intelligence, but for his integrity and heart. I know a lot of people who can write funny jokes and can write funny TV shows, but so often they fall to the social disease of cynicism, and the way that — in this modern age — it’s considered cooler to not care about anything.

The fact that Mike takes — as his springboard television show — Cheers, and he talks about this [Parks and Rec] being a direct descendant of the heart of that show; I really admire him for that and it’s one of the many things that makes me feel so lucky to get to work alongside him.

Just this morning we were talking about Duke Silver and I said, “You know what Mike, I’d love to talk to you about Duke Silver, but I will never bug you to bring Duke back. You know that I’m dying for him to come back and I think he will someday.” But I will never bug Mike for anything because he doesn’t put things in the show because I ask him to or because he thinks it would be funny. He puts things in the show because it’s timely and it’s organically correct and so I just love that about him. I love that when something hits… like when Duke Silver hit in a big way and resonated with the fans of the show… a great many show runners would then milk that for twelve more episodes [until] nobody wants to hear about it again, but Mike will wait till the time is right. Then I’m certain he will unleash the silky jazz of Duke Silver upon us once more.

Speaking of Mr. Schur, he said that he treated the end of season 3 and 4 as if they might be the series finales. Do you savor the experience more because, as Mike said, you “might be cancelled at any time” and do you guys walk with a chip on your shoulder because you’re beloved but not a technical blockbuster? Whatever that means now.

Offerman: Gosh, those are two fantastic questions that I wish everyone would ask me and no one ever does. The answer to the first part is yes, we’re always wondering if our show is going to persevere and it’s mainly because NBC — for the last handful of years — has been trying to regain its footing and climb back to the top of the dog pile. And so, you know, we never have the kind of ratings that give you that sense of confidence, that “oh yeah, we’re a hit. We’re definitely going to be around forever”.

Honestly, we did those first six episodes and nobody was sure if they liked them or not and ever since then, I mean when we came back that fall I said “Oh my God, we’re so lucky we’re actually getting to do more of these.” And we all kinda say that to each other every fall ,and then when we get our pick-ups for the back nine we say it again. We feel so lucky, because even though it’s an interesting relationship with our network… because it would be easy to get upset with them when we see these splashy new shows and they’re spending a lot of money advertising these new shows and one could say “Hey, why not give us some attention Mom and Dad? We need your attention too.” But at the same time, if it wasn’t for NBC, if we were on any other network we would have been cancelled instantly. I really have a strong feeling of gratitude towards NBC for allowing something like Parks & Recreation to exist for this long in the face of not astonishing ratings.

And to answer the second part of your question, which that kind of leads right into, in a word: no. We don’t walk around with a chip on our shoulder. I always feel like the biggest rated shows — and this is often true these days — I feel like the biggest rated shows are like McDonald’s food or Coca-Cola beverages. Those companies are the best at selling their products to the population. Are they the most delicious? No. Are they the most satisfying? No. But are they the best-selling? Yes.

So I rest easy in the knowledge that we are the Guinness beer of beverages and we are the Reuben sandwich of sandwiches. And if the quarter pounder is getting all the attention because two billion more people have sampled it then the Reuben sandwich, that’s okay because we’re made of corn beef.

(Laughs) That’s a perfect analogy.

Offerman: I could never hang my head when I’m slathered in sauerkraut.

(Laughs)

Offerman: I just gotta say, when the world is telling us that everything we’re trying to do is working in terms of being a really smart comedy and a really loving heartfelt comedy, and being a feminist comedy and a progressive comedy, we are getting every signal we need to know that we’re succeeding in what we are trying to do. And the specific attention that the character Ron Swanson gets is incredibly humbling and gratifying. It’s a collaboration of me and my writers and the rest of our cast, it’s working. What we’re doing is working.

There can be no greater satisfaction then that information, and I’m just lucky that I’m not the type of personality to focus on popular culture, you know? If I was bringing home the tabloid magazines and watching entertainment shows then you say “Hey, where’s me? Why do they keep talking about that guy with his shirt off?” You know if you pay attention to that stuff then sure you’re going to notice the deficit, but once again it’s griping about getting a lot more Quarter Pounders and you want to say “Well, all I have is this home grown beef sandwich on bread that I baked myself. I guess I’ll have to be satisfied.”

That sounds better than a Quarter Pounder to me. Best thing to wear on your face: a beard, mustache, or meat juice?

Offerman: The meat juice, you can just include that always. The others are a choice and a commitment, but meat juice is every day no matter what you’re wearing otherwise, so that’s a given. What to wear with your meat juice I would say is the full beard. If I wasn’t an actor, and when I’m not an actor, when I’m just working in my shop for a blessed period of time, I just grow as huge a beard as I can and try to live as close to a life in Middle Earth as I can muster. I like to build my furniture as though Gandalf will be coming over and sitting down for a spot of tea and perhaps a pipe of Longbottom leaf. I’m a naturalist, I’m opposed to all the social niceties we have imposed upon ourselves, and one that is a constant issue is women and high heels.

The ladies in my life wear these shoes that cause them physical pain on the way out of the house before we even go to the dinner and I say to the ladies of the world, “I understand that it’s good looking, that it accentuates the calf muscle, but is it really worth excruciating back pain?” And I put the beard in the same category. We’ve somehow been taught that we need to scrape our faces every morning with sharpened razors of steel and I for one find it unpleasant and I like to grow a big bushy shrub on my face.

The last time I attempted to use a table saw, I was in junior high. The guard got too close to the blade, it made a hell of a squeal and I hit the floor and I think I let out a little bit of a squeal myself. What kind of starter project could you recommend for me?

Offerman: Well, when it comes to woodworking there’s no better advice I could give you then to start looking at Fine Woodworking magazine. I had a lot of tool skills when I sort of flipped over to fine woodworking, to the practice of fine woodworking and somebody gave me that magazine and it was just such a comprehensive education. It’s one of the finest periodicals in all fields from beginner to expert.

I would look at Fine Woodworking, and I always tell people to start without electricity. If you read two or three issues of Fine Woodworking… and I would get a chisel, a little saw and just start learning to accurately mark your wood and cut some simple jointery.

There’s a joint called the finger joint, also known as the box joint, and it’s where you take two boards and you make the ends of them look like the top of a rook, like a checker board or a castle crenulation — and you can imagine how those two rectangular shapes can nestle into one another to form the corner of a box that’s a box joint. And you can do that with a mallet and a chisel and if you make that joint well and glue it, it’s indestructible, and it’s so incredibly gratifying.

So through something like Fine Woodworking, you would get a hand plain and some chisels, and I always suggest people start with a box, because it’s learning to join the corners of wood together without using any fasteners.

It’s much more pleasing in every way, because a table saw or any power tool, a router, a chop saw, they’re all just big scary versions of a chisel. A table saw is a round steel blade with a bunch of tiny chisels on it that has been arranged to work a lot faster, but you can slow that down and the great thing about working with hand tools is you can still listen to Neil Young and Tom Waits and Iron & Wine as loud as you want to. When you fire up the power tools, you can’t hear anything.

What’s your favorite Tom Waits album?

Offerman: Oh man, Tom is my number one.

I love him too, so much pain in his voice — I’m a big fan.

Offerman: Oh, so much real life in his voice. If I had to pick one I’m going to go with Mule Variations.

Alright, alright, I go Rain Dogs, but alright. Let me ask, how did you get mixed up in the New ERA Cubs/White Sox rivalry ads and did a lifetime of following the Cubs prepare you for the struggles of early acting?

Offerman: (Laughter… that laugh.)

I say that as a Yankees fan, so you can feel free to curse me out if you like.

Offerman: No, no, no, we’re long suffering I can take many more darts then that sir.

(Laughter)

Offerman: I don’t know, I think it was just a little bit of serendipity and the timing. The first year they had done the Yankees/Red Sox and interestingly, Mike Schur was one of the writers of those Yankees/Red Sox commercials. He’s a terribly obsessed Red Sox fan. I know Funny or Die was the production company so they may have had some influence in choosing me, but they came up with Craig Robinson and myself. I guess as two funny guys who are making comedy right now and we’re both legitimately — you know he’s a Chicago Southsider and I’m a Central Illinois and later Chicago Northside Cubs fan — and I was just so gratified to get to represent the Cubs.

I mean, growing up in the country in the late 70s and 80s, all we had was baseball. I mean, we had no… there was no culture. We had to drive 20 miles to go to the movie theater and they would just have one Disney movie for like three months and we would see it three times, and Lady and the Tramp is a fine film, but a young lad craves a little more than just John Denver and the Oak Ridge Boys on the radio. So my siblings and I would study the Cubs statistics and anytime we would drive anywhere our dad would quiz us on the Cubs and he would say, “Leon Durham’s triple total for 1983?” and we would just know all those statistics. So getting to represent being a long suffering Cubs fan was incredibly gratifying, and that [being a Cubs fan] did really prepare me for the life of rejection that is an actor’s life. Getting told I wasn’t right for a James Van Der Beek pilot was nothing compared to losing the playoffs to the Mets.

You can watch Nick Offerman on the fifth season of Parks and Recreation which premiers Thursday September 20th at 9:30PM EST. You cannot find Nick on Twitter, he’s busy doing things or working in his wood shop. If you want to buy any of the fine furniture that they have for sale over at the OWS, please remember that they take payment in money, not meat. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m goona go eat a pork chop and stroke my beard.

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