There are few celebrities who have a long, multigenerational lasting effect on the zeitgeist. Most are real people like Muhammad Ali, Bruce Springsteen, or Audrey Hepburn. Some are fictional characters such as Mickey Mouse.
Very rarely does someone appear on both those lists.
Actor, comedian, and woodworker Nick Offerman and his beloved Parks and Recreation character Ron Swanson are among the few. Nick, a character actor born into an Illinois farming family, toiled diligently through Chicago’s theater companies as both an actor and master carpenter before finding a dedicated niche audience through stalwart libertarian Swanson. The adoration stemming from which of course allowed him to expand his performances from reciting the funny lines written for him to performing his own standup and songs across the globe.
I was able to speak with America’s sweetheart humorist about his newest show, being a character actor in the real world, his love of music, and a lot more.
How was the UK tour?
It was fantastic. I’m besotted with those green islands; the food, the drink, the people, and the landscape thrills me to my core. I was a little nervous about it until I discovered the audiences there find me to be just as much of a jackass as American audiences do. So then I was home free.
Is the current political climate over there palatable or noticeable?
It was in so far as I’m poking fun at all of us humans for the political mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into, both nationally and globally, and so touring my show around England and Ireland I couldn’t help but mention some of their own situations are quite dire. I mean, things are pretty intense; I had to commiserate with audiences over there. I said, I’m so sorry for this new new boob you have as a figure head, now you have one of your own.
You have a few comedy songs, and you play the guitar and the ukulele. Was music something in your household growing up? Or is that something you discovered on your own as you grew older?
Our household wasn’t super musical, although our parents encouraged us to play music. We never sat around the wood-burning stove and got together on a rendition of “String Of Pearls” or anything like that, but, I guess there was a great love of music and that just really stuck with me. Once I got to theater school somebody around me was playing an acoustic guitar and writing funny songs. And that form of joke delivery always thrilled me. For the first 30 years of my life, I said, God, I would love to be able to do that someday. And I slowly plugged away at the guitar and taught myself over the years to get to the point where, I think, two different reviews have now called me nearly competent. So I’ve come a very long way.
In your work shop you are making ukuleles now. Have you made your own guitar yet?
No. The point of ukuleles seemed like a great educational step towards full lutherie. The ukulele is the elementary school for the guitar builder. For a few years I was trying to buy a vintage Gibson J-200, which is an enormous, beautiful, country western guitar, a rock star in its own right. It’s the guitar you hear at the beginning of Pinball Wizard. It’s the most expensive vintage guitar you can buy. And so, there was a handful of years during Parks & Recreation that I kept going into the rare guitar shop thinking, Today’s the day I’m going to buy my favorite guitar. And I would take it back in the little room and I would play it. And I would say, I sound just as mediocre as I do on my own guitar.
Finally, after a few sessions, I said I’m never going to buy this $12,000 vintage guitar. It’d be like the kid in the neighborhood whose parents bought him the most expensive bike, but he doesn’t know how to ride it. It was in that moment I said, I’m going to make my own guitar, and that’ll hopefully sound just as crappy as I sound on an any other instrument, but it will carry the magic of having come from my own hands. I read three different books about building acoustic guitars, and all ended with, You’ve got to get it just right. If it’s too heavy, it’ll sound like you’re just playing a two-by-six with guitar strings. If you shave it and construct the shell too lightly, then when you tighten up 200 pounds of pull on the steel strings, it will explode. And I said, Well, gee, you’ve just terrified me out of attempting this. What about a ukulele? Those have plastic strings. I absolutely had no desire to learn the ukulele, but what I did as a touring comedian was I wrote a song about a ukulele. And so, my last show, Full Bush, I had a song called the Ukulele Song, and the theme is that we can improve ourselves, if we all would just go down to the shop and build ourselves a ukulele. It would solve a lot of the problems in our world.
That served its purpose, and the ukuleles in my shop right now are serving their purpose. I have a batch of 12 ukuleles I’m finishing, and I’m teaching a couple of people in my shop to perform all the steps of ukulele construction repeatedly so we can begin to make them for sale. Some nice fruit will come from this part of my education, but ultimately it’s just driving towards the guitar. I love to play the acoustic guitar, and I try to one day sound somewhere between Jeff Tweedy and Neil Young.
As a woodworker, is it important to take on projects as a way to learn new experiences and methods?
Yeah, 100% for me. Whether it’s woodworking, acting, or writing, I desperately need to feel like a freshman whenever possible. It really drives me to fear new territory, and can I navigate my way to success. I’m a theater actor, and now in recent years I’ve begun touring as a stand-up, which is pretty crazy new territory from someone who’s used to performing other people’s fictional writing.
Is watching YouTube videos/series to see methods and techniques other makers are coming up with something you do in your spare time?
Well, it’s certainly something I love, and there are pros and cons of the Internet and social media. The pro side is being able to be aware of other craftspeople all over the world, and seeing their methods and the beautiful creations. However, spare time is the operative phrase that jumped out at that question. It’s all I can do to just get to my shop and get to play with my tools myself. I lean on it the most heavily when I have a specific project, or when I run into a conundrum. That’s when YouTube becomes invaluable because you say, Hey, is anybody else having trouble getting their fret wire to stay in the slots? and boom, you have 32 answers, seven of which are quite valuable.
Is there one maker who catches your attention, or one that you want to give a shout out to?
I’m much more likely to look at a woodworkers that I admire on Instagram. I’ve gotten to the point where I know how to do just about everything that’s required for anything from a dining room table to a wooden canoe to an instrument. My favorite channel, when I have to turn to a maker, is Jimmy DiResta. He’s actually a good friend of mine that I admire profoundly. His challenges are unparalleled, coupled with this generosity of spirit and how generously he offers this knowledge. I’m always really moved by his videos that have very little talking in them.
You grew up on a farm, do you think watching people work with their hands is where your love for making started?
Well, yeah, I think that was a big part of it. When you’re trying to make your family’s income with a year’s crops of corn and soybeans, and the income you make off of 200 head of hogs that you’re raising, every expenditure obviously comes out of that. So if your shovel breaks, you can go to a hardware store, well, that’s an hour round trip to the hardware store, so that’s an hour of labor you lost. If it’s $7 for the new handle, that’s seven bucks. But if you can grab a limb off an ash tree, shave the ends and fashion your own shovel handle, you’ve just saved yourself $35. And it extends into the end of the home. We mended our clothes and we grew a huge garden. Everywhere possible we practiced self-sufficiency. So I went to theater school, and [with] the combination of growing up using tools and knowing how to fix things [started] building theater scenery. I’ve often compared small theater companies to a farm because again, it’s a group of people working really hard to make something that will feed others for not a lot of money. Like the satisfaction doesn’t come from getting rich. It comes from a job well done, and combining the skills of a group to make a beautiful collaboration.
Are there things about the character Ron Swanson people often confuse with the real Nick Offerman?
Well, sure. I have fallen victim to the incredibly wonderful problem of having a television comedy character that has been so popular that people want to conflate me in real life with the character. I’m a character actor, so I look vastly different every six months. So they’ll watch an episode of Parks and Recreation that we shot in 2012 and then they’ll come to my show and I’m 30 pounds lighter and my hair is 10 years grayer and a different shape. And they’ll say, What is going on? I just saw you this morning. Why do you look so different?
Ever since I went to theater school I immediately said I don’t want to be a leading man. I don’t want to be a Tom Cruise-type, where you basically play the same version of yourself over and over again, which he’s great at. The Clooneys and Matt Damons of the world, great. More power to them, but I love transformation. I love making people say at some point in the performance, Oh my God, that’s the guy who played that other thing. Where you trick the audience cause you look different. Actually, one of the songs at the end of this show that I’m touring is literally called, I’m Not Ron Swanson. It addresses this issue with a great deal of love and humor. If the character were Superman, the song is saying, Look, I’m a goddamn human being. I’m an actor who was lucky enough to play a part, but no one can be Superman. Stop thinking I’m going to jump over buildings in a single bound. I can barely find my ass with both hands. So please accept me as I am because I’m here to make you laugh tonight.
I’ve read other interviews in which somebody asked you, What would Ron Swanson say about blah, blah, blah?, and your answer was, I don’t know, ask the writers of the show.
Ron really struck a chord with the audience, some sort of fatherly figure where they said, I want him to be my daddy and tell me what I should eat, and what I shouldn’t eat. I get asked for sort of life advice on behalf of Ron all the time, and I don’t feel comfortable saying. Those things were determined by people much smarter than myself. I can give you my TWO cents, but as for Ron, we’re going to have to go to the brain trust.
Did the Summer of 69: No Apostrophe tour with your wife Megan Mullally’s strengthen your marriage?
It’s funny, [there’s] a Paul Newman quote, when he would be asked, How have you and Joanne Woodward manage to stay married all these years? And Paul Newman said, Well, it just so happens that we love each other. So the reason we wrote that tour together was partly because we love touring, but we miss each other when we’re on the road. So we’re like, Let’s do it, let’s figure out what we can do together, and kill all the birds with one clever stone. Part of the impetus was that our relationship is lionized by the world because we live in Hollywood—we both work in the business, and we’ve managed to stay married for more than three years. That’s like 170 years in Hollywood-dog-marriage years. We’re two human beings in a marriage. And you know, it just so happens that we love each other. I think I’m gonna get that tattooed.
What can people expect on the All Rise Tour?
The impetus for the writing is looking at the sort of dire state of world politics and American politics and everybody’s shaking their fists at each other. What I don’t want to do is just go pluck the low-hanging fruit. There’s so many figures, especially in our government, that I could just get up and read the day’s newspaper and get laughs, but I don’t think that helps. I think that’s just exacerbating things.
I took a tiny step back from the fray, and I said, Holy cow, we’re all doing this to ourselves. We’re all in this together in our country and on the planet. Like, we’re all the group of people sharing this piece of land and gotten ourselves tantalizingly close to democracy, and then we were like, Let’s turn this truck around and barrel in the other direction. So the show is really just making fun of all of us humans and our sort of tribal behaviors by way of talking to myself in the mirror. It’s pointing out the places that I can improve, the mentality that I want to continue to strive towards being decent to everybody.
The show is so fun. The opening song is called, We Fucked It Up, there’s a celebration of Brett Kavanaugh, there’s a great song called Us Dipshits Gotta Stick Together, there’s a rousing advertisement for my new cologne line, and so forth. It’s inclusive. It’s making fun of the human tendency to tribalism and bigotry.
You know, the hive mind.