You probably know him best as Libertarian manly man Ron Swanson on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” but actor Nick Offerman is also an accomplished stage actor, a master woodworker and, most recently, a first-time author. His new book, a collection of unique life wisdom called “Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living,” comes out Oct 1.
To help launch it, the Minooka, IL native and former Chicago resident — he spent several years here in the 1990s as a founding member of the Defiant Theatre Company — is scheduled to perform his one-man show, “American Ham,” Oct. 3 at the Chicago Theatre (Tickets for the 8 p.m. show are $35.50 at www.ticketmaster.com). He’ll also host an Oct. 4 book event at the Music Box Theatre on Southport. It starts at 6 p.m., but you might want to get there plenty early, just in case there’s a crowd. And there’ll almost certainly be a crowd; Offerman’s a popular dude these days.
En route to an NPR interview in L.A., where Offerman operates Offerman Woodshop and lives with his wife-mate of many years, “Will & Grace” actress Megan Mullally, the multihyphenate artist and owner of a masculine mustache that rivals Joe Quenneville’s talked about his literary undertaking, his early acting days in Chicago (he appeared at Defiant, Steppenwolf and elsewhere) and which disgusting act he’ll never again perform onstage.
Sun-Times: Did someone have to convince you to write this book?
NO: It kind of happened inadvertently. I got invited to speak at some colleges around the country, and that [tour] became this show called “American Ham,” which is my ten tips for prosperity. And I liked the idea of taking the lessons that really helped me in life — simple, common sense lessons like have good manners, work hard, engage in romantic love — and delivering them to young fresh ears as clumps of broccoli mixed into a larger delicious, comforting meal like pizza or macaroni-and-cheese. I found it was really fun and the audience seemed to have a really good time. So I ended up touring this show around the country for what’s coming up on a couple of years. And friends around me said, “I really like that you’re not just writing jokes about farting or going an easier stand-up route of, ‘How crazy is liquid soap?’ Instead you have an agenda and a point of view. It makes it much more engaging to listen to. It’s as though you’re reading from your book.” And I said, “Huh, that’s interesting.” The one thing I found limiting in my stage show was there were a lot of stories that I thought were funny and also cautionary that I couldn’t tell because of time. And so I thought, ‘I wonder if anybody will let me write these stories down?’ And lo and behold, somebody was just crazy enough.
Q: Did you just walk up to publishers and say, “I’m Nick from Parks and Rec.” End of pitch?
Nick Offerman as “Parks and Recreation’s” Ron Swanson, via nbc.com
NO: Well, no. I’m not quite at that level. They say, “Oh, yes, I’ve heard that’s a funny show. Now, what is it you have to talk about?” So I took the transcription of my [stage] show [“American Ham”] and I turned that in, and it didn’t occur to me that the transcription was about 12 pages long. And they said, “Well, this is enjoyable. We’re gonna need about 318 more pages.” So then I wrote up a proposal that was 30 to 40 pages with a couple more stories and ended up meeting with several publishers in New York on a crazy dream two-day stint. Here I am in a three-piece suit. I never felt more like Jed Clampett, marching around Manhattan with my sheaf of politician farmer humor under my arm, going, “Well, howdy, big fancy publisher lady. I guess there are some things from the almanac that we might turn into a hard-cover.”
Q: You didn’t at least wear a flannel shirt underneath your jacket?
A: I gotta be honest, I was very humbled by the whole process. I’m never unaware of what a lucky son-of-a-bitch I am in my acting work and even in my furniture work. There are so many people doing such great, valuable work, and luck is such a prevalent element in achieving any kind of success. There are a lot of guys who can hold still and say dialogue and grow a mustache. But the one who gets to do it on “Parks and Rec” is pretty lucky and he’d better not forget that. By the same token, I couldn’t be unaware of the fact that this day of meeting with these publishers was a dream of so many thousands of people to get the chance to maybe write a book. And so I treated it with as much respect as I could and took it very seriously. It was important to me to impart in these meetings that I wasn’t a clown and [the book] wasn’t a novelty — [that we wouldn’t] just put out a book about Scotch and firewood and we’ll all make 20 bucks and shake hands. Instead, I wanted to take this opportunity to say, “Hey, I’ve got some thoughtful items that I’d like to pass along to the people, and I think I can maybe make them laugh here and there while I’m doing this. So does anybody want to get in bed and see if we can enjoy a good round of tickle fighting?”
Q: Not to insult your intelligence, but the book was all you? No ghost?
NO: Yes, absolutely. It’s not an insult. Because the only thing people know about me is that I play Ron Swanson. Some colleges have said to me, “We don’t care if Nick Offerman doesn’t even show up. We just want Ron Swanson for a couple hours.” And I say to them, “Look, I take that as a compliment to me and the writers of “Parks and Rec.” But when you think about it, I might get my feelings hurt with that statement [laughs]. But I would remind you that we enjoy Ron Swanson in 90-second to three-minute snippets once a week. If you actually got him for two hours, he probably would make a chair onstage and you would think that was hilarious for about two minutes and then you’d say, “Oh, he’s just going to make a chair.”
Q: How did it benefit you to practice your acting craft in Chicago before moving to a coast?
NO: Chicago is the most fecund atmosphere in which to cut one’s teeth, especially for a straight [i.e. non-comedic] actor. When I got to Chicago, I was admittedly a terrible actor. I had just graduated from the U of I theatre program and I had gained a lot of good fundamentals, but it was just in my own development — I hadn’t come around yet to trusting and knowing my own voice. And it was in my ears in Chicago by getting incrementally better roles and watching those around me let their own freak flags fly. And I said, “Oh, I see. What’s unique and weird about me is what is most valuable about me.” So in the four years that I was there, I went from being pretty lousy to being almost perfectly adequate as an actor.
Q: You also let your freak flag fly. You had quite a look and attitude while you were in Chicago [see page 184 of Offerman’s book].
A: I did. I wasn’t raised on the streets, with a hardscrabble story of gang violence and drug dealing. It was more a breaking free from my solid, Midwestern Catholic values to let everyone know that I wasn’t afraid to shave my head or drink too much schnapps. And so I definitely took advantage of my time in Chicago to express whatever was strange and weird about me. And for better or worse, people took notice and gave me more and more of a shot until the world kind of told me, “If you move to the coast, you might have a crack at getting some more work that’ll include health benefits.”
Q: Looking back, is there any work you did in Chicago that kind of makes you cringe?
NO: I’d say there’s a lot more of that in Los Angeles, because Los Angeles is cranking out so much more effluvia. For all of the crap that is being shot in L.A., there’s literally three to five percent than an intelligent person can stomach. And in Chicago, everything I was doing was in the theatre, so it may have been a small, unheralded storefront company or doing something with my own company, Defiant, but we were always swinging for the fences and one way or another we were getting to engage in literature. I mean, I did some goofball things. Rich Cotovsky over at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre does the [annual] “Abbie Hoffman Died for Your Sins Theatre Festival.” There’s a great hero of the American stage for you. We loved getting our late-night slot at that festival. Sometimes we’d be in the middle of tech for a show and we wouldn’t be able to come up with anything. So we’d get naked. We would stage [graphic sexual act]. One time I drank a large goblet of my own urine. I dressed up as a Victorian fop, filled a goblet with urine and put it away. And that was how I learned that [drinking urine] wasn’t that entertaining. It’s these kinds of foundational lessons that Chicago will lend a performer.