There are striking similarities between Nick Offerman and his libertarian-leaning “Parks and Recreation” alter ego, Ron Swanson. Besides the obvious physical resemblance, each spends a good chunk of his downtime working in his wood shop. Both are musicians. Both have a history with Megan Mullally, although on the show she is Swanson’s evil ex-wife, Tammy, while in real life Offerman and Mullally are married, and he speaks of her with palpable affection.
There are other points where the two diverge. Swanson might agree with the meat of Offerman’s one-man show, “American Ham,” but he would never get onstage to present his advice to a crowd of strangers. He might admire Offerman’s skills as a onetime fight choreographer for the stage, but he’d never go to a theater, especially not in a big city like Chicago, where Offerman cut his teeth with Steppenwolf Theatre Company and other troupes.
NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” struggles with ratings, but Ron Swanson is an undeniable sensation, inspiring merchandising and online tributes including “Cats That Look Like Ron Swanson.” Offerman spoke by phone from his business, Offerman Wood Shop, about his hit character and “American Ham,” which comes to the Wilbur Theatre for two shows Saturday.
NICK OFFERMAN: AMERICAN HAM
Q. How would you describe “American Ham” to the uninitiated?
A. It’s a collection of cautionary tales, humorous anecdotes, a few solipsisms, with minor nudity and some songs. I do like to stress that I’m a humorist and not a stand-up, so that people don’t expect — I don’t write jokes. I tickle them with a wry observation. It came about because I was invited to speak at some colleges and so I wrote a show. It’s my 10 tips for a prosperous life. Each tip is sincere. It’s sort of the broccoli secretly mixed into a pizza.
Q. What kind of advice do you give?
A. Say “please” and “thank you.” Carry a handkerchief. Go out of doors. Use intoxicants. Stuff like that. It really came about organically. As a theater-trained actor, I never imagined that I would perform as myself, let alone sing and play the guitar for an audience.
Q. Would you say it’s in the vein of “A Prairie Home Companion” or what Mark Twain used to do for audiences?
A. Yes, I suppose. I would say I would be a foul-mouthed, less-educated Garrison Keillor.
Q. Are the comic chops and the serious theater chops all that different? Are you using the same muscles?
A. You are. My wife speaks very eloquently about that subject, that comedy is actually much harder than drama because you’re doing the exact same thing, but in comedy, you have to be even more dead serious about it than you do in a drama. And it’s really true. I mean, the things that make us laugh the most is when we’re so committed as human beings that we make just utter asses of ourselves. And the higher the stakes, the more hilarious it is when our pants fall down.
Q. Did you ever think you’d wind up as a lead character on a sitcom back when you started in theater?
A. No, not at all. I was a small-minded person, and there is a very strong anti-sitcom sentiment in Chicago theater. I learned eventually that Chicago actors have this defense mechanism by which they’re allowed to remain in Chicago. And the mechanism is that New York theater, Broadway, is [expletive]. It’s all sell-out, big-money, corporate theater. And Los Angeles is the same thing without the theater: It’s just big corporate sell-out TV stuff. And by thus maligning it, you then allow yourself to say, “Oh, I don’t need to take the risk of trying LA or New York. I can stay in Chicago where the theater is pure.” And the theater is pure in Chicago. There’s truth to that, certainly, because it’s not affected by the financial interests of Broadway or Hollywood. But it sort of purveys into an area, I think, of self-deception where you’re like, “Oh, I don’t go to New York because they’re full of [expletive]. Not because I’m scared.”
Q. Are there different camps in theater between Second City and the improv people and the more dramatic troupes?
A. When I was there, different camps is an understatement. I would say it’s different island nations. I was friends with Amy Poehler in the early ’90s when we were both starting in Chicago, and we never would have even imagined going to see each other’s work. She might as well have been a veterinarian because, I think in both of our cases, your whole life is just completely saturated with your work. I was completely ignorant, really, to the whole comedy situation until I got to Los Angeles and realized that that is a whole other pipeline to a career in performance.
Q. Do you try to avoid playing up any similarities between yourself and Ron Swanson?
A. Sure. I am a much less macho, much less gruff person than Ron Swanson. I’m an actor. I’m a clown. I get paid to fall down and make funny faces.
Q. Have you ever said to the writers, “Look, can we just leave this bit of my personality out of the character? Do we have to mine everything?”
A. Oh, God, no. All I’ve done is try to fight back the tears of gratitude and say, “Thank you for these 30 pages of gold.”
Q. Are you surprised at the success of the character?
A. I had no idea that the particular character of Ron would take off the way it did. It’s been a lot of fun and really gratifying. But at the same time, I think it’s not like it was my idea. And it’s not like it was even the writers’ idea. It’s just together we created something that was at the right time and moment to sort of catch the nation’s fancy in a certain way that they said, “Hey, we’re crazy about this guy who loves bacon and has a mustache.” Our cast is 10 home-run hitters and so I feel like there’s just a lot of fortune and serendipity involved because any one of our characters I think could become a sensation at any moment.
Q. Why do you think he resonates with people the way he does?
A. I’ve often said it’s hard to tell exactly from behind the clown makeup why the children are crying. But I think our national sense of leading man has been emasculated to a point where our heroes in movies have become guys with waxed chests who are rather much more boyish. And so when presented with a sort of classic representation of a sort of throwback man’s man who can grow whiskers and wield a sledgehammer, and also live by a simple set of rules in this modern age when we’re constantly barraged with choice at every turn, I think it’s really refreshing and even heroic to people to see somebody who says, “I only like three things. Beyond that, get the hell out of my office.” That’s how people wish their lives were.
Q. Is it unsettling in any way to have a dedicated group of fans hoping you don’t end up with your real-life wife on the show?
A. Oh, no. It’s a testament to my real-life wife and her talent that she’s able to create that sentiment in the fanbase. We just did this episode where she flashes her [expletive] at me and I’m trying to get through a speech at an awards banquet. And I just said, “Honey, what did we do to get so lucky that we’re getting paid for you to flash your crotch at me?” It’s a sweet life.
Q. How busy has the Offerman Wood Shop been? Is that a serious business for you?
A. It is. I’m actually here right now. You caught us in the middle of laying out a huge slab of walnut, which is going to become a dining table. I’ve got three or four young woodworkers here. I think that our society has become very disposable, where people think if you buy a table from Ikea and it’s garbage in three years, you throw it out and get a new one. We’re trying to bring our population back around to the notion that you should spend quality money for a quality table and your grandchildren will be eating off it.
Q. Do you have any sort of feeling whether “Parks and Rec” will get picked up for a sixth season?
A. We never know from season to season what’s happening. We’re in a particular situation where we don’t get hit numbers, but we’re considered the best comedy on television by all the smart people and all the young people, including all the young smart people. And so we’re just very happy every time we get another order and we feel really lucky we get to make some more. We’re on the verge of 100 episodes, which will set us up nicely for a syndication deal, knock on wood.
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at nick@nickzaino