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By Jarrod• 19 Jan 2016
Actor and comedian Nick Offerman is best known for playing Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation - a role that has made him an enduring (and endlessly quotable) cult favourite.
In February, Offerman brings his one-man show, Full Bush, to Wellington. Jarrod Baker spoke to him to find out more about what we can expect from his first live appearances in New Zealand.
Jarrod: Where in the world are you at the moment?
Nick: I’m in Los Angeles. I’m working on a book on woodworking so I spent the day at my woodshop.
I was going to ask about that actually - I think, maybe in part because Ron Swanson was into woodworking that some people have assumed that your own passion for it is like an elaborate con, you know, like a po-faced sort of enduring gag - but it’s a real sort of discipline for you, isn’t it?
[laughs] It is, yes. It’s funny, I’ve never heard it described as a con, but yeah, people rightly assume that anything associated with show business must be fallacious, but Ron’s passion for woodworking was borne from my own. The chicken or the egg - definitely I came first in this case. When the writers and I were creating the character they came over and visited my shop and said “oh this is hilarious, we’re going to make Ron a woodworker”.
Is it your own shop that’s in the footage at the start of [Offerman’s Netflix special] American Ham? Or is that a set?
No, I have a website, offermanwoodshop.com, and it’s a major concern, like also when we visit Ron Swanson’s shop on Parks & Rec that’s my shop, and there were examples of my own woodworking across the series. Ron had two different canoes, I made those canoes, there were some other things that I made on the show. So it’s a real thing that is a very important part of my life. That’s why my third book will be about woodworking, but also about my shop.
The part of American Ham where you talk about having not a hobby, but a discipline really, spoke to me. My grandfather was a cabinet maker and joiner and going into his shop, I have really visceral early memories of that sort of thing, that in a lot of circles are kind of lost, in that instead of going to a cabinet-maker we buy from Ikea or something like that.
It’s true, yeah, there’s something really charismatic about that lifestyle, whether it’s a cabinet shop, or baking, or anything we can do for ourselves with our hands is a great source of health on many levels, and that’s one of the things I try to impart with a sense of humour in my work as a humourist.
Your work as a humorist - I read recently that kind of was driven from Parks & Rec, so you weren’t really doing comedy shows or live comedy shows before that.
That’s correct. I went to theatre school, I’m a theatre actor, and so up until Parks & Rec I just worked in theatre, TV & film, but then because the audience had a positive response to Ron Swanson, colleges began to invite me as though I were a standup comedian, and I said well I’m not, I don’t do that, but I definitely have some things I would like to say to the young people. So I wrote my show, American Ham, to take advantage of the moment and the platform, so that I could help try and promote things like good manners, and hobbies, and using intoxicants, and what have you.
In American Ham you mention New Zealand briefly, and of course down here in our far-flung corner of the world we’re delighted when anyone refers to New Zealand, any suggestion that people know we exist. Have you ever been here before?
I’ve not. I’m so excited to see it. I almost did a movie there, but my wife wasn’t able to come with me, and the job was for too long, and we have a rule about that. I’m so excited to see it, for many reasons. I want to of course just see what I understand is some incredibly beautiful landscapes; all my friends - you know a lot of actors work there, and so I’ve heard so many great stories about the food - particularly the beef - but also the woods, the indigenous woods that are available for woodworking in New Zealand, and just the vistas, as well as the people, the wine, and, The Shire.
The Shire, of course. I think it’s going to take a while for New Zealand to live down the Lord of the Rings connection.
I think it’s much more in the positive than in the negative.
American Ham was about living a happy and prosperous life - what’s the theme of Full Bush?
Well, it’s taking a similar philosophy - Full Bush is my lifestyle book and philosophy by which I try to navigate this modern age of information and social media while holding on to my principles of as an old-fashioned farm boy.
Full Bush has three iterations - one is talking about bush, as in the bush of the outback. It’s about not becoming too soft in the age of consumerism when we have the good fortune to be able to own more than one pair of shoes and so we’ve been tricked into thinking that shopping for shoes is an activity that one can pursue like playing a sport, and instead I try to maintain the truth of my character. I pass this along with a variety of silly songs on my guitar and my ukulele - I made my ukulele, so I talk about that, and more about making things with one’s hands. And then are a couple other iterations of Bush. One of course refers to the thick brambly-like growth below the waistline - I get into the modern philosophy surrounding the grooming (or not) of the human body. And then finally the third iteration is based on the presidential regimes in America, the family with the last name of Bush. All of those versions of Full Bush will be touched upon.
Do you think you’ll have to refine or change anything for an international audience?
I don’t feel like I need to - my topics are pretty general, and if it’s an English-speaking audience we should have out fair share of chuckles. However I’m looking forward to visiting both Australia and New Zealand and talking about my point of view as a kid from the midwest in America, sort of bringing in my take on imperial vs. metric measuring systems, things like that - I don’t know why we don’t do that, you guys are pretty smart. Whenever I go to any different college, on my way there I look at the student newspaper and invariably there’s always one or two just hilarious stories, and it allows me to start off the show with something local and say “hey I see your local butcher is now making bratwurst out of carrots” and make some sort of meal out of that.
Visiting an entirely new part of the world is fascinating to me. I was not aware until we started trying to sell this tour that anybody had seen Parks & Rec in New Zealand, and so the fact that we were able to sell tickets and that people were actually familiar, somewhat, with me, was really exciting, and so I look forward to exploring that relationship. In a very platonic way.
It’s quite an interesting thing, I think - with New Zealand and Australia in particular we get so much American television and movies that I think we’re reasonably well versed with a lot of Americanisms; you wouldn’t necessarily find the same going to do an English-speaking show in Germany, where I understand for sitcoms and things like that the done thing is to dub it, and to change the jokes so people understand the references? Whereas here there’s sort of just wholesale… “Here it is, we made this”, you know.
It is, and you know we uh, and in recent years, it works both ways, like, I’m blanking on the guy’s name, he’s made a few shows, like Summer Heights High, Chris something?
I’ve forgotten his last name as well, but I know exactly who you mean, yeah.
Are his shows a big hit in New Zealand?
Yeah, they’re pretty popular here.
It’s something that’s also interesting to me, the thing the British audience loves from America is not always the same… and for us for example there’s a show called Downton Abbey, and Americans are just crazy for this show, my wife and I adore it, and in England they look down their nose at it, they consider it like a sort of soap opera. And we were astonished to hear that, but when we thought about it we thought oh well, to us, seeing the opulent period costumes and settings is like going to a fine museum, whereas in England that’s simply their history. It’s interesting. In any case I was very excited to learn that some people enjoy Parks & Rec over on that side of the world.
What’s the thing you’ve made - out of wood or any sort of creatively - that you’re most proud of?
Ah, boy that’s a great question. Because when I make things out of wood obviously they’re tangible and I can, if it’s a canoe I can take it to the river and use it, if it’s a table I can have a party and serve a meal upon it, and so those rewards are immediately gratifying. And if it’s, you know, a book or a film or a theatre play the rewards and the satisfaction are meted out in a more prolonged manner, and they’re kind of intangible in a way.
I just was in Boston doing a play and the play required me to have a huge moustache, and so, you know, I grew- even a bigger moustache than Rob Swanson like it was down to my chin. Walking across Boston to the theatre every day I was getting stopped so much by people to tell me that they enjoyed my work - mainly in Parks & Rec, but also many other projects - and it’s just kind of surreal where because of the nature of media, I can go to New Zealand and have people say “hey I’ve seen a lot of your work and I really enjoyed it” - and that’s kind of trippy in a way, that people will know me… I was in London shooting something and I had a Japanese girl start freaking out when she saw me on the street and her friend said “oh I’m sorry, she’s just a huge fan of Ron Swanson,” and I said “oh, do you see it in Japan?” and she didn’t speak any English, and I was like I don’t understand how that worked, but it’s really bizarre.
And so the role of Ron Swanson when all is said and done is going to- I can't believe I got to inhabit such an incredible role, with such a vast wealth of great writing. And so that feels amazing but I can’t really wrap my head around the impact of it the way I can a baseball bat that I’ve just turned on the lathe. So I don’t have a good answer. I mean - the easy answer is my first canoe. When I built a canoe, and put it in the New York harbour, and it floated - I felt pretty tall.
Thank you. We look forward to having you here!
Thanks so much. I can’t wait to check out your beautiful country and by God I’ll do my best to send people back out in a better mood than they came in.