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Sundance Review: Nick Offerman Uncovers the Real America In ‘American Ham’

Sundance Review: Nick Offerman Uncovers the Real America In 'American Ham'

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose “Kings of Summer” played at last year’s Sundance, filmed “Nick Offerman: American Ham” over two shows during the same night. Each time, Offerman entered New York’s historic Town Hall Theater shirtless, his American flag button-down trailing like John Wayne’s do-rag. He promised minor nudity, but didn’t clarify it’d be of the hairy, plumpy midriff sort. “You didn’t know life could be this delicious,” he seduced the crowd. At first glance, Offerman might look as though he’s auditioning for a spot on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. But as “American Ham” makes clear, Offerman contains more Stephen Colbert in his comedic DNA than Larry the Cable Guy.

Offerman subtitles his show “Tips for Prosperity.” He has ten of them around which he structures the performance, ranging in audacity from “Use a Handkerchief” to “Say Please and Thank You.” The latter, in truth, is a referendum on being an all-around decent human being: “Folks, let’s talk about merging (onto the highway): What the fuck?” It’s the longest set, and the one in which he steps furthest away from his “Parks and Recreations” character, Ron Swanson. Offerman goofs around much more than the fictional, righteous libertarian he plays on television, dancing and jerking off an imaginary neighbor under the pretense of “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Offerman rips through the Bible—Leviticus forms the main attraction—step by step with plenty of zest and constant insight. The writers of ‘The Onion’ are handed Leviticus the first day,” he says. We’ve heard innumerable riffs on the Old Testament attitudes toward homosexuality and woman, but Offerman bears down on them with an everyman perplexity. He role-plays how the book’s writer must’ve come to his conclusions, as if the writer were assigning detention to men who’d lain together as they should’ve with women: “What? They what?… Yeah, kill ‘em.”

Though Offerman repeatedly assures his audience that he doesn’t have a problem with anyone’s belief system, he does take issue with the machinations of religion in general. At times he veers toward preachiness himself—jokes with a moral punchline aren’t as digestible when they lose their specificity.

If there’s a unifying theme in the show’s Tips for Prosperity, it’s Offerman’s blatant frustration over the deterioration of a natural world. He apologizes to the next generation for the state in which he has left the planet. He laments our tech-obsessed society. He says to hell with the “herbivorous vegetarians,” and even dedicates one of the tips to eating red meat. He tells a story about “69ing” at church camp with a girl who’d been a devout Christian, a consensual act by two people who remained together for four years. (Tip #8: “Maintain a relationship with Jesus Christ…if it is getting you sex.”) If they’d been caught, their social communities would have shunned them. That doesn’t sit well with him.

This is where Offerman is most interesting as a comic: His complaints are mostly familiar. On the surface, he comes across as a comedian for country hick stereotypes: vegetarians are nutbags, manual labor is noble, the outdoors rock, etc. However, Offerman is unpacking material that amounts less to politics than to basic personhood. Find things you enjoy—like intoxicants (Tip #9)—and disregard everything else. His wife, Megan Mullally—a.k.a., “some of his most beautiful acreage”—serves as a repeated image of the joy that results from accepting Offerman at face value. She falls off her chair laughing at his jokes. He adores her for it. It can be that simple.

As a whole, “American Ham” is a solid comedy special—with stylish prerecorded title sequences for each new Tip—but it lacks some of the inventiveness or surprise that might otherwise warrant a slot at a major film festival. But that doesn’t negate the way Offerman’s honest Americanist attitude regularly leads to laughs and insight.

Criticwire Grade: B-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? While unlikely to receive much of a theatrical release, ancillary markets should yield strong returns, given Offerman’s fan base and the past successes of comedy specials on VOD.

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