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Nick Offerman on ‘American Ham’ and the Bliss of Making ‘Parks and Recreation’

Nick Offerman on 'American Ham' and the Bliss of Making 'Parks and Recreation'

For fans of “Parks and Recreation,” Nick Offerman the actor is indistinguishable from Ron Swanson, the whiskey-drinking, mustache-growing Libertarian who rules over the Pawnee parks department and has become something of a television icon. 

But Offerman’s talents have also brought him to the stage for a filmed comedy special, which premieres this Friday on Netflix. “Nick Offerman: American Ham” features Offerman’s “10 Tips for Prosperity,” as well as no shortage of explicit detail about his sex life and love for wife Megan Mullally (sometimes connected, sometimes not); it’s a combination of personal philosophy and humor that includes plenty of helpful life advice. 

Mere days before “Parks and Recreation” wrapped shooting its seventh and final season, Offerman spoke with Indiewire about how he used “fisting and weed” as touchstones for creating “American Ham,” how the experience of making “Parks” was akin to “recess” and what he planned to take away from the “Parks” set — emotionally as well as physically. 

Is it weird talking about “American Ham,” something that has been kind of, sort of, done for over a year now?

Not really. I’m so grateful that the whole “American Ham” thing happened. I’m a theater actor and then I got this swell job on a TV show, and then I became a humorist, so not having had a career in standup comedy and having this being my first foray makes it all prevalent in my mind. It’s like the sum total of everything I’ve done so far as a humorist. 

How do you define being a humorist, versus being a standup?

As “American Ham” began to take off and I ended up touring the country with it, people would often describe me as a standup. Calling myself a humorist was kind of a reaction to that. When people would call me a standup it would make me cringe, because my friends who are stand-ups are funnier than me in a way where it’s a talent that I just don’t possess. Stand-ups are so funny at thinking up observations on the human condition that, when repeated, can make us puke milk from our noses. The simplest line about their anus or stepdad, or combining the two, makes you lose it. Being new at it, being a freshman, I felt like I’d rather be described as something that you don’t quite expect to be as funny as Zach Galifinakis. I’m more of a storyteller. We have a great time. I don’t mean to demean my show because it is full of laughter, and I do also mention my anus more than a few times. [laughs]

Sex is such an important part of the special — is there anything you ended up self-censoring out of it?

Gosh. I’d hate to imagine what that might be considering what made it in. Not really. The show is more blue than I am most of the time, and that was because it was initially conceived to take to colleges. I thought, “I think I know how to entertain college students. You talk about fisting and weed!” So those were my two jumping-off points, and then I get into the material in my life that had those qualities. I’m looking forward to trying to make people laugh without having to mention my testicles. I want to see if I can achieve that here with my third or fourth special.

You have to work up to it first.

Oh yeah! I can’t go without testicles cold turkey. That would be a disaster.

It’s such a love letter to your wife, too. Did you intend for it to be that way or did that evolve out of the whole writing process?

The idea of the show, as I mentioned, came from talking to college kids. When I was first invited to speak at colleges, I thought I wasn’t prepared to do it since I was a theater actor, but my God were there things I’d like to say things to our nation’s young people. So that’s how I came up with 10 Tips For Prosperity, and as I was getting into the tips I just couldn’t help but bleed over into here’s how I behave in my relationships and it’s working out pretty well, so maybe it will do you folks some good. Part of the reason I also call myself a humorist is because when I sat down to begin generating material, I thought, “Ok, comedy. Standup, ok let’s see. Rodney Dangerfield…” I’m so ignorant to popular culture that Rodney Dangerfield was what I thought of first when I thought standup. 

But a lot of comedians wring a lot of material out of their marriages, and when I thought about it I thought they were really mean about it. People traditionally get a lot of laughs out of demeaning their spouse, and that was nothing I wanted to get into. That’s not how I am. But I thought maybe it would be a fun challenge, to see if I could get laughs with the subject matter of how much I loved my wife. That’s where that came from. It works well. For some reason people find it entertaining, so it’s easy. If I just have to stand there and say I enjoy making a card for my wife and people are entertained, then I’m a pretty lucky fellow. 

In putting your own life into the special, I’m sure people will be watching for how much crossover there is between you and the character of Ron Swanson. Is that something you considered when developing the material?

Only briefly. As a pragmatist I said, “Okay, these college students wouldn’t have any clue who I am without ‘Parks & Recreation.’” I’m not like Aziz [Ansari] or Amy [Poehler], who had a profile before the show. So if they wanted me to come speak at their college it means they want the guy who plays Ron Swanson, specifically. I would find it unseemly if I were to go and milk Ron Swanson for these people and just talk about Swansonian topics, like Libertarian issues. But I did try and formulate a sensibility to the humor that would appease fans’ hunger for something in the flavor of Ron Swanson. Once the show comes to an end here in the coming months, and I hopefully continue to get work, people will stop asking the question, “Is he like Ron Swanson?” One of the problems that leads to that question is that seven to eight months out of the year, I look like Ron Swanson. I have to maintain my mustache and my hair to play him. Once that requirement is gone and I don’t look much like him, that’ll help people realize I’m not half the man Ron Swanson is. 

Where are you guys in the production process with “Parks & Recreation”?

Next week is our last week of shooting forever. 

Wow. How is everyone handling it?

Well, we’re still on our feet. There’s a great deal of emotion. It’s been the most idyllic work situation I could have ever dreamed of, and everybody feels that way. That’s part of what makes it so idyllic. Everyone gets to make this high quality entertainment with love and humor, and getting paid to do that is incredibly good fortune. I liken it to the feeling of when I was a kid in grade school, and I’d be out on the playground playing kickball or throwing a football with friends. That sense of freedom out in the open sunshine and out in the open air is so delicious. You feel alive and you feel exuberant, and then at some point somebody blows the whistle and now you have to go back into algebra. I feel like we’re coming to the end of an incredible seven year recess, and we’re all going to have to wipe the dirt off our chins and go back into a stupid classroom called life. [giggles] 

NBC just announced the release schedule for the upcoming episodes. What did you think of their decision to double them up on Tuesday nights?

It’s somewhat fascinating. It’s clearly the result of us being on a broadcast network in a day and age when broadcast networks are having a really tough time finding their way, in this new age of the myriad of delivery systems by which we receive our television. Our schedule has often fluctuated in funny ways at the hands of NBC trying to figure out the best path forward. I don’t know what my ideal schedule would be for our final thirteen, and so I don’t have any strong feelings about it other than I’m damn grateful that they’re still showing us. It’s a climate wrought with danger. It’s really hard for shows to stay on the air these days, and so I don’t really care when they show us, as long as they show us. I think I speak for everyone on our show when I say we’ve just been so grateful we’ve been allowed to persevere across the seven seasons. 

If there’s one thing you felt that you’d take away emotionally from “Parks and Recreation,” what would it be? 

It’s been 125 episodes of the lesson that people from all walks of life and from all colors and creeds can work together in unison and love one another while busting their asses to make something worthwhile. It’s a lesson I continue learning. I grew up in a wonderful big farm family, and then I had my own theater company with a bunch of friends in Chicago, and now I have my woodshop where seven to eight of us work to make lives better either through laughs or giving them a chair to sit on. “Parks and Recreation” has been the most sublime example of what a group of people can accomplish when we all put our petty human problems aside and hold hands and make mirth.

That’s a beautiful sentiment. So… Is there one thing you’re planning to take physically from the set, like a prop or costume item?

That’s not what you meant by the first question, is it? ‘Cause my answer would have been really funny if so. 

No, no. 

I’m a bit of a minimalist, so I’m either going to take the whole bullpen in Ron’s office and put it back together in my woodshop — that’s what the weak part of me wants to do, so that I’ll never have to leave, and I’ll be a sad old man sitting at Ron’s desk pointing a shotgun at no one. But I know better, so there’s this poster that spent years on Ron’s wall, of a pretty brunette lady holding a plate of breakfast. To me that is incredibly representational of the bounty that I was served across seven seasons of bliss. 

I’m sure you’re aware of Ron Swanson as an Internet meme. Are there any particular memes that are your favorites?

Oh boy. I suppose I’ve seen a handful of them, but I don’t really look at that stuff too much. I have a more general appreciation for the vast number of items that have appeared. I feel very grateful to sort of be the vessel of that kind of stuff. I’ll cop to the fact that I spoke the dialogue clearly enough that it was able to be delivered to the audience, but by and large all the stuff that is meme-worthy comes from our writers and their brilliant understanding of all of the characters. They know what to do with Ron in a much more genius way than I could ever fabricate. 

Is there anything about being so closely identified with the character of Ron that you find problematic?

No. On the level of ego, it’s initially annoying because I’m an actor and an artist, so how dare you identify me with only one of my creations. But that’s quickly released when I think about the fact that the reason anyone might think that is because our show does such a good job. Ultimately I take that as a signal from the world that I have the luckiest job of any kid on TV. Something else that gives me comfort is that I can get other roles in films and on stage that don’t have anything to do with mustaches or meat. So as long as people doing the hiring don’t have that confusion, then I am not too worried about it.  

READ MORE: Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman Make Out Every Season and Other Fun Facts from ‘Parks and Recreation’ at Paleyfest

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