Sometimes it becomes difficult — almost impossible — to separate the character from the actor. The Christopher Walkens and Steve Buscemis of the world will always be viewed as themselves first, their portrayals second. The same can be said for characters who align closely with the personalities of the men and women bringing them to life. Such is the case with Nick Offerman and his well-known NBC alter ego, Ron Swanson.
Swanson, the bacon-loving, deadpan, über-masculine director of the Parks and Recreation Department in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, certainly borrowed a bit from Offerman, from his facial hair to favorite foods. Parks and Recreation, the Amy Poehler-led comedy starring Offerman, ran for seven seasons, giving die-hard fans and casual viewers enough time to not only laugh at Swanson, but to idealize Offerman as his real-life equal. And while the actor and character share a penchant for single-malt scotch and woodworking, the latter is far more than a passing interest for the man behind the scenes.
Offerman's new book, Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Woodshop, explores that passion, its 200 pages a mini-memoir wrapped in a collection of how-tos and craftsman projects. As narrator, Offerman takes us through his own journey into the world of wood, beginning with tree houses and instruction from his father and uncles in rural Illinois, through framing houses and set-building in theater school, to starting his own woodworking company in Los Angeles in 2001. That shop, Offerman Woodshop, is the backdrop for Good Clean Fun's projects and characters. Each new project introduces a different woodshop member who offers techniques to bring out the true beauty of a branch.
Thanks to that recognizable face and adapted-from-life persona, there's little doubt that Offerman Woodshop benefits heavily from the fans who equate Offerman with his scotch-swilling libertarian body double. The business sells Swanson-approved mustache combs and autographed copies of Paddle Your Own Canoe and Gumption, Offerman's earlier books, alongside gorgeous live-edge tables and custom oddities, spoons, and canoes. But it's apparent from the woodshop's online-only storefront — and the pages of Good Clean Fun — that woodworking has always been a refuge for Offerman where acting, perhaps, has not. It's an area of his life unaffected by Hollywood and name recognition, save for a few extra orders come the holidays. Offerman's love of woodworking — indeed, creating anything with one's hands — transcends the jokey television arc or the flippancy of a hobby. It is, as he says, "his religion."
Good Clean Fun is hardly that heavy, though. Rather, it is the kind of instructional guide that is gracefully comedic, never condescending, and works as much for the klutzy as it does for the seasoned DIYer. And, given Offerman's popularity, forever immortalized in Internet memes and GIFs, it will likely be featured prominently on as many IKEA bookcases as hand-built bookshelves — maybe more.
Offerman brings Good Clean Fun to Mesa Arts Center on Tuesday, October 25, in partnership with Changing Hands Bookstore. The actor and humorist will read from and sign the book, and participate in an audience question-and-answer session about woodworking — with a likely question or two about Parks & Recreation for good measure. (Offerman will not sign memorabilia, so leave your bronze Swanson busts at home.)
"I'm really, really proud of it and [I'm] excited for people to dig into it," he told New Times in a phone interview about the book and his tour stop. "I look forward to hitting Arizona."
New Times: We live in an era where it's a struggle to get people to pick up a book and read, let alone to get them to pick up a book that then encourages them to pick up a power tool and make something. What was your motivation behind writing this? Why do it now?
Nick Offerman: Well, I really had a lot of interest from my readership, I had a lot of requests to do a woodworking book, and I was also looking for a way to get back into my shop and spend some time there while I'm doing all this showbiz work. This seemed like the perfect answer to both those questions.
I really feel like in our country right now, there's a resurgence — especially among young people — that consumerism, we're sort of seeing through the thin façade of store-bought furniture, and [there's a resurgence of] all artisanal crafts. People want to learn how to raise their own meat and brew their own beer and make their own clothes and make their own furniture and other items out of wood, and so everybody thought it was a really good idea and I said boy, I've got a really fun take on a woodworking book. And here we have the result.
In reading Good Clean Fun, it seemed like woodworking began as a hobby, became a job, then went back to being a bit of a hobby. But now, you also run a successful woodworking business out of the Offerman Woodshop with everything else going on. How do you approach it so that you still love going there and don't get burnt out?
I don't think I could ever get burnt out. I crave my time at the shop like I'm going to a spa or something, because it has the same effect on me as getting a massage. It's a massage for my soul. It's funny, when anyone accuses my woodworking of being a hobby I always bristle, because I'm like, "No, gee, it's not my hobby — it's my religion." Hobby has such a lightweight connotation. Earlier, in some of my work as a humorist, I exchange the word "discipline" for "hobby," because I feel like a hobby is something you do to sort of pass the time, but this is something that I do to improve the world around me as well as myself and my character.
I think that's a great way to look at it. You've written a lot about how woodworking obviously came to you before acting, but you did kind of come into your own and realize your potential when you were doing some of this set-building. Can you describe for me the sense of accomplishment that's different with wood and working with your hands than being on stage or on screen?
That's a good question. There are actually three parts of the answer. The first is, when you're on stage, the audience tells you immediately, they pay you immediately, so if you make them laugh or you make them cry or you make them feel, that's your pay. You're exchanging a medicine: You give them medicine and then they give it back to you in a different form. So you've all gotten together in this room to say, "Let's exchange some medicine." It's like giving each other a back rub or a hearty handshake or hug. Then when I work on camera for TV or film, that's really interesting, because sometimes the crew will laugh a little bit, but you're not getting that immediate hit of your audience paying your medicine back to you. So you have to kind of trust [laughs] that the exchange will take place when the show is broadcast or when people go to the movie theater. And so, in both of cases there's nothing tangible, you know? It's a more ephemeral recompense.
But then in the shop, you get paid in a couple of very tangible, tactile, real ways. At the end of each day of work, you can touch and feel and see the result of your work. So, if you've spent your day flattening a tabletop and sanding it, well when you turn off the stereo and clean the sawdust off your table, you can look at it. You can get down and eyeball it and see that it's flat. You can run your hands over it and see that it feels amazing and you can test its stability and say, "Wow, this will hold a meal for 12 people." And then, when you deliver that piece of furniture or that canoe or that guitar to a client, you can then enjoy them experiencing the object in a tactile way.
There's something much more bucolic and of-the-earth about making things with your hands. You then have that product. That's why I encourage my audience to — even if woodworking ends up not being your bag — find something to make with your hands, because it's so incredibly healthy for you to spend your time knitting socks or making lasagna or blacksmithing hatchet heads, anything that you can make. You've occupied your time in a fruitful way and you have something to show for your work, thereby improving yourself, your household, and your community.
Right. It's that tangible sense of accomplishment.
It is, yeah, it is. You can touch it.
What would you say would be an ideal first project for beginners? Is there a type of wood that's easiest to manipulate or use for those starting out?
I just ran a workshop for 60 people where we made cutting boards out of some beautiful maple planks. So [if] you get a hard wood, like maple or cherry or oak or walnut — something that's just a rectangle, or you could cut out any shape, an oval or a circle — you just take a piece of wood, buy a cross-cut saw, a handsaw from the hardware store, and cut off a foot of a plank, sand it nice, and oil it. And you'll be hooked! Because when you see just a simple square of wood, how nice you can make it feel with the elbow grease of your hands, and then when you oil it the colors and the figure that pop out, it's like a feeling of wizardry. In the book, the project that is like that — one of the first projects — is a set of coasters. So you can imagine making wooden coasters, it's just one or two or four little squares or circles of wood, and you're just making them beautiful.
You'd be amazed, it's like the pleasure of doing a really good job of sweeping a floor. It's a simple pleasure. Or when you've done all the dishes after a big meal and you look around your kitchen, or look at your swept floor and you say, "You know, with this clever set of straws on a stick I have made this floor clean and ready to be dirtied again." And with that, you attach yourself to centuries of human accomplishment by doing these things — or by taking a piece of wood and sanding the rough edges so the whole thing feels nice and looks nice, you say, "Look what I've done. I've taken this scrap of work that was good for nothing but the fireplace, and now I can use it to protect my table surfaces from wet rings from coffee cups and beers bottles."
That's an amazing kind of metaphor for life, also, I really like that. Switching gears: What's the most challenging or creative custom request you've ever had at the shop? Were there any that were too outrageous for you to complete?
Gosh, we've made some weird things in the shop. We made one canoe for a client, and that's an incredible amount of labor. There are hundreds of pieces of wood that go into a boat. It's very meticulous. Your clients' lives depend on your woodworking: The ultimate success of a wooden watercraft is will it float or will it sink? We did one for a couple in Wisconsin, and then we said, you know, we shouldn't make canoes on commission anymore. It's too expensive and there are wonderful shops in Canada and New England and the Pacific Northwest where that's all they do is make boats, and we should leave that to the boat builders, because it's too specialized for our LA shop.
We have a table that we make called "Zeus' Wagon Wheel" that's a massive circular table with a built-in lazy Susan. That's a really intense project; we're working on our second one of those right now. But by and large, you know, when people want something that's too crazy we say, "Nah, you know what? We're not the shop for that." Sometimes things are too complicated or somebody wants a wooden bicycle, for example. There are wonderful innovators all over the country that are actually making wooden bicycles, and I say, "Look those folks up." We stick to fine custom furniture pieces. I'm working on a batch of ukuleles [and] we're hoping to eventually feature some small string instruments, but it's good to stay within the parameters of what we're good at, rather than force a client to pay us to figure out how to make a wooden automobile.
Have you ever received wooden fan art?
I do. I receive a lot of stuff and I appreciate it very much. If they've put a lot of work into it, I'm always incredibly moved. And you know, I end up generally — I have a house full of cutting boards and furniture — so usually I then pass it along to someone in my neighborhood and say, "Hey look, somebody made me this nice cooking spoon" or "Somebody made me this beautiful box." It's astonishing, frankly. That somebody would take the time to make something for me is quite moving. I really appreciate it if somebody just writes me a card [laughs]. Imagine if they hand me a dovetail breadbox, I'm kind of bowled over.
The character of Ron Swanson had a lot to do with bringing woodworking into a lot of households that maybe hadn't thought of it before and encouraged a lot of people to look at that as something that they can do, too. Do you ever miss the show and that character? Or are you just happy that that was a chapter in your life?
It's interesting, you know, my wife [actress Megan Mullally] was on Will & Grace and I was on Parks & Rec and we both had very similar experiences where we had the benefit of the greatest writing at the time. Uncannily, we both ended up with these really unique, iconoclastic characters who were being created in collaboration with the best writers working. And that — we understand there's a limit to that. You can't keep it going. We all could name examples of shows that kept producing even though they should have stopped, because they ran out of good ideas, but for whatever reason then they keep doing a couple more seasons and everybody says, "Oh, I love that show, but man those last two seasons blew."
All of us together working on Parks & Rec, we had achieved the limit of good ideas we had. [And that] makes me very grateful then, that it ended. It was an absolutely golden time of creativity, of which I got to be a part. For me, it's like remembering the most amazing college years, or getting to play sports with the best team and we won the state tournament. I'm incredibly grateful. So, I miss it like you miss any great time in your life, but at the same time I'm glad we ended it for the right reasons.
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You mention Will & Grace, and they just came out with that online short about the election. And there's been a plethora of Parks & Rec memes, clips, and GIFs out there, being posted during and about this campaign process. Can we expect a reunion mini-episode for the election, too?
Not that I'm aware of. It's funny, there have been many moments in the campaigns that have been almost exactly like moments from Parks & Recreation. And social media, our producers and writers, are regurgitating moments from the show. The male presidential candidate frequently seems awfully similar to Paul Rudd's character, Bobby Newport, who was very bad at things like debates. There are moments that are very funny and uncanny.
You know, I was so thrilled with what Will & Grace did. I'm astonished, it seems like an impossibility that one of the greatest shows in our lifetimes got to poke its head up again and have an impact. [So] I'm just thrilled I got to be on the sidelines of my wife's incredible comedy work.
Nick Offerman's new book, Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Woodshop, is part-memoir, part-woodworking how-to. He'll be at the Ikeda Theater at Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, October 25, for a reading, Q&A session, and book signing. Admission packages are $42 for single entry or $50 for two people. Each includes a hardcover copy of Good Clean Fun. For tickets, visit www.changinghands.com.