If you're reading this interview with Nick Offerman to get more insights into Ron Swanson, his most well-known character, then you might want to click somewhere else.
The dry-witted actor/woodworker, who grew up near Joilet, Illinois, has kept busy since Parks and Recreation left the airwaves in 2015 (though you can still catch it on Netflix, for now), so there was plenty to talk about. He's authored several books, including Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom With America's Gutsiest Troublemakers, produced a documentary on his favorite author, Wendell Berry, toured the nation with his wife Megan Mullally, co-hosts the reality show Making It with Amy Poehler, and took the lead role in the independent dramedy Hearts Beat Loud.
Currently, Offerman is touring the nation with his comedy show All Rise, which was directed by Mullally. He arrives at Celebrity Theatre on Friday, December 13. When Phoenix New Times spoke to him over the phone in early November, he was still elated about performing at the Kennedy Center the night before. We talked about everything from the written word to watching The Good Place. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Phoenix New Times: Can you please explain what audiences can expect from All Rise?
Nick Offerman: It's an evening of slow-talking and mirthful songs. We're going to take a step back from the stark partisanship that we're all suffering from and make fun of all of us as one big group of people. We're poking fun at societal foibles and take a look at ourselves as one big group of mammals trying to behave under a set of societal rules while satisfying our animal cravings.
How have you seen your writing change since you've done your previous shows American Ham and Full Bush?
That's a good question. [All Rise] is the first piece of writing in this medium that I've done since the last presidential election, and that's been the impetus for the change that I'm seeing. Looking around and seeing the ire that everyone seems to be feeling and the rancor that has taken root made me sit down and say, "Let me see if I can make people laugh for 90 minutes, but deliver a message." Try to hide a bunch of broccoli in pizza. There's a focus on empathy, neighborliness, work ethic, and frugality. I feel pretty successful about it. I feel that [All Rise] is the most responsible and effective comedy that I've written.
I had read that All Rise was inspired by the works of author Wendell Berry and you're a fan of George Saunders. How did you develop your love of prose?
I grew up in a small town. It was kind of a cultural vacuum in the '70s and '80s. All we had were the popular culture channels, so my mom and dad encouraged my siblings and me to read. I had an aunt who was a librarian, who handed me The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings books, so I learned early on the value of escapism through reading.
It really stuck with me. Both my wife and I love reading constantly. We read a lot more nonfiction these days. I came across George Saunders' CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia. I was just besotted. He's my favorite modern fiction writer for comedy, absurdism, and empathy. He does such a great job of making fun of us, but then wrapping his arms around us and telling us that as long as we can still feel love, then everything will be okay.
Are you still working on the adaptation for Lincoln in the Bardo?
In a word: yes. Us and George are basically trying to knock things off the schedule. We're looking forward to getting that fired up.
You also produced Hearts Beat Loud. What attracted you to that material?
I had worked on [director Brett Haley's] previous film The Hero with Sam Elliot. He got sweet on me and wrote Hearts Beat Loud for me. It was a no-brainer. I jumped on board and did everything I could to help make it as good as possible.
I'm so grateful I got to do that. I've had a really fun career, but I'm really thought of more as a supporting character. To get to be the dad, play the guitar, and make eyes with Toni Collette across a record shop, those were all new and exciting treats.
And you got to hang out with Jeff Tweedy again!
Jeff, George, and I have become quite the inseparable threesome. There's a song in All Rise that Jeff and I wrote together about a worker bee named Billy Bob Bill.
I had read Megan had directed All Rise. Was this any different than any other times you have collaborated with her?
It occurred to me that I needed the writing to be new and sharper, so I thought, "Let's bring in a big gun and ask Megan to put her brain on it." She's been invaluable and has seen it all, so she inherently knows what to do. If I may be so bold, I think I can consider myself to be her muse to an extent, so she's the person I want in the audience saying, "Do that funny dance move that makes me laugh."
Where do you find the confidence to do that dance every night?
I remember talking to Will Ferrell about a scene in Old School where he goes running down the street with his bottom bare to the world. He said that we're all going to bare our asses to the world at some point, so you commit to it. That's how you're going to succeed in comedy. There's no halfway.
I've always had an understanding of that. I knew I wasn't going to be cast for my cheekbones or golden tenor, but I consistently seem to be able to make people laugh.
I wanted to ask you about The Good Place, which was created by Michael Schur. The two of you worked together on Parks and Recreation, and hearing you talk about All Rise, it sounds like you're both trying to tackle society's ills with humor. Assuming you watch the show, I'm curious what it's like watching the show as a friend and admirer of his.
I dedicated one of my books to Mike, and it read, "To Mike Schur, who showed me that we can still be very funny while saying I love you." Who else in our lifetime could land a network comedy that is on its face an ethics class? That approach was evident in Parks and Recreation, but his work asks: Can we be good? Should we be good? How can we get there? And how can we stay there?
Mike is such a beautiful artist in his writing and the conception of his work, particularly The Good Place. It often makes me cry, even though it's funny. I'm moved by his generous spirit. He's spending his 22 minutes a week giving us the loving messages his characters are trying to get across.
As we approach the end of our conversation, I get the feeling you're grateful to do what you do in the way that you do it.
I played the Kennedy Center last night, and it was me onstage in a squirrel shirt and a guitar. People laughed, applauded, and they let me know they were receiving of the medicine I had brought to them. I don't know if I'll ever get over it. I can't believe I get to do this for a job. That gratitude makes me double my efforts the next time out. I'll keep doing the dishes as long as you keep inviting me to dinner.
Nick Offerman is scheduled to perform on Friday, December 13, at Celebrity Theatre. Tickets are $49.50 to $69.50 via TicketForce.
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