Film and TV

Nick Offerman Talks Ukuleles, The Last of Us, and Tonight's Show in Phoenix

Nick Offerman

Don't go to Nick Offerman's show tonight in Maricopa expecting a knee-slapping, punchline-heavy standup comedy act.

The actor, author, woodworker, and all-around Renaissance man prefers to think of himself as a humorist, he says.

"I’m not much of a conventional standup," the Parks & Recreation alumnus says. "I play funny songs on the guitar. I’m grateful for Brett Kavanaugh for getting himself back in the news, because I have a veritable paean to him called 'I Like Beer.' So instead of joke after joke, I’m a little more of an essayist. I lean a little more toward Garrison Keillor or a much clumsier Mark Twain or even Spaulding Gray — that sensibility of a train of thought. I speak slowly, with mostly prepared language, and people seem to laugh."

Offerman, who recently found himself the hot topic in the media after his heart-shattering appearance on the HBO show The Last of Us, spoke with Phoenix New Times about his show, ukuleles, and the episode people couldn't stop talking about.

(Quotes have been edited for space and clarity.)

Phoenix New Times: How did you come to guest star on The Last of Us?
Nick Offerman: A producer named Carolyn Strauss who I’ve known for a long time … I think Craig Mazin wrote the script, and they needed an actor who could memorize lines and also use a shovel. Carolyn Strauss said, “Have you heard of Nick Offerman?”

Craig Mazin, who is the showrunner and he created Chernobyl, his son used to be on the Little League team that my woodshop sponsored because my godson is on the team. He was one of my Little League dads, so we had a little history.

They sent me the script, and it was funny, because it was clearly the best script I’d ever received, but the month that they wanted me was completely booked already. I also get in trouble with Megan [Mullally, Offerman's wife] when I overbook things for obvious reasons, because a married person shouldn’t. So I read it, and I said, "Honey, you’d better just read this script instead of me trying to explain to you." She read it and said, “Have fun in Calgary — you have to go do this.” And here we are."

Did you have any idea of what the reaction would be to that episode?
I don’t think so, because it’s a phenomenon, and the people around me, we all agreed we’ve never seen anything like it for an episode of a series. We knew we had something very special happening. We knew that the script was gorgeous and the production was gorgeous and Murray Bartlett was gorgeous, and I stood a chance of not cocking it up completely. We knew that if we didn’t screw it up, we would have something special on our hands, but we could not have foreseen the incredible, overwhelming tsunami of love and emotion from the audience. It’s been incredibly gratifying.

When you're doing your live shows, do you have material prepared or do you switch it up?
It’s a little bit of each. What’s irking me in the moment usually finds its way into the set and then it calcifies itself into paragraphs. But it’s easy to make fun of the human race at the moment. Everywhere you turn, we’re all exhibiting pretty embarrassing behavior. You could almost just get up and read the newspaper and you’d get a lot of laughs.

How did you come to doing these live performances?
I’m a theater actor who ended up working a lot in TV and film. I came to touring late in life — I started I think at age 40 or so. I was handed the opportunity through clumsy good fortune; colleges began to invite me to come perform before it ever occurred to me to do so because they mistakenly thought I was a comedian. And at first, I demurred and said, "No thank you, I perform dusty works of literature on the stage. I’m a Jacobean." But the third college that asked, it just struck me, and I said, 'Wait a second. I can go talk to 2,000 kids and try to pass along the wisdom I’ve gleaned from my family and my betters, and the pay’s great? This sounds like not a bad idea — please tell Ohio State that I will come.

People often ask me, because of whatever is peculiar about my comportment or my manner of speaking — I would simply answer a question, and people would say, "Are you a standup?" For years, I was baffled, and I was so ignorant to the world of comedy that I would think of, like, Gilbert Gottfried or Don Rickles or something, who are great in their own right, but a far cry from the sensibility of what I was after. So the slightly addled way that Mother Nature formed me lends mirth to any gathering. I can honestly just deliver some simple observations, and because I talk a little too slowly, people somehow conflate that with humor. That’s the heart of my show right there.

What do you love about live shows?
It’s not unrelated to the reason I love doing theater. Aristotle put it very well in his Poetics, when he talks about the stage, the theater being the mirror held up to society, and the sort of medicinal exchange that goes on between the performer and the audience. I love to glean doses of that medicine for myself performing in plays, but when you just show up with a guitar and a pair of work boots, there’s a sort of concentrated version of that medicinal drip, so it’s literally pleasurable to show up with a guitar and a backpack and make people laugh and have that be my job. I won’t ever become that full-time, but of the plates I can spin in my circus act, it’s one I really enjoy now and again.

Another thing you're known for is woodworking. How did that interest develop?
The thing I love about woodworking is it comes from my family. I come from this big farming family in Illinois. Half the family are farmers and the other half — I’m descended from the farming side of the family — are schoolteachers, paramedics, librarians, firemen, nurses, just salt of the earth. ... So I’m very much the black sheep who went off to art school, got my BFA, and now I work as a dancing clown in a few different arenas.

So across my life, I’ve been able to supplement my income using my tools as a carpenter, mainly, and the self-sufficiency, wherewithal, pluck that was instilled in me by my family. When things began to go well, I guess in my early 30s, people would say to me, "Why do you still have your woodshop? You’re doing well now as an actor. And also, it should be said, you married a very successful TV actress. You’ve done it —you’ve landed a very cushy husband gig." And I would say, "It would never occur to me to give up my woodworking because it’s an important part of my self-worth" — that I can make things with my hands, that I maintain the ability to use tools and affect the world around me so that I don’t become a soft consumer who relies on others to do everything. Before you know it, I’ll have someone tying my shoes, carrying me on a litter to my yacht and lighting my cigar for me.

What’s the last thing that you made?
I have a batch of 12 ukuleles that I’m slowly finishing. They’re probably 80 hours away from being done; the bodies are all put together and the necks are all done. I have to attach the necks to the bodies and make the fretboards and string them up.

The project was begun in hopes of having it become a product that we make. But my co-conspirator became a fireman. For some reason, I have a terrible batting average at creating woodworkers at the shop. We have a turnover rate of three or four years people stay, maybe five — we’ve kept a few that have become master woodworkers, but otherwise they go away. ... For some reason, it’s a groovy collective where people come through and learn that they want something more substantial than woodworking, even though I provide a very nice livelihood for my workers.

So the guy who was going to do the ukuleles with me moved to Virginia to become a fireman, which you can’t really begrudge. That’s the funny thing — once Parks & Recreation became popular, things got weird with me making stuff personally at the woodshop on commission. People got weird about it because they conflate my actor persona with my woodworking persona and people get kind of rabid and they want to pay way too much. They mistakenly treat my work as though it was made by Elvis Presley or something.

I laid down early boundaries where I said "Okay, the shop is going to exist, but we never mention Ron Swanson anywhere. Because that was the thing. I was like, "Oh, this is where most people would exploit this circumstance. This is where we should be selling the Ron Swanson Memorial Pencil or whatever." And instead, I said, "This doesn’t feel seemly." I don’t want to milk my fans. If they come here and want to pay for something at the shop, I want it to be because they want to support the woodworking collective where people are making things by hand in the way that I wish all American businesses would operate. And so I sort of unwittingly laid down this moral philosophy. And for that reason, I’m not going to list my ukuleles for sale. I have a list of friends who want to buy them and I’m probably just going to make them a funny price, or I’ll make them a healthy price that will become a charitable donation or something.

You're known for your love of nature. Do you have a favorite terrain?
Honestly, I don’t. I love, for example, I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time in Arizona … whether you’re hiking around Tucson or go up the hill to Flagstaff, you get some very different climates and topographies just in Arizona. So wherever I am — I could be paddling a canoe in Canada, I could be down in a cave in the Dominican Republic, you name it — as long as the mosquitoes aren’t actually carrying me away, I’m pretty happy in Mother Nature’s creation. If the weather is perfect, that’s great. But I also really enjoy when it’s inclement weather, because one of the joys of being human is we have gear, we have ingenuity. I find it so pleasurable, for example, to go running in a heavy rain, because I have rain gear, and so you’re out in the elements.

It’s made all the more enjoyable because we’re human and we then get to go inside and have a glass of Scotch by the fire. I think that’s what the soft side of humanity forgets — they think they want to have beautiful perfect weather all year round, and I think that’s like having filet mignon for every meal. It loses its special qualities and becomes boring. So wherever I am, I just like to be outside.

I continue to feel so grateful that I can go hiking in Catalina State Park in Tucson and then I can go onstage and talk about it and sing a song about it and they pay me for that and call it work. And I laugh all the way to the campfire.

Nick Offerman. 8 p.m. Friday, March 17. Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino, 15406 North Maricopa Road, Maricopa. Tickets start at $69.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jennifer Goldberg is the culture editor and Best of Phoenix editor for Phoenix New Times.

Latest Stories