You probably know Nick Offerman as the guy who plays the hilarious Ron Swanson on NBC’s acclaimed show Parks and Recreation. Well, did you also know he’s a U of I graduate? He is. We had a chance to talk to him about his time at Illinois, acting, his show, woodworking and a bunch of other stuff.
The Black Sheep: So what are you up to right now?
Nick Offerman: Well I’m in New York City at the moment with my wife [actress Megan Mullally] doing some press. I did a thing on Jimmy Fallon and now I’m doing some stand-up.
TBS: Stand-up, huh?
Nick: Yeah, it’s a new thing for me. I started in the last few years. Since I’ve gotten some TV comedy work I’ve gotten offered some stage time and I’ve been taking it.
TBS: So how does that differ from having a scripted comedy or a live stage thing?
Nick: It’s interesting, I studied theater at the Krannert Center, and I guess I have a knack for improvisation that’s served me well. I had a show on Comedy Central called American Body Shop, and obviously on Parks and Recreation. Preparation for all of that is pretty similar, you’re learning a script it’s a very valuable script, but also small chances to play it loose. With stand-up I’m writing my own material. I started with a couple of funny songs that I wrote. The first one I wrote for my wife’s 50th birthday, it’s called “The Rainbow Song.” The first time someone offered me a spot I was like “sure, I’ll do it,” but then I was like “Oh shit, what am I gonna do?” so I had this one funny song and I wrote another funny song called “Jesus Take the Weed,” that’s a big hit with the college set. It’s something I’ve been doing for a couple of months and it’s interesting because I’m writing material and trying it out on audiences. It’s a backwards trajectory, going from classical theater to movies to TV to stand-up.
TBS: So how was life at U of I when you were there?
Nick: Well, I was there from 1988 to 1993, and I took a year off to do a kabuki theater tour.
TBS: What? Do you want to talk about that?
Nick: Yeah, back in those days…gosh…about 20 years ago now. There was a professor, Shozo Sato, and he was a master of all of these zen arts and he was from Japan. He was in his mid-sixties by the time I met him and among all of his other projects he had a kabuki thing going on just east of the Krannert Center at [the old] Japan House. There he taught like ikebana, sumi-e black ink painting…and everybody knew the coolest thing in the theater department was to get into his kabuki class. A couple friends of mine and I got in when we were sophomores and it was going to be his last year and there was going to be a show that went to Japan to celebrate his career. It was an adaptation of the Iliad called Kabuki Achilles, right after the first Gulf War broke out, so it was really popular because of the anti-war message. We did this tour of Japan and a couple of producers hired us out of school to do a European tour and a semester doing the show in Philly. It was a cool little break amid our whole cornfield studying.
TBS: So when you were a freshman going into U of I did you know you wanted to do theater or was it something you discovered there?
Nick: When I was a junior in high school I was living in Minooka, Illinois. I knew I could probably afford to go to a state school and I had good grades and it looked like I was going to get a scholarship. I was dating a senior and I ended up driving her down to audition for the dance program at Illinois. I was sitting in the basement of Krannert when I was 16 and I ran into a couple of theater students who were basically like “excuse me, what are you doing here?” We got to chatting, they told me what they did, and I came from such a small town that I didn’t know that you could study theater or that it was a viable career path. It was such an epiphany, I had plays at my high school but it had felt like my hometown—my life—was kinda stuck in the 1950s. It never occurred to me that I could pursue a career in popular culture from where I came from. When I found out I was like “wow, that’s what I want to do.” When I told my mom and they were like “You’re crazy,” and I was like, “Yes, but you knew that.”
TBS: What was campus life like then? Now everyone has Blackberries and laptops, but that wasn’t the case then.
Nick: Obviously on the technology level it was different, I think the rich kids from the ‘burbs just had cell phones and they’d have a computer—an Apple2E—exclusively for writing a paper. It was a low-tech experience, but a lot of the experience was commensurate with that is going on today. It was all about stimulants, whether it was coffee, beer or more exotic substances. It was about tuning your cocktail so you could stay up for 22 hours a day. It was a grueling, particularly in the theater department, because you have your classes on the quad, then your theater classes, then you had to practice for a play or design costumes or build sets. Then there was a free theater at the Armory, the Armory Free Theater—I don’t know if it’s still there– it was a space where you could sign up and get it for free for a week. It was a black box theater where you and your friends would put on some crazy Samuel Beckett play. It was just 24 hours of theater for the theater kids.
TBS: When you did have free time where did you hang out?
Nick: Over in Champaign there was a great arthouse movie theater, and we used to walk over there a lot. We were the art freaks so we didn’t usually find ourselves in the bars around Green Street—Murphy’s or those kinds of places. There was a place by Krannert called Trino’s and a vegetarian restaurant called Nature’s Table where they had free jazz, it was a cool place that had to get torn down to build a huge university building. We were these Bohemian hippie-wannabe kids who would put on a buzz and go see some music . We spent a lot of time visiting Allerton Park, taking off our clothes and laying in the Sangamon River and worshiping the centaur and that Salute to the Sun statue.
TBS: You’re also a renowned woodworker. How’d that start?
Nick: I grew up in a farm family and my dad was a carpenter. Farmers can build pretty much anything from a pickup truck to a barn. By the time I hit college I was a pretty handy carpenter—I had built a few houses—and it really came in handy when I was learning about acting because I really sucked. I couldn’t get cast, but I was valuable to my peers because I could build scenery. I was also pretty athletic so I became a pretty adept swordfighter. Eventually I moved to Chicago to start working professionally and I really started to get it. I was getting wolf at Steppenwolf. To support myself, though, I would build scenery and work as a fight coordinator. By the time I moved to LA I had become a really adept carpenter but I couldn’t find the same kind of work building scenery so I started building furniture with old-school joinery. I became obsessed with it and I built myself a shop. It became a great source of supplemental income, but also a great passion for me.
TBS: Moving on to Parks and Recreation, how much input do you have towards your Ron Swanson character?
Nick: We have a room full of the most brilliant writers in the business. Half of them went to Harvard and they come from shows like The Daily Show, South Park, The Simpsons, Conan, The Office. Greg Daniels and Mike Schur are brilliant and I could never do what they do. Usually the script we get is fantastic, and that’s where most of the work comes from. There’s a certain alchemy when it comes to a character like Ron Swanson where my personal life—the woodshop or the canoes I build—they capitalize on them and flavor my character with them, but they’re brilliant storytellers and that’s what they’re paid to do. As cherry on the cake we’re good improvisers too. So, we’ll shoot a scene 3 or 5 times and at the end if one of us has an idea we’ll try it out. Now, the talking head moments, that’s where some freedom comes in. Sure, we’re encouraged for input, but it’s supplementary, the show is like, 96% of the script.
TBS: I think the show’s grown from season one to season two, and from the beginning of season two to where it is now. Do you see that growth too?
Nick: We get asked this a lot, but with the internet these days people are so media-saturated that they know everything before it happens that it’s a new show from the people who made The Office that stars Amy Poehler , Rashida Jones and Aziz Ansari. When it starts people have expectations and they don’t necessarily match up. Same thing that happened when the American version of The Office premiered. Everyone loved the British version was “oh no, don’t ruin the British version.” With our show we came out and, you know, I think that you start writing these stories for these characters and only then, after you see how they play, then you can really make progress. The first six episodes, season one, were like a six- episode pilot where we saw how things worked and took it from there.
TBS: One episode in particular you worked with your wife, Megan Mullally. In the episode you were enemies, was that weird since, you know, you’re married?
Nick: I had worked with Megan in a bunch of different ways, but I had never had a chance to work with her that intensely like we were a comedy team. It was a dream. If you’re married to a comedy legend and you’ve spent years on the sidelines watching them do such amazing work, of course it’s a dream to think “oh man, it would be fun to do that with Megan.” That script, the best of the seasons by ex-Simpsons writer Mike Scully was a gift, it was insane. The brilliant thing was the story required us to get into each other violently when we’re screaming at each other and also when we’re ripping each other’s clothes off. I think that using a married couple allowed us to get a lot closer than a non-married couple could.