Perhaps the great irony of Nick Offerman’s iconic status as Ron Swanson—Parks And Recreation’s libertarian luddite, man of few words but many skills—is that he’s celebrated by the exact sort of TV-watching, Internet-addicted shut-in that Ron would despise. Not that Offerman is one for irony: Like the breakout character he’s honed over four seasons on the NBC comedy, he’s thoroughly no-nonsense—just one of the many traits the two men have in common, like shared talents for playing the saxophone and woodworking. The farm-bred Offerman broke into performing in the Chicago theater scene by building sets in addition to acting in front of them, and he’s retained that earthy, rough-hewn sensibility ever since. And though it took a while before casting directors found the right role to take advantage of it (aside from the odd bit part in films like Sin City or TV shows such as Gilmore Girls and Deadwood), eventually, the right role found him.
As Swanson, Offerman is both father figure and anchor of the show, providing a stern, deadpan center in the eye of the craziness, as well as the rare TV depiction of masculinity that’s funny without being tied to tired chauvinistic stereotypes. It’s also informative, as seen in Offerman’s recent touring live show with on-and-off-screen wife Megan Mullally, the part-comedic monologue, part-motivational-speaking tour American Ham. The A.V. Club spoke to Offerman—who will announce the Emmy nominees tomorrow, and by every right deserves to be on the list himself—about developing that persona over a career that’s included tours in kabuki, sending casting agents pictures of his dick, and auditioning for the role of The Office’s Michael Scott.
The A.V. Club: Ron Swanson broke out concurrent with the “mancession” trend, where TV seemed to be consumed by the idea that men need to “reclaim their manhood,” or whatever. Do you buy into that movement? Do you see your popularity as part of that?
Nick Offerman: I don’t buy into that. I think it’s fascinating that I receive attention for what people perceive to be a level of manliness or machismo, when amongst my family of farmers and paramedics and regular Americans, I’m kind of the sissy in my family. But when I arrive in Los Angeles in the entertainment community, and I use implements like a shovel and a hammer, our society has distanced itself so far from working with its hands that those incredibly pedestrian skills are perceived as somehow being extraordinary. I think the whole thing is kind of sad, honestly, in the same way that our civilization—particularly the consumers of pop culture—has grown so used to an emasculated, bare-chested leading man that something like simply growing a mustache can impress people. [Laughs.]
And just by the advances in this crazy Information Age where, by and large, so many of the productive members of society are not working in a factory or working a field or working a forest—they’re working on a computer or they’re working in an office. We’ve grown so far away from a time 60 or 80 years ago, when many more households had family members who could build a house, who could mend a boot, who could tailor their own clothing, etc. I think it allows us to fetishize these things, like, “Did you know that there are people who actually make bricks? No, seriously, dude. I have no idea how, but…” You know? It’s something that I spend a lot of time trying to reverse. I’m enjoying the opportunity that Parks And Recreation affords me to exploit my own soapbox agenda, which is to try to encourage people to make things with their hands.
Specifically in the world of actors—particularly Los Angeles actors auditioning for television shows—to find a guy who has a lot of experience as a laborer is a bit of an anomaly. We do exist. I know several other actors who have made their living, instead of a waitress job, framing houses or blacktopping roads. But in general, when we think of an actor, we think of a tanned, frosted-tipped, model-looking guy. We don’t think of a plumber.
AVC: And yet you’re loved by the very people who would seem to be the most resistant to your message. What do you think it is about you that the lazy and emasculated are so drawn to?
NO: I think that laziness in many ways is the human condition, and that’s what has led us to this place where, as we’ve developed technology—even back in the Industrial Revolution—that’s when this great national comforting began, when advertisers and retailers were able to say, “Hey you guys, you deserve better than this. Put your feet up, take it easy, buy our shit, and your life will be easier. You shouldn’t be on your hands and knees scrubbing that. You shouldn’t be out under the hot sun digging that, chopping that. We have robots and machines that will do that for you.”
One of the most poignant pieces of recent science fiction for me was the portrayal of the adults in the Pixar film WALL-E. I thought that was a terrifying extrapolation of where we are at the moment. I feel like we’re on the cusp of becoming fat babies in floating chairs being fed everything in shake form, and I feel like I am as prone to laziness as anybody. I’ve had to learn and discipline myself that I’m much happier and much less depressed if I give myself a project. It’s just that simple.
Growing up, there wasn’t any choice. There were chores to do, there was a garden to tend, there was school and sports. There was very little time for boredom. When I hear young people today complain about being bored—and the things that keep them from being bored are generally exclusively videogames and/or computer pastimes—I just try to encourage them to go outside. I often take them outside, and I will do anything with them from playing sports to seeing if there’s a doghouse or treehouse that needs building. I think all these great comforts that come from the human condition of trying to make things easier on ourselves also have these pitfalls, where things become so easy that we forget how enjoyable building a fence can be.
AVC: So you’re saying maybe it’s the appeal of old-fashioned simplicity—this very uncomplicated, Norman Rockwell way of living? Or maybe you’d prefer someone like Jack London.
NO: Perhaps. Jack London is a very generous description of my small hiking, bicycling, and canoeing habit. I myself feel like a weak urbanite a lot of the time, because lots of my friends are incredible outdoorsmen and women. I often long to just go on a walkabout, but my schedule allows me to just go on day hikes. That’s the thing that makes it hard to swallow when people say, “How did you get to be such a kickass guy at this or that?” I say, “Well actually, I’m not super-kickass at a lot of things.”
Even woodworking. I really bridled when Parks And Rec became popular and woodworking publications wanted me to do stuff with them. Initially I resisted; I said, “I don’t feel like I’ve earned that.” I feel like there are thousands of men and women in this country who are masters. They’ve achieved a mastery because they spent their lives simply woodworking, and I’ve split my life between a few different disciplines. But then it was pointed out to me that I could help further the cause of my soapbox agenda, and so I said okay. But it’s hard to swallow when people say, “Oh my God, you’re a master of something.” I say, “No, I’m actually a student of that. I could turn you on to websites for 25 masters, and you’ll quickly see that I am their disciple.”
AVC: That’s part of what makes Parks so special—that the actors, you especially, put so much of your own personalities into the characters that they’re almost inextricable.
NO: Well, I agree with that to a certain extent. It’s an interesting topic to me. I went through the whole Will And Grace experience with my wife [Megan Mullally] and saw how the public reacted to her work and then to her as a person. And that whole experience happened before the Internet became so incredibly ubiquitous. The way Ron Swanson has taken off online, we feel like Karen Walker probably would’ve had a really similar reaction from the online community. It just happened right before the crazy Internet takeover.
I’ve seen a lot of reactions from people where they say, “Ron Swanson is Nick Offerman, and Nick Offerman is Ron Swanson,” and I feel like the opinion you just expressed is, more than anything, a well-earned commendation to our writers. I think in the case of me and Aubrey Plaza and Chris Pratt and Amy [Poehler], our characters take a slice of our personalities—and not even a very big slice—and really expound upon it, really capitalize on it. Aziz [Ansari], he comes from a stand-up background, so he’s basically doing a form of standup as Tom Haverford. I often envy him for the ability to simply speak English words and have them be drop-dead funny. It’s a different skill set. I feel like April Ludgate is the one-eighth of Aubrey’s personality that’s really funny in the context of our show. But I think it’s interesting that our fans seem to really want us to be the same as our characters. But I think our writers are so good that everyone gets the impression that there’s no differentiation between us and our people.
AVC: Do you worry about that leading to typecasting? Some of the other roles you’ve played concurrent with the show—21 Jump Street, Children’s Hospital—have also been gruff, stentorian authority figures that were shades of Ron Swanson. Do you worry about Parks having a “Kramer effect” on your career?
NO: No, I don’t, in a word. Kramer’s a good example. Michael Richards, if you go back and watch Transylvania 6-5000—with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis—it’s like a broad vampire comedy from maybe the mid-’80s. Michael Richards is Kramer in that movie. Like, Kramer is his bit. Or, if Jim Carrey could only play Ace Ventura. If I was like that, then I would worry about typecasting, because that’s my whole toolbox. But I come from the theater, where I got into acting because I love transforming. I love nothing more than to be unrecognizable. So no, I don’t worry about that.
The other reason I don’t worry is that I am the luckiest guy working in the business right now. To have ended up with the lottery ticket of a role of Ron Swanson on Parks And Recreation, there’s nobody I’d rather be on television right now. I am the luckiest son of a bitch that has the best part going, and so if that’s what I have to exchange for a hard time getting cast for years after, I’ll happily make that deal and give the dealer a firm handshake every time. Before I got that job, I enjoyed a consistent career of journeyman character roles and a lot of theater work and a lot of woodworking, and the worst-case scenario… Let’s just say I can never be cast again after Ron Swanson. Then I have a life of theater and woodworking and my wife to look forward to, and that doesn’t make me anything but very happy.
But I’m not too worried. I feel like I already have a reputation, and I’ve been getting film work this summer. I have a nice little part in this Diablo Cody movie [Lamb Of God] where I’m very different, and I think pretty unrecognizable in terms of Ron Swanson. I feel like I got my foot in the door of “trusted character actor” before this happened, so I think I should still be able to squeak out a role here and there.
AVC: It seems like you’re the kind of actor who just needed to find the role to fit you, rather than the other way around.
NO: In a matter of speaking, yes. I was able to stay in Los Angeles and keep plugging away partially thanks to people I would run into whose opinion meant a lot to me. And they would say to me, “Stick around. You’ve got something unique. You just have to get the right part, and then it’s gonna happen. You’ll take a major step up.” And the right people said that to me, and I said, “Well, I’m gonna take their word for it.”
It’s funny: People have tried to give me roles like this in the past, and the networks have always squashed them. People have written me roles on pilots with a similar sensibility, with a similar sense of humor, and I always made it to the final network test, and invariably the network executives said, “No, he’s too weird. He’s too intense.” Frankly, even NBC really resisted giving me this part. It took five months for me from the time Mike Schur and Greg Daniels said they wanted me to play this part. NBC insisted on auditioning every other guy in the country, and then they finally acquiesced. There’s definitely a lesson in there about sticking to your guns, and not folding in the face of popular culture telling you to change yourself to deliver what they want to see, rather than what you want to give them.
AVC: You actually auditioned for Daniels and Schur before on The Office. What were some of the parts you tried out for?
NO: Yeah, I believe I first met Greg when I went to audition for the role of—there was a character named “Michael Scott”? The whole experience with The Office was pretty fascinating to me, because when that was announced, we were all such fans of the British Office that there was a real rumbling of, “Please don’t fuck with that show. Do Sherlock Holmes, do whatever you want to, but don’t touch The Office.” Then I got called in to audition for Michael Scott, and I remember going in—it was in a bungalow at Universal—and I went and played a song on my guitar that I ostensibly would be singing to Pam. I have to say, if you guys haven’t done a piece about Allison Jones, look her up. Look at what she’s cast. She’s the casting director who brought me in on that, and she cast Parks And Rec, she casts all the Gary Sanchez stuff, a lot of Judd Apatow stuff. She is an incredible champion of all the best comedy that’s been happening for the last 10 years. I have her to thank for bringing me in.
So I met Greg, and then I did not get the role of Michael Scott. A funny aside, I haven’t seen Steve Carell since in 1993; I was hired to understudy him in a show in a theater in Chicago called Wisdom Bridge. It was this weird show in a legit theater, with him and a woman named Hollis Resnik doing, like, five different sketches. It must’ve been Second City. He was doing these five hilarious characters, and I was hired to understudy him. So sitting in rehearsals watching him, I was like, “How in the hell am I supposed to understudy this genius with his crazy characters? I don’t think I am up to this task.” Fortunately, I never had to do it. But I haven’t seen Steve since then.
But I didn’t get the role of Michael Scott, and then they read me a bunch for the guy who—what the hell is his name? Pam’s fiancé.
NO: Yeah, Roy. I didn’t get Roy. And then they had me in a few times for guest-star stuff, and the time that I met Mike Schur was for a role that ended up being just a small part. It was when Michael Scott went to New York and got together with other regional managers, and there were three of them being assholes in a room. They wanted me to do it, but I couldn’t. I had another job that conflicted with it. Which I’m very thankful for because, had I done that job, they may have had their fill of me, and I might not have gotten the greatest job of my life.
AVC: Parks is just about to start shooting its fifth season. What would you like to see happen for Ron this year?
NO: I have a hard time answering that question, and here’s why: I love collaborating with our writers, I really, really loved writing the script that I wrote [season four’s “Lucky”], but our writers are so much smarter and their brains are so much more far-seeing than my own that what I learned pretty early on is that the way things work—I can always go in and pitch lines, and I love to pitch dialogue when we’re on set—but as far as stories and what’s coming up, I’ve learned to just say things like, “Mike, please give me a troop of scouts. Mike, please God, let me coach a boys’ basketball team.” And that’s it. Anything more is foolish of me to offer to them, because they always take it in a much more interesting direction than I would. I’m just more of a simple, dumber guy. My stories would be the first thing you would think of, and then they put a really interesting double-twist on things.
So, having said that, I hope to see Ron get outside some more. I always feel like there should be more fishing on the show. I’ve heard rumors—the writers are coming up with new stories now—of some new love in Ron’s life, and I’m not sure if that means a lady or a new meat dish, or perhaps a new tool in his shop. But he’s going to be passionate about something. I really enjoy the opportunities I’ve been given to collaborate with them in the writers’ room, but I’ve also just learned to sit back and receive each new script like the most incredible Christmas present I’ve ever seen.
AVC: It does seem notable that the one script you wrote, “Lucky,” is the one where Ron hooks up with the hot professor.
NO: Yes, that’s an interesting observation. I can tell you with all sincerity that that particular story point came from Mr. Schur. People have said, “Oh, it’s hilarious that you wrote Ron getting laid with the hot lady,” and I’m not that way. I had to be coaxed into writing stuff for Ron. I love writing stuff for Ron, I just… It’d be so easy to just go away, write a draft, and come back and say, “Okay, this is a story of Ron Swanson, and everybody else does… some stuff.” I try to resist that. It actually wasn’t that hard to do, because it’s so much fun writing for everybody else. It’s like getting to play with the coolest set of toys and make them all make the kind of noises you like to hear.
AVC: Do you have any plans to write another episode?
NO: Well, this next season, I believe the docket is full. There’s quite a list of friends and company members who want to get their shot. I definitely hope to do more in the future. I don’t think it’ll be this season, but I think we’re gonna try to have me direct an episode this season.
AVC: Have you ever directed anything before?
NO: No, I have not. And I’m very excited to befoul the set with my instruction.
AVC: As the show’s progressed, it seems like Ron—even though he professes to hate people and treasures solitude and all that—has softened quite a lot. Do you feel like there’s a limit to that, to where having him become too loveable would ruin the comedy?
NO: I’m sure there is. Again, I would hand that question right up to Mike Schur, the master chef. If Mike is running the kitchen, I love to dice onions way over in the corner, and I’m fully proud and confident of my onion-dicing skills. They will be some kickass tiny cubes of onion. But as far as how much of them to add into the goulash, there are much greater heads that will prevail in that conversation. I do know that the administration pays a lot of attention to what they call… they don’t want Ron to be the Fonz every time. Every time there’s a problem, Ron pounds the jukebox with his fist and makes everything okay. Which is a terrible reference to make, because probably 1 percent of your readers even know who the Fonz is. But that’s my bag.
AVC: Aw, you have a pretty low opinion of our readers.
NO: No, it’s not that—I have an incredibly high opinion of your readers. I was referring simply to their ages. In my live show, I had a couple of references going, like one was Mr. Miyagi, and I was like, “Oh yeah, a lot of you guys did not see [the original The Karate Kid]. Right. Exactly.” But no, The A.V. Club, quite the opposite. The A.V. Club is one of the only places I go to look at reviews and stuff, because I think it’s smart and funny.
But I really appreciate that Mike and the writers pay a lot of attention to exactly what you’re saying: How much Stentorian Ron do we include, and then how much Sensitive Ron, and I think it’s a lot of fun playing back and forth. Sometimes Ron does do something badass to save the day—he climbs a telephone pole and taps into the cable feed—or sometimes Ron completely fucks everything up. We continue to flesh him out just like everybody else, while trying to keep him in the realm of humanity.
AVC: You’ve been picked to announce the Emmys this year. Do you think being picked to announce the nominees means you’re not a nominee, and if so, why the hell not?
NO: Well, it’s a hilarious conundrum. The main drag of receiving the honor of being asked to announce the Emmy nominations is that it falls right in the middle of my family’s annual fishing trip in Minnesota. And that’s something that I protect with my life. I have a couple films I’m working on, and I had to battle them off with a broadsword to keep them out of my family’s fishing week. And then this honor comes along—and it is, it’s a nice nod. It’s nice to be chosen as a person worthy of getting up at five in the morning to represent the Academy. I called Mike Schur, and I said, “I gotta do this, right?” [Laughs.] It’s definitely an offer you can’t refuse. I’m still wedging in my fishing trip around it, so there’s gonna be some fast travel between Fargo, North Dakota and Los Angeles around July 19.
The hilarious thing about the opportunity to do this is they ask you to do it before the voting is done, so there’s no way to tell. It’s an absolute crapshoot if you’re going to get a nomination or not. Traditionally, I don’t get nominated, and I have to say, I’ve probably gotten the greatest mass of press in my life through not getting nominated. It’s definitely been a winning situation as far as I’m concerned. I don’t put a great deal of stock in art trophies. I think I’ve said in the past, I’d rather do the smallest Ron Swanson story that we’ve ever done than win a trophy for being on any other show. So it’s all wonderful. It’s all champagne problems. To have landed a job on a show that’s so good that we’re even in the conversation is a ridiculously fortunate life, so it’s really hard to get me down about things like that. People are like, “Aren’t you outraged?” I’m like, “No!” The fact that I have a job that people even watch is an incredible gift. Frankly, I’m more successful than I ever dreamed I would be, so I’m happy to be part of the situation, especially because anything I can do to bring more attention to our show, I’m so happy to do that. We’ll see what happens either way. The thing is, because of the situation, you have to go in assuming you’re not getting nominated. That’s the only way to play it. And then if you get lucky, it’s a nice surprise.
AVC: Do you have any plans for how you might announce your own name if it comes up?
NO: No, I hadn’t thought about that. I guess the first impulse would be to announce it while belching. Or maybe Kerry Washington could announce it while I vociferously pass gas. That would seem the most appropriate.
AVC: You actually don’t seem like much of a TV-watcher.
NO: Yeah, I’m not. I mean, I love to watch great TV, and when I got the job on Parks And Rec, Megan and I were addicted to The Office and 30 Rock and Flight Of The Conchords and Curb Your Enthusiasm and some dramas as well. We had more time then, and as we’ve both gotten busier in the past couple years, our TV time—mine has been all but erased. So sadly, it’s all I can do to watch Parks And Rec—which I have to watch because it’s my job, to make sure what I’m doing is working. So yeah, I’ve never seen much at all of what you might call our “competition,” or what I would just call the other great comedies happening.
It’s only a bummer when I run into these people. Like, I’ve gotten to be buddies with [Modern Family’s] Ty Burrell. I’m a really big fan of his personality and his work, but I’ve seen a lot more of his personality than his work. The thing I’ve seen the most is his giving speeches accepting trophies at award banquets, and his speeches are just exactly my bag—the best charming sense of humor. He’s self-effacing, he’s from a small town, and I’ve just gotten to be a big fan of his. Eric Stonestreet is also really cool. We get together and talk about shoveling pig shit and our bucolic views, and we talk about parts we’d go up against each other for and whatnot. But yeah, I’m always bummed that I can’t pull out five episodes of their show to tell them that I loved, because I’m given to understand that they’re super funny.
AVC: “Shoveling pig shit” leads to an overarching question about you: How did a salt-of-the-earth farmer’s son end up here anyway?
NO: That’s a very good question, and as I’ve worked through the years since I’ve left Minooka, Illinois, more things have occurred to me. I just always had a penchant for performing for people. There are some incredible 8-mm movies of me at maybe age 12 at our fishing cabin in Minnesota, and I’m shoving everyone else out of the frame, then just pointing at myself, and making a muscle and, like, mugging. It’s the basest form of “You all must look at me. Check this out. Check this out, you guys. I got it. I got what it takes.” In the movies, my grandma and my mom and my siblings are cracking up, they’re crying with laughter, and I’m simply hamming around. I’m a jackass clown. For some reason, I had that in me, and it was a huge surprise to me that I could go to theater school. My education began in theater school, and it continues to this day. I just continued learning to be a better performer.
I also learned so much from my wife, who’s the hardest-working person combined with the hugest load of talent I’ve ever seen. She keeps me so honest, because anytime I think I can rest on my laurels, she’s in the bathroom for 12 hours working up a song with choreography, and I’m like, “Goddamn. What an amazing example you set for all of us.” It’s funny, the flipside to that is, once I got into the business, immediately in Chicago—when I met with agents and people taking headshots and all that—they immediately started to categorize me and tell me what I was. When I first met with agents, they said, “Okay, you’re going to play plumbers and mechanics and bus drivers and farmers. Go.” And I was like, “Man… Fuck you. I can play anything, you son of a bitch!”
My response to that was to get this three-quarter headshot—like, knees to head—with this huge foam latex cock about the size of my forearm and fist that I’d made for a play. I got a headshot taken with this thing hanging out of my fly and just looking defiantly at the camera. I sent it to everybody in town. [Laughs.] That was my response to being told I was gonna be playing bus drivers: “Oh yeah? Have you seen my dick?” And wonderfully, two people in town got it and thought it was really funny, and they put me in plays in their theaters.
I’m gonna go see if I can find this photograph. One of the good things is, I’m super-young. I’m like 22 or 23 in this photo. I’ll be interested to get [my publicist’s] opinion on publishing a photo of me with a huge cock sticking out of my pants, but I believe I’m all for it. [Laughs.]
See the said NSFW photo on the next page.
NO: That’s true. And I’m no [Michael] Fassbender, but the funny thing about nudity, I’ve found—another thing that I’m grateful for, for whatever reason. Right when I got out of college I was at a theater conservatory, where every year they’d take 16 acting students. It’s very much a structure, where you know that the juniors have four good guys and three hot girls, so you can place yourself in the hierarchy of things. That was an eye-opening experience, because a lot of people find themselves in the entertainment business—or perhaps society steers them toward it—because they’re beautiful. It was immediately clear to me that that was a tough row to hoe, because it’s such a subjective arena, and it requires so much scrutiny and maintenance. So I immediately said, “I don’t ever want to try to be a ‘cute guy.’ I want to be Charles Laughton, or Oliver Reed, or Lon Cheney. That’s way more fun for me.” And once I flipped that switch, that’s another thing I’ve taken off my shoulders, where I never have to worry about, “Do I look good?”
It’s funny, when I see Parks And Rec, and the way that they dress me where they tuck in these horrible knit polos and it makes me look 20 pounds heavier than I actually am—when I look at it on TV, my initial reaction is, “Oh my God, I look terrible!” I have a switch I can flip where I don’t look at it, and it’s related to that point in my live show where I say, “Avoid the mirror.” If you don’t look at yourself and evaluate it, you instead see how the world’s reacting to it. I have a ridiculously beautiful wife who’s super sexy, and as long as she’s happy with me, I don’t need to look in the mirror and think, “How do I stack up next to Bradley Cooper? Would Cooper rock this shirt?” Doesn’t matter. He does not have your wife. You do.
And so, being naked and stuff—nobody ever asks me to do it because they want to see my abs, you know? So that allows me to chill out, where I’m like, “I’m playing a part here, and I’m serving a purpose to this piece of art, and it’s not going to affect my sex life.” In Chicago theater, you always end up naked backstage with a few people at some point. There are people who don’t worry about it, and you stand there and have a conversation while you’re waiting to go onstage. And then there are the people who worry about it, who need to go off in a corner and sort of fluff themselves up, because they need their manhood to be represented as prominently as possible.
AVC: So how did bringing this attitude to image-obsessed L.A. go over?
NO: When I got to L.A., I had a similar experience where I got these meetings with studio and network executives and heads of casting and stuff, and they just laid the bullshit on me, like, “You gotta hustle. You gotta be cool, flashy. You gotta be a shark.” And I was like, “No, no. I don’t do any of those. I just do good work, and then you see it, and then you get me more work. That’s how it worked in Chicago.” They were like, “Uh, great meeting you. Thank you. Julie, please send in Kevin Dillon!” [Laughs.] And Kevin obviously had some flash. And my response—this ties, I think, intrinsically to your original question—my response was, “If I’m going to succeed in this business, it’s going to be by ignoring this business as much as possible.”
I was doing commercials. I immediately quit doing commercials. I wasn’t doing all the things you were supposed to do to “get a shot,” to “make it” in this town. For example, young actors are told to watch an episode of every show that’s on, so that when you get called in to audition, you know what they do and what they’re looking for. I said, “You know what? I’m not gonna watch any fucking shows. That way, I’ll definitely be different than all the guys trying to act like the people on your show.” And that’s when I got my woodshop—there’s that John Lennon quote that says, “Your life is what happens while you’re making other plans”—and I said, “I’m gonna focus on my life,” because I think what makes so many other actors miserable is focusing completely on making other plans. They’re obsessed with their haircut and their headshot and their agent, their IMDB profile or whatever. I said, “You know what? I’m gonna go make a table, and if I get a job as an actor, then great. If I don’t, I’ll have a kickass table.”
And man, that shit worked. I mean, it worked because when I got the job of Ron Swanson, I was an unknown and I was happy as a clam. I have a wonderful marriage, a beautiful house, three handsome poodles, a thriving woodshop operation, and I’m working as an actor. You get your food, you know? Even if you’re just doing plays, if you’re doing good, interesting plays, you’re feeding yourself. It’s funny: I couldn’t help but leave the country to try and become an entertainer, and then the key to succeeding as an entertainer was to retain the country, so to speak.
AVC: It seems like one of your biggest steps outside the country was the time you spent doing kabuki theater. What did you get out of that?
NO: I’m confident that I will always maintain a very healthy humility, and the reason is I have had a few teachers in my life that have been so profoundly wise, and I’m just lucky enough that I have ears to hear them. My kabuki teacher is one of those people. His name is Shozo Sato. He’s a celebrated Chicago theater director. He was a teacher at the University of Illinois, and it’s not lost on me that many of the opportunities I’ve had in my life—with Shozo for example—were that I got put into shows before I was even a remotely decent actor, because they needed someone to carry something heavy. When that’s the case, you can hardly get a big head about your abilities. But it’s easy to recognize your good fortune that you get to be around great talent, all because you can carry the palanquin or the fake dead deer in As You Like It.
And so studying with Shozo was—that’s where I’ll drop my Mr. Miyagi reference—it was an incredibly real, poignant, Karate Kid experience in the middle of the Illinois cornfield, where we learned this traditional Japanese theater form. It involves a lot of makeup, costume, movement, and voice, and his thing is performing Shakespeare and Greek plays in the kabuki style. It’s a way to bring this beautiful Japanese theater style to American audiences in a way they can digest with a somewhat familiar story. We would do kabuki Medea. We did an adaptation of The Iliad called Kabuki Achilles, which we toured Hungary and Japan and Cyprus with. It was one of the experiences in my life that was incredibly transformative, where I was taken to see the world on a much larger scale than I had ever imagined. My first commercial flight was nonstop from Chicago to Tokyo.
The lessons I took from my sensei that are some of the most profound and that are still with me constantly—and the one that comes to mind in the context of our conversation—is, in the Shinto discipline, which is a sort of adjunct of Buddhism, they try to maintain the attitude of a student throughout their lives. They recognize that, as human beings, we are by definition flawed, so you can never do something perfectly. The thing that is fascinating about watching a human being attempt anything is watching them try to do it perfectly. Even Michael Jordan can never play a perfect game of basketball, but man, he comes so damn close that 100,000 people will get together to scream and freak out at how close he can come to this incredible human attempt. And [Shozo] really stressed to us that, if you can always maintain the attitude of a student, if you always have something in your life that you’re trying to improve upon, then every day you have a reason to get out of bed, and you have a reason to achieve something and feel good.
And that’s such a simple notion, but it’s something that I often share with people—friends who often find themselves depressed, or in a doldrums of sorts—because when you think you’ve become the master, when you think you’re done learning, that’s when bitterness sets in. Because you think, “I’ve achieved this place, I’ve finished my program of study. Where is my goddamn parade? When are they going to carry me around town on their shoulders, sons of bitches?” And if you can maintain the flipside of that and say, “I’m so glad I’m still alive and I still get to keep improving my guitar-picking or my dovetail joints or my relationship with my family, with my wife, my health…” it makes for an incredibly beautiful, satisfying life.
That’s the immense answer to what effect my kabuki career had on me. In a more specific way, this guy has 65 years of theater under his belt, and working with a master of that caliber has done wonders for my own practice in stagecraft, in playing things visually and vocally to an audience. To boot, he came to Los Angeles in 2003 and married Megan and me in our backyard with a tea ceremony. So I’d say it’s had some impact.
AVC: Your American Ham live show is structured around sharing your “Ten Tips For Prosperity.” It seems like between that and Ron Swanson, you’re really bridging the gap between performing and proselytizing, which is unusual.
NO: Well, thank you. I think.
AVC: No, it’s a good thing. “Proselytizing” gets a bad rap.
NO: Yeah, if you’re talking about something good and benevolent, then it is a good thing. It’s been interesting—reviewers often don’t know what to make of my show, and they say, “Everyone had a great time, but this guy is no stand-up. If he thinks he’s a stand-up, he’s wrong.” I think they’re somehow made to feel insecure, maybe because there’s a lot of sincerity in my show? I don’t know. I often wonder, from some of the reviews, where I’m like, “I think you were sitting in that audience where we all had a really good time, and I think we all learned a few things about life and also about my balls.” [Laughs.] And that’s entertainment, folks.
AVC: But that also seems like another reason why so many people are drawn to you, even if they don’t share your worldview. There is that sincerity to you. Nothing’s couched in irony.
NO: No, I’m not good at that. I would love to be as hilarious as Aziz or Louis C.K. or these friends of mine that are geniuses at observing the world and then rendering it back to us in a hilarious way. If I tried to do that, I would be horrible. But when presented with the opportunity to speak to audiences, I said, “Okay, what can I talk about that I feel would be entertaining?” When I describe my show to people, I say, “I’m not a stand-up. I’m a humorist. It’s my ‘Ten Tips For Prosperity’ with songs.” And they always get a concerned look on their face, and I then reassure them and say, “It’s funny. The show’s funny. It’s okay, you’ll have fun.”
I always call performing live “giving the people the medicine,” because when you’re engaged in it, you can feel the sort of soul magic being exchanged between the performer and the audience—exactly what Aristotle was talking about in his Poetics—and you’re giving them medicine and they’re giving it back to you in a cathartic way, with any luck. That’s still what really drives me.
That’s also a very lucky thing, because it makes me not as worried about the size of the venue that I’m playing, but being fed primarily by that medicine, if you will. To then find myself in an arena—an arena where millions of people are receiving the medicine—I just can’t help but take that as such an incredible piece of fortune, and put my head down and try to mind my manners so that I can stay here in the amphitheatre for as long as possible, as long as they’re still chuckling.
The knowledge of that makes me really grateful for my mom and my dad and Shozo, and another teacher from my college called Robin McFarquhar. He’s an excellent British gentleman who taught us sword-fighting and self-knowledge. He recently had me back to speak to the theater department and he said, “Talk about your time here, your time in Chicago, and then your time in L.A.” So I was describing my experience at the college, this and that, and “this is great,” and “this facility is amazing,” and then I started talking about him, and I started openly crying. [Laughs.] I said, [Tearfully] “I’m sorry you guys, just give me a second.” I was so profoundly moved in trying to relate the impact that his teaching had on me and the student body.
He was just a fearless teacher who every summer would go to another seminar or workshop somewhere in the world. Sometimes he’d go walk on fire at a sort of shaman thing. Sometimes he would learn stress-relief through deep-tissue massage or Alexander technique. And he would combine all these curricula in his classes, so we’re learning to fight with broadswords, we’re learning to do back flips and juggle, and at the same time we’re learning to perform deep-tissue massage on one another and analyze our own spine and know our bodies. At the same time, we’re learning to conquer our own fears and recognize the power of the individual in all of us. Like I said early on, I just feel so lucky that my ears could glean what he was putting out. That allowed me, going forward, in the face of being told I was a bus driver, to say, “No, I am a unique, strange guy, and I’m going to stick with that, because I had a teacher who I think is smarter than you, agent guy.”
AVC: You’ve talked a lot about humility, but do you think you’ll ever raise yourself up to the level of these people you’ve admired and try to teach others one day—more so than you’re doing now?
NO: I don’t know. It is weird to talk about humility, because it’s not displaying humility to award oneself the adjective of “humble.” I feel it’s important to point out that I’ve earned my humility by being a jackass—like, I trip and fall on my face and say, “Oh, right. Don’t think you’re a big shot, because you’ve got a bloody nose now.” So it’s hard to say.
I’m thinking about maybe doing a book that has a similar flavor to my American Ham show, that would try to share some of these lessons that I’ve been given, while entertaining. It’s the same kind of gimmick: “I think you’ll find this funny and entertaining but also say, ‘Oh, that’s right. I should help my mom do the dishes.’” It’s hard to say. My life has been so exciting and sort of ever-changing the last few years. I don’t know if I’ll get to do a bunch of great acting work in the coming decades, or if I will spend more time making canoes and guitars. Whatever it is, as long as I’m on my feet, I’ll feel lucky to be doing it.