“Hello, this is Nick Offerman.”
I’d been expecting the call, but hearing that familiar mid-western drawl still generates a little slug of adrenaline. I’m talking to Ron F*cking Swanson.
The first thing I discover about Nick Offerman is that it’s very hard to figure out where Nick Offerman ends and Ron Swanson begins. This might be ridiculous, but he speaks like Ron. The same slow-shuffling gravitas. His sentences sound like they’ve been patiently hand-crafted from Birchwood. Words dovetail neatly into one another.
Nick gives a sort of verbal shrug down the phone. He says he doesn’t mind the comparison.
“By and large, I feel pretty lucky that I’ve gotten some nice acting work since we stopped the show [Parks & Recreation). That’s the main worry, right? The champagne problem. Will people still cast me? Can I get more jobs as an actor? I’m lucky that I haven’t had many gaps in my calendar, so it’s generally nice when people conflate me. It’s a compliment really.”
Nick is in Australia not as Ron Swanson, but as himself. Nick Offerman. Age 48. Born in Joliet, Illinois. Celebrated actor, writer (he’s penned three semi-autobiographical books, including the best-sellers Paddle Your Own Canoe and Good Clean Fun: Misadventures In Sawdust At Offerman Workshop), comedian and carpenter.
The carpentry stuff turns out to be another hazy, life-imitating-art crossover. Offerman actually builds his own cedar-strip canoes. Within a few minutes, he’s giving me woodworking advice, and it’s hard not to disappear (even momentarily) into some sort of pine-scented, Swansonian fantasy.
“The secret to building a good canoe,” Nick says, genuinely trying to help, as if I might spontaneously take up canoe-building in my two-bedroom flat, “is patience. It’s easier than you would think. You just need some basic woodworking skills. In Australia, you want to look out for Huon Pine and King Billy Pine. They’re both highly regarded conifers for the hull of your boat. Just take it one step at a time. Don’t look at the finished corvette and say, ‘I could never make that.’ Start by screwing on one wheel. You’ll be paddling down a river in not time.”
I try and drag the conversation back to Offerman’s new stage show (and away from the mental image of the two of us, dressed in matching flannel, canoe-ing gently down a mountain stream). The show is called All Rise. A deliberate religious reference? Well, yes and no.
“I was raised Catholic,” Offerman says, “but my siblings and I excommunicated ourselves as soon as possible in our teen years. My mom and dad are still pillar of the Catholic Church in my hometown, and it works for them. For a lot of young people though, including myself, we just said, ‘I feel like I can live a much more moral life without the dogma and the pageantry of established religion’. It’s something I touch on in the show.”
What All Rise is really about, as Offerman puts it, is “trudging in the right direction.” The ‘right direction’ in this case, if you’re calibrating your moral compass, means anything that brings us closer to empathy, compassion, intelligence and common fucking decency. “I used to suggest that people just carry a handkerchief and say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ more often,” Offerman says. “But somehow I don’t think that will do the trick anymore. I don’t think you can go see an evening of entertainment and come away with all of our problems solved, but the new show is tackling some social ills head-on, instead of skirting around them.”
“Trudging” suggests that this stuff is hard work. And it usually is, because first you have to shrug off ignorance, cynicism and political apathy, which (these days) takes some pretty serious spiritual moxie. Offerman says that’s one of the things he likes about Australian crowds—they’re often more well-versed in American politics than Americans. They take the time to learn things.
"Outside the terrifying bird calls, the thing I enjoy about Australia is the ways in which it’s like Europe, more than America," he says. "I think it has to do with a social consciousness. Australia is much better at recycling and conservation, the agriculture is much healthier, the produce is consistently delicious. And unlike England, Australia has proper bacon. For some reason, the English don’t value fat as a proper citizen should."
Of course, mixing comedy, politics (and fat) is risky business. It’s the age-old question: when does a stage become a soap box? Some early reviews have said All Rise teeters on the brink of ‘preachy’, which seems to be unavoidable if you’re a celebrity who’s articulate, intelligent and actually gives a crap.
With Offerman, at least, you get the sense that he’s preaching up, not down. “Politics today is quite fascinating. Part of what my show does is look at all of us, on the planet as a group, and say, ‘Look how funny we are. Look at what we do to ourselves. Half of us argue that we should be nice to everybody, and the other half argue that we shouldn’t.'” He pauses for a moment, pondering something, “We might as well find good work to do and get to it.”
Find good work to do. It’s the kind of home-spun, bootstrap philosophy that you can imagine actually getting cut-through in today’s political landscape. I throw Nick a curveball. Will we see OFFERMAN 2024? There’s that trademark giggle, “I did smoke a lot of marijuana in my youth, although I think that’s no longer a disqualifying factor. Honestly? I don’t think I would do a good job. People might vote for me, but that’s not exactly good news these days, is it?”
I can’t let Offerman go without panning for tiny biographical nuggets.
His favourite scotch? “Coincidentally it was always Lagavulin. Even before Parks & Recreation started. I had my first glass of it at 29 and it spoiled me.”
Breakfast of choice? “Given my druthers, I’d say bacon, eggs and blueberry pancakes.”
Best actor he’s ever worked with? “Michael Keaton. It was intense. He makes a bad actor out of you, because you’re standing there just thinking, ‘Damn, that’s Michael Keaton, and he’s talking right at my face.’ Then it’s, ‘Oh shit, now it’s my turn to say something.’”
One song for a desert island? “It would have to be Tom Wait’s Come On Up To The House.”
Favourite miniature horse? “After a moment of silence, dripping with respect, I’ll say the magnificent small horse known as Lil’ Sebastian.”
We say our goodbyes and I wish Offerman luck with the new show. Right before hanging up, as if it’s an afterthought, he says, “Let’s just keep doing our best.” And the line goes dead.
Image credit: Christopher Gregory