Nick Offerman talks television, touring and being on the side of decency

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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Nick Offerman is a New York Times-best selling author, reality show host and woodworker, but you probably know him best as the scene-stealing Ron Swanson. The performer brought the character to life on NBC’s comedic “Parks and Recreation” from 2009-2015.

Before, during and after, Offerman has used his platform to advocate for equality on all fronts – often beside his wife, fellow entertainer Megan Mulally. The actress and LGBTQ icon originated the role of Karen Walker on the groundbreaking LGBTQ series “Will & Grace,” on which he’s also guest starred.

In 2012, the duo proudly joined the Human Rights Campaign’s “Americans for Marriage Equality” project. Three years later, when then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed his state’s anti-LGBTQ religious freedom bill into law, Offerman publicly denounced it at an Indiana show in character, a rarity for him, and donated its proceeds to charity. Just last year, he also lent his voice to “Beyond I Do,” a national campaign that raises awareness about LGBTQ discrimination post-marriage equality.

Offerman is currently leading his 37-city “All Rise” tour across the country, “an evening of deliberative talking and light dance that will compel you to chuckle.”

Watermark spoke with the comedian to talk touring, “Parks and Rec,” being a decent human being and more ahead of his stops at Hard Rock Live in Orlando Dec. 5 and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa Dec. 7.

WATERMARK: You’re an actor, comedian, host, woodworker and writer—which of those comes most naturally for you?

NICK OFFERMAN: Oh gosh, I guess entertainer. First and foremost I’ve always wanted to entertain people and everything else I’ve gotten to do is sort of adjunct to that initial impulse. I love it all. It all comes from the same font of creativity. I’m very grateful I get to do what I do.

What takes the most effort?

Writing books is what springs to mind. When I go to the woodshop, there are people, there’s wood … the audience is there when I travel and there’s the thrill of that entertainment. But when I’m writing a book, I just have to sit down to do my homework until it’s done; it just feels the most like work. It’s like in a woodworking shop. It’s wonderful to make a table – but like anything, it comes with many hours of sanding and that’s nobody’s favorite thing to do.

What’s your writing process like for your tour?

I sit down and I think about what I want to gripe about. I usually work that into a list of topics that become my songs. They tackle things with varying degrees of subtlety, like white supremacy, homophobia, racism and consumerism, things like that. There’s a song about Brett Kavanaugh called “I Like Beer” that I’m especially proud of. I make sure that I glean all the best jokes and ideas for the songs, and then I back up and write speaking material to lead into the song. I sort of reverse engineer the writing like that.
My audience by and large doesn’t need to be told that racism is bad. They get it. But I look at what’s going on in the world around me and I see that, to my great surprise, some people still do need to be told that. In general, if we just look at all of us as one big group of people – instead of the red and the blue, or the black and the white – we will always need to keep doing better. So the way I tried to address the writing was to make us laugh about our human foibles.

Are there any particular positive or negative fan interactions that stand out to you?

I think that because I have a lot of Ron Swanson fans in the audience, people afford me a sense of authority that I haven’t perhaps legitimately earned. The fans are generally really polite with me. So even if people do heckle me, it’s usually supportive. You know, people aren’t yelling, “you’re a hack.” Instead they’re yelling, “we love you” or “take off your shirt” or you know, “Duke Silver, please play some jazz on your sweet, sweet horn.” So generally, I feel great about the audience, but there is one thing that I just am never going to stop admonishing people about.

What’s that?

I was recently playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and I got to this last favorite song that the audience loves and they went crazy. Two people, six feet in front of me in the front row, whipped up their phones to video the song, and I stopped it. I stopped the song and I said “Can you please put those down?
“If I want you to have a movie of this song, I’ll make it and you can get it, but I have worked really hard to prepare hopefully what will be a magical moment for everyone in the audience – and you’ve just ruined this by splashing your ego and your greedy desire to capture part of this live performance for your tiny social media points.” Other than that I have nothing but fantastic interactions with my fans. But I’ll never shut up about it because people seem to keep thinking, “Oh no, it’s okay. We’re young and this is the new way,” but it’s not okay, and it will never be okay.

It sounds like it needs to be a song in one of your next shows.

You know what, that’s not a bad idea. That’s not a bad idea at all.

Do you prefer working with a live audience or working in front of a camera?

If I had to choose, I would always choose the live audience. The exchange of medicine between the performer on stage and the audience, to me, is the greatest thing about what I get to do. Whether I’m trying to make them laugh, cry or vomit, they tell you immediately if you’re succeeding or not in your efforts – and for me, there’s nothing that compares with that. I love working on screen, but it’s a different form of perfectionism. I prefer the magic with us doing it live.

There’s been a lot of discussion about a “Parks and Rec” reboot. Is there anything that would give you pause about returning or anything you’d like to see if it were to happen?

Well, for something like that to happen, it would mean that [writer and creator] Mike Schur would have to have an idea that he thought was worth going back to. Frankly, I don’t ever see that happening because we went to all the trouble under his guidance to write, create and travel through 125 episodes of story and wrap it up in a wonderfully loving and satisfying way. We did that on purpose. So it’s done, we ended it as lovingly as we started it. It’s a work of art, I think, to its creator; in the sense that it’s not worth just making more income or flogging the horse any further.
I think most of us would rather do new, fresh work. That said, on the other hand, he may well think, “The confluence of what’s going on in the news, what’s going on in the country, I feel like we need to bring ‘Parks and Rec’ back.” As long as he and the writers are behind it, then I have no misgivings whatsoever. I mean, that’s the joy of having brilliant writers: the pressure’s off of me. They’re not going to let me do anything as Ron that isn’t justified, clever and hilarious, because that’s the kind of writing that they create. That was the joy of being handed a script every week. It was Christmas every five days; you’d say, ‘I can’t believe I’m the one that gets to say this stuff.”

One of the few times you’ve spoken publicly on Ron’s behalf was for LGBTQ equality in Indiana in 2015. What led to that?

I knew that I wanted to say something. I was actually going to boycott the show, and then I said, “You know what? All of these fans want to come to my show and I don’t want to punish them because the governor is an intolerant jerk. … Instead, let me go do the show and try to make a statement out of this.” I donated the proceeds from the show to I believe ACLU at the time. But the point of what I’m driving towards is I got ahold of Mike Schur and I said, “Hey, I’m doing this thing in Indiana. Would you be able to give me a little bit of what Ron would say about this?” So even that was written by him. I will never weigh in and say, “Here’s what Ron would say.” I’m religious about that because it’s not my business; I don’t own him, I’m not smart enough to tell you what Ron would say. I’m too human, I’ll mess it up because I’m subjective. I don’t have the perspective on Ron that his writers do.

You’ve also taken part in a number of other pro-equality campaigns. Why has it been important for you to speak out as an ally?

I grew up feeling I wanted to entertain people. I wanted to get into the business of show, as they say, and so I did. Pretty much immediately in theatre school, you learn that by and large, throughout history the main purpose of theatre is a medicinal one, holding up a mirror to society, saying, “Here’s what’s to be celebrated about us all, here’s what we need to work on, here’s something that’s funny and here’s some more stuff we should try and improve.”
I grew up in a small town and I learned how conservative, racist and homophobic and just white and conservative it was. So just getting to college, and of course in a theater program, a lot of my friends immediately were the first gay people that I had met.
So out of the gate, I’m meeting these peers at 18, 19 years old, and hearing their stories of the trauma of coming out, or the horror; the anxiety that they lived with because they hadn’t yet come out to their families. So just immediately that was kind of the first social issue that landed in my lap.

What was that like?

I realized there are these people who are – because of ignorant, old fashioned, societal norms – being made to live in this incredibly tortured away. They were among us everywhere, in this supposedly most advanced society on the planet. So just from the get go I said, “This is going to be my business, I’m going to put on shows for people wherever I can.” I just want to be part of the forces for good that say, “Until nobody has anything to complain about, by way of how they’re being treated, we need to keep our focus on this. We need to stay open minded.”
If we realize that pronouns are a notion that needs to be exploded and sort of reexamined and rebuilt because of their old fashioned, limited gender categories, I want to be on the side that says, “Okay, let’s do that so that everybody is getting treated right.” It just seems like what a decent person would do. I can’t believe the deeply evil notions that are walking the hallways of the highest levels of our government here in 2019. It’s astonishing to me that enough people are still colonial enough to want to vote for that. I want to be on the side of decency and use whatever powers I have to help rather than hinder.

You’re in good company with your wife. What’s it like to be married to such an LGBTQ icon? She’s a staple to so many in the community.

Well, she certainly is. It’s astonishing in many ways – it’s like, “What is it like to drive the most magnificent automobile ever created by mankind?” It’s almost supernatural to be partnered with Megan because she’s so talented, she’s so smart, she’s so beautiful and so hilarious. It really keeps me on my toes.
But specifically to your question, I think being sort of the batboy for the team of “Will & Grace” over the years has been incredible and it relates exactly to what we were just talking about. There are forces and people making shows and writing material that is trying to gently help people open their minds and realize that everybody deserves the same amount of love. Everybody deserves the same set of rights. So to be a family member, a spouse to a show that has been so massively effective and heroic as “Will & Grace” is just incredible. I’m so grateful. I feel like my wife is a repeat Olympic gold medalist. Except in events much more substantial than the pole vault.

Thanks to each of you for your work with the LGBTQ community. We need our allies.

Well, the last song in my show is entitled “Us Dipshits Gotta Stick Together.” I couldn’t agree more.

Nick Offerman’s “All Rise” plays at the Hard Rock in Orlando Dec. 5 and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa Dec. 7. For tickets and more information, visit HardRock.com and StrazCenter.org. For more information about Nick Offerman, visit OffermanWoodshop.com.

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