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Nick Offerman Talks About AMERICAN HAM, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Search for Something Better

If everyone took a cue from Nick Offerman, the world would be a better place. This isn’t so much opinion as it is actual science. Because we’ve seen his Netflix special, Nick Offerman: American Ham (out December 12th — review forthcoming!) and we can say it with much certainty: this is a fella to which all others should aspire to be — and not just because he’s Ron Motherloving Swanson, king of all the bacon and eggs that you have. It’s because he’s a real salt of the earth sorta fella — someone to which life comes easy, living is simple, and you don’t have to deprive yourself of life’s bounty in order to live well and be a decent human.

We had the immense pleasure of chatting up the Parks and Recreation star about everything from manners to social media and even his unending love of J.R.R. Tolkien. But don’t just take our word for it — read it for yourself!

Nerdist: While I was watching this I couldn’t help but think “Nick Offerman: Lifestyle Guru” — was that always something you hoped would be in the cards for you?

Nick Offerman: No, not remotely. I think thats why it’s funny [laughs], ‘cuz I probably thought the opposite and really sort of lived in the opposite way. I was really more of a jackass as a young man, and then when the teachings of my parents and my teachers — the seeds they planted — ended up growing and blossoming despite me peeing on them constantly. I turned out somewhat decently despite all the mischief I got into as a younger man.

Nerdist: Well to be fair, I think people who generally get up to a lot of mischief have a better idea of both sides of the coin and therefore a balanced hold on what to do and what not to do.

Nick: I think you’re right. I’ve always been jealous of my friends that, for one reason or another, they got into smoking weed in like junior high or high school. So by the time they got to college they were over it. Meanwhile, I was just turning into a horrible hedonist where I was like, “What do you mean you’re going to stay in and study? We should get high and go see [The Adventures of] Baron Münchhausen,” and they were like, “No, Nick, I’ve learned it’s not as productive.” So I’ve always kind of envied them for getting that out of the way as early as possible.

Nerdist: I think more people than care to admit can relate to that sentiment. But from living it you came up with ten really bangarang tips. How did you settle on those ten?

Nick: I very much came up with it on purpose. I was working on Parks and Rec and I began to be invited to speak at colleges. At first I demurred because I said, “I don’t know if they think I’m a stand-up or what, ‘cuz I’m not — I’m a theater actor.” But then I thought I’d really love to speak to the young people of our nation — there are some things I’d like to tell them. And so I just thought if they’re inviting me because they’re fans of Parks and Rec and specifically of me and/or Ron Swanson, that by discussing those things in a humorous manner, I could nail two birds with one stone. I think that was kind of the inception of the ten tips, as well, as I was very busy shooting the show and for the first time, I needed to write like 90 minutes of material. I thought, “This is crazy.” By breaking it into a list of 10, though, [I figured] that would allow me to just focus on 1/10th of a show at a time, and it ended up working really well.

Nerdist: It must be a very daunting process. I imagine having your wife, Megan Mullally, in it and around it was incredibly helpful since she’s so crazy-talented as well.

Nick: She’s an incredibly gifted ball of talent, she’s such a great resource because at any time of day or night I can say “Is this good or not?” and she will say “Well, the first 2/3rd are not good but the last 1/3rd, keep and improve the beginning.”

Nerdist: Now I have to switch gears a little bit, because I write for The Nerdist and obviously we’re huge, huge J.R.R. Tolkien fans. I don’t know how I missed this deep and unyielding love you have for his works, but now all I want is for you and Stephen Colbert to get together and write up some new laws of the land based on his writings.

Nick: [Laughs] Well, I think in a lot of great fantasy series, one of the reason the writer creates their own world is because of that utopia sensibility. And there’s a set of values I would love to see we humans emulate a bit more. I’m just reading Colin Meloy of The Decemberists’ 3 books called The Wildwood Chronicles, and there’s a real similar flavor in them, about removing distraction and focusing on the here and now. It takes place in a magical wood next to Portland and a big part of the society in this secret forest is trying to learn how to live in accordance with nature in a way that makes me wish everyone would read these books. You know, Tolkien is the undisputed master of the fantasy series the world he created has such incredible depth and detail that it’s quite enjoyable to lose oneself somewhere between the Shire and Mirkwood.

Nerdist: You’re able to get lost in it while also picking up these sort of universal life cues, but wholly through one’s own abilities, given  that inherent need for people to use their own imaginations and their own minds to help build the story, if that makes sense. Although the movies are great, too.

Nick: When it comes down to it, I will always come down on the side of the book. In my opinion, the book has to be better than the movie because [in] the act of reading the book you create your own perfect version of the movie. You can’t take the inscrutable nature of the human imagination and represent it in something as 2 or 3 dimensional. Having said that, I devour those films. Even The Chronicle of Narnia films which got a pretty mixed reception, I’m so grateful for those because somebody went to the trouble of making big budget version of those stories to bring them to life. It’s one of those things where, even if somebody drew a really good picture of Mr. Tumnus, you know, I’d hang it on my wall.

Nerdist: It all speaks to this greater optimistic, aspirational nature of human beings, doesn’t it?

Nick: I think that the talismanic aspect of these worlds and these characters, it’s a very healthy part of our society, saying we can imagine something better than the bleakness that reality often hands to us. Sure, I had to go to this job and the weather is crappy and my Uncle Carol has gout, but, I can imagine a tree nymph and she looks amazing [giggles] you know what I mean? It’s great medicine for civilization.

Nerdist: Well, that sort of ties into something that I really loved in American Ham, when you talk about the Internet and social media. It’s funny how those technologies feel like medicine — they feed into our desire for something more and better, for that sort of relief. But if you take a deeper look at it, it actually gives us this false sense that we’re being active in our lives rather than what we’re really doing, which is being distracted by a passive, disposable environment.

Nick: I mean I can’t take credit for it, that comes directly from my favorite writer, Wendell Berry, who I just interviewed recently for my new book, which was so gratifying. We talked about this subject, you know? And it is something that started long before the Internet. This sense in American society — and now it’s become global — that the corporate interests, the one percenters, are whispering to us “things will be better for you somewhere else,” and that’s what keeps us buying things. It’s like, “Well, my life is pretty OK, but maybe if I bought those shoes my life would be better,” and we’re made to feel like everything could be better: clothes, home, kids, wife, career, life.

Nerdist: I can’t wait to read that! I think that’s so true though: it’s like that — for lack of a better term — idea of FOMO, but seemingly amplified by a billion now. Trying to navigate what’s real and what’s subliminally told to us to be our wants can be really tricky now with the Internet. It can be really hard to remove yourself from it in a lot of ways.

Nick: It is. He puts it very eloquently. I mean, he’s never had a TV. The reason I first got ahold of him almost 20 years ago was because I wanted to ask him to adapt some of his work into film or stage. And he said, “I’m just not interested in anybody adapting my work because it essentially puts a divider up.” It’s a dissolution, a distraction from what’s happening on the page. He said “I don’t want a screen between myself and the world,” and it’s the same thing now. Putting it in those terms seemed really clear to me. I was like, “Yeah, when you’re having a conversation and somebody puts their phone up and looks at it, they’re putting a screen in front of themselves instead of being present and living the life that they’re standing in. They’re hoping something better is inside their screen.”

Nerdist: It’s so true and, honestly, kind of depressing. But I think it sort of ties into this idea you so staunchly stand for in the special. Why do you think it is that basic human decency has become so novel? Because it feels like it has, to me.

Nick: It feels that way to me, too, because people often comment on the fact that I say “please” and “thank you” or engage in good manners — if I open the door for somebody or help somebody pick something up that they dropped — they say “What an anomaly! You have exhibited good manners!” and that is so sad! Like it would be out of the ordinary. A lot of my community, my family and friends, I think we all share that sensibility, but people often say to me they have a hard time getting their kids to say “please” and “thank you,” so I just keep trying to promote that notion wherever I am because, god, if we lose that? Then what good are we? [Laughs]

Nerdist: It all ties into this weird crisis we’re having right now in society, with all the tensions of how we do things versus ideals about the past and the future. It seems like it’s never-ending.

Nick: I think it is never-ending — that’s a good thing to realize. The work will always exist, the work we have to do. And all we can do is look at today’s work and apply ourselves to it. Anything beyond that is fantasy or nostalgia. But [what] if we say “OK, here are my tasks for today and I’m glad I have work to do”? You know, Teddy Roosevelt said so memorably that there’s no greater treasure in life than the gift of being able to work hard at work that is worth doing. And that, to me, is part of having good manners. It’s saying “OK, I see what I need to do to get from my home to my shop.  I’m going to do my best to have good manners while I drive.” Once I get there, you know, there’s people working around me, and in a wood shop or any work place — in any community, a family around a dinner table — they’re all places where were sharing space, or tools, or pork chops. And it’s something we can constantly practice because it’s something that requires [said practice]. You’re never done perfecting yourself or your manners.

Nerdist: Before I let you go, I do need to know when we’re getting a video for The Hanky Song we see in the special, because that seems like something we all need in life [Laughs].

Nick: Boy, that’s a great idea! One of the champagne problems of all the fun stuff I have going on is I didn’t have the down time to think everything through to its fullest extent, so it hadn’t occurred to me to make any music videos. But that’s a great idea for one, so now that you’ve planted the seed, maybe you’ll see it come to pass and when you do, please tell everyone it was your idea.

Nerdist: It’ll be my crowning achievement in life.

Nick Offerman: American Ham hits Netflix at midnight on the 12th of December.

I mean, how much do you love this guy, right? Leave your Offerman adoration in the comments.

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  1. JUNE says:

    I have hope for my two boys. Thank you Mr. Offerman.  “I was really more of a jackass as a young man, and then when the teachings of my parents and my teachers — the seeds they planted — ended up growing and blossoming despite me peeing on them constantly. I turned out somewhat decently despite all the mischief I got into as a younger man.”