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Nick Offerman Combats 'Paucity Of Decency' With All Rise Tour

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Matt Winkelmeyer
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For some, Nick Offerman's name is inexorably bound to the character Ron Swanson from the television series Parks and Recreation. But Offerman's career reveals a broad body of work that although frequently comedic in nature hints at his interest in a wide range of topics and experiences.

During the 1990s he was an integral part of Chicago's theatre scene, serving as a master carpenter, who often choreographed stage violence. In addition to his work on Parks and Recreation, he has appeared on the FX series Fargo and will soon have his craftsman skills on full display this winter has he co-hosts the second season of the competition show Making It with longtime friend Amy Poehler.

He co-produced the 2018 PBS documentary Look & See: Wendell Berry's Kentucky and films such as Bad Times at the El Royale, Sing and Hearts Beat Loud.

Offerman brings his standup comedy tour, All Rise, to the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 28, for two performances, one of which is already sold out.

Interview Highlights

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about All Rise. What was the inspiration for this show?

It was only seven or eight years ago that colleges began to erroneously invite me to perform my stand-up for their students. At first I said, "I don't do that. I'm a thespian." After a few invitations I said, "Hang on a second. There are few things that I would like to say to a few thousand young people. Yes, please tell Ohio State I will accept their invitation to come perform my standup." Then I started writing this material. This is my third official go-around.

You had American Ham and Full Bush.

Since the last presidential election, which I'm not sure people are aware of, it's been in the news from 2016, I suddenly started to feel that that work on my part had an air of futility to it. I felt like I wasn't doing much good. A paucity of decency was suddenly incredibly apparent.

Inhumanity was peaking. I took a step back and said, "OK. I want to try and write some material that I feel is still funny but maybe is helping maybe nudge all of us, including myself, in the room in the right direction." That's the origin of the title All Rise.

When you take a small step back from the fray of modern day America, everybody's shaking their fist at each other over something. When you take that step back and you see that we're all doing this to ourselves. We've chosen this. We live in a country where we can pick what happens. We've blindly, in a sheep-like fashion, through the luxury of consumerism, allowed things to devolve to where they're at.

We've given up our agency to corporate interests and suddenly we find out that we're ruining the planet while we're very indecent to one another. So, maybe we should make some changes.

I'm 46 and I imagine you're around the same age.

Forty-nine.

When I was a college student I thought that a lot of the things that are going on now would be eradicated.

I'm certainly guilty of that. I went to the University of Illinois. I was part of student activism. We all had our heads in the right place as well as our hearts. But I think that's part of the security blanket that we've all been sold for decades, for generations. That allowed some of this institutional racism and homophobia, all of the prejudices that are now rearing their ugly heads, were covered over with a blanket of comfort. "Everything's going fine. Don't look too deeply, don't worry about what's happening at the border or in the suburbs of St. Louis or Eastern Kentucky coal-mining communities. Pay no attention to those exploited laborers behind the curtain. Everything's cool."

I think that's one of the great advantages of the Internet and social media: Suddenly, the whole world is thrown into focus. Everybody around the world has access to the same information. We can say, "Look at what our government is doing."

Tell me about your relationship to the writing of Wendell Berry, the Kentucky agrarian.

He's one of my favorite writers. His writing is from the point-of-view of a farmer who never evolves to using tractors and from the point-of-view of a writer who never made the jump to using a computer. He just turned 85. Some years ago he had the wherewithal to say, "Everything's working fine for me with my family and on my farm, I'm not going to buy into this idea that everybody needs to sprint forward as fast as we can to a world of robots and driverless cars."

By doing so, he's maintained this incredible wisdom and he says that our society believes that it can technology itself out of any problem. We keep making our messes bigger and bigger and saying, "Let's get back in the lab. At some point, we'll invent the ultimate robot/spaceship/energy source that will fix this incredible mess that we've made."

Then there's the wisdom of the ages, paying attention to nature and saying, "OK. How can we exist on this piece of land in a sustainable way?" I roll all of that into a hilarious evening of japes and hijinks.

You mention coming to comedy late. Very often I find that comedy is something people gravitate to earlier. What took you so long?

I am historically, very culturally ignorant. I grew up in a small town in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Illinois which, through no fault of its own, was a cultural vacuum. All we received were the main TV channels. Top 40 radio. The Farm Report. I didn't have anybody in my great sphere who was hip to any culture beyond the most popular culture. I grew up with the Eagles, REO Speedwagon, and some palatable things like Johnny Cash, old Westerns.

Right.

It wasn't until I got to college that my friends handed me the counter-culture materials that made me say, "This is my vibe." David Lynch, Laurie Anderson, They Might Be Giants, the weirdos who were wonderfully fun and curious and smart. I dug in and said, "I will live a fruitful life as an artist, one way or another."

The source material.

But something that never got through to me was the world of standup comedy. The ‘90s were my years of 24-7 theatre work: acting in plays, building scenery, choreographing fights. I was a makeup artist, I built puppets. During this time, mainly in Chicago, I didn't have a television. I never saw Friends. I never saw Seinfeld. My life was so solipsistic. Suddenly it would be Christmas again every year. "Oh, wow. I did 13 plays and now it's time to go to Mom's house for turkey."

[Laughs.]

My metabolism never expanded to the point of taking on comedy. When I was first invited, in my late thirties, to perform as a standup, my head didn't jump to standups of the day. If it I had, it would have occurred to me that this was a compliment. If I would have thought of Sarah Silverman and Patton Oswalt, I would have said, "Oh, wow! I really look up to these people and I'm being offered a chance to emulate them."

[Laughs.]

That's not where my head went. My head went to Rodney Dangerfield and Andrew "Dice" Clay. What finally sank is was, "I'm being offered an opportunity to offer my point-of-view undiluted to audiences." When that suddenly hit me, I said, "That sounds really delicious." So, I sat down and started writing some funny talking. I'd already written a couple of silly songs for my wife. That's always been a favorite delivery system of mine, playing songs to make people laugh on the guitar.

You mentioned guitar and one of my favorite things you've done is the film Hearts Beat Loud.

Thank you for loving it.

Can you tell me a little bit about how that film came into your orbit?

It's really one of the most gratifying things that's happened to me.

How so?

There's a long sequence that brought Hearts Beat Loud about but it's delightfully organic. On Parks and Recreation, the genius writers, led by Mike Schur, created a character that was supposed to be a bizzaro world version of Ron Swanson. They ended up casting Sam Elliott in this role.

Amazing.

When they told me it was Sam, I about fell down because he's on the Mount Rushmore of actors. If you're a guy who wanted to ride a horse and wear a mustache with half the panache he does, being told that he's cast as your doppelganger doesn't make sense. It's like telling a teenager that Arnold Schwarzenegger has been cast has his mirror image.

[Laughs.]

Sam is such a sweetheart. We immediately were brothers. We hugged. We expressed mutual admiration, which is unnerving. Without hyperbole, he's a hero of mine. For him to say, "Holy cow, brother, I think you're terrific," was, like, "You don't get to say that, Elvis Presley."

Oh, man. Then you got to act with him again.

Brett Haley had made this incredible film called I'll See You In My Dreams with Sam and Blythe Danner as the lead and Martin Starr. I highly recommend it. Brett fell in love with Sam and wrote his next film to star Sam. Brett takes actors and says, "You're amazing. I love you. I feel like the world has not gotten to enjoy you as the entrée, you're always the side dish." That's what he did for Blythe in the first film and that's what he did for Sam in the second film, The Hero. When you see it, you'll utter a silent, "Thank you" to Brett Hailey for giving us this much Sam Elliott in a film.

You played Sam's friend and drug dealer in the hero.

We really hit it off and had a great time. That's when Brett and his partner, Mark Basch, decided to write a third film for me. That's Hearts Beat Loud. It made me so grateful that I had minded my manners enough that they would want to do that.

It's a great cast.

Blythe Danner plays my mom. We brought in Ted Danson and Toni Collette. It's the first adult lead that I've had in a film and so to look across my record store and have Toni being the object of my affection was so surreal. That a top-drawer actress like her would be my guide through that experience. Having to flirt with a leading lady in a record store? She was a great comfort.

The last part of that puzzle was my daughter and when we landed on Kiersey Clemons and we started rehearsing the music, and she started singing, we all just looked at each other and our hats floated five or six inches above our heads and we said, "We are some lucky sons of bitches, you guys."

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.