I'll go on record right now saying that I'm a big fan of Nick Offerman, and it has very little to do with his TV show Parks and Recreation. Don't get me wrong: I enjoy that show, as well as Offerman's signature character, Ron Swanson. I can still remember a time a few years ago—in another life, really—that someone was telling me about a new show on NBC that was really funny, and that one guy in particular was outstanding. "He's funny as hell," my acquaintance said. "And he's from here."
By "from here," my acquaintance meant the Champaign-Urbana area. And while that's not exactly true (Offerman hails from Minooka, which is closer to Chicago than C-U), the actor did attend the University of Illinois and was in the acting program at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. While doing that, Offerman also appeared in a few shows at the Station Theatre, which is something he and I have in common.
While I was still active with the Station, I was involved in a project to commemmorate the theater's 40th season; in the process, I reached out to a few Station alumni who had gone on to bigger (though I will not claim better) venues. Mr. Offerman was one of these esteemed Celebration Company members who was kind enough to reply, and the story he told—of an encounter with the police on Station property—was a highlight of the resulting memory book. (That book is available to view for free, by the way. Some great photos in there.)
So that's how I "met" Nick Offerman. Nothing fancy, and through mutual friends. I don't know him, but I am nonetheless thrilled whenever I see him on a talk-show or read an interview he has given in a magazine. (Speaking of that: his chat with Chicago magazine this past month? Aces.) So imagine how happy I was to discover that Offerman would be publishing a book this month—one that speaks of his humble yet excellent upbringing in rural Illinois, his daredevil theatre beginnings in Champaign-Urbana and later Chicago, and his opinions on all manner of things.
The book, titled Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man's Principles for Delicious Living, is thoroughly hilarious and is a lovely reminder that no actor can ever be summed up by a single role, even one as indelible as Ron Swanson. In the book, Offerman takes on such topics as manliness, meat, and moustaches, all of which one might expect; he also speaks with eloquence and wit on organized religion, relationships, controlled substances, gift-giving, and the maintenance of pubic hair. I cannot recommend it more highly. It is, to use one of Offerman's favorite descriptors, delicious.
On the heels of his book's release, Offerman will be returning to Champaign-Urbana this month for a pair of fantastic events. The first of these takes place on Saturday, October 26, when Offerman will bring his American Ham tour to Krannert's Foellinger Great Hall. For those not familiar with the tour, it is a collection of stories, songs, and minor nudity that will most likely shock and delight in equalnature. (If you're not familiar with Offerman's personal sense of humor, be advised: He is not Ron Swanson. He's much, much funnier.)
Offerman brought his American Ham show to the U of I once before, and he has also returned at the request of his former instructors at Kranner Center to speak with current acting students. It's clear from his stories (told on numerous visits to Letterman, Conan, and the like) and his writing that he has great affection for the school and the town. This affection extends beyond his family ties and theatrical roots, however, and this trip home will see him using his (if he'll forgive the expression) "star power" to do some good for a local landmark: Japan House. On Sunday, October 27, Offerman will host an "East Meets Midwest" dinner at Prairie Fruits Farm, along with his former teacher, Professor Emeritus Shozo Sato. The Japan House website describes the event thusly:
An eleven-course meal, set on the beautiful grounds of Prairie Fruits Farm, will celebrate an exceptional crossroads between Japanese cuisine and that of the Midwest. Japanese, American and fusion flavors will come together in the artistry of Chefs Shin Matsuda, Thad Morrow, and Drew Starkey. Midway through the meal you will experience the incredible power of a traditional Japanese drum performance by Chicago’s Ho Etsu Taiko. Sake will be served with some courses while other courses will be complemented by a selection of wines selected by Chef Morrow. The meal will finish with a trio of Japanese sweets created just for the dinner by Japan House’s very own chef, Tamaki Levy.
With so much good stuff happening, and so much of it converging on Champaign-Urbana, I reached out to Offerman once again, wondering if he might feel like chatting a bit about theatre, coming home, and Japan House. He's a busy man, so I kept it brief. I did not, for instance, mention, that because of him I am only three degrees from Kevin Bacon.
Here's our conversation.
Smile Politely: I've read that you donated to Japan House after the first time you visited it. True? What about the place spoke to you?
Nick Offerman: Not sure about that donation info, but my life was profoundly affected by Japan House from the time I began studying with Shozo Sato in 1989. The program of Japanese arts and disciplines that he instituted served to fuel much of my matriculation, both artistically and philosophically. I think that we could all use a heaping plate of tutelage in the Zen school of thought, not to mention the new Japan House and gardens are just an amazing respite from the rat race of life. The magnificent protege of Sato sensei, Associate Professor Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud, keeps the program alive and strong as the current director of Japan House.
SP: You'll be performing your American Ham show at Krannert soon. Do you recall the last time you performed there, as a student? Which show, which role? How does it feel to come back and be the main attraction?
Offerman: My last show as a student was, I believe, Twelfth Night, in the role of Antonio the swarthy sailor. I had an amazing time as a student of the theater department in those halcyon days of '88-'93. Returning to perform all on my lonesome in the Great Hall is rather embarrassing, considering it's acoustically one of the most pristine halls in the nation, and my voice and guitar skills are, well, considerably less than pristine. All proceeds from the show go towards supporting Japan House, so I'm willing to bear the shame of the people hearing me sing.
SP: I read the piece in Chicago Magazine where you talked about meeting Sam Shepard and the totally understandable awe that he evoked. I'm curious... At some point, do you see yourself going back to the theatre world? Not that American Ham isn't legit theatre...
Offerman: American Ham is far from what I would call legit theater. I would place it squarely over the rubicon of "humorist". That said, I have certainly never left the theatre world, although my TV and film work have made my stage appearances more infrequent than when I was more exclusively a stage actor. My wife, Megan, and I both come from the theatre and we met in Los Angeles working with a sublime company called Evidence Room Theater, which we immediately joined. Our last show there was just this summer, an amazing two-hander called Annapurna, which we are looking to reprise in New York in the spring.
SP: Your list of talents is, by now, somewhat legendary. Actor, fight choreographer, woodworker, musician... And I've seen you perform some pretty slick dance moves, of course. Is there a hidden talent of yours that the world has yet to discover?
Offerman: Seems doubtful.
It's hard not to like Nick Offerman. Not that I would know, really, because it wouldn't occur to me to try. With that in mind, and because his trip home this month will be a great opportunity to enrich a local treasure, I encourage all who can to check out his show and follow Offerman's varied and impressive work. Tickets for American Ham are, as of this writing, still available through the Krannert Center website; and, if you can't make it to the show (and can't come up with the scratch for the dinner) but would still like to donate to Japan House, you can do that, too.