Actor, author and woodworker Nick Offerman shares some of his folksy rules for living a very good life.
If, by some brain-boggling boner of cosmic flummery, the world’s next great prizefight were a chimerical bout between the sterling, Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Michael Chabon, who penned a 2009 collection entitled Manhood for Amateurs, and Nick Offerman, a marrowy, true blue Midwesterner who likes to make stuff with his bare hands, fawns unabashedly over his wife of 13 years, and is the proud (but never boastful) possessor of this nation’s most laudable mustache, we’re afraid the grandiloquent Bay Area wonder boy would be seeing stars faster than he could spell “pusillanimous.”
The 45-year old Offerman is the quintessential, all-American, man’s-man, a complete and utter throwback to generations that valued craftsmanship, fidelity, honor, kindness, and glasnost (though The Prairie State patriot in Offerman would likely rowdily retch over such Commie parlance), hailing from “this incredibly solid, low-income, American household that was all about family values and playing sports and hard work and frugality.” Conversely Chabon, despite his exquisite locutions and superlative storytelling talents, suggests in Manhood that “an essential element of the business of being a man (today is) to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit.” Yes, that is the sound of one great novelist crashing face-first to the canvas.
But merging Ernest Hemingway’s runaway machismo (and excellent facial hair) with George Carlin’s absurdist pragmatism, Offerman is no latter day pugilist in any real sense — unless you count the ways he relentlessly dive-bombs the nation’s collective funny bone. On NBC’s recently wrapped Parks and Recreation, Offerman (as Park Director Ron Swanson) was a weekly fount of deadpan wisdom and sage drollery, while his two tomes – 2013’s Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living and the newly published Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers – are hilarious, heartfelt, tough love hymns to human decency and modern maleness, 21st century takes on Robert Bly’s Iron John, but with 73% less semicolons and psychobabble, and 100% more break-dancing.
Offerman may well be a man out of time, but he is also exactly the man we need right now, a principled, mirthful, devoted, hardworking son of a gun who believes the path to happiness may be as simple as this phrase from Paddle Your Own Canoe: “Get off your ass and do something!”
Here, Offerman – also starring with Michael Keaton in this winter’s The Founder, a biopic of Ray Kroc, the entrepreneur who launched McDonald’s – shares some of his folksy rules for living a very good life.
There is a key passage in Paddle Your Own Canoe, a series of sentences that are profoundly simple, but remarkably essential: “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
Yes. That’s true. Next question.
Your books offer some insight into this, as did your excellent one-man show, American Ham (available now on Netflix), but we’re slow learners. Perhaps you can outline some important ways we can be happier?
That suggests to me that you’re too lazy to actually read my books, or that you lack one or both hands, making it impossible for you to lift one of my books close enough to your eyes so that reading is possible.
Neither is true. I’ve read them both, and I play a mean game of patty-cake.
That’s disgusting, but I will indulge you, nevertheless.
See! You already got one correct! Be polite. You can’t go wrong with saying “please” and “thank you.” The more I exhibit good manners, the more good fortune seems to come my way.
Excellent! What else?
I would not advise you to adhere to the next recommendation until our conversation has reached its (hopefully) inevitable conclusion, but put down your laptop or iPhone or Game Boy and go outside to the woods, for Pete’s sake, and look at a maple leaf. If you can’t find a maple, a sycamore will do just fine.
There were a number of professional years for you that were more, uh, aspirational than overwhelmingly lucrative. What did you take from the leaner times?
Well, I happen to see those aspirational times, as you’ve referred to them, as being much more than lucrative; they were formative. When I came to Los Angeles in the late-‘90s to be an actor, everyone was trying to be Chandler or Ross or Joey, and I said to myself, ‘If I go to an audition, they’re going to see 20 Friends wannabes and then this weird farmer. At some point, they’re going to need a weird farmer.’ I’ve stayed true to myself, and I’ve had a very lucky float down the river and I’ve picked up the right fishing tackle so when I reached the spawning grounds, I was able to haul a few meals on board.
And in the meantime, how did you make ends meet?
I’ve always been a big proponent of doing what you love, and if you love many endeavors or occupations – or you’re able to fall in love with them – you’re in a fine place. I worked hard. I stayed true. I evolved. I made things. People ask me often why I continue to make things in my woodshop, even though I’ve got a fancy acting career going on, and what I often tell them is: figure out what you love to do and then find a way to get paid to do it. You’re going to be much happier being paid a little bit to do something you love, because you’re living in joy, than you will getting paid a great deal to do something you hate. You may drive a kick-ass Range Rover, but you’ll kick yourself the entire commute.
That notion of “hard work” is terrifying – or repelling – to many Millennials. What would you say to them?
Hard work should be considered a privilege. If you don’t like working hard, it means you’re not doing the right work. We have a certain amount of time on this planet. We weren’t put here to sit around playing Angry Birds and eating ice cream all day. That’s what you do at the end of a good, hard session of putting your shoulder to the wheel. I love this quote by the Kentucky author Wendell Berry. He says, ‘It’s sad that we live in a society that has the refrain ‘thank God it’s Friday,’ because that means you despise 5/7ths of your life.’ And there’s a good chance you spend the other two days drinking, so you don’t have to think about that asshole boss at work. Boiled down, the advice therein is: try to fill your days with things that you love to do, and that includes not only work, but your family and your friends.
Share more about this Wendell Berry fellow. Now that we’ve read your books, perhaps we should pick up his.
I would direct you to his short stories, which is a quick way to discern if you’re going to like him or not. If you decide you don’t like him, you’ve made a mistake, so go back and start again. He makes me laugh and cry like no other. There’s a book of short stories called Fidelity and another one called Watch With Me. And if I were to give you one story to start with, it’s called “The Lost Bet.” It’s very short and incredibly funny. There’s Mark Twain to him, there’s Little House on the Prairie to him, but there’s a very contemporary thing too. If the citizens of our nation all read Wendell Berry, it would be a lot more decent in its dealings with the rest of the planet.
On Parks and Recreation, your character of Ron Swanson had a sax-playing, slick alter ego, Duke Silver. Is music important to you?
If it is unimportant to any man, then that man is unimportant to me. The Wendell Berry of my music catalogue is Tom Waits. He is an incredibly unique singer-songwriter who has been making great music since 1970, and he just keeps evolving. His music is so full of delicious romance and humor and real-life poetry. It should be said that his wife, the brilliant Kathleen Brennan, adds a lot to what he does, as is the case with many a great artist.
Speaking of which, you’ve been married for 13 years to the excellent actress and comedienne Megan Mullally. Any words of wisdom regarding one’s marital condition?
The main piece of advice on making any relationship work is this: pay attention to it and nurture it. That’s the priority. If you have a shrub and you want it to flourish, you have to water it and prune it and talk nice to it and pay attention to its clitoris — which is a horticultural term you can look up.
As suspected. Any closing words of wisdom?
Yes, in fact. Be grateful. Do not take any hour for granted. The reason I mind my manners is because I know I’m a lucky son of a bitch. I know that I’m not doing well because I’m so terrific. I’m smart enough to recognize that I’ve been given some good fortune and I’ve got just enough education to hang onto my good fortune, so I live gratefully every day.