Nick Offerman on books and his new memoir, ‘Paddle Your Own Canoe’
Nick Offerman, the man behind the best mustache on “Parks and Recreation,” knows how to satirize machismo, but his home woodworking shop is no joke. Offerman’s turn as Ron Swanson has introduced him to TV audiences, but his very funny new memoir, “Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living” (Dutton, $26.95), will allow readers to get to know the comedian behind the ‘stache.
In the book, Offerman reveals he is a former student of kabuki fight theater, a guitarist, a woodworker, former set designer and that, as a break dancer (!), he went by the name Tick Tock. He writes of wooing actress Megan Mullally -- “The bees of love came swirling around me in a swarm of passion, coalescing in the air before me like a large cartoon fist before soundly bludgeoning me into servitude” -- who is now his wife.
We caught up with Offerman over the phone to chat about his sensei, his love for Ron Swanson and the importance of literature during his childhood.
Offerman will be signing and reading from his memoir Saturday, Oct. 5, at 6 p.m. at the New Beverly Theatre; tickets include a copy of the book.
You’re a man with many talents, and you wear many hats. How was your experience wearing the author hat for the first time writing your memoir?
It’s been incredibly surreal and gratifying. I suppose I never really dreamed I would write a book; I’ve often enjoyed writing funny things in a much shorter form for my friends, for my loved ones, for school, and then eventually for magazines and whatnot. But to receive a 350-page hardcover, filled with words completely from me, was really a bizarre feeling.
In your memoir you share values and principles that you strive to live by, but you also mention the importance of the teachers you’ve come across. What is the best piece of advice you were given by someone else that stuck with you?
The short answer is the simple lesson from my mom and dad to work hard and be honest — and if you do those two things, nobody can ever hold any power over you. You might be making a meager living or a healthier living, but you’ll have your best chance at remaining happy because you’re doing the best you can, and that’s all that can ever be asked of any man or woman.
The slightly more involved answer would be the lesson from my sensei Shozo Sato, who taught me kabuki theater. One of his lessons was to always maintain the attitude of a student. The older I get and the more I approach what might be called mastery or competence in any of my given professions, the more I understand what he meant. Because as you rise in levels of achievement, it’s easy to grow more and more presumptuous in terms of a feeling that you deserve accolades.
It’s easy to grow smug and bitter, thinking, “I’ve achieved this long-term life goal. That means I’m done learning. When will they throw me a parade?...” And suddenly you’re bitter and angry saying, “Don’t you all realize I’m the master of sweeping the floor?” If you maintain the attitude of a student, you know you’ll never achieve the perfect floor sweeping. There will always be improvements you can make, and that just makes life a lot more enjoyable, I find. There’s something to shoot for productively every day.
Many of your fans can’t — or won’t — separate Nick Offerman the person from Ron Swanson the character. When you’re creating something personal like a memoir, does that get frustrating or difficult?
First of all, I’d just like to say that I feel like I did my sensei a great disservice with that incredibly clumsy rendering of his most beautiful lesson. It’s not the first time I’ve been clumsy at any time of day.
But to answer the question at hand: It’s amusing when people ask me questions as though I’m [Ron Swanson]. It would be like people asking Dan Castellaneta questions as though he were Homer Simpson.... They think that I’m inhabiting Ron, instead of Ron being drawn by brilliant, hilarious comedy writers.
The other day I had an experience at the venerable Eagle Rock restaurant the Oinkster. They are doing me the great honor of creating a burger around some of the flavors in my own carriage. We did this burger tasting event, and some of the employees there I saw were visibly disappointed that I couldn’t eat like Ron Swanson.
That’s one of the rules about Ron Swanson — that he can eat like we all wish we could. We all have human digestive and circulatory systems which exist in reality, we all have to move through gravity every day. So we love the superhuman quality of this character who can eat 6 pounds of steak, wash it down with a bottle of scotch and smoke a cigar, because that’s what we wish we all could do.
Ultimately, it’s amusing when people try to dress me up as Ron. But when you think about it, it’s one of the most sublime problems a boy could every wish for. People sometimes ask me, “Aren’t you afraid you’ll never get cast again after being so defined in the role of Ron Swanson?” And I say, if that’s the trade-off for the greatest role anyone has ever had — I never could have fathomed a part as good as Ron Swanson.
Do you have a favorite childhood book?
Books were so important to me growing up in the middle of a cornfield, this was in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, when we really only had three or four TV channels. We never had cable. We had a VCR later on, but we only had four movies. Books played an incredibly important part for me.
My aunt Michelle, who we call Aunt Mickey, who is a librarian, gave me my first fantasy books and really ignited my love of a series of novels: “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Little House on the Prairie” books, closely followed by Madeleine L’Engle’s “Wrinkle in Time” series.
All of the books did such a masterful job of sweeping me away into another universe, into another world in which I could look into every nook and cranny, and glean every detail that was there to find. I read them over and over. I was so enthralled with the ability to escape so completely into such a beautiful world on the part of all these writers.
It’s funny, my favorite writer today, Wendell Berry, the great agrarian, essayist, poet and novelist, he does the same thing with his fiction. He’s written scores of novels and short stories, and he sets them all in the same fictional town of Port William, Ky. Every story that he turns out, he just continues to breathe in the history of the people and place. And that to me, I think, is what set me off on the career path that I ended up on, wanting to create that sense of escape for other people.
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