It seems unlikely that the breakout character on personality-driven ensemble sitcom Parks and Recreation, anchored as it is by comedic heavyweights Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari, would be the one played by journeyman actor Nick Offerman. But it’s true; Poehler’s Leslie Knope may be the heart and soul of the show, but Offerman is its Ron Fu@king Swanson.
The eminently quotable Ron Swanson is a unique specimen on television. He is the epitome of masculinity, without being a caricature. He has pronounced political views, without being preachy. He has a mighty, walrus-like mustache.
Like all great sitcom characters, Ron Swanson gets laughs for behaving in a way that the audience recognizes he would behave. We know this man. The writers have given him facets on top of facets. Part of the appeal, though, seems to have been built into Nick Offerman already—the commanding tone, the easily narrowed eyes, the almost preternatural calm and rare fits of maniacal glee. The truth is that the character is an ongoing collaboration between the actor and the show’s creators.
Offerman is busy these days, with upcoming roles in Smashed and
Someone Up There Likes Me, as well as his one-man show American Ham at UCLA on September 29th. Co.Create caught up with the multi-talented actor recently to find out how much of Ron Swanson is him, how much had to be invented, and how he landed the role of a lifetime.
The creators originally had me in for another part and it seemed like we all really got along, and they let me know that they really wanted me on the show. NBC didn’t like me in the part that they had me in. There was maybe a lot of buzz around this new character, though, and fortunately for me, as soon as the part hit the table, they turned it in with my name on it. Then it took 4-5 months for NBC to agree to it.
There were a few broad strokes to Ron at first—they knew he was a libertarian who worked in the government, and they were going to mine comedy out of his reticence to get anything done as the administrator of the Parks and Rec department. Once my personality came into the mix, they then took some of the many attributes that I bear, that one might call "jackass attributes" and said, "Here’s a funny person—this guy has some real jackass qualities that we can paint into the character with these personality traits."
They created the show very organically, I think. Aziz [Ansari] and Aubrey [Plaza] and even Amy [Poehler] to an extent, were cast first, and then they sort of built parts around them. For the rest of the roles, they had a similar construction technique. My first meeting with Mike Schur, one of the two creators, about Ron Swanson, we almost opened the meeting by saying, "Well, this guy has a kickass mustache." And I don’t usually wear a mustache. I think Mike had once seen me at an audition for The Office with a mustache, so that was where we started.
There was a side of my demeanor—I’m not always stoic and expressionless like Ron, but sometimes I am. So I think Mike took that plainspoken, no-bullshit side of me, and liked that color a lot. They found it incredibly hilarious that someone would have a wood shop and make things out of wood for fun so they laced that into the character. But you know, I feel like it’s a hard thing to put your finger on. It’s more just general feelings from our personalities, but by and large, most of the gold that was spun on this show comes from the brilliant minds of the writers.
To my knowledge, they came up with the idea and the whole rounded personality of Duke Silver and his seminal albums Hi Ho Duke, Smooth as Silver, and Memories of Now, completely unaware that I spent my entire youth as a jazz saxophone player. When they sprung the idea on me, I asked whether they knew I played tenor sax and they had no idea. It was a beautiful marriage of their imaginations and my real life. It’s one of my absolute favorite attributes of the character.
Another thing is, when I get on a job, one of the first things people say is, "Can we work Megan [Mullally, Offerman’s wife] into this? We happen to know you’re married to one of the comic legends of our day—do you think she might come on our show?" And so that came up quickly at Parks and Rec, and it wasn’t long before they came up with the idea of my crazy bitch ex-wives named Tammy. So Mike Schur came to me and said "We have this horrible, crazy bitch who’s a librarian—do you think that Megan would do it?" And I put it to her like that, and she said, "Yes. Can I take my top off?"
At the end of the audition process, my last step was to do a couple of scenes improvising with Amy as our two characters. And I think a lot of the dynamic between us two was born of those two improvised scenes. They started the ball rolling, they created the frame of the character, then us two clowns sit down and say "Okay, here’s our take on what you provided us," and everyone else goes "Oh, that’s funny. So let’s make a show."
There are a few of us who are always tossing out pitches. Wherever we can, it’s collaborative, so if one of us has an idea for a funny line or a funny notion for another character, we’re welcome to mention it to one another. It’s just a fun game of how can we make everything the funniest.
In the script it’s surprisingly simple. [The specific faces Ron makes.] If you’re a fan of the show, as we are, when you read the script, you get it. When Leslie puts Ron in a situation where he does the decent thing despite himself, everyone knows Ron, so they know that would not be his inclination. At most you’ll get a sentence of description, like "Ron chews his mustache" but they never go so far as to say "Ron looks surprised at the outcome of the story."
Mike Schur asked me over the summer whether I wanted to write an episode, and I’d secretly been dreaming about it. I knew that I was scared, as anyone in their right mind would be, but I knew I had the safety net of Mike Schur and his roomful of writers to save me if I should stray outside of the line in any direction too far. That gave me the comfort to just sit back and take these characters and this world, like the coolest set of toys anybody ever had and I just got to play with these toys, and it just made it so much fun to put words in the mouths of all these characters that I love.
I grew up in a very decent country family in the middle of Illinois, so instead of writing myself a big, huge storyline, I laid off of Ron because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being too narcissistic in my script—giving myself all the fun. So much so that the network mentioned they wanted some more to happen, so after I finished my first draft, it was suggested that we add in the part where Ron ends up getting the girl at the end of the episode. That’s not what originally was going to happen.
As for having him eat a lot of meat, well, that’s just where we start. It kind of goes without saying. You might as well write, "Ron takes a breath of oxygen and exhales."
The new season of Parks and Recreation premieres on September 20th. For a look at some of the similarities between Ron Swanson and Nick Offerman, click through the slide show above.