Design Matters: Nick Offerman

Reflecting on his remarkable life and career, Nick Offerman shares his insights on acting, marriage and the current state of the world.

Reflecting on his remarkable life and career, Nick Offerman shares his insights on acting, marriage and the current state of the world.


Debbie Millman:

Nick Offerman is a famous comedian and actor, so you probably know a lot about him. You most certainly know that he played Amy Poehler’s boss, Ron Swanson, on the sitcom Parks and Recreation, and you might know he’s married to Megan Mullally of Will & Grace, and he appeared on that show as a plumber.

Debbie Millman:

Did yo know that Nick Offerman is also a professional boat builder, and that he’s written not one, not two, but five really funny books? His latest is Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside. He joins me to talk about his remarkably variegated career, and to talk about his brand new book. Nick Offerman, welcome to Design Matters.

Nick Offerman:

Thank you so much. I’m so pleased to be here. Thank you.

Debbie Millman:

So is it true that your ultimate soundtrack for lovemaking is Peter Gabriel’s Music for The Last Temptation of Christ?

Nick Offerman:

Well, I mean, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more suitable record. It has romance, it has ambience, and it also has screams of agony. So if you time it right, it’s like putting Dark Side of the Moon to the Wizard of Oz. If you sync it up right, everything matches up.

Debbie Millman:

What makes it such an aphrodisiac, though? Is there something about the crescendo?

Nick Offerman:

I mean, I don’t know. When that record came out, for those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s a mostly instrumental Peter Gabriel tour de force. It’s really drum heavy and period sounding like other worldly screaming and orchestrations. So I’ve just always found it to be really moving. No one’s ever asked me why so I haven’t really examined it, but I guess his rhythm and my own must align. Something about his music gets my juices flowing.

Debbie Millman:

Nick, you were born in the little town of Minooka, Illinois. Did I pronounce that correctly? Minooka?

Nick Offerman:

That’s right. Yes. Minooka.

Debbie Millman:

Your mom was a nurse. Your dad taught social studies at the local high school. I understand you grew up working on your grandparents’ farm where they grew corn and beans and raised pigs. What kind of work did you do on the farm?

Nick Offerman:

Oh, just menial labor. I mean, my first job, if you work in agriculture, you hope to have kids because that’s your labor pool, and they’ll work for a sandwich, generally. So as a really small kid, grandpa would have me shovel out the poop out of the pig barn. That was my first job, baling hay, which means riding out behind the baler as the hay is harvested, and stacking the bales, throwing them up in the barn, and then on a soybean farm, one of the most prevalent summer jobs for young people is called walking beans, where you actually walk up and down the roads of the entire fields of soybeans just killing the weeds.

Nick Offerman:

We all learn to drive by the time we were 11 or 12 so we could haul empty wagons out to the field to be filled with corn and soybeans and stuff like that, and then other just odd jobs. There’s another job, picking up rocks. So once the harvest would be done and last year’s stems would be plowed under and the dirt would be turned over, often rocks sometimes as big as your head would be turned up in the soil, and so you would be sent out with a tractor and a little trailer to just cover the entire field and pick up all the rocks you see.

Debbie Millman:

I read that when you were in the fourth grade studying vocabulary when your teacher taught the class the word nonconformist. She defined it as a person who did the opposite of what everybody else was doing. Upon hearing that, you raised your hand and told Mrs. Christiansen you wanted to be a nonconformist. Where did that sensibility come from?

Nick Offerman:

Your question reminds me of at a young age, I want to say maybe first or second grade, I remember in art class we had this project where we got a little piece of wood and a little paper cutout of a smiling clown head and then another little paper cutout that said, “A smile is the nicest kind of welcome.” The job was to stain the piece of wood and then glue the clown head and the text onto the thing and then varnish the whole shebang and take it home for mom and dad.

Nick Offerman:

I remember looking at that sentiment, “A smile is the nicest kind of welcome,” and it made me feel whimsical, and so I tilted my clown head to what I considered a rakish whimsical angle and my teacher gave me a C and said, “Look at this. The head is crooked.”

Nick Offerman:

I said, “Ma’am, that is a rakish angle.”

Nick Offerman:

I will one day come to know that that’s called panache. So I just always had this sensibility of adding a little bit of a jaunty kick to whatever I did. So when I heard that that was called nonconformity, I said, “Yes, please count me in for one of those.”

Debbie Millman:

Nick, I know you were also an altar boy at church and have said that that helped you become very good at eye acting. What is eye acting exactly? I mean, besides just the obvious of acting with your eyes, how do you do that?

Nick Offerman:

What I determined from my first stage was the altar of the Catholic church where they never gave me any lines. So I realized if I was going to get any response out of the crowd, I was going to have to learn how to use my eyebrows and my intense gaze. It was there that I began to understand deadpan. I did get to ring the bells a couple of times during the mass. So with my timing and depending on my eye line, I could really make my friends laugh just with my demeanor.

Nick Offerman:

Eventually, they had me start doing the gospel readings in a position known as the lector, and so then it carried over where I found that if I had the right amount of gravitas and intense focus, the parents would be tricked into thinking that was sincerity and reverence while all my friends just thought it was the most hilarious like Leslie Nielsen in Airplane kind of [inaudible 00:07:03]

Debbie Millman:

At that point in your life, what did you think you wanted to do professionally?

Nick Offerman:

Well, working in the arts in any way was not an available choice. I didn’t have the wherewithal to understand that that’s what I wanted to do. I could have said to you, “Well, I love to play music.” I played the saxophone and I love to perform, but I wasn’t aware that you could get a job in either of those fields.

Nick Offerman:

My upbringing was such a cultural vacuum that I didn’t understand that people from my school could become a sax player or an actor. I was pretty confused. I loved using tools and building things with my hands, but, again, I didn’t understand that that was a creative job. When I used to do it as a teenager, I worked framing houses and I worked on a blacktop crew, and so those labor jobs didn’t seem like something to aspire to. I had no idea that one day I would become a fine furniture builder or a boat builder.

Nick Offerman:

I was a pretty successful mountebank. I could put on a show. I could charm people into thinking they should elect me to student council president or things like that when I knew secretly that I was just going to try and steal all the candy bars for me and my friends.

Debbie Millman:

Well, I understand that when you attended the University of Illinois you were dressed up as a carpenter and go to the library to see how many tables you could take apart before somebody stopped you. I’m wondering, generally speaking, how many tables were you able to dismantle before being found out?

Nick Offerman:

Usually, I think that our record was probably three. I forgot about that. I mean, that was obviously before the internet. We needed to find something to do. So me and my buddy would go. It’s a fun harmless prank. I mean, we always then put the tables back together. We weren’t monsters. I still feel like there were much more destructive ways we could have been spending our time.

Debbie Millman:

Absolutely. I think that just to make sure that all the joys are tight is good when you were putting them back together, I assume, right?

Nick Offerman:

Sure. I mean, that’s just good manners.

Debbie Millman:

Now, initially, you thought you would major in music, but everything changed for you when you’re then Born Again Christian girlfriend auditioned for the dance department and you drove her three hours to the audition, and while waiting for her, you hung out in the hallway of the performing arts building. Can you talk a little bit about what happened when you were there?

Nick Offerman:

Yeah. I mean, it was pretty astonishing. If you’ve ever been to the Lincoln Center in New York, it’s amazing.

Debbie Millman:

Many times.

Nick Offerman:

The theater and dance facility at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana was designed by the same architect as the Lincoln Center. So similarly, it’s a city block with four theaters, one facing each street direction, all connected underground by levels of carpentry shops, costume shops, massive hallways where you can build a house at and then load it with forklifts into the massive backstage opera bay doors and stuff. So it’s this incredible facility that I’m hanging out in the hallway when my girlfriend is auditioning.

Nick Offerman:

I can’t remember what the insighting moment was, but I ran into these two acting students at the time named Jennifer McCarthy and David something, and I can picture his face. He played Hymen in As You Like It, David [Corelado 00:11:06]

Debbie Millman:

Wow!

Nick Offerman:

I ran into them and, magically, I don’t know how we struck up a conversation. I think they must have said, “Hey, kid. Why are you loitering in this hallway?”

Nick Offerman:

I said, “Well, I’m waiting for my girlfriend.”

Nick Offerman:

Somehow we got onto the subject of I said, “What are you doing here?” They said they were theater students.

Nick Offerman:

I said, “What do you mean?”

Nick Offerman:

They said, “We’re studying to become theater actors.”

Nick Offerman:

I said, “What? Hang on. What does that mean? You can get a job doing plays? Is that a thing? I mean, I had heard of London and I had heard of Broadway, but I was in Illinois.”

Nick Offerman:

They said, “Yeah. When we graduate, we hope to move to Chicago where you can make a living performing in plays.”

Nick Offerman:

I mean, it was like somebody just invented electricity. I was so excited. I went home to my mom and dad and said, “You can get paid to do plays in Chicago. That’s what I want to do.”

Debbie Millman:

What was their response?

Nick Offerman:

God bless them. I have always said I’ve had some crazy ideas in my life, but I always work really hard and do my best no matter what cockamamie scheme I’m up to. So they said, “Look, we’ll support you. If you can, try to have something to fall back on. Try and have a way to make money,” which ended up being using my carpentry skills, but they supported me, and I couldn’t believe it.

Nick Offerman:

I went and head to do my first audition of my life to get into the conservatory there at the University of Illinois. They were short on strong young men to carry the talented people on and off stage. So I was able to fill one of those slots in 1988.

Debbie Millman:

In my research, I discovered that while you were in school, you took two semesters of ballet, and enrolled in a kabuki theater class taught by Shozo Sato, and ended up traveling to Japan with Sato’s kabuki troop. Did that work influence how you were approaching your acting?

Nick Offerman:

Well, sure. I mean, all these Illinois kids basically are suddenly learning this traditional Japanese art form and his genius, he’s an award-winning theater artist, and his genius was for taking the place of Shakespeare or Greek dramas and interpreting them in the kabuki style.

Nick Offerman:

So the makeup, the wigs, the presentational movement and voice work, it was fantastic, kabuki Othello, kabuki Eratosthenes, the frogs or what have you. It was such profound lessons in showmanship. In so many ways, the reverence with which the kabuki artists, the way they treat the stage and the audience and the art form felt holy to me in a way that church, they always said church was supposed to, but that never really clicked because it lacked the passion of the theater.

Nick Offerman:

I think that’s part of what led me to the stage was growing up in the Catholic church, and I got, I appreciate the values, the lessons of the church, but nobody was juiced. Nobody was like, “Man, that sermon really blew me away or made me cry.” So I wanted to take the values of a religion and take it to a different kind of barn, and that’s what they taught me in kabuki was before every show, everyone would do the stretching exercise where you’re lying up all the way across the stage kneeling in front of a towel and you do this stretching. It’s sort of yoga. You push the towel, then do a salute to the sun pose until you push yourself all the way across the stage so the whole company cleans the stage before every show. I mean, it really has this reverential shrine atmosphere.

Nick Offerman:

Then when we started a theater company in Chicago, me and my friends, a lot of us had come from that kabuki training. So we were able to bring a lot of the same aesthetic to our own crappy little Chicago company.

Debbie Millman:

You were in your degree in theater, but have said that in the four years of theater school it became clear that you were trying too hard to be hip and cool and urbane and had unwittingly thought that you’re country rube persona would not be interesting to an audience. When did you realize otherwise?

Nick Offerman:

I mean, because of the kabuki show, we took a year off school. We toured Japan and it was kabuki Achilles. It was an adaptation of the Iliad. This was 1991. I always hate this sentence, but the first Gulf War had just broken out. While we were in production in Champagne-Urbana, we took the show to Japan. Some producers loved the anti-war message of Achilles and Hector ultimately saying to each other, “You are as I. We’re the same. Why are we trying to kill each other?”

Nick Offerman:

We ended up touring Hungary. Then we played a theater outside of Philly for six months called rhe People’s Light theater company in Malvern, which is up the mainline from Philadelphia. So that was a year off school. So I spent five years in theater school all told, and then it was a couple of years into Chicago after school where naturalism finally began to occur to me where, I don’t know, the insecurity or the ignorance I just chipped away at it until finally I realized, “Oh, I simply finally get it. Just act like yourself.” I’d be so thick-headed. It literally took me six or seven years to get it.

Nick Offerman:

So once that happened, my best friend, this genius director and actor named Joe Faust, he had been waiting for it for years. He desperately wanted me to catch on, and I finally got it. So once that happened, I looked back at all these auditions and said, “Oh, I see. So I’m never get cast as a cool leather jacket, finger-popping daddy. That’s not my bag. I’m going to get cast as a laborer or a plumber or a bus driver or what have you or a scary version of those guys.”

Nick Offerman:

Once I realized that, then my life began. That was ground zero where I said, “Okay. The tools that I have, who I am, what I grew up as, that’s the most valuable thing in my toolbox. So let me now begin to build my professional career, my body of work around that particular set of tools.”

Debbie Millman:

You and your friends founded the experimental company, the Defiant Theatre, and you’ve said that if you had started auditioning at big theaters before this work, you’d probably still be there. Was it when you developed the Defiant Theatre that that realization about your country rube persona first occurred to you?

Nick Offerman:

It was in those years, yes, because my best friend was one of our main directors, and so they would pick shows to do, and I built the scenery for this company. I had all the tools. I drove the trucks. So in many ways, I was the dad of the company. They would choose shows where I would say, “Oh, perfect. This role is perfect for me,” and then I wouldn’t get the part. They’d cast somebody outside the company and I would say, “Hey, man. What’s the deal?”

Nick Offerman:

My best friend and roommate would say, “You know I’m going to always have to cast the best actor for the show, and that’s this other guy because you’re not that good yet.”

Nick Offerman:

I would say, “Well, I believe you.” The baby in me is selfishly mad about that, but I understand.

Debbie Millman:

At least there was the word yet there. That’s encouraging.

Nick Offerman:

It was. Like all things, it was a slowly accumulating awareness of what it took. So I was really grateful. I would get supporting roles and then finally, I did a good enough audition for this play called The Quarantine that Joe was directing, and I finally got the lead. I was perfectly mediocre, but I was better than I had been. The beautiful thing about life maintaining the attitude of a student is that I’m still on the same journey. Hopefully, the next play I do I’ll be better than the last play I did until my faculties give out.

Debbie Millman:

Was it around this time that you became friends with Amy Poehler, but you didn’t get involved with comedy until your mid 30s when you started to work with Amy at her Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. Why did it take so long for you to realize your comic chops?

Nick Offerman:

Well, I love making people laugh, but when you study legitimate theater at a drama school, basically, comedy is simply one of the things you do. You are hoping to work at theaters that put on a season so you’re prepared to do Shakespeare or Chekhov or Sam Shepard or absurdist Pirandello or Pinter or you name it or musical theater or Fado farces. Hopefully in your toolbox you are able to do anything that’s on the season.

Nick Offerman:

One of my favorite things to do was be funny and make people laugh. It’s a weird specialization in modern thought. Nowhere is more specialized than Hollywood. If my big break was playing a tennis player in a movie, nobody then wants me to audition to play basketball because they say, “No, no, no. You’re the tennis guy.”

Nick Offerman:

So I met Amy when she was studying at the Improv Olympic in Second City in Chicago, and I didn’t even understand what that meant. I had never been to an improv or sketch theater, and it sounded to me like she was saying she and her friends were making stuff up in a bar to make people laugh, and I was like, “Okay. Have fun with that.” I’m trying to perform works of literature.

Nick Offerman:

I had some weird snotty separation, and then years later I was like, “Wait a second. You’re on the path to SNL? Son of a bitch!” I had no idea.

Nick Offerman:

So it was only years later that I realized the specialization of Hollywood’s brain. It occurred to me that I was not getting auditions for comedy stuff where I was like, “Oh.” I specifically had to call Amy and say, “Hey, can I start doing stuff at your comedy theater, the Upright Citizens Brigade, so that the business will view me as someone who can be funny?”

Nick Offerman:

So I did it and within minutes, people, casting directors were calling and saying, “I didn’t know you do comedy.”

Nick Offerman:

I was like, “I just do acting. I do whatever. I can be a horrible bad guy or I can be an absolute clown. Sorry. I didn’t realize I had to let you guys know that.”

Nick Offerman:

Then it’s funny, then my big break was Parks and Recreation, then there’s a period where I had to convince people that I could be dramatic. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Debbie Millman:

What made you decide to move to Los Angeles given your love of the theater at that point? Were you very consciously determined to go beyond the theater?

Nick Offerman:

No. It was pretty stupid. I mean, I have had a pretty blissfully ignorant existence really my whole life. Things were going well in Chicago. I was starting to get cast in good parts at big theaters. I won an award for acting in this Pulitzer Prize winning play called The Kentucky Cycle that was really good. So things were going great. I did a couple of movie jobs and people that were from LA working on the films were very encouraging.

Nick Offerman:

They said, “You make really funny faces. You should move to Los Angeles. They pay well for funny face makers there.”

Nick Offerman:

I said, “Well, that sounds good.”

Nick Offerman:

It never occurred to me that Los Angeles would not be as … I just assumed it would be an even better theater town than Chicago because it’s where Hollywood is, it’s the greatest collection of writers and actors and directors in the country. I got there.

Nick Offerman:

I was like, “Well, so I’ll get to keep doing theater, obviously, but then also I can work maybe in TV and film.”

Nick Offerman:

I got there only to discover that it’s not remotely as good of a theater town because everyone is trying to work in TV and film. So there’s theater happening, but nobody cares. So it led to two or three years of absolute confusion and even depression, where I was like, “Oh, I’ve made a terrible mistake. My adulthood is founded, is built upon theater and now I’ve moved to the world of sitcoms. What have I done?”

Debbie Millman:

I read that you were told to watch at least one episode of every show on television so that when you auditioned you’d know what kind of bullshit they were selling, but you didn’t want to watch any television. How come?

Nick Offerman:

There are certain defense mechanisms in Chicago theater that allow one to remain in Chicago theater and not feel like you have to move to New York or LA. So you have to remind yourself why Chicago is better than Broadway or Hollywood. Broadway, that’s selling it. It’s all too expensive. They’re stuck up, et cetera, and LA is completely selling out. David Schwimmer was a contemporary of mine, and just before we got to Chicago, he had just I think moved out and gotten started on Friends.

Nick Offerman:

So when I was in Chicago, if you threatened to move to LA people would accuse you of pulling the Schwimmer, which was looked down upon because we’re trying to make art. We’re not trying to get rich of famous.

Nick Offerman:

So I lived incredibly frugally, which is a very polite way to say I lived like a bum. I mean, I survived on peanuts all through my 20s. I was young and pretty bulletproof. So as long as I was doing theater 24/7, you could always get a burrito or a sandwich someplace, but having a TV, that was a luxury. You didn’t need one. Who had time to sit around and watch TV?

Nick Offerman:

There was also this anti-sitcom sensibility. What would you need a TV for? We’re performing the works of Ibsen, which, of course, was a pretentious defense mechanism, but that’s why I didn’t have a TV. It’s funny. I mean, it’s still something I’m wrestling with where when you look at film and television, you have to ask yourself eventually if you’re lucky enough to get work in the business, what is it you want? Do you want to get rich and famous? Do you want to make good art? Do you want to deliver medicine to an audience via laughter or pathos or catharsis? What is it you’re after? Then that directly affects the choices you begin to make, where are you going to get on the hamster wheel and run like hell for as long as your knees hold or not? Do you want to have a more considered, more unique personal approach to your work as an artist?

Nick Offerman:

So things like being told you should watch one episode of every show so that you can mimic what they do or ape their taste, that pretty quickly became clear to me as a fallacious idea where I was like, “If I succeed, I want to be because people see something in me that they’re like, ‘Oh, this is good and fresh and we want this ingredient in our recipe.'” I don’t want them to hire me because they’re like, “Ooh, he’s similar to David Schwimmer,” or whoever else. “He’s similar to a proven commodity.” That’s safe. “He could be a third Belushi,” or whatever. “Let’s put him on our show.”

Nick Offerman:

To me, that’s not my bag. That would be really depressing. So I worked a lot less than maybe I would have if I just was like, “Hey, guys. I love beer and tips. Let’s have fun.”

Debbie Millman:

Several years in, you’re living in a basement in Silver Lake and hadn’t had a TV for 10 years. When you went on an audition for the play, The Berlin Circle,” and heard that Megan Mullally, one of the stars of the most popular television shows on the planet was starring, yet you weren’t impressed.

Nick Offerman:

Well, no. I mean, that was the last bastion of my Chicago snobbery, my dumb defensive Chicago snobbery because even when I get cast in the show, they dangled Megan as an incentive where they’re like, “Our lead is on the new hit show Will & Grace.” They had just finished their second season. This was the spring of 2000.

Nick Offerman:

I said, “Listen, I know that that’s supposed to be an incentive, but I’m from Chicago theater. I’ve played John Proctor in The Crucible.” So I foolishly have my head up my ass. So I’m not going to be impressed by your Megan Mullally’s.

Nick Offerman:

Then the first day, we did a table read and I was, of course, I was like, “Oh, shit! You’re a legend.” Immediately, “You’re the greatest person I’ve ever done a table read with.” I had a friend with a TV and I believe this is pre-streaming. So thankfully, I was able to watch a couple Will & Grace reruns because the season was over, I think. I saw the scales fall from my eyes, but not immediately.

Nick Offerman:

The first one I watched I was like, “Oh, man! I feel so bad for these people.” They’re trying so hard. This comedy is so broad. Then towards the end of that then I was like, “Oh, let me watch another one.” By the end of the second episode, my shit head goggles cleared up and I said, “Oh, shit! This is the same as on-stage farce, the most delicious concentrated version.”

Nick Offerman:

So by the time I finished two and three episodes I said, “A, I’m so happy I’m working with this legend. B, how can I get a job like that?”

Nick Offerman:

So what good luck that these things befell me that I was able to lose that dumb sensibility and say, “Oh, everything is allowed. Don’t be so stupid.”

Debbie Millman:

I think that Karen Walker is really one of the greatest television characters that has ever occurred in our culture. She is-

Nick Offerman:

I couldn’t agree more. I mean-

Debbie Millman:

There’s no one funnier, no one. No offense.

Nick Offerman:

No, none taken. I mean, we have a powerful teacher-student relationship and I have no … I’m perfectly fine with my skillset and what I bring to the table, but I’m always totally happy to be a supporting character to Megan Mullally. I’m sincerely her biggest fan.

Debbie Millman:

You were both staunchly single when you first met, but found eternal I believe at a Glen Campbell concert, Glen Campbell.

Nick Offerman:

Yeah. That was where cupid’s arrow fully went.

Debbie Millman:

Who would have thought? Glen Campbell.

Nick Offerman:

Oh, we would. I mean, we’re huge Glen Campbell fans. I come from a small town in a rural upbringing and she comes from Oklahoma City, which although it’s a state capital, feels strangely like a small town. Glen Campbell definitely fits in Oklahoma City. So Rhinestone Cowboy at the Hollywood Ball is something we would immediately say, “Yes, please,” wrap us up in a blanket, give us something to drink, and let us be kissing by the end of that song.

Debbie Millman:

I understand your first make out session was to the great Beck song, Beautiful Way. So you guys have range. You have range.

Nick Offerman:

Megan is like a musical encyclopedia. I mean, her amazing band, Nancy and Beth, covers everything from The Mills Brothers. She does a vocal interpretation of The Dying Swan from the ballet, Swan Lake, all the way to completely modern Rufus Wainwright song or Randy Newman songs, Patty Griffin songs. There’s no rhyme or reason to the eclectic choices she covers. I also love music, but I’ve benefited greatly from her acumen.

Debbie Millman:

You almost got a part on Will & Grace that ultimately went to Woody Harrelson and you also auditioned for the role of Michael in The Office. You didn’t get either, but your audition created the seed for the casting director that became your character Ron Swanson in Parks and Rec. Is it true that when you got the call from your producer, Mike Scher, you sobbed for 30 minutes upon hearing you got the role?

Nick Offerman:

I mean, 30 minutes might be. It may have been more like 28 minutes. Professionally, it was all of the parts that I didn’t get for so many years paid off so powerful with such an emotional catharsis because all of those other roles weren’t right. It would have been wonderful to get a cool part on a show, but we’ve seen the examples you’ve cited. The reason I didn’t get the roles is because there were better people, and finally, the role found me that no one ostensibly could have done better. So life clicked in for me at age 38 I think I was. It was like the end of the Lord of the Rings or something, where I was like, “Oh, my God! It all makes sense.” Everything Gandalf ever said to me suddenly hit home. So I had a very emotional gratitude-filled reaction.

Debbie Millman:

You played Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation for all of the shows, seven seasons to great acclaim. You won the Television Critics Association Award for Individual Achievement in Comedy, twice nominated for the Critics Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. You’ve also started movies including The Founder and Hearts Beat Loud and the television shows Fargo, Devs, which I just binge watched and loved.

Nick Offerman:

Thank you.

Debbie Millman:

I need to ask you about your hair in that one. Along with Amy Poehler you host the NBC reality series Making It, and had been nominated for two Emmy Awards. Congratulations on all of that. Yeah. You’ve said that you put your relationship with Megan above everything else, including acting jobs, and have a rule that you never do a job that will keep you apart for more than two weeks. Is that the secret to the success of your 20-year marriage?

Nick Offerman:

I suppose. I mean, the secret to our marriage, I think, is just we’re lucky enough to have picked the right person because we love being together. We’ve been together for 21 years and we sometimes choose to work together. We’ve gone on tour together. We do plays together. We wrote a book together. So often, people we know will say to us, “Why in the world would you choose to spend more time with your spouse?”

Nick Offerman:

We say, “Man, I feel so bad for you that you would ask that question. You might reconsider some of your choices.”

Nick Offerman:

If you think about it, and even two weeks sucks. I mean, if we get to the end of a week where we’re apart, she just is, I mean, she’s the love of my life, but it’s not just all sappy romance. There’s a powerful health component.

Nick Offerman:

My weaknesses involve things like like to drink too much, will sit down and eat two pizzas. I’ll put myself in pain to be a hedonist. A a young person, you’re like, “Okay. That part of being young,” but now if I’m away from Megan I’ll say, “Oh, there’s a baseball game. I’m going to drink four beers, which is too, too many, and I’m going to order a pizza.”

Nick Offerman:

If I sometimes still do that, before I’m even done I’m like, “Oh, yeah. This is why I’m married because I’d be dead of something by now because I’m stupid. I can’t help it.”

Nick Offerman:

So recognizing that and depending on my relationship to not just give me romance and love and physical fulfillment, it also just literally keeps me healthy. So the two-week rule is a huge part of that. If somebody offered me and they have, I’ve been offered jobs that would take me to New Zealand for a few months or what have you, you have to say no. If Megan can come with me, sometimes that’s how we do it. We’ve both done jobs in England only if the person can come visit or it always has to be part of the negotiation.

Nick Offerman:

That’s my advice to everybody is make a household that you want to last forever, and no matter what your job is, even if it’s a career at a bank or something, still, that’s going to end, and you still want that household or that family or that relationship to support you during and beyond whatever your job is, whether it’s a fancy movie job or just driving a bus. You got to put your home life and the affection you have for your family, relationships, above everything. I think that’s the number one key to life.

Debbie Millman:

You’ve written about your relationship in several of your books, but I find it most poignant in your brand new book, Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside. Congratulations on another wonderfully funny, acerbic, humorous, and really wonderful book.

Nick Offerman:

Thank you so much. I’m really proud of it.

Debbie Millman:

Your book is organized in three parts. Part one and two are focused on your 2019 pre-COVID trips to Glacier National Park in Montana and to Lake District Farm in Northwestern England with your friends, the writer George Saunders, and Jeff Tweedy, the singer/songwriter and frontman for the band Wilco.

Debbie Millman:

Early in the book you write that, “Successfully utilizing any public bathroom facility depends upon your cleanliness and your kindness, as well as that of your neighbors. If those who came before you have decent manners, you might avoid the main terror of park toilets, OPPPTYB,” an acronym, OPPTYB. Can you talk about what OPPTYB is and how to avoid it?

Nick Offerman:

Well, yes. It’s the terror of other people’s poop particles touching your butt, I believe. That terror is real. It’s funny. Unexpectedly, I’m going to swing you back to my sensei Shozo Sato. When we were on tour, I left a place out. We started our tour in Cyprus in the middle of the Mediterranean in a 2,000-year-old Greek amphitheater, which was so incredible to perform kabuki Achilles in that setting.

Nick Offerman:

While we were there, we had the last couple of weeks of rehearsal in a little mountain village called Kalopanayiotis. The young men in the show were being put up in a monastery in a dormitory setting, but quite idyllic in the Cypriot Mountains. One day, sensei came in to check on us and checked out our comportment as it were. We were his charges, and he looked into our bathroom. I don’t remember. We had basically destroyed this bathroom. It was terrible, and he came out and gave me this lesson I can never forget, which is he said, “When you leave a bathroom messy, no matter who comes after you into that bathroom, you’re doing them such an unkindness. You’re being such a bad neighbor. If you go in to a bathroom and someone else has left it messy, it doesn’t matter who did or when. The next person is going to think you did it.”

Debbie Millman:

Yes.

Nick Offerman:

So not only do you have to be conscientious and take care of your own hygiene and cleanliness, but now I’ll go into a bathroom that someone else has been a jerk and left a mess and I’m like, “Goddamn it, sensei. Now I have to clean up some other …” I mean, those are the kind of values that I’m like, “Okay. That feels like something I would have taken from church,” where it’s like picking up litter or it’s like doing the right thing even when no one will see you do the wrong thing. It’s never more true than with national park toilets because quite often, you come upon them when you’re desperate for a place to relieve yourself. If someone has left it somehow in an unfriendly way, what a horrible thing to do to your neighbors.

Debbie Millman:

You also talk about a trip that you and Megan took together, and in your book you describe how at the time, which was just when COVID had really taken hold, both you and Megan had been dealing with your own personal, and you termed it flavors of depression, and describe how your general happiness often depends upon your ability to accomplish good, productive work that does somebody some good, and you go on to state that whether it’s as an actor or a writer or a woodworker or a son or a husband or a neighbor. You’ve had the very good luck over the last few decades in almost always having been able to be of good use to someone. You go on to write having the vocational side of this personal economy stripped away was quite alienating and left you feeling useless and adrift, and when the pandemic began, all forms of work instantly disappeared, but you were grateful that you were still needed by Megan to fill your role as spouse or you would have been truly in peril.

Debbie Millman:

Then part three of the book you write about how a month or two into COVID lockdown Megan came up with the idea to get an RV or camping trailer to travel across the country to spend Thanksgiving with your family in Illinois. What did you initially think of this idea?

Nick Offerman:

Megan is the idea factory. She’s an incredible picker of things, which I learned pretty quickly into our relationship. So certain things that I don’t care what color we paint the hallway or which sink faucet we choose. So I learned the many arenas in which I say, “Honey, please, you go ahead and curate this experience.” I’m never sorry.

Nick Offerman:

So something as big as let’s buy some camper situation and become road tripping campers is pretty substantial and I always at first I’m like, “I’m not sure.” I want to bristle. That sounds like a big change. Who likes change? Pretty quickly I was like, “Well, I know how it goes. When you pick something even when I am resistant, I always end up real happy at the end. So yeah, let’s go look at Airstreams.”

Nick Offerman:

Once we looked at it, and we’re sitting in one. It was so cool at this dealership in Orange County. We’re sitting in the little living room end of the Airstream and the windows are up, and the breeze is blowing through the screens. I was like, “This is crazy and exciting, but, yeah, let’s go for it. Let’s haul this 30-foot trailer around several of the United States.”

Debbie Millman:

You named the Airstream Nutmeg. Why Nutmeg?

Nick Offerman:

I’m a huge fan of this set of 21 seafaring novels by Patrick O’Brian set around the Victorian era of Her Majesty’s royal navy. The movie Master and Commander was from one of these books. The kind of people who know all of the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings by heart, it’s a similar completist body of work, especially for woodworking boat builders. There’s all kinds of great boat talk in these books.

Nick Offerman:

One of the novels is entitled, The Nutmeg of Consolation. It’s the name of a ship that the lead character is commissioned to captain. I’ve always loved that title, and it’s a very cute ship. It’s a great story.

Nick Offerman:

So it just occurred to me the of consolation part is nearly just as important when it comes to our Airstream as the Nutmeg part because the Nutmeg is cute and compact. It’s a flavorful package of consolation, and it really did console us during the pandemic.

Debbie Millman:

Megan worked on decorating the interior of the Airstream, which you describe in the book as the 2020 love nest equivalent of the bottle from the classic television show I Dream of Jeannie. Was there a lot of velvet?

Nick Offerman:

There’s not literally a lot of velvet, but figuratively, it’s all velvet. She is a master of fabric and color and rugs. We’ve had two houses together. When she designs a house, she has always said she loves to be able to throw herself down at any given moment. So there’s always tastefully arranged pillows and lounging spots.

Debbie Millman:

On the trip, you often took long hikes by yourself and on one occasion when you were lost, you met a scientist, you ended up hiking quite a distance with and as you walked, you asked him a question that you’d been thinking about over the last four years, and especially since the pandemic had begun. You asked him if he thought humans’ propensity for killing each other, whether quickly like in war or genocide or slowly like with the systemic racism, the wealth gap, real estate redlining, the incarceration system, and our seeming indifference to climate change, could this be Mother Nature striking a balance? What was his answer?

Nick Offerman:

He said, “That’s a very good question,” and then said that he and his brother talked about that quite a bit. He talked about some research that he had done himself in the human genetic propensity for being violent to one another. Because we are gifted with a conscience and morality, it makes us want to think that being empathetic and compassionate is actually healthy for the species when the truth is it’s more Darwinian where those of us that are violent to one another or are selfish in our actions help perpetuate the species more than being generous. He said it’s quite likely that it’s Mother Nature’s way of keeping us from becoming even more overpopulated than we already are.

Debbie Millman:

It seems a little bit pessimistic, but something we deserve in some ways.

Nick Offerman:

Well, maybe. I mean, it certainly is dark, but life has darkness. I mean, there’s springtime and blossom and then there’s death and decay, and it’s the cycle of life. He was an optimistic guy, but I think that he was saying that’s the conundrum of humanity is that we have both within us.

Debbie Millman:

One of the tensions in your book is what you referred to as the juxtaposition of our responsible use of nature with our ownership of it. What have the trips that you’ve taken over the years around the country shown you about this dichotomy now?

Nick Offerman:

Well, it brought into a very sharp focus the difference that Wendell Berry talked to me about in assigning me the riddle that fueled this book, and that is seeing the national park circumstances, which is like the beauty of nature as something we have to travel to, something other than where we are. It became quite clear that it’s an actual, it’s a whole business. It’s something that people have always done. When John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell and their peers established our national parks and said, “These are our crown jewels.”

Nick Offerman:

It still is very prevalent today. When people talk about conservation or nature and preserving nature, it brings to mind images of, to me, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace and Yosemite, and Orcas, and the Alaskan Ocean, and so forth.

Debbie Millman:

Pandas.

Nick Offerman:

Yeah. Exactly. What I came to then learn because Wendell pointed me in the right direction was how interconnected all of us actually are. So not only is nature in our backyard, in our windowsills and everywhere around us, but we also are just as much a part of that nature as El Capitan or any panda, and that our relationships with each other, person to person, but also Europeans to indigenous North Americans and every other permutation, all of that is also part of our respect for nature. It’s all connected.

Nick Offerman:

That’s what really jump out of me was, “Okay,” and that focused more on Aldo Leopold, the agrarian from Madison, Wisconsin and his writing in A Sand County Almanac, and other places about how you have to pay attention and respect and value every cog and wheel in nature’s mechanism, not just the star players. You need everybody on the bench as well.

Debbie Millman:

Well, speaking of Aldo, you conclude Where the Deer and the Antelope Play with a quote by him. You write, “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” What made you decide to end the book this way?

Nick Offerman:

Well, because when it comes down to it, I think we’re all complicit in this society one way or another. As soon as you send a check to an electric company, you’re giving away your agency. You’re giving away your vote in what’s happening in that particular part of nature. So you’re sending money to a corporation saying, “Okay, and I can turn on my light switch now. Great. Thank you. Oh, by the way, I assume you’re going to be cool with the way you’re making this electricity, right? You wouldn’t ruin a mountain or you’re not going to make any species go extinct or ravage a forest or anything.”

Nick Offerman:

What we’ve come to learn that we’ve given that agency to so many corporations who, of course, ravage natural resources left and right because they serve profit above all else. To my way of thinking, when I first started reading Wendell Berry, my epiphany was, “Oh, I’m not going to get this messaging. It’s easy to tune this out and just be a lazy consumer and watch TV and go to work and buy my stuff, and then get old and die.” If we stay within that set of blinders, if we choose that myopic life path, then we will exterminate ourselves on the planet. The planet is going to be just fine. She was here long before us and she’ll be here long after us.

Nick Offerman:

So if we care about one another and ourselves and our families and the health of our species, then we should try and do the right thing even when no one is watching and pay attention to uncomfortable, inconvenient truths like climate change and corporate agribusiness problems that need reform, just learning about who makes our food, where its sourced, and how that’s healthy or not. I feel like young people really get it, so I’m optimistic. I’m hopeful that we can still turn it around in time to enjoy a sandwich in another 50 years.

Debbie Millman:

This is a much more political book than your others where you’re really talking about the state of the world, but you also manage to keep it really, really funny, but there is a more serious side that seems to be coming out not only in your writing, but also in your acting, your role in Devs, for example, as Forest, the head of a tech company who suffered a tragedy in trying to remake the world in order to potentially save himself and his family. What was it like for you to do a totally serious role like this?

Nick Offerman:

I mean, I’m such a massive fan of Alex Garland to begin with, specifically for his films Ex Machina and Annihilation among … I mean, he was a novelist first. He wrote The Beach, which became a popular movie. So to get to work with him on this beautiful eight-episode series was just a gift in so many ways, but it was a wonderful throwback to my time in Chicago theater where my best role was in this dramatic play as a villainous Irish indentured servant, who the audience loved to hate. I always thought that was going to be my wheelhouse like Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor like dastardly charming bad guys or something.

Nick Offerman:

So getting to work on material that heady and that dramatic was just an incredible gift. The cast was so incredible. Alex, all of the crew heads, the key, the department keys that always work with him, the visual effect people, the camera people, the music people, it’s just an incredible experience. It was a relief that the world was going to allow me to be a thespian, to be an actor that I rolled the dice correctly enough that I get to do something as effective as Ron Swanson, but then I’m granted permission to still continue as an artist and do more work. So I’m really grateful for that and look forward to trying some more stuff.

Debbie Millman:

I just thought I’d share with you my wife came in at the very end, I guess the last 15 or so minutes of the last episode, and I’ve been binge watching over the last couple of days. She was watching you and she said, “Is he a good guy or a bad guy?” I looked at her and I said, “Well, kind of both.” She nodded, and I thought that really reflected the range of the pathos and the hope for the future that this character brought to the screen and that you created in that role. So I wanted to share that with you. I thought you’d enjoy that question from her.

Nick Offerman:

I love that. Thank you. That’s right on the nose. I really appreciate it. I have to give the credit for that to Alex. I mean, that’s what the whole show is about is the morality of, and it’s questioning the morality that we’re seeing play out in real life with the power, the untethered power of Facebook and Google and these companies that are controlling the information of the world unchecked, “Are they good guys or bad guys?” Sadly, maybe it’s a little more murky in Devs than it is in real life because there’s not a lot of good guy stuff going on in the news.

Debbie Millman:

I have one last question for you, Nick, and it’s also about Devs. You had epic, epic hair in that series. Is it your hair?

Nick Offerman:

No. It’s my beard, but this wonderful artist named Nadia Stacey. She won awards, and then she won a BAFTA if nothing else for the favorite with Olivia Coleman and she also did the recent Emma Stone movie of the 101 Dalmatians villain, whose name I’m blanking.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, Cruella de Vil.

Nick Offerman:

Cruella. She did the father with Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman. So this incredible British hair and makeup artist created that look. Alex sent a reference photo of just this surfer dude. So that was a wig that had a bunch of bald on top. So I shaved my head and then had this huge beard, which then made ginger to go with it. So my favorite thing in the world is to look unrecognizable, and she really hit it out of the park. I was so tickled to get to do that for six months.

Debbie Millman:

Well, Nick, thank you so much for helping us to understand the world at a more curious and humorous and really charming way and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.

Nick Offerman:

Well, it’s absolutely my pleasure. Thanks for your great podcast.

Debbie Millman:

Thank you. Nick Offerman’s latest book is titled Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside. You could also see him in the Netflix series Colin in Black & White and the amazing science fiction thriller Devs on FX on Hulu. You can find out more about Nick Offerman, his books and his other projects at nickofferman.co.

Debbie Millman:

This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.