There’s probably nothing more American than a shirtless, hairy, amateur guitarist charging people money to listen to him rant and tell crazy sex stories. Throw in some life lessons and an American flag shirt that puts Betsy Ross to shame, and you’ve got the gist of Nick Offerman’s comedy show, “American Ham.” Best known for his lead role as Ron Swanson on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” Offerman entertained a nearly full Strong Auditorium last Saturday, Feb. 2, with tales of wit, wisdom, and woodworking.
Part stand-up, part auto-biographical monologue, Offerman’s show was not the typical solo comedy act. “There won’t be a quiz,” he said after walking onstage sans shirt, guitar strapped across his bare chest. “But life is a pop quiz. So you might want to pay attention.”
As he slowly donned and buttoned his boisterously patriotic shirt, he requested that no videos be taken, explaining that live shows and theatre have to be experienced in person. “You’ll go back and look at [the video], and it will crumble to ashes in your hand,” he explained. He may have been joking, but his metaphor was piercingly true. The whole show was spent in laughter, yet also in thought.
He continued his opening with frequent references to the upcoming “dry material,” insisting that the funny part. of the show was already over. Expertly delayed, the real start and substance of the show, his “10 tips for a prosperous life,” was a blend of scripted performance, traditional stand-up, and delightfully inappropriate acoustic songs. When the time eventually came, the first of his ten tips set the playfully serious mood perfectly:
“Engage,” he said. “In romantic love.”
The next 10 minutes involved anecdotes about his wife and authentic descriptions of his view on love, ending with a dirty song about rainbows. Each segment ranged in length and content; some tips, such as “eat red meat,” needed only to be stated before moving on to the next.
Additional wisdom, like “go outside. Remain” and “use intoxicants,” made the show an artful mix of funny, self-indulgent rants and completely candid personal experiences. His voice was surprisingly good, and his simple songs complemented his performance without overshadowing it.
“What seems like about two years of training is more like 20,” Offerman said of his guitar playing in a post-show interview.
Above all, his genuine honesty shone through, especially during his performance of a homemade Johnny Cash spoof entitled, “I Stay Offline.” It took him a few tries to get through the song, but, if anything, the struggle added to the performance and his call to find some tangible hobbies. “Have some whiskey, weed, or wine, and stay offline,” he sang.
For Offerman, staying offline has always meant an enthusiasm for woodworking. What started out as basic tool work on the farm, woodworking swiftly became a passion.
“I accidentally kept getting better and better,” he said in the same interview.
The woodworking came in handy for building sets and paying the bills during the start of his career in Chicago, after attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).
“I wasn’t even a decent actor until my first year in Chicago,” he said. “Thankfully, I could build scenery.”
Offerman got a late start to theatre from his small hometown in rural Illinois. With few examples to follow, it was a difficult process.
“I didn’t know you could go from where I was to theatre,” he said. “All of my school counselors had no idea; no one had ever gone into the arts. They suggested agricultural law.”
His first real exposure to careers of the stage was meeting some theatre students while accompanying his high-school girlfriend to a dance audition at UIUC.
“It took a good amount of balls and stupidity [to get where I am],” he said. “I always knew I wanted to entertain, but didn’t know I could make money doing it. It’s like I never heard of baseball but had always been good at throwing rocks really far. And then moved to America and discovered baseball.”
He eventually attended UIUC where he started the Defiant Theatre company with some friends. The company focused on eclectic theatre, producing inventive shows such as a Kabuki version of Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi,” entitled “Ubu Raw.”
“We did straight theatre, even though we were super funny,” Offerman said.
After college and a stint in Chicago, Offerman moved to Los Angeles where he auditioned for the part of Michael Scott on the television show “The Office.” Although he didn’t get the part, something about his audition caught the attention of Mike Schur, the eventual co-creator of “Parks and Recreation.”
“My audition struck [Schur] and he wrote my name on a yellow post-it note and stuck it to his computer,” Offerman explained.
The post-it note was still there 3 years later when Schur created “Parks and Recreation” with Greg Daniels. Schur wanted Offerman in it. It took 5 months to convince NBC to give him the part.
“This Christmas, [Schur] found that post-it note and gave it to me framed,” Offerman said. “It’s the greatest thing ever.”
Whatever Schur saw in Offerman was definitely there at his UR performance.
He deftly showed the humor in reality, and the reality in humor. At times his material bordered on whiny, but the same feeling of heartfelt advice was constant. It was like a comedic version of Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” but with way more penis jokes.
At the end of the planned show, Offerman answered questions from the audience, responding to such inquiries as, “What endangered species would you most like to eat?” (His answer was that he would eat whichever species there was only one of, by the way). He also revealed that he calls it “pop” and not “soda,” polling the audience for additional feedback. Also, his favorite scotch is Lagavulin, just like Ron Swanson, in case you were wondering.
“American Ham” successfully managed to be both entertaining and thought-provoking, due mainly to Offerman’s stage presence and relaxed demeanor.
“A lot of my show is riffing,” he said afterward. “I’ll get a notion and say, ‘I’m going to talk about this.’ I frequently laugh at my own material because I enjoy it. And some of it’s absurd. I don’t think comedians plan that out.”
Esce is a member of the class of 2013.