Entertainment

Nick Offerman On Telling Stories, Masculinity, And His Love Affair With Words

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Nick Offerman’s voice is unmistakable. A mix of strength and comfort — like a fine automobile. But it’s not just the sound, it’s the words he chooses. In a world where plenty of people try to take the conversational expressway with emojis and abbreviations, Offerman seems to prefer a soulful country drive filled with interesting stops along the way. It’s no wonder that Offerman has recorded more than a dozen audiobooks, including More Bedtime Stories For Cynics (which is available to download now on Audible), wherein he introduces a collection of funny (in the grown-up way) original stories as read by the likes of Mike Birbiglia, Alia Shawkat, Ellen Page, and Patrick Stewart.

Uproxx recently spoke with Offerman about that project along with a host of other things: storytelling, his love for language, and the quest for the right word. We also touched on the drag that is touring the country with not enough time to explore a proper rib joint, dodging offers to play alternate universe versions of Ron Swanson, and why the so-called war on masculinity is really just a needed dose of medicine. And if you ever needed confirmation of Offerman’s goodness, know that he took time out from working for his wife, Megan Mullally, as an unofficial roadie for her band Nancy & Beth and offered these thoughtful answers while his lunch order was getting cold.

How much of a role did you have in terms of curating the stories and selecting the talent that’s involved in this project?

Well, the brains at Audible are, I would consider, superior to my own. They told me about the project, and this happens a lot when you’re trying to put something together; you bounce around names, and ideas, and themes, and tones, but then you need smart administrators with an office, and people to do the corresponding. It’s the unsung glory of the casting director. Almost every medium that I work in, you swing for the fences, and then the people at Audible come back, and say, “Oh, we weren’t able to get this person, or this person, but what about Jean-Luc Picard?” The people writing the stories are so clever. I’m very much the drunk uncle on the porch. They get the whole dinner together, and then they have me come in and say the benediction.

The fact that people can tolerate me and my speaking voice communicating ideas through their earholes is a really nice kind of work, if you can get it. When Audible broached this to me, they said, “It’s meant as a bedtime story, but it’s very grown-up and all of these weird, and fun, perverse people are going to be writing and reading the stories.” I said, “Oh, that sounds like it should have been my idea. Please count me in.”

Obviously, you’ve developed this niche for yourself as a storyteller. Not just with things like this but also with your stage work. How did you discover that?

Well, that’s a very good question. I started out very bucolically in a small town, in a church, reading the Gospel to the congregation. I always felt like that was my first dance with Dionysus. That was the first time that I learned that I could make people laugh, or move them, by enunciating words correctly. That led to theater, which is what I trained in. I went to University of Illinois Theater School. Then, things went well in Chicago theater. Eventually, I found my way to TV and film. This sort of came later. Or maybe it’s come full circle. I changed my congregation, but I’m still providing an opiate to some of the masses, as it were.

Obviously, with any kind of conversation, sometimes you reach from the bargain bin of words, and sometimes you reach for the rafters. A lot of people reach for the bargain bin all the time, but you reach for the rafters a bit more, it seems. Where does that come from?

I’m not sure. I mean, I was a reader from a young age. I really loved books. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s in a cultural vacuum, in Central Illinois, books were definitely my main source of language and vocabulary. I think I’ve always just loved it. It’s like a treasure hunt, the language. All language is a puzzle that you never finish solving. If you keep searching, you keep finding treasures, and further hidden power chests. That’s my attempt at a video game reference. [Laughs] You find more jazzballs and put in coins and it gives you a tickle.

But it’s something that I’m fascinated with, and I love it, and I never feel like I’ve achieved a mastery. I’m always trying to learn more words. I also, occasionally, misuse words, which I totally cop to. Like, “Oh, yeah. I thought that meant this. Or I said ‘antediluvian’ when I meant ‘antipodean.’ Busted.” It’s a sort of thing that I hope to always keep growing and being able to flex my muscles with.

Is it for the glory of your audience or is it just to tickle yourself, essentially?

Well, I think they’re inescapably connected. Hopefully, I’m tickling us all, one way or another. But I mean, if the audience weren’t there, I wouldn’t walk around lacing together my attempt at entertaining sentences, so I guess the point is the entertainment.

I didn’t know if you went into, say, a bakery and tried to floor them with your word choices or if you just turn it off.

No, but I think that I flip the other side of it, where if I walk into a bakery, or a haberdashery, and I see a word, like “empanada,” I’m always on the lookout for, “Hey, what does that word mean?” I especially love the terminology surrounding craft. Like the words for tools. Tailoring terminology, like “gusset,” and “plackets.” I love being able to describe my equipment.

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Were you familiar with Good Omens going into that project?

I had read it. I’m a massive fan of Neil Gaiman. From the beginning, his Sandman graphic novels from the ’90s. I happened to have the good fortune to befriend Neil a few years ago. So it sort of played out naturally where I didn’t make too big of a fool of myself, and I let it slip in increments that I had read his entire oeuvre, and so this thing came up, and we were just hanging out. I have a pretty small role. It’s a lot of fun, but it was more of an excuse to go to South Africa and hang out with Neil for a week.

Is that the kind of thing you look for, in terms of a role, just more of the experience of going to work with certain people, going to certain places, as opposed to a careerist mentality, where it’s like, “I’ve got to get this big role, to do this next big role?”

Not really either one of those. My wife and I both just, whatever comes our way, we still try to choose what we consider to be the best writing. That’s our first criterion. Then we just say, “Do we think we want to work with these people? Do we know these people? Are they good people?” If we don’t know them, you ask around. “Is this person fun to work with?” I mean, as in any job, if you can, you try to avoid the assholes. Then, there are other tertiary categories, like “Oh, does it mean a trip to France? Great. Does it mean a trip to Albuquerque? Not so much.” You go from there.

I haven’t seen a lot of “This is another version of Ron Swanson” in your work. I mean, there’s definitely a pattern to the work, but it doesn’t feel like you’re being typecast. Is that important to you: to avoid stepping back in your own footprints?

Well, sure. I mean, that’s very much by design, and I’m glad to hear that’s the case. Because most of what I get offered… It’s beginning to lessen, but for several years now, most of what I get offered is another version of Ron Swanson, where they’re like, “An ex-Marine dad, who is now a football coach, and is great on the grill.” You’re going like, “Yeah, this sounds awfully familiar.” Just for my own edification, I try to choose different types of roles. Different genres. I have a new sci-fi series starting this fall on FX called Devs that hopefully will be a very different experience than perhaps what people are used to seeing me do.

Any apprehension going into another series and that kind of commitment?

I don’t really weigh things. If you send me a one-act play, or a hopeful 10-year TV series, I’d sort of weigh them the same, based off “Does this writing move me or inspire me?” In the case of a TV series, there’s always a roll of the dice. Even if you have a great track record, and you send me your pilot, there’s just never any telling if it’s going to be a six-month job, or a six-year job.

Masculinity is something you’ve talked about often and you’re someone who works with their hands, is unafraid to get dirty, and is a “Yes, ma’am, no, ma’am” kind of individual. A good way to be in lots of eyes. How do you feel about just the perceived war between masculinity and PC culture?

Well, I think our culture is changing and evolving, as it always does and always should, and human beings don’t like to be made to change. We are creatures of habit, and so we’ve had these systems. We’ve worked in this rut for centuries, where our systems are dominated by men, and in Western civilization, mostly white men. Now, even the victims, when they say, “Hey, we’re going to change the system.” I mean, if we were all told, “E-mail is no longer working. We’re going to start with a whole new system.” Even if the system was wonderful, we would initially grouse and say, “But it took me so long just to be able to send and receive e-mails in the current system.” So I very much think that the old paradigm of gender roles, and what is considered masculinity, is absolutely being deconstructed, and rightly so. Because so many of the human rights imbalances in our society are based on that. I’m actually in the middle of writing a song about that very subject for my new tour, which says, “I think I can be considered a man, but still be sensitive, and have feelings, and not put my hands on people without their consent, or smell their hair, or what have you.” I’m very much on the side of redefining what that means. I don’t think it’s an attack on anything. I think it’s a form of medicine.

On a lighter note, are you eating well on the road?

So far, we’re doing okay. It’s sort of haphazard, since the hours are really weird, and you’re traveling. Even if the hotel, say, has good room service, chances are you’re going to arrive at 2:00 in the morning, or something. It’s a little bit of a challenge, but we’re doing pretty good.

You tour overseas and all across the country. Is the experience part of the joy of doing that? Are you getting the chance to explore different foods or culture?

A little bit, but it’s more disappointing on that end. When you tell people, “Oh, I’m coming through Kansas City on tour,” and they say, “Oh, you’ve got to visit these five barbecue spots, and go to the Negro League Baseball Museum.” You’re like, “I’m probably going to have 30 minutes to spare.”

Well, that sucks.

Yeah, I mean usually, the fact of the matter is touring doesn’t leave a lot of sightseeing time. You do visibly get to see a lot of the countryside, and also take the measure of the people wherever you go. That is quite gratifying, and it’s very edifying. You really get a sense. And what you find is people are pretty sweet, no matter where they are gathered.

‘More Bedtime Stories For Cynics’ is available to download now from Audible.com.

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