Interview: Nick Offerman talks ‘Axe Cop,’ the future of ‘Parks and Recreation’ and more

Hollywood is full of busy people, but Nick Offerman has a sacred place in the upper tier of entertainment industry workaholics.
Earlier this month, the “Parks and Recreation” star released his memoir, titled “Paddle Your Own Canoe.” He continues to tour the country with the comedy show “American Ham.” In the past year, his motion picture releases have included “Paradise,” “We’re the Millers,” “In a World” and “The Kings of Summer.” Next spring, he’s heading Off Broadway to reteam with wife Megan Mullally on “Annapurna,” a play they did earlier this year in Los Angeles. He continues to run the Offerman Woodshop, described appropriately as “a small collective of woodworkers and makers based out of Nick Offerman”s kick-ass wood shop in East Los Angeles.”
And in his free time, Offerman fights crime and wields a mean axe as the lead voice and executive producer for “Axe Cop.” Based on the web comic by brothers Ethan and Malachai Nicole, 29 and 5 when the series began, “Axe Cop” was one of the first entries in Animation Domination HD programming block, which premiered in July. If Nick Offerman is a slightly elevated human being and Ron Swanson is a slightly elevated Nick Offerman, Axe Cop is a slightly elevated Ron Swanson, a perfect union of animated character and vocal talent that nearly went uncredited in the summer amidst a minor kerfuffle with NBC.
Offerman and “Axe Cop” return to ADHD this Saturday (November 2) — or, if you’re impatient, you can watch the episode now by downloading the Animation Domination High-Def ap — so I got on the phone with the veteran character actor, storyteller and axeman to talk about… everything on his plate. We discussed “Axe Cop” and Malachai’s particular view of heroism and crime-fighting. We talked about recently shooting the 100th episode of “Parks and Recreation,” their feeling about that show’s future and his return to directing this winter. We discussed whether or not he still has time for carpentry. 
And Nick Offerman, to his credit, humored my admittedly dumb question comparing his own axe skills to those of his alter egos. 
Click through for the full chat.
HitFix: You have “Axe Cop” and “Parks and Rec” and a new memoir and a handful of movies coming out this year and you’re doing off-Broadway in the spring. Have you always had this kind of distaste for idle time?
Nick Offerman: Well, I suppose so. As an actor, I really enjoyed my work as a professional theater actor and I had my own theater company and so I would build all of the scenery and a lot of the props and then appear in the plays and so I guess I sort of grew up in a professional tradition in which there wasn’t a lot of downtime, there’s always something more to be done. For many years, trying to get sorta get a break as a screen actor, I was able to fill my time with wood-working and whatnot. So now that I’m finally getting some opportunities, it just makes sense to me to strike as many irons as possible while they’re hot.
HitFix: And how important is it to find different kinds of irons, like doing a memoir because that was something you hadn’t done?
Nick Offerman: It’s not something I particularly seek out. I was performing this humorist show that I’ve been touring around the country called “American Ham” and it lists my 10 Tips for Prosperity. The show is funny, but my 10 tips are sincere and some of my friends said, “Hey, I like the agenda in your show. It sounds like what your book would be like” and I said, “Huh. That’s a funny idea. There were a bunch of stories that I didn’t have time for in my stage show…” and so it sorta organically took shape as this idea for a book and I pitched it around and got lucky and got a book deal. I’m just having a very fortunate time where I’m getting to try out a few different hats.
HitFix: But does the carpentry suffer? Is there not enough time for that anymore? Or do you just make time?
Nick Offerman: I have a few great employees at my wood shop. I’m just leaving there now, in fact. So my time at the wood shop has become more administrative, but a couple months ago, I got to make 10 small canoe paddles as a promotion for my book going on sale and I’ve spent a lot of time in there the last couple weeks finishing up this Japanese gazebo that we’re building in Illinois later this week, so I’m still managing to squeeze in some sawdust amongst the tinsel. [Beat.] I just realized my life is a Bergman film: “Tinsel & Sawdust.”
HitFix: Talking about “Axe Cop,” when people started telling you about this comic, what initially attracted you to the character beyond, of course, the mustache?
Nick Offerman: It’s so incredibly funny. The two brothers who created the comic and continue to write it and also still control the writing of the show, are so brilliantly funny. Ethan Nicholle is the older brother and he’s sorta the mastermind and then Malachai, the younger brother who started writing it at five, he’s sorta the creative freak and we still depend on his boyish creativity to fuel the wacky storylines and disjointed reality that the writing adheres to. People started giving me the graphic novel when it first appeared mainly because they thought I would really think it’s funny. And they were right. And then people began to say to me, “You should really play Axe Cop,” and then a friend of mine ended up hooking up a meeting between Ethan and I and he said he’d heard the same thing, he’d been told by many people that if they can, they should get me to do Axe Cop. So we said, “Holy cow, let’s shake hands and have some fun.” And so we’re doing that.
HitFix: When it comes to the voice of Axe Cop, he sounds a lot like you, but it’s not exactly your voice. Is there a physical process to tapping into the Axe Cop voice? Is there a mental process?
Nick Offerman: I guess I have to harden my entire physiognomy into a more superheroic density in order to achieve the timbre of the voice of Axey Smartist.
HitFix: And I’ve seen footage from the recording booth and I’ve seen you doing the voice while bearded. Does it make a difference doing this character when bearded versus mustachioed? 
Nick Offerman: It is a distraction, but I have to pretend that the beard is invisible.
HitFix: You mentioned the disjointed logic of the “Axe Cop” world, but I love how perfectly it makes sense within a certain child-logic. Do you have any favorite moments of child-logic that Malachai has presumably brought to the table?
Nick Offerman: The list is too long to get into, but one of the best parts about working on the show are when we need to answer story questions and the writers get ahold of Malachai on the phone and they’ll say, “Axe Cop and Flute Cop and Gray Diamond need to travel to the Bad Guy Planet. How do they get there?” and Malachai treats us like we’re complete idiots and he says, “Well, they build the world’s most awesome ramp and they jump Axe Cop’s car. Idiots.” And we’re like, “Oh yes. Of course.” When things occur like Axe Cop kills literally all the bad guys on planet Earth, you think, “Well, that’s it then. It’s over.” And Malachai says, “Well, no. There’s countless other planets full of bad guys.” There’s no rules to the limits of his creation. Anything can be solved. And if he gets himself painted into too much of corner, why then we go back in a time machine and erase it all.
HitFix: What is Malachai actually like? Has success spoiled the kid?
Nick Offerman: He’s quite imperious. On his first visit to the production office, he tried to fire our boss. Unsuccessfully, thankfully. He’s very funny and he really understands that he’s very good at making up stories with his toys. That was where it all started, was him just playing with his toys and saying, “Here’s a cop. I’m gonna give him this axe. He’s Axe Cop.” Malachai, he’s a lot of fun. I think that Ethan and their family are taking some measures to try and protect him from having too much glitzy exposure, so that he can have a somewhat normal upbringing, but he definitely brings the noise with every week’s script.
HitFix: Are there any worries, though, about what will happen if he gets older and leaves this mindset behind?
Nick Offerman: That’s beyond my ken. I’m sure that a lot of care is being taken to keep him off of hard drugs, here at the age of eight, and we’re trying to keep him away from Vegas. But only time will tell. This is what fate has handed him at the moment and who knows? Maybe he’ll take this creativity into the White House and finally bring us some answers, using Axe Cop’s mentality, that neither of the political parties seem to be able to come up with.
HitFix: There was a brief period in the summer when it looked like FOX might not be able to credit you by name for this and they were just saying, “Axe Cop as Axe Cop.” How did you feel about that? About the idea that Axe Cop might be presented as The Thing Himself, beyond just one actor?
Nick Offerman: I generally don’t do things for credit and so that wasn’t a major concern. Because of the popularity of “Parks and Rec” right now, it was a drag that the show wouldn’t be able to exploit whatever fans I have by attaching my name to it, but it was a great piece of news when we were finally able to put my name on it, just because in the world of the terrific cast that we have — Ken Marino and Patton Oswalt and Rob Huebel and Peter Serafinowicz and Megan Mullally and the list goes on and on — it was nice to be able to let everybody who was the titular character.
HitFix: You guys just celebrated your 100th episode on “Parks and Rec.” Did that leave you in a contemplative about the journey that the show has been on and the journey that you’ve been on with the show?
Nick Offerman: It was very interesting and wonderfully gratifying to achieve the milestone of 100 episodes on a show that is so beloved but has not done the most gangbuster Nielsen ratings. We’re kinda the poster child for the new format of television where the network is aware that we have a huge, vast following on Internet channels and among DVR watchers and those things aren’t being tracked by the traditional Nielsen ratings. So because of that situation, every time we get another season, we thank our lucky stars and we put our heads down and mind our manners, because we feel really lucky to be surviving in this new paradigm, which is a conundrum because, at the same time, publications are calling us the best show on TV and I think generally we just feel a great deal of gratitude that we continue to have the opportunity to make such a high-quality program.
HitFix: There’s been some minor panic from fans this week about the show going off the air for a couple weeks next month. How are you guys feeling about the show’s future at this point? Or is it just a one-week-at-a-time thing and you’re just enjoying it for now?
Nick Offerman: Yeah. We don’t feel worried at the moment. We sorta just continue to blithely make the show. As long as the lights are turned on on our stage, we say, “Hey, the lights are on. Let’s play ball!” And NBC is doing its best to try and strategize how to win back as many viewers as possible and it’s not the first time that we’ve been shuffled around. We happily just continue turning out a great product and we’re glad to be there playing ball.
HitFix: The past couple seasons, you wrote an episode and you directed an episode. In the second half of this season are you wearing either one of those hats again?
Nick Offerman: I believe I’m on the schedule to direct again, which I’m very excited about. Directing our show is like going over to the richest kid in town’s house and getting to play with his toys. It’s such a well-oiled machine that it’s a very gentle directing school and I’m very honored to be considered a student.
HitFix: As you go through that school and become more comfortable with it, are you already starting to think ahead to a longer project you want to direct?
Nick Offerman: I don’t have aspirations to become a famous director, but any time I can bring my experience to bear on a project in a way that will help that project, I’m happy to do so. So the times that I’ve written, produced or directed a project, it’s because it was collaborating with friends and we thought my particular toolbox might come in handy. So I hope that I’ll get to keep working on stuff in one capacity or another and do the best work I can, whether it’s behind the camera or in front of it.
HitFix: And I have to close with the stupidest question I could concoct: How would you compare the relative axe merits of Axe Cop, Ron Swanson and Nick Offerman?
Nick Offerman: Well, you put them in perfect order. Axe Cop is a superhero and so he can actually performs acts with his axe — Axe Acts — that would make Superman quiver and tinkle in his red drawers. And, you know, he has an assortment of axes that have superpowers of their own, including tiny robot axes that come out of his mustache. Ron Swanson is a superheroic fictional character who can chop wood for a week and just needs a couple steaks and a bottle of scotch to keep him going. And then finally Nick Offerman is a feeble human, so I think people would find my axe skills to be perfectly average and I would take it as a compliment if they said my work with the axe was “adequate.”
“Axe Cop” returns to FOX’s Animation Domination HD block on Saturday, November 2 at 11 p.m.