The Lillie Langtry Room at Keens Steakhouse in Manhattan is paneled in warm oak. In its center is a table covered in a starched white cloth, upon which rests a steak grilled medium rare, plates of creamed spinach and mashed Yukon gold potatoes, and a bottle of Lagavulin Distillers Edition with a couple of snifters. This, for Nick Offerman, is paradise.
The co-star of NBC’s Parks and Recreation is in New York to promote his book, Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living, and like George Hamilton at the Polo Lounge or Alec Baldwin on Page Six, a steakhouse is his natural habitat. “There’s nothing more delicious than red meat—I enjoy it greatly,” Offerman says, tucking into his T-bone. He and other members of his family have not always been on the best terms with cholesterol, but he will never abandon beef entirely. “I’m still on my feet,” he says, “and as long as I am, I intend to eat a huge, juicy steak.”
The overlap between Offerman and the character he plays on TV, Ron Swanson, is not insignificant. Today, Offerman is wearing the same mustache he has made famous as the boss of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department. But his hair isn’t as bureaucratically pompadoured, and he’s in a blue-and-white gingham shirt with a pair of well-worn jeans instead of Swanson’s Midwestern khakis. There are philosophical differences as well: Swanson is a libertarian Lou Grant, abhorring the government he works for, while Offerman abides by more of a muscular humanism. Both men genuinely cherish a breed of manliness that modern society, they feel, has swept aside.
About that mustache, to which Offerman’s persona is inextricably linked: While he doesn’t wear it all year (once his TV show goes on break, the mustache goes with it), he does enjoy it. “Growing up, the mustache was a great symbol of virility to me. Two of my uncles had great mustaches. They were farmers,” he says. “Getting old enough to grow a mustache meant I could drive the truck and the combine and be in charge. And I could have 12 beers instead of the mere three [my uncles] allowed me in junior high.”
It might seem as if Offerman’s facial hair connects him to a larger cultural trend, that of the “urban woodsman,” those city dwellers who seek macho authenticity by buying overpriced handmade axes and making their own salmon jerky. He wants no part of that. “I think that a great many people wear mustaches ironically—it’s sort of a hipster accessory,” he says. “And that’s been true for a lot of things in my life. Trucker caps, Carhartt garments, work boots, have all come and gone in popular fashion. People will accuse me of ‘Oh, well, you have a handkerchief, you must listen to Drake.’ I tell them I wear Carhartts because they’re durable garments that I wear in the shop. And long after you’re done wearing Carhartts, I’ll still be wearing them.”
Offerman’s fame has eclipsed that of the low-rated Parks and Recreation, and he’s embraced (and profited from) his role as pop culture’s favorite dude. He writes books, makes and sells furniture, and gives charming joint interviews about love with his wife of 10 years, actress Megan Mullally. Paddle Your Own Canoe is part memoir, chronicling his journey from rural Illinois to TV stardom, but it’s also a man’s manifesto, even if he writes, “I seem to have been associated with certain traits of machismo in the zeitgeist, at least for this brief, golden moment. I find that fact to be somewhat embarrassing, given my firsthand knowledge of my personal failings and propensity for jackass behavior.” I see no jackassery. Offerman is an object lesson in good table manners. The napkin goes onto his lap within seconds of sitting down. Eye contact is made at every toast.
The book tackles topics such as fashion (“Jobs that require a suit upset me. They displease me much, as our world is rife with such superficial conformity”); intoxicants (“I am a supersweet teddy bear, but when I drink tequila, I want to knife somebody”); and chivalry (after he poses the question, “If you ladies want to be treated as equals, then shouldn’t you be able to open your own car door?” Offerman writes, “The answer to that is simply, ‘No, dude. You’re an a--hole.’ ”). Offerman’s power comes from his mix of old-school masculinity and 21st century sensitivity. Be tough but kind. Be an individual.
Woven through his treatises on various topics is a reverence for making, building, and fixing things. “Work is a privilege,” Offerman says over Scotch. “If you can, find work that you enjoy, that makes your life practical, that makes you offer a contribution rather than, say, ‘Well, I should just go work in a cubicle so I can drive a Toyota and buy my Levi’s.’ ”
This puts Offerman somewhat at odds with modern living. “It’s inescapable that the human condition is: If you’re both laying in the cave and the fire’s going out, you’re hoping the other guy is going to get up and put more wood on the fire,” he says. “We’ll always take the easier choice. And I think that’s what a lot of modern industry figured out, how to appeal to that side of our nature and say, ‘Well sure, you could grow a garden, but that’s a heck of a lot of work. And you know what you’re doing it in? Dirt. And do you know what that is? Dirty.’ ”
Offerman wants to get dirty. And that happens most often in his wood shop in Los Angeles. It’s more than a hobby: He has a website, offermanwoodshop.com, featuring work he and his partners have made, such as a meat-carving board for $135 and a walnut desk for $5,562. He has written for Fine Woodworking magazine. “American white oak is, to me, the most noble of woods,” Offerman says. “It’s the stoutest. It’s incredibly dense. It’s what the hulls of old wooden ships were built of. ‘Old Ironsides’ was so named because her hull was 18 inches thick of white oak.”
When he’s not building furniture or writing books, Offerman spends seven months of the year filming Parks and Recreation. He plays the boss, but he’s never sought an executive role off camera. “I would much rather serve under a brilliant general than come up with any battle plan of my own.”
The cast and crew of Parks and Recreation are known for being one of the most genial and collaborative in TV. Offerman ascribes that to a simple rule the show’s creators have applied from the beginning. “First and foremost, you want to keep all the a--holes out of your group,” he says. “When you’re working together 12, 13, 14 hours a day, that makes a really big difference. If somebody’s even a little abrasive, at the end of the week, you want to strangle that person.”
He takes another sip of his Lagavulin (“mother’s milk,” he calls it). “I’ve learned that creativity, and heart, and humor can go much further than ruling by fear or by any sort of greed or power,” he continues. “I’ve seen a lot of victories achieved by leaders being magnanimous and giving of their good fortune, instead of trying to hoard it.”