There are striking similarities between Nick Offerman and his libertarian-leaning “Parks and Recreation” alter ego, Ron Swanson. Besides the obvious physical resemblance, each spends a good chunk of his downtime working in his wood shop. Both are musicians. Both have a history with Megan Mullally, although on the show she is Swanson’s evil ex-wife, Tammy, while in real life Offerman and Mullally are married, and he speaks of her with palpable affection.
There are other points where the two diverge. Swanson might agree with the meat of Offerman’s one-man show, “American Ham,” but he would never get onstage to present his advice to a crowd of strangers. He might admire Offerman’s skills as a onetime fight choreographer for the stage, but he’d never go to a theater, especially not in a big city like Chicago, where Offerman cut his teeth with Steppenwolf Theatre Company and other troupes.
NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” struggles with ratings, but Ron Swanson is an undeniable sensation, inspiring merchandising and online tributes including “Cats That Look Like Ron Swanson.” Offerman spoke by phone from his business, Offerman Wood Shop, about his hit character and “American Ham,” which comes to the Wilbur Theatre for two shows Saturday.
Q. How would you describe “American Ham” to the uninitiated?
A. It’s a collection of cautionary tales, humorous anecdotes, a few solipsisms, with minor nudity and some songs. I do like to stress that I’m a humorist and not a stand-up, so that people don’t expect — I don’t write jokes. I tickle them with a wry observation. It came about because I was invited to speak at some colleges and so I wrote a show. It’s my 10 tips for a prosperous life. Each tip is sincere. It’s sort of the broccoli secretly mixed into a pizza.
Q. What kind of advice do you give?
A. Say “please” and “thank you.” Carry a handkerchief. Go out of doors. Use intoxicants. Stuff like that. It really came about organically. As a theater-trained actor, I never imagined that I would perform as myself, let alone sing and play the guitar for an audience.
Q. Would you say it’s in the vein of “A Prairie Home Companion” or what Mark Twain used to do for audiences?
A. Yes, I suppose. I would say I would be a foul-mouthed, less-educated Garrison Keillor.
Q. Are the comic chops and the serious theater chops all that different? Are you using the same muscles?
A. You are. My wife speaks very eloquently about that subject, that comedy is actually much harder than drama because you’re doing the exact same thing, but in comedy, you have to be even more dead serious about it than you do in a drama. And it’s really true. I mean, the things that make us laugh the most is when we’re so committed as human beings that we make just utter asses of ourselves. And the higher the stakes, the more hilarious it is when our pants fall down.
Q. Did you ever think you’d wind up as a lead character on a sitcom back when you started in theater?
A. No, not at all. I was a small-minded person, and there is a very strong anti-sitcom sentiment in Chicago theater. I learned eventually that Chicago actors have this defense mechanism by which they’re allowed to remain in Chicago. And the mechanism is that New York theater, Broadway, is [expletive]. It’s all sell-out, big-money, corporate theater. And Los Angeles is the same thing without the theater: It’s just big corporate sell-out TV stuff. And by thus maligning it, you then allow yourself to say, “Oh, I don’t need to take the risk of trying LA or New York. I can stay in Chicago where the theater is pure.” And the theater is pure in Chicago. There’s truth to that, certainly, because it’s not affected by the financial interests of Broadway or Hollywood. But it sort of purveys into an area, I think, of self-deception where you’re like, “Oh, I don’t go to New York because they’re full of [expletive]. Not because I’m scared.”
Q. Are there different camps in theater between Second City and the improv people and the more dramatic troupes?
A. When I was there, different camps is an understatement. I would say it’s different island nations. I was friends with Amy Poehler in the early ’90s when we were both starting in Chicago, and we never would have even imagined going to see each other’s work. She might as well have been a veterinarian because, I think in both of our cases, your whole life is just completely saturated with your work. I was completely ignorant, really, to the whole comedy situation until I got to Los Angeles and realized that that is a whole other pipeline to a career in performance. Continued...