Nick Offerman Talks Amy Poehler Improvs, Adding Drama To ‘Parks and Recreation’

Televisions Best Moments 2015
Courtesy of NBC

Nick Offerman practically defined what it means to be a scene stealer for seven seasons on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” As bacon-loving Libertarian Ron Swanson, he breathed life into a character who will go down in TV history as one of the all-time comedy greats. With the show signing off for good this season, series co-creator Michael Schur penned an episode devoted almost entirely to Offerman and five-time Emmy-nominated star Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope. The half-hour was not only a love letter to their characters but also the unique skills of each star, giving Poehler room to improvise lyrics to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and Offerman space to layer in drama between the laughs.

“Parks and Recreation,” NBC
Season 7, ep. 4, “Leslie & Ron”
Written by Michael Schur; Directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller

NICK OFFERMAN: “I had heard a rumor of (the script). Mike had mentioned that he was writing a one-act play for me and Amy. From start to finish, I just have had such intense feelings of gratitude and ‘How did I get so lucky?’ when it comes to the things that were handed to me by Mike and Amy. And so hearing of that… I’m hilariously sappy historically across the history of the show. I will start crying at the drop of a hat. I think people can understand it, if you’re the guy getting handed Ron Swanson’s dialogue after 20 years of playing a rapist on ‘24,’ you’d cry with gratitude too.

“I love the thoughtfulness of, ‘three years have gone by, this rift has happened between Ron and Leslie,’ and the depths and extent to which Mike thought it out. It took Ron to an entirely unrecognizable place because of these events that happened during the three-year jump. The events of his life, including the story with Leslie, has brought him to an emotional place that he’s never known. He’s in a new frontier. The Swanson-esque way in which Mike has allowed him to handle it is so touching.

“There was something about when your character received the full focus of Leslie Knope. That was when you got to sit in the star’s desk in class. You put a quarter in (Amy Poehler’s) ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ machine and you might as well make a sandwich because she’ll just keep going. That’s what you hope you’re in the room for.

“Across the show, whenever there’d be some Mexican standoff between us, and Leslie is going to try every tactic she can think of to get her way with Ron, those were so fun. Those were like being tickled by your favorite aunt. When she’s like, ‘No? You’re not going to break? How about this?’ She has the most wickedly inventive tickling systems until finally you absolutely blow milk out your nose.

“I was a little nervous about the (drama). When we did a couple of the more emotional scenes, they felt good and right, but I looked around at everyone and said, ‘Is that OK if we do that? I think that was dramatic, guys.’ And everyone was like ‘Yeah, that’s the swing we’re taking. And hopefully the audience trusts us enough to go with us.’ And I guess they did.

“For me personally, because I come from theater. I come from a discipline which utilizes the entire spectrum of performance. And so while ‘Parks and Rec’ has been the greatest job of my life, if I ever longed for anything, it was a good meaty, dramatic scene. The very thing that was enjoyable about Ron, his brevity, could get one hankering for a little bit of Shakespeare here and there.

“But the nice thing is the writers played off of my penchant for drama by giving Ron subject matter that was dead serious. And Ron made his emotional reactions very dramatic, which was then very funny. In this (episode), it felt, like so many things on the show, like we were getting to be naughty. But this time we weren’t being brash or mischievous, we were being naughty by playing something sincerely. And gosh, it was really nice. To get to play those characters in that situation was just absolutely delicious.

“Usually maybe a couple episodes a season, there’d be Ron-centric episodes, often in the Ron and Tammy series where I’d have a more fleshed-out story. And when I would have long hard days or had a lot of material to learn, I’d say, ‘Oh, this is what it’s like for Amy every day.’ And it would just increase my admiration. We’re all living together, and watching her mothering two small boys and running her own entertainment empire … Every time she would pull off a monologue — at a clip, too; it would take me more than 10 minutes to rattle off one of her monologues — I just take off my hat and say, ‘I look up to you, Amy.’

“I don’t like to watch my work. I can’t watch the show and say, ‘Oh, terrific. Nailed it.’ I can’t help but watch with a critical eye. I usually hope that my work has been competent. It’s interesting; there’s a disconnect between when I see myself and then if people enjoy what I’ve done, I think, ‘I don’t know how I’m fooling them, but I’m going to just keep trying.’

“It’s an ever-growing organism and so I’m always trying to get better. The same goes for my guitar-playing and my woodworking and my relationships. It’s a wonderful thing about life — we’ll never get it right but it’s sure fun to keep trying.

“And so after an episode like that, I specifically recall thinking, ‘Well it felt like we did a real good job. It felt like we did our very best. Nobody showed up drunk or late and all the crew were as exemplary as usual. Hopefully we have a shot of getting this right. I hope this works.’”