SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the “Parks and Recreation” virtual reunion special.
Last television audiences saw Nick Offerman, he was playing a tech CEO named Forest in FX on Hulu’s limited series “Devs.” But in March he did a complete 180-degree character turn to step back into the shoes of Ron Swanson from Greg Daniels and Mike Schur’s “Parks and Recreation” for its special virtual reunion episode to raise funds for Feeding America amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The mustachioed, polo and plaid-wearing Ron was a reluctant government employee turned business owner who valued breakfast food (especially bacon), woodworking and the great outdoors but hated technology in the original seven-season run of the NBC sitcom. When the show signed off in 2015, Ron was also married and a father of three children.
When “Parks and Recreation” picked back up with Ron in this special that Schur previously said should be considered canon, he is still married to Diane (Lucy Lawless), but because of the nature of the “self film at home” for the actors, it was Ron’s second ex-wife Tammy (Offerman’s real-life wife Megan Mullally) who popped up in Ron’s cabin in a surprise cameo.
And perhaps surprisingly, Ron willingly uses Gryzzl video call technology to not only participate in Leslie’s (Amy Poehler) phone chain so the former Pawnee, Ind. parks department employees can stay in touch in a time of social distancing, but also to initiate a conference call for a group sing-along of “5,000 Candles in the Wind.”
Here, Offerman talks with Variety about breaking quarantine to film the “Parks and Recreation” special in his real-life wood shop, working with his wife on the special and getting emotional — once again — over Li’l Sebastian.
Much of the audience may be just coming off watching you in “Devs,” which is a character so unlike Ron Swanson it could give you whiplash. How did it feel for you to step back into his shoes?
It’s kind of like pulling your old baseball jersey or your comfy old college sweater out of a drawer to find that it still fits very comfortably.
Yet, this is a Ron that is also in a different place from where we really left him. He gets pretty emotional while singing.
The thing that brought Ron to the apex of of exhibiting emotion was Li’l Sebastian — the magnificent miniature horse that was so beloved of the citizens of Pawnee. It is surprising, because we don’t we don’t see that from Ron at almost any other time, except in the case of, say, a full government shutdown.
And that was glee, a different kind of emotion, anyway.
How did it feel to perform — even from afar — with all of these people again?
It was quite moving. We’re always aware that there will most likely never be any sort of actual reunion roundup of “Parks and Rec.” It seems that, because of the way Mike Schur does things, which involves integrity and quality — for which we’re all extremely grateful — I don’t think we’ll ever come back. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings to eat those words at any moment, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. And so to get it to get an email from Mike that says, “Hey guys, here’s this idea” and put on a little pageant to raise some money, there’s a lot going on there. A) This thing is supposed to be impossible; we’re supposed to never get back together and do this, so that’s already incredibly moving and I’m already welling up. And then of course the heart of the show — the heart of Mike’s empathy and the way that rubs off on the rest of the production — this show teaches us all, even as we’re making it, to look out for our neighbors and to love our fellow man and and take a vested interest in our citizenship. That’s the incentive and the driving force. And it’s an opportunity to raise a bunch of money to feed some unfortunate people, and so you know the whole thing just just leaves me in a warm, wet puddle of tears.
Ron had some really great lines, from saying he had been “practicing social distancing since [he] was 4-years-old” to commenting on Tammy planning to wrap piano wire “apparently not around my throat” and later saying he felt bad for the wolves when he released her into the woods. How did you approach adlibs or alt-jokes and lines? Were any of these creations of your own?
It’s always collaborative. It’s not a foot race where it’s clear who the winner was; it’s always much more of a relay situation. So I know I contributed a few snacks of wordage, mainly about Tammy and about a couple of the hunting terms. But that’s always been the case: Whenever they write out outdoor content or woodworking content or anything involving tools, they take a stab at it knowing that I will then make it more accurate so that my dad will not be ashamed of me. But it’s all very loose where often in the middle of a scene I’ll say, “Oh you know what? What if I say ‘deer fat’?” They had some other term about butchering an animal and covering Tammy in something, and deer fat seemed to create a more potent picture, but it’s all very collaborative. I’m not a world-class improviser like some of my of my cast mates, and so I love helping the team to polish whichever particular construction we’re putting together, but it is all of us.
What was the process like for you and Megan to do this together?
We’re a show biz couple that’s been together for 20 years. There have been many opportunities to say, “Hey, I have to shoot a video for something, will you help me? Can you pick out my outfit; can you help read my lines; can you hold this light, so that it makes me look a little less like a potato?” And so, it was really very much a ragtag operation. Everybody got an iPhone with a tripod and a little light delivered in a sanitized tub. We shot my cabin setting in my wood shop in East Los Angeles. We’re doing our best to be good citizens, so we’re staying home; I have the shop closed down because we’re trying to protect our fellow citizens. I’m astonished at the failure of our leadership to let everyone know that that that’s imperative — instead Florida opening up all but three counties is objectively terrifying. I mean, they’re openly putting their fealty to a pile of money in front of their value of human life, which I believe is deeply evil. Anyway, we had to go to my wood shop and figure out a spot that didn’t have any tools or any obvious wood shop paraphernalia on the walls and figure out how to successfully shoot the stuff with me and Megan — but because the wood shop has a bunch of skylights, to control the lighting we had to do it at night, which gave it even more of a feeling of cat burglary, where we were sneaking out across town during quarantine. It was a lot of fun.
That lends itself perfectly to Ron talking about Tammy sneaking around his cabin at night.
Actually, the shooting style where it was a sort of handheld, kind of meeting mediocre documentary packaging really lends itself well to to the sensibility of all of us saying, “Hey guys, let’s pull out the trunk of hats and let’s put on a show,” so that it was really fun. I was really excited for the audience to you know to get a dose of that particular kind of medicine that we haven’t had for a while.
Speaking of the pulling out the trunk aspect, how easy was it for you to find something Ron would wear?
There’s kind of a running joke with me and Kirston Mann, our costume designer. She has a small rack somewhere on the Universal lot of flannel shirts, and then I also have a handful of flannel shirts and a few pairs of jeans and a couple pairs of work boots, and that basically covers everything I ever need to do. So it was “Outdoor” Ron. We didn’t hang onto all of Ron’s workwear — all of the unfortunate JC Penney long sleeve pattern polos and weird pleated synthetic khakis; we let that go to Goodwill. But beyond that, this cache of flannels, and jeans covers “Outdoor” Ron and covers “Making It,” the crafting show, and my Lagavulin commercials, which Kirston also does. So a week or two ahead of time, she’ll say, “Hey we’re putting you and your dad in a boat, two hours north of Los Angeles, do you have this?” I am, apparently, a very simple piece of livestock.
But you didn’t have Duke Silver’s saxophone. Was there a discussion about getting one over to you for the moment where everyone sang “5,000 Candles in the Wind”?
It never came up, to my knowledge. And frankly, that’s a great idea. I wish you had mentioned it weeks ago. But the mentality was not, “What other stuff can we throw at this?” It was, “Can we pull off this bare bones idea?” So I was excited that we were able to do what we did.
And the most important thing for Ron to have is the mustache anyway.
I’ve tried to describe or somehow unpack the biology of my facial hair. I’ve been in the lab, there have been studies, and I think it’s best to just leave that subject alone. I don’t understand how it works, but here we are.
How do you feel about the possibility of integrating this kind of “do it yourself” production on a bigger scale, more commonly?
We’re seeing people do astonishingly creative things on those channels like TikTok. This quarantine is going to last; whether the governor of Florida kills a bunch of his citizens or not, we’re still going to be dealing with this for a long time. We would all love for that to be wrong, but according to the best scientific minds, not the politicians, it’s going to be at least a year and a half before we see a vaccine, and so if that’s the case, I have no doubt we’re going to see some really brilliant stuff come across from people all over the world who are being creative given these extreme limitations. It reminds me of the dogme film phase from the ’90s. So I’m sure we are going to see some really cool things come out of it — things that don’t require a bunch of people to be together in person, like really amazing animated work. But ultimately, to my way of thinking, shooting content with people and narrative stories I don’t think is going to make any kind of leap. I think as soon as it’s safe to be to be back with people, we will desperately get out our dolly tracks and our stunt doubles and our craft service and crew up. There’s a reason that films and television shows are so magnificent — and it’s because it’s the collective concentrated work of anywhere from 20 to 30 to a few hundred people. There will never be a software that can replace the ingenuity of us human beings.