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Why Ron Swanson Is One of the Best TV Characters of the Century—As Explained by Nick Offerman

The actor behind television’s most lovable libertarian talks puzzles, bacon-wrapped shrimp, and what it’s like to be married to “the Mike Trout of television comedy”

Jeremy Berger

March is a month for brackets, so this week on The Ringer, we’re hosting The Best TV Characters of the Century—an expansive, obsessive, and unexpectedly fraught competition to determine the best fictional TV personality of the past 20 years. To help the public make informed voting decisions, The Ringer has contacted some of the people who know these characters best: the actors who played them. Check back throughout the week for more interviews, and be sure to vote for The Best TV Characters of the Century here.

Ron Swanson was a modern Renaissance man. Sure, he spent much of his workday on Parks and Recreation trying to minimize the oppressive footprint of local government by applying his libertarian leanings from inside the belly of the American political beast, but he also had a wide range of personal passions. Among other things, he was a master craftsman and outdoorsman, an accomplished musician and an unapologetic gourmand, and an innovator who dreamed up some delightful (if specific) self-help guidelines in handy pyramid form.

Like the character he played on the show’s seven-season run, Nick Offerman also has a host of disparate interests, some of which overlap with Ron’s—though, as he frequently explains to fans, he is not actually Ron—and many of which we discussed during the course of a lengthy recent conversation. While self-quarantining from our respective homes, we chatted about puzzles, books, woodworking, overeating on set, and, most notably, his marriage to “the Mike Trout of television comedy.” We also talked a little about Ron, who defeated Gob Bluth despite some internet shenanigans to move on to the Sweet 16.

Before we get into Ron, it’s obviously a crazy time right now. What are you doing to stay busy?

My wife [Megan Mullally] and I, we’re lucky enough to work as entertainers, either touring performers or obviously actors, and our jobs take us all over the world, which is a lot of fun if you happen to love traveling, which we do. Because of that, when we manage to secure some vacation time, the most exotic destination in our lives is actually staying home and trying to achieve some sort of banal regularity. We actually just did a month of this by choice in January. This is our jam. We’re well equipped. We do a lot of jigsaw puzzles.

I have also devolved quickly into puzzle madness. What are you working on?

There’s this great company out of Boulder called Liberty Puzzles. They make these really exquisite laser-cut plywood puzzles that are just a joy to handle and work with. Over the years, we’ve built up a collection of them. We’ll actually take them apart and put them back together again. They’re that enjoyable.

Are you reading anything?

At the moment I’m reading a book that was given to me by a farmer that I met in Scotland that’s coming out this year called Native. I really enjoy agrarian writing. I come from a farming family in Illinois. This year I have a couple of audiobooks that I recorded of my favorite writer, Wendell Berry, who is a Kentucky agrarian and in my opinion our greatest living writer.

Through my love of Wendell, I discovered a shepherd in England named James Rebanks, who has a great book called The Shepherd’s Life. I became friends with James and was visiting him and we went to visit this other farmer in Galloway, Scotland. His name is Patrick Laurie and he sent me his galleys. His book is coming out momentarily. It’s just wonderful, especially now for people being sequestered in any kind of remotely claustrophobic space or urban area. These are just books about men and women adhering to the venerable and ancient tradition of maintaining a fellowship with nature and husbanding a piece of land and/or herds of animals and crops to try to benevolently feed their fellow humans while respecting what Mother Nature has to say about it.

This is a really awkward transition—all of a sudden we’re going from agrarian writing to talking about Ron Swanson …

We’ll survive it. But before we do, I want to say I also just read—I have this new show airing on FX called Devs. Alex Garland is an astonishing brain. I’ve never worked with someone of his stature and acumen. One of the things that’s really fun, I find, if you work with someone who happens to be a novelist as well, I went back and read The Beach for the first time, and now I’m just finishing his second novel, The Tesseract. Those are really great, as well. He’s a terrific fictional talent, a terrific talent in fiction. Reading it makes me very grateful that he had hankering to become a filmmaker because otherwise I never would have gotten to meet and befriend him.

The people that you’ve come across in the course of your life, just from what you’ve told me so far in this conversation, are fascinating.

My subjects of inquiry and curiosity have treated me really well. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be a humorist. What I learned is that I’m not Vonnegut or, more contemporarily, another friend that came from my curiosity is George Saunders. I could never write like George. But I can read George to somebody and they will give me a sandwich.

That’s a really good trade-off.

It’s good to find your calling.

The goal with all of the interviews we’re doing with actors this week was to just have a fun conversation about their most famous characters. I feel like that’s putting a lot of pressure on us.

Yeah. I tend to ignore any such guidelines.

Good. Same page. So for Ron, what was your favorite episode for the character?

Oh, boy. It’s kind of like going to the world’s greatest restaurant and eating 21 courses and having someone ask which was your favorite rib. But I do have an answer. I think the episode that I got to do with my wife [who played] one of my crazy ex-wives known as Tammy II. The first episode with her was written by Mike Scully and directed by Troy Miller called “Ron and Tammy.” Getting to do that with my wife—who is also my hero and my teacher, she’s like a walking Mel Brooks movie—was just an absolute dream come true.

Because you mentioned the 21 courses and which was your favorite rib, I’m always fascinated by actors who work with food. Obviously Ron had a voracious appetite. How much eating did you do in those scenes?

Traditionally, using the magic of Hollywood, an actor, as a matter of practicality, has to pretend to eat. If you’re shooting a scene where you’re eating a hamburger or a plate of spaghetti, invariably, depending on the genre you’re working in, whether it’s television comedy or a Francis Ford Coppola film, chances are you’ll do a great many takes of the scene in which you’re eating. Naturally, as you can imagine, the first few takes are delicious and edifying. And then, when you get to the fourth and fifth, not to mention the 24th or 25th take, suddenly a fork full of spaghetti is the last thing you ever want to see again.

But we had sort of a standard in place with Ron that we wanted Ron to remain beefy. Mike Schur and Greg Daniels, the creators of the show, specifically asked me to stay husky. Apparently, when The Office got picked up in America, a bunch of the cast started doing aerobics, getting their hair fixed or something, and they became 40 percent less Scranton-looking. And so our creators said “Please don’t do that. We’ve set this in small-town Indiana for a reason. Please help us maintain that integrity.” By and large, I took a great deal of pleasure in wolfing down bacon-wrapped shrimp, cuts of steak, and cheeseburgers.

The amount of bacon and eggs in front of Ron, or when he’s watching The Bridge Over the River Kwai eating a steak and drinking Scotch. Good for you that you got to eat some of that.

There’s a great chef, Fred Eric, who has a great restaurant in Los Angeles called Fred 62. He also is this exquisite food stylist. And so he would be on hand. Whenever we’d have these scenes, we’d have this master chef there with a hunk of beef and a torch and like a bowl of butter with a paint brush. Usually, prop food is sitting there all day. It’s gross and probably even dangerous to eat. But we had this special food wrangler. He might as well have been giving me a deep tissue massage. It was incredibly pleasurable. I’ve had worse gigs.

What’s something you learned about Ron from playing him? You’re an extremely skilled craftsman and you have your wood shop, and I was wondering if that was something that was added to Ron’s character as an extension of you.

It was. As we were getting ready to start shooting the show, the writers were talking to the actors and discerning parts of our personality they might swipe for comedic gold. They kept calling me on the phone, and I would say, “Hang on, I have to shut off the table saw in my shop.” Eventually they said, “What is this shop?” And I said “I’m a woodworker. I have this shop.” They came right over to my shop and said “This is hilarious. Can we make your character a woodworker, because we think this part of your life that you have such reverence for, we think will make people laugh?” I said OK. I’m happy to be a clown and juggle whatever balls.

The question, did I learn anything from Ron? I would have to extrapolate quickly to “Did I learn anything from the writers who wrote Ron?” I learned from this brilliant room of writers, of women and men, [who] took parts of me and shook them up in a martini shaker and poured out a cocktail that sort of showed me ways in which I could use the parts of Ron that were real, like my woodworking, my passion for ladies that look like Megan Mullally, my love of food, my simplicity, my taciturn personality. They showed me ways in which I could use these ingredients to perhaps craft a more fruitful life.

Who are your personal favorite TV characters?

One for some reason springs to mind: Karen Walker, who was a great inspiration to me. She was on a show called Will and Grace. It’s funny, nobody ever accuses me of over-egging that particular pudding. It’s inarguable. I am married to the Mike Trout of television comedy. I don’t see a lot of TV. Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Jodie Comer in Killing Eve, and Sandra Oh as well. Those are contemporary examples of people at the top of their game. Those are the performances that make me desperately hope that they call me and preferably chase me through a centuries-old bathhouse in Budapest.

That’s a very specific example.

It is. I’ve been to the bathhouses. It’s a great place for a chase scene. Very slippery.

You mentioned all those fantastic female actors. In the first round, you were pitted against one I personally love, Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler.

That show is the greatest thing happening right now. She is astonishing. She is a Mount Rushmore–level actor. Megan and I both have been commenting on how she stands out in a cast of absolute home run hitters. As is always my feeling when I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in something like what we’re talking about here with The Ringer, I’m just grateful that I got a job and if it were up to me and there was a trophy to hand out, I would not hesitate to hand it to Rhea Seehorn. It’s silly to consider any other option.

Do you miss anything about Ron?

Well, sure. Again, when great comedy writing succeeds, often the audience thinks there’s no way somebody thought that up. I get in arguments with fans who think I am Ron Swanson, that it was all my idea, that I was this libertarian character and somehow ended up getting a show. No, the writers are just that good.

In the moments of, figuratively speaking, figure skating on a comedy show like that, when you’re nailing your pirouette, or whatever your moves are, it’s because of that writing and the crew behind them. That’s what I miss. I could never write my everyday behavior and my relationships as cleverly as a room full of the world’s greatest comedy writers. That’s what I miss about Ron specifically. And more generally, my favorite baseball team is the Chicago Cubs. And if you talk to any of them right now, they’d probably say, “Well, I kinda miss the gang from 2016. That was a pretty good year.” If you happen to win the World Series in whatever way that may apply to you, you’d be a fool not to recognize what an incredibly lucky thing that is. There’s an element of winning the lottery when you find yourself working on a show like Parks & Rec.

Is there anything you’d change about him?

Again, he’s not mine. He’s not my creation. Something I learned from my collaborators in the Chicago theater, I had a company called Defiant Theater, one of the things I learned is that I’m a very good soldier. I’m not cut out to be the general. I like to find a better brain than my own and say, “Ma’am or sir, I am very good with a shovel. If you want to tell me where to dig and how deep, I will aim to impress you with my spading acumen.” So, no, I guess, is the short answer.

So what do you think? Did we make it fun?

Sure. When I read my books, in my head I have this earnest idea that I’ll save the planet with every notion. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not a planet-saving scholar or journalist or researcher. I’m a song and dance man. A bullshiting song and dance man. I think when editors say things like “We want this to be fun,” I think they’re talking to the kind of guests that would go on Letterman and just tank because they don’t attack their lives with a sense of humor. I have to. When you look in the mirror and see the hand of cards I’ve been dealt, you better have a sense of humor.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.