Nick Offerman worked for years to find a role that suited his talents as well as Parks And Recreation’s Ron Swanson, so you can’t fault the guy for working Ron’s red-meat-gnawing, no-nonsense image to the mustachioed bone. But how much of himself did Offerman bring to the director of the Pawnee Parks And Rec Department, and how much of that character has been imprinted on him? If he’d never spoken the words “I’m Ron Fuckin’ Swanson,” Offerman would still be the owner and operator of Offerman Woodshop—but thanks to Ron, that woodshop became a major component in one of the most potent (and humorous) portraits of masculinity in the 2010s.
The actor’s name is on the marquee in Nick Offerman: American Ham, but he’s still playing a character. The true star of the stage show—now an adapted, condensed, and embellished Netflix special—is “Nick Offerman,” the actor’s heightened-self equivalent of Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report alter ego. Nick Offerman is a gifted comic actor and husband of Megan Mullally; “Nick Offerman” is the gentleman philosopher with the pushbroom on his upper lip who wraps himself in stars, stripes, and opinions (plus the naked limbs of TV’s Megan Mullally). Placing that Old Glory shirt on his bare torso at the top of American Ham is an intentional theatrical act, and it creates an important distinction. The shirt is the retina-scarring buffer separating person and persona, the thing that could fool your red-state relatives into streaming American Ham during a Christmas gathering. After the first of several scathing Bible jokes, they’ll realize they’ve been had and shamefully cancel their Netflix subscription, leaving those in the know giggling in the corner of the living room.
On stage, American Ham is a rambling, messy enterprise, Offerman’s 10 points for better living delivered in meandering anecdotes, improvisational asides, and gleefully profane campfire sing-alongs. Onscreen, those points have a more purposeful flow, punctuated by slow-motion interstitials and two amusing sketches featuring podcast fixture and frequent TV guest star Marc Evan Jackson. Caught in the Venn diagram overlap between a one-man show and a stand-up comedy set, American Ham is shaped into something livelier and better paced through the frantic visual vocabulary of a comedy special. The energy level of the actor’s default-setting deadpan gets some goosing through fast cutting, while cinematic inserts build on the myth of “Nick Offerman” through absurdist nature tableaus and acts of extreme machismo.
The only real problem with American Ham is the prepared material. There’s nothing in Offerman’s tips—“Engage in romantic love,” “Say please and thank you,” “Get a hobby,” etc.—that’s particularly mind-blowing, as his earthy way. He’s giving simple advice for complicated times, offering his own experiences in a matter-of-fact, “do as I say and as I do” manner. He’s a guy who’s really lived, hatcheting his way through Internet vanity and socially accepted cruelties. Stories about quitting Twitter and eschewing technology for nature might make him sound like a luddite, but it doesn’t make him a prude: American Ham’s theses also rest on the virtues of (responsible) intoxication and (consensual, responsible) coitus.
In its tangential state, American Ham is like an 80-minute conversation with a good-natured stoner, the type who’s prepared to show you, in precise detail, how he carved a replica of Bilbo Baggins’ pipe. The primary attraction is the Hobbit enthusiast at center stage, not necessarily the words coming out of his mouth. Offerman’s magnetism lift American Ham out of its talkier portions, lulls in which the actor gives a story too much color or not enough momentum. It’s a potent mix of conviction and enthusiasm, evinced whenever he cuts loose with a dance step or a martial arts move, the nervy energy of a theater geek pumped into a linebacker’s frame. Take whatever advice Offerman gives with a grain of salt, but know that he’s serious about putting on a show for his audience. In American Ham’s inserts, “Nick Offerman” marks mountains and the sea as his territory; Offerman’s performance displays a similar command of the stage.
However lopsided American Ham may be, however some of its songs are dragged down by their lesser dick jokes, Offerman does not fail in performance. He holds his microphone like a lumberjack wields an axe or a baseball player grips a bat: With determination, and a lacing of his fingers that suggests he’ll strangle anyone who tries to take this tool from him. It’s as if he built the thing himself, to his exact specifications, and he’s not truly himself unless he’s telling his truths into it. The 10th of those truths is also the title of Offerman’s book, Paddle Your Own Canoe, a statement of individuality and self-determination that, if nothing else, this Netflix special lives up to 100 percent. In any given frame of American Ham, there’s no doubt that it’s Nick Offerman’s hands on the oar—even if he’s playing “Nick Offerman.”