Nick Offerman started his “American Ham” show at Krannert Center last week by running a few (victory?) laps on the Foellinger Great Hall stage before doing a body slam against the back wall.
He was wearing jeans and no shirt.
Good evening,” he said, after coming to the front of the stage. “Minor nudity was advertised. And achieved.”
The actor who’s hit the stratosphere by playing deadpan Ron Swanson on the NBC TV series “Parks and Recreation” then donned a long-sleeved shirt with red and white stripes and blue stars.
“Gentlemen, I’m putting it away,” he cracked.
Over the next two hours, Offerman, a 1993 University of Illinois theater program alum, sang songs he wrote, accompanying himself on guitar, and riffed on a variety of subjects, framing them with his “10 tips for prosperity” that he offers when speaking on college campuses and in his new book.
The laughter came nearly nonstop.
I have never seen a show like Offerman’s in Foellinger, generally the home to world-class classical musicians.
I’ve also never seen so many young people in the nearly sold-out, 2,066-seat hall. Krannert had to be pleased.
Japan House is.
Offerman returned — triumphant, I would say — during the UI homecoming weekend to perform the one-man show as a benefit for Japan House, which was founded by his mentor, Shozo Sato, now a UI emeritus professor.
Sato later called the show remarkable, saying Offerman was able to reach the level of the students while teaching them.
Sato told me Offerman as an undergraduate was much the same as he is now: humble, serious, hardworking — and funny whenever he had the opportunity.
Over the years Offerman has stayed in touch with Sato, who presided over his former student’s wedding 10 years ago to actress-musician Megan Mullally.
The star ended his show at Krannert by bringing to the stage four UI classmates who had toured overseas with him in Sato’s kabuki troupe. The five paid tribute to their teacher by singing lyrics they had revised for Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” including the refrain: “The answer, my friends, is Shozo Sato.”
Over that weekend Offerman also attended a Japan House benefit dinner at Prairie Fruits Farm in rural Champaign. The 40 tickets, costing a hefty $325 each, had sold out overnight.
As if that’s not all, Offerman, before coming here, built in his woodworking studio in east Los Angeles a small gazebo for the Japan House grounds to honor Sato. The actor and a crew of local folks quietly reassembled it there.
“I must begin by stating I am humbled by Nick Offerman’s incredible generosity, kindheartedness, and overwhelming efforts to honor his sensei, Professor Shozo Sato, and his legacy of Japan House,” Japan House director Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud wrote after the “American Ham” show. “I am deeply indebted to him for all of his hard work for the months and months prior to prepare for this weekend.
“My appreciation simply cannot be captured adequately in words. I simply bow deeply to Nick Offerman.”
Gunji-Ballsrud said that since last year, Offerman has been patient and eager to do almost anything for Japan House despite his busy schedule working on films, TV series, his new book and wood shop projects.
He’s most famous for his Swanson characterization, but in real life he is not as conservative, which disappoints some people who show up for his live show.
He’s libertarian and in his act he let it all hang out, talking about a variety of subjects, including the love and hots he feels for his Mullally, best known for playing the squeaky-voiced Karen Walker on the TV sitcom “Will & Grace.”
I especially appreciated Offerman telling the young audience how creatively “fecund” Champaign-Urbana is, and urging them to engage in a hobby.
“All around you people are trying to get better,” he said. “It’s a lot more pleasing than a big city, where people are trying to get rich.”
Offerman mentioned his own hobby of woodworking and gave a shout-out to the CU Woodshop Supply & School of Woodworking, a new facility near Parkland College. He said it’s the best wood shop he’s seen, including in metro areas.
Offerman also advised his audience to say please and thank you. He said he learned good manners growing up in a farm family in Minooka, west of the Chicago suburbs.
He urged people to read “as much as possible, right now,” his favorite writer, Wendell Berry. And another Offerman tip that I have tried to hammer home over the years: Buy from and trade or barter with local makers.
He also advised people to leave their cellphones at home, something that might rankle with younger folks. He said he leaves his in his office when working in his wood shop.
“I found immediately it felt so good, it was so much more delicious,” he said.
He also told students to figure out what they love to do and figure out how to get paid for it. “Society tells us to chase the dollar. I tell you there are many more delicious forms of recompense.”
He advised us to avoid the mirror, to not get hung up on cuteness, the superficiality of appearance so sought after and rewarded in society, particularly in his profession.
The farther up the “cuteness ladder” you go, the farther you fall, he said.
And he told people to paddle their own canoes, a reference to his new book, “Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living.” He was promoting it the other day on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” which shows the Illinois boy has really arrived.
As for his book, I’m sure it’s a delicious read.