Nick Offerman gives the gift of wit and woodwork

Laughs and lessons will be gracing campus this Saturday night when actor, comedian and University alumnus Nick Offerman returns on his American Ham Tour at Foellinger Auditorium.

“It’s a handful of cautionary tales, some mediocre original songs, peppered with minor nudity,” Offerman said.

Offerman — known for his character Ron Swanson on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” — has been on his comedy stand-up tour since late August. With several college-campus shows, the tour will make its way to a special weekend stop in Urbana for Offerman’s return to his alma mater.

Barbara Robertson, actress and University alumna, saw his show at the Chicago Theater on Oct. 3 and said that she “completely and thoroughly enjoyed” herself.

“(Before the show) I emailed him and asked if they had tickets to house seats, and he emailed back saying, ‘Oh, I insist you have to have a complimentary seat, and I’ll see you backstage,’” Robertson said. “It’s a show that isn’t just comedy but it really makes you reflect, and he gives some advice that you can take away.”

Robertson described Offerman as a loyal man who values friendship, a description now exemplified as his campus visit will be partially to benefit the University’s Japan House. In addition to his comedy show on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Offerman has also built a gazebo to be assembled on the grounds of the Japan House this weekend and will co-host a fundraising dinner at Prairie Fruits Farm on Sunday. Shozo Sato, founder of the Japan House, will co-host the dinner with his wife, Alice.

Before graduating with a degree in theatre in 1993, Offerman developed a close relationship with Sato, a former artist-in-residence at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts from 1969 to his retirement in 1992.

“When I was in school, everyone knew the coolest class in the theater department was the Kabuki theater class, so we all signed up for it our sophomore year,” Offerman said. “We were just some lucky sons of bitches who were there at the right place at the right time when (Sato) needed some dumb, strapping donkeys to play soldiers in his production of Kabuki ‘Achilles’, which was his adaptation of ‘The Iliad.’”

Sato taught a traditional, dance-drama form of Japanese theater called Kabuki theater. At that time, the theater department did not promote Asian theater, Sato said, but his class was very popular among students nonetheless.

“In the typical Japanese way, the professor and the student have a father-son, father-daughter-like relationship; they share dinners together and travel together,” Sato said. “That was the same concept taken on in my Kabuki classes. All the members of my classes would come for a late dinner to my home, and we’d send them off on a full stomach.”

According to Offerman, students who took his class quickly came to regard Sato as a mentor and father-figure — “a real-life Mr. Miagi or Obi Wan Kenobi,” he said.

Jim Stark, theater director at Hanover College in Indiana, took Sato’s Kabuki class and became a friend of Offerman’s while in graduate school at the University. Stark recalled how Sato’s class brought everyone together and how one show in particular really shaped their lives.

“It was a tremendous experience for me to be in the Kabuki ‘Achilles’ production back in 1990-1991. For an American actor to get into Kabuki, an experience like that is like a whole different world,” Stark said.

But despite the praise his students have for him, Sato said he feels the best when he sees them succeed. He recalled that from the beginning, Offerman was a funny person.

“In Kabuki ‘Achilles,’ Nick was there and he played the typical comic character. He always did, in a sense, because that’s what he liked,” Sato said. “From his young age, he had a unique ability; instead of a cool joke, he had a distinct delivery, so everyone liked him.”

Sato said that Offerman’s gift for making people laugh is not the only thing that got him to where he is today, but also his work ethic.

“One great element about him is that he’s a hard worker. ... Although the cultures are so different, one thing that Japanese culture values is hard work, and Nick has that,” Sato said.

According to Sato, Offerman is very gifted in woodworking as well, a similarity to his character on “Parks and Recreation.” Offerman said that he was really bad at acting when he was a student and started working in the scene shop when he was not getting good parts at the Krannert Center. As he gained more experience, Offerman began to be paid for his woodwork in the scene shop.

“That was a great supplement to allow me to earn my keep while I was learning to be a better actor,” Offerman said.

Offerman put his woodworking skills to use in building the Japan House a gazebo through his business, Offerman Woodshop, in California.

“When I was in Champaign a year ago, I saw the new garden at the new Japan House and they had a couple projects left to finish. I said, ‘I sure would appreciate it if you let me make something in my woodshop to give back to the legacy of Shozo and the Japan house,’” Offerman said. “I feel like my life has been so enriched by Japan and the programs instituted by our sensei, so I’m just thrilled that I can pitch in a little bit, hopefully to provide a spot to shelter from the weather and meditate on the beautiful views from the garden.”

Offerman built the gazebo in three parts in California and had it shipped to Champaign for the upcoming weekend. The gazebo will be unveiled on Sunday.

“The University is getting a little example of his generosity and kindness with his gift to Japan House and performance,” Robertson said. “He’s a great guy, and when you see him on TV or in a movie you think, ‘Finally the good guy wins!’” Stark said.

Well after Sato’s tenure, the legacy of Japan House continues with Sato’s former student, Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud, now running the operations.

“Students should be aware that it’s alive and well and you can sign up for the same classes that Shozo instituted,” Offerman said. “It’s a beautiful place to take a walk and meditate, and I hope students take advantage of that.”

Saher can be reached at