NEW YORK — The nature of manhood — understanding it, mastering it, faking it when necessary — keeps a hefty segment of men scrambling.
No wonder it fuels comedy. At least since Ralph Kramden on "The Honeymooners," TV's witless, blowhard husbands have made the audience laugh at their pretense of masculinity. Meanwhile, this season Tim Allen revived his fretful "Home Improvement" call-to-arms for his freshman sitcom, "Last Man Standing": Manliness is under threat in the modern, over-feminized world.
TV's flock of men-in-doubt are relatable, even reassuring, to an audience of real-life men who share similar misgivings about their own manliness. But any viewer who seeks a masculine role model plagued by no breach of confidence or shortage of testosterone should look elsewhere. Behold: Ron Swanson of NBC's "Parks and Recreation" (airing Thursday at 8:30 p.m. EST), the go-to guy for video virility.
Defiantly deadpan yet remarkably nuanced (sorry, if "nuance" is a sissy word), Ron, as portrayed by Nick Offerman, is a pillar of male self-sufficiency.
Ron prizes meat, woodworking, facial hair and the least amount of government possible — which is funny since, of course, he is a government official, director of the parks department in the Indiana town of Pawnee where "Parks and Recreation" is set. Thus does his sacred mission become one of slashing his department's productivity to ever-more-negligible levels.
This puts him in regular conflict with his underling, Leslie Knope (series star Amy Poehler), whose little-engine-that-could progressivism drives her to find new ways for the parks department to serve Pawnee citizens.
"Ron Swanson was very much designed in a two-dimensional way at the outset: Here's our clear antagonist for this bright and shiny protagonist," says Offerman in a recent interview. But quickly, in his hands, Ron gained a third dimension, emerging as a fully formed he-man, not a caricature.
"There's so much luck involved in mixing up a pot of goulash," Offerman muses, "and you're not sure exactly which ingredient is going to make you say, 'You know, that's a delicious meal.' Sometimes it's the cumin that takes it over the top. If I were ever referred to as the cumin on 'Parks and Recreation,' I would consider it high praise."
Would anyone dispute his cumin status? But when praised, Offerman adopts a very un-Swansonian tone of humility, diverting that praise to the writers of the show, and to his fellow players (who, besides Poehler, include Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Adam Scott, Reta, Jim O'Heir and Rob Lowe).
"In my cast, I'm surrounded by Michael Jordans," he declares, "and I'm happy to just be a petrified tree stump where I get a laugh because a bird lands on me and picks an insect out of my hair."
Petrified?! "My favorite time to wring a laugh out of the material is in silence," he explains. "In choosing NOT to do something funny or mug for the camera, you can get a laugh, too."
As Offerman speaks, he looks very much like Ron, despite the fancy duds: a camel-colored Armani suit (his schedule includes TV interviews), which he wore when he wed sitcom queen Megan Mullally a while back. Ron's proud bushy arc of a mustache is on full display, as are Ron's arresting, if somehow simultaneously dreamy blue eyes. And the voice is unmistakably Ron's — resolute and declarative — even if Offerman embroiders what he says with plummy chuckles Ron would never condone.
Recently, viewers were reminded of Ron's no-nonsense predilections when he announced that the Pawnee bowling alley houses his favorite restaurant, its menu featuring only a hot dog and a cheeseburger.
And on that episode he demonstrated his bowling technique, which might apply to most things he does: "Straight down the middle. No hook. No spin. No fuss. Anything more," he sniffed, "and this becomes figure skating."
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