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."
When coaching youngsters on another episode, Ron touted his Swanson Pyramid of Greatness, which places Honor at the top; Weapons, Woodworking and Welfare Avoidance not far below; and Living in the Woods, Capitalism and Handshakes among the elements of its foundation.
His marriages to his two ex-wives (both named Tammy) have not been so assured, including the ex, played by Mullally in a recurring guest role as the Pawnee Library director and devilish temptress who Ron is helpless to resist. But his vulnerability to certain women only makes him seem manlier: Even Samson succumbed to a woman's wiles.
In real life, Offerman has been married for a decade to Mullally (who joins the Fox comedy "Breaking In" when it returns for its second season next month) , "and we're still disgustingly affectionate and pretty crazy about each other."
Offerman's romantic life isn't the only evidence that he and Ron have their differences.
"I do love the outdoors, I do love woodworking," says Offerman, who after all, has the word "man" embedded in his own name. "But, unlike Ron, I get along in the modern world — I can send e-mails. And I'm much goofier than he is."
Like Ron, Offerman loves meat.
"I pay attention to my health. I exercise. But no," he chuckles dismissively, "I've never considered the merits of vegetarianism. If Nick Offerman got the Meat Tornado" — an enormous dish Ron savored every bite of in one memorable episode — "HE probably wouldn't finish it. But he'd enjoy the hell out of two-thirds of it."
The 41-year-old Offerman was born in Joliet, Ill., and, describing himself as "a simple guy," says he grew up well-grounded in a family of farmers and schoolteachers and firemen and nurses.
He studied drama at the University of Illinois, but found that the way to support his calling was to swing a hammer building scenery for the Chicago theater community.
After heading to Los Angeles, he was acting and doing scenery construction for a local theater company when he met Mullally, already famous for her role on the hit sitcom "Will & Grace."
"If you ever are trying to win a lady over," he advises, "letting her see you in your tool belt doesn't hurt."
They fell in love, moved in together and got married. And during that period when she was enjoying huge success and he was scrambling for roles, "Megan's faith in me saved me from a million bouts of depression. If she thought I was good, then I didn't care what a bunch of bankers at CBS said.
"Testing for roles," he recalls, "I would hear, 'You seem like you're a good actor, but you're a little scary, you talk too slow and you're a little weird.' But the stars aligned with 'Parks and Recreation': They found this guy who's scary, who talks too slow, and he's golden."
And as no disciple of Ron Swanson would deny, he's the man.