'Citizen Knope' Episode Stills
The Hangover Part III
It started as a challenge. A patently absurd challenge. Could one writer keep up with a real-life Wolf Pack—comic star Aziz Ansari, top chef David Chang, and LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy—as the hipster trinity partied through Tokyo, arguably the food capital of the world? (It's definitely the drunk-karaoke capital.) Brett Martin remembers what happened next. Most of it
Jet lag is a funny thing. It plays tricks on the mind. For instance, right now I could swear that I'm crammed into a tiny karaoke room on an upper floor of a building somewhere in Tokyo. The narrow table is covered end to end with empty bottles of Asahi beer and Zima, jugs of whiskey and vodka, buckets of ice, huge clear-plastic bags of luridly colored Japanese candy. There are about ten of us in here, packed thigh to thigh on the U-shaped banquette, under a ceiling of peeling geometrically patterned wallpaper that seems to strobe in the fluorescent light. That's not including the trio of waitresses in tiny fur-trimmed Mrs. Santa Claus dresses, peering in curiously from the door. All this is more or less plausible. The strange part is what we're all staring at, to all appearances a surrealist pop-culture mash-up, bizarre even by the standards of a country known for bizarreness: the comedian and actor Aziz Ansari (of Parks and Recreation), the musician James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem), and the chef David Chang (of Momofuku), in suits, arm in arm, belting out A-Ha's "Take On Me."
But that can't be right. I mean, who drinks Zima?
It began with a photo: three men, snapped from the waist up. On the left, Chang, rosy cheeked and grinning. On the right, Murphy, gray bearded and Zen, raising one hand in a gesture of mahalo. Between them, a head shorter, with one arm on each of the others' shoulders, Ansari, mouth and eyes wide open in his trademark "Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?" gape. The three were at The Breslin, at New York's Ace Hotel, for the afterparty of an Arcade Fire show; none were especially sober. Ansari tweeted the photo with a message: "David Chang, @lcdsoundsystem, and myself want to go to Tokyo and eat food. Can some magazine/Travel Channel pay."
To be clear: We are not accustomed, here at GQ, to acting as a celebrity Make-A-Wish Foundation. But something about this tweet captured our attention. The grouping was unlikely, yet it made an instant kind of cosmic sense, as though you had been waiting for the picture long before it appeared. The Venn diagram of their fame might have a small overlap—I found that most people knew two of the three—but that intersection was a particular pocket of smart, inventive, forward-looking cool. The destination, too, made a certain intuitive sense, Tokyo being both a fun-house mirror of pop-culture iconography and a place where generations of Western seekers have gone to feel both reverently awed and gloriously disoriented.
And so, a week before Christmas, I found Chang in a business-class lounge at JFK. He informed me that for our upcoming flight to Narita, where we would meet up with Ansari and Murphy, he'd just downed a cocktail of pills, timed to kick in upon takeoff. "I just hope we're not delayed," he said, "or you're gonna have to carry me to the plane."
That was not half as frightening as the next thing he told me, which was that he was afraid: Ansari, not yet 30, is a coiled wire of comedic energy and late-night stamina; Murphy may be 40, but he's also a rock star, with a rock star's ability to go till dawn. Chang was not sure he could hang. This was worrisome, because Chang is a chef, not a profession known for teetotaling. Later he would tell me matter-of-factly that his preferred cure for a really bad hangover was to check into the nearest emergency room for intravenous rehydration. If Chang was concerned about what was to come, I was terrified.
In varying states of bleariness—Ansari had arrived from Los Angeles, Murphy from Shanghai—we converged fourteen hours later in the vaulted lobby of the Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel, a sleek monolith with whisper-soft elevators hurtling forty stories up, toward vertiginous views of the surrounding neighborhood of Shibuya. By name and appearance, the place belonged in Lando Calrissian's Cloud City.
We trundled into a taxi, handed the white-gloved driver a paper scrawled with indecipherable directions by our concierge, and went shooting down a long neon-lit avenue toward Setagaya Ward. Even if you're accustomed to a big city like New York, it's hard not to get overwhelmed by Tokyo's mile after mile of intensely vertical density. It's a sprawl of Times Squares, punctuated by multiple city centers—Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza. Every room in the city feels like an adaptation to that crushing crowdedness, an attempt to carve out spaces that are either tiny and nichelike, hidden out of sight, or exclusive in more traditional ways—like our destination that night, a members-only dining club, Yakumo Saryo.
We turned into a hilly neighborhood of smaller shops and houses. Several blocks later, a waiter in a flowing white apron suddenly appeared, apparitionlike, in the headlights. He waved the car over, and we followed him down the street and through a gate marked only with a hanging flag bearing a symbol that looked like a cross between a crab and an inverted fleur-de-lis.
Inside we were ushered into a rectangular room seemingly constructed entirely from perfectly sanded, unfinished blond wood—a space where Basho and whoever founded Ikea might get lost in each other's eyes. A silent chef labored over small, precise dishes in the style of the traditional, elaborate Japanese tea ceremony, or kaiseki. Each arrived at the table accompanied by an explanatory piece of rice paper the size of a fortune-cookie fortune.
I looked around the table. Ansari's passion for food had been the force that brought this triumvirate together. When confronted with an especially delicious bite of something, he would go into sensory-deprivation mode, bowing his head, closing his eyes, and folding his arms inward as though shutting down, the better to focus on the taste. Sometimes he would even start to shake a little.
Murphy and Chang knew each other only slightly. But both had found themselves, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, responsible for large, sprawling businesses—Chang the ever expanding empire of Momofuku restaurants, which have been at the vanguard of casual/fine dining in New York, Murphy both the perpetually touring LCD Soundsystem and his independent label, DFA Records. Both wore their more obsessive, perfectionist neuroses on their sleeves, though Murphy projected the hard-won calm of a handsome, aging Irish barfly, while Chang, a decade younger, could seem as tightly wound as a taiko drum. Their kinship on this trip seemed instant.
"My dad would say like two things a year to me, and they'd be mean," said Murphy as we tucked into a delicate handkerchief of raw sea bream.
"That was very Korean of him," said Chang.
Our mission, we decided over lumps of red and green tea-flavored mochi ice cream that resembled unfired balls of clay, was to seek out those moments in which Japan manages, in its sublime Japaneseness, to exceed even one's most exaggerated expectations. Before dinner was over, I'd already had two: (1) We'd eaten something truly transcendent: a Kyoto daikon, beveled and lathed into a shape like a piece of smooth industrial machinery, simmered in seaweed broth until achieving the uniform texture of custard and served in a simple white bowl atop a clear pool of bonito dashi. And (2) I'd been momentarily startled by the mouth of the men's-room toilet swinging open to greet me, in what I believe was a gesture of goodwill rather than menace. Everything you've heard about Japanese toilets is true: I did not have time to push every button on this commode's war-room-size operations panel, but I'm pretty sure one activated a mechanical arm that would reach up and gently palpate your bladder while playing soft, cooing lullabies. From then on, I would have a new shorthand to describe the kind of experience we were after: "Toilet Moments."
We were standing on the sidewalk, blinking in the winter sun, heatedly debating where to eat lunch. Deciding on ramen hardly settled the matter, ramen taxonomy—chicken versus pork broth, miso versus soy-sauce base, and so on—being one of the more serious matters to occupy Japanophiles. Years before, Chang had spent a not-very-happy, mostly penurious nine months working in Tokyo and slurping widely in noodle shops around town. Now he proposed a small chain called Ramen Jiro.
"What style is it?" Murphy asked.
"It's its own thing," Chang said. "It's gnarly."
"Can you be more specific?"
The morning's shopping expedition may have contributed to our crankiness. We'd originally contacted the company N. Hoolywood about procuring matching suits for all of us. As its name would indicate, N. Hoolywood, and head designer Daisuke Obana, is intent on taking weird fragments of American culture and refracting them back, transformed into something just slightly off and utterly Japanese. Past collections had been inspired by such sources as Detroit auto workers, 1940s gangster mug shots, and a collection of Yosemite photos by Ansel Adams. One would cry Zoolander, if arriving in Tokyo didn't mean surrendering one's notion of the border between parody and reality at the airport.
It took us a half hour to find N. Hooly-wood's main showroom, in a nearly unmarked house a block or two off of the shopping boulevard known as Omotesando Dori. Once we were inside, the staff had embarrassedly explained that while they could accommodate Ansari's Japanese-size frame, there was nothing in their sample wardrobes, perhaps in the entire city, that could fit the rest of our grotesquely elongated and bloated bodies. So we hung around, and watched Ansari bounce around in taunting, giddy bliss, tended to personally by Obana himself. At one point, the two disappeared upstairs to a storage area, and we could hear them laughing hysterically. Following the sound, we discovered Ansari clowning with a mannequin he'd found in a corner: white skinned, naked, potbellied, and sexless as a Ken doll. I had the uncomfortable suspicion that it was meant to represent what the rest of us looked like with our clothes off.
Finally, lunch: The nearest Jiro was staffed by unsmiling men who lifted their eyes only to glare at our party. Every seat was taken, but the place was silent except for the sound of slurping. We shuffled in line toward a machine that dispensed the tickets you handed to the chefs. There was a bewildering array of choices. Ansari, clad in his new brown suit, was the first to reach the front. "I'm scared," he whispered. "Just close your eyes and push a button," said Chang.
Eventually we were all seated in front of steaming bowls of thick, almost gravylike broth. Pieces of cabbage and ragged chunks of pork protruded here and there, like half-submerged bog creatures. The taste bore the looks out—deep, swampy, and warming to the core. After one sip, we all straightened and looked at each other, goofy smiles slippery with grease.
The meal demanded a nap. Then it was off to Bar High Five, owned by Hidetsugu Ueno, who has become the foremost ambassador of the Japanese cocktail movement. Stepping into the closet-sized space on the fourth floor of a building in Ginza, the ritzy shopping district, was like arriving on an advanced planet whose sole sacred text was a 1960s American bar manual—like stepping at once back and forward in time. Ueno wore a magnificent pompadour and worked from strange bottles of the kind you see gathering dust under American bars—sloe gin and blended whiskeys and odd liqueurs. His technique was astonishing: When he poured, it was in a thin stream from high above the golden wood bar, somehow perfectly filling each glass to just its meniscus point.
"Well, he does do this every day," Ansari reasoned.
"I pee every day," said Chang. "But sometimes I miss."
As we drank in reverent silence, I could see Murphy blinking hard and sweating. The gnarliness of the ramen, it seemed, was wreaking gnarly havoc on his insides. With apologies, he dashed back to the hotel.
In retrospect, this may have been a canny strategic bailout in the face of the cultural awkwardness on which we were about to embark. At one point, while brainstorming which Toilet Moments we'd seek out, Chang had offhandedly said, "Find Mrs. Chang." Since we were in the wish-granting business, it seemed obvious what to do: Organize a gokon.
I will not pretend, even after having been through one, to fully understand what a gokon is. It had been explained to us as a ritualized group blind date—usually organized by a couple either hesitant to have a first date on their own or worried about their bachelor and bachelorette friends. Each brings an even number of men and women to meet and talk. Whether the expectation was to facilitate hookups, long-term relationships, or just pleasant company was left unclear.
We arrived early at Tachimichiya—a basement izakaya, or beer hall, decorated with punk-rock posters—in the neighborhood of Daikanyama. In preparation for small talk, I'd downloaded a conversational-Japanese app to my iPhone, though it seemed to specialize solely in phrases along the lines of "I like to paint and sketch" and "Do you like pizza?" We were awaiting the arrival of Tatsuya Mizuno, a journalist and apparent expert in arranging gokons. Where exactly that put him on the continuum between popular and pimp I could not quite pinpoint.
The door flew open and in walked Mizuno, followed by four women around 40, all in low-cut but otherwise demure dresses. At almost precisely the same moment, it dawned on the three of us that this was going to be as excruciating as any other blind date.
"I need to get drunk. Fast," said Chang, reaching for a bottle of soju.
Mizuno ushered the ladies over. He wore a Vandyke and a brown leather blazer. His voice sounded like it was being dragged out through five feet of gravel, a low, drawn-out growl that lent even his most innocent sentences a leering dirtiness. I nicknamed him the Goat.
"Thees is Haruka, Kyoko, Chie, and Yumiko," he growled as the women expertly slid in among us. Kyoko and Chie squeezed close on either side of Chang, who was on his third drink in as many minutes. "Now you ask each other questions," the Goat said, making it sound like something that might well end in pregnancy. Chang suddenly took an inordinate amount of interest in a Ramones poster on the wall behind him. He poured another drink.
"You are on television?" one of the girls asked Ansari. He allowed that he was.
"What program would I know about?"
"Have you seen Friends?"
"Yes!" all the girls said simultaneously.
"I played Chandler," said Ansari. "Indian Chandler."
The girls looked confused.
"Let's not talk about TV. Let's talk about movies," one said.
"Have you seen Pretty Woman?" asked Ansari.
The table filled up with plates: piles of sashimi, crisscrossed Jenga stacks of yakitori. The drinks kept flowing.
On my left was Yumiko. She wore a green drapey dress and had long hair that framed her oval face. Had she been to many gokons? I asked. Oh, yes, she said. And what did she do for a living?
"I'm a Buddhist monk," she said earnestly.
"Okay," I said. She also had a boyfriend. Who was a mixed-martial-arts fighter.
"But he's not a champion yet," she said, pulling up a picture on her phone.
"Looks a little small to me," I said.
"Oh yes," she said, kindly. "He is only six feet two inches."
Across the table, Haruka, the shyest of the group, peered up at Ansari through her bangs. "I am also an actress," she said in a tentative voice.
"Really? What do you do?"
"I am a model." She dug in her purse, came up with her phone, and showed him a picture. He stared at the phone for a moment and then passed it without comment to me and Chang. Sure enough, there was Haruka, several years younger, soaking wet, wearing a tiny, clinging tank top that barely covered her large breasts. She was looking at the camera with what could only be described as "gokon eyes."
We were silent. The girls giggled.
"Do you like pizza?" Ansari said.
Around midnight the girls excused themselves, but the Goat led us on. Outside it was pouring, sheets of cold rain washing down the street. Chang wanted to go back to the hotel, but we forced him into a cab back to central Shibuya—a district known, in the cosmology of the city, as loud, bright, young, and Westernized. We got out near an elevated train track and entered a street of a totally different scale: Nonbei Yokocho, "Drunkard's Alley," a dark, narrow circular alley of tiny bars that sprang up during the postwar occupation. Through the windows, draped with Christmas lights, we could see dry and cozy groups of two and three people, leaning close and laughing, successfully keeping the crush of the city at bay. The Goat seemed to know everybody and picked up friends as we walked, until there were ten of us ducking into a bar the size of a bathroom. A small bathroom. In a dollhouse. In Lilliput.
Chang said he was going to pee. Too late, we realized he'd given us the slip. One of the three regulars, older men whose space we'd suddenly invaded, went scurrying into the night. Another stuck around to tell Ansari, at great, repetitive length, that while Chinese were no good, Indians were fine by him, because they are clever.
"Give these guys wheeeskey," growled the Goat. "Cheeeep wheeeskey."
Suddenly Chang was back, having either discovered a second wind or failed to find his way out of the mazelike alley.
"You are the coolest man in the world," Chang told the Goat, clasping him around the shoulder. They did a shot of Jägermeister.
Rain streamed down outside the open door. Impossibly, more people pressed into the bar, forcing some in the back to climb on chairs and squash themselves close to the ceiling.
Chang insisted on buying a round of vodka shots, which was the last thing we needed at 3 A.M. No was not an option. "Kanpai!" he yelled, as Ansari and I artfully poured our glasses out on the floor. Chang eyed us suspiciously.
Eventually we spilled, like clowns from a Volkswagen, out into the alley. I stopped to tie my shoe, and when I looked up, everybody was gone. Stumbling around a corner, I saw Chang disappearing into another shoebox-sized bar, but when I followed, it was empty except for a couple talking with the bartender. I stood in the doorway, swaying confusedly, until the bartender pointed at a tiny staircase. I squeezed up and emerged inside a music box designed by a demented gay Austrian prince. It was a room entirely upholstered and painted in bordello red. Every inch of wall and ceiling was covered with dripping ornamentation: taxidermied antelope heads and crystal chandeliers and glowing glass bunches of grapes and gilt-framed oil paintings of zebras and lions and sad clowns.
Ansari was slumped on one of the red leather banquettes. Chang was sitting next to him, holding out a glass of whiskey.
"Kanpai, motherfuckers," he said.
Too early the next morning, I was seated next to Murphy, staring dully at the barista at a coffee shop the musician had discovered near the Cerulean. The man shuffled slowly back and forth between a Bunsen burner and a glass tube that seemed to have been lifted from a nuclear-physics lab, administering the coffee with what, at that moment, seemed like criminally excessive attention. Having rested while we had our adventures in gokon Land, the rock star was much refreshed. "God," he said, shaking his head. "It's amazing the care he takes. So cool."
Coffee was just one of a seemingly encyclopedic collection of Murphy's obsessions and areas of expertise. He was wearing a gray suit he'd had custom made in Shanghai. He showed off the breast pocket, which had overlapping pockets for an iPhone and regular cell phone.
It was his own design. I kept waiting for my coffee.
Murphy seemed to know about most things Japanese. He'd first come here around 2000 as a sound mixer for the Beastie Boys. This was a time, he said, when he would routinely take Ecstasy and simply walk the streets in a state of intensity and rage, and Tokyo must have provided the perfect level of assaultive sensory overload. As he mellowed, the city had become a regular stop on LCD Soundsystem's relentless tour schedule, the perfect place for a man with a fetish for perfection and an omnivorous appetite. I kept waiting for my coffee.
Drop by painstaking drop dripped the coffee. Murphy watched, transfixed. I made a note to always get coffee before going out for coffee with James Murphy.
It was a day of Toilet Moments and dazed wanderings and an incessant soundtrack of synthesized holiday music:
• through Kappabashi, the crowded kitchen-supply district where Chang, looking like a dog thrown into a room filled with tennis balls, filled his bag with knives and other gadgets to be given as holiday gifts to friends and staff.
• to a lunch of tonkatsu, fried pork cutlets the size and shape of Mini Cooper hubcaps; Ansari begged Chang to spit in his food, so that he could preserve an appetite for dinner.
• into a video arcade—a multilevel orgasmatron of strobing lights, wild beeping, and screaming, cheering anthropomorphic cartoons that made Chuck E. Cheese's look like a Christian Science reading room. Upstairs was a floor filled with photo-sticker booths screaming CUTE! and PARTY! and LOVE GIRLYS! in a riotous palette of fuchsia, peach, and kittycat.
• and into a booth with a control panel that allowed you to touch up your photos before printing. You could instantly Westernize each pair of eyes. "Oh no. That is the worst," said Murphy as Chang was transformed into a startled geisha, Ansari a cartoon gopher. Chang took the electronic pen and scrawled Team Roundeye, with a little pink heart.
It was a day that an essential truth about Tokyo became newly, exhaustingly clear: You may start out smugly amused and amazed, noticing all the ways in which it steals, cracks, and reassembles Western culture. But ultimately you come to realize it is not about you; it has no need for you; you will never understand it and it will roll on whether or not you're there to appreciate it. For an American—perhaps most for those in the American spotlight—this is a strange, exhilarating, wonderful thing.
By the time we reached dinner that night, at Nihonryori Ryugin, the restaurant of the prodigiously talented young chef Seiji Yamamoto, it has to be said that we were running a little ragged. Before we'd left, I'd come across Chang and Ansari in the Cerulean lobby, both sprawled out dozing in padded leather armchairs. Now we shuffled into a long dark hallway with a desk at the end, behind which sat a dubious and severe young woman with hair in a swept-up bun. She looked us up and down, spoke into a Secret Service–style earpiece, then reluctantly ushered us into the hushed dining room.
When Yamamoto opened Ryugin, he served wildly inventive dishes like burdock roots carved to look like wine corks and plates decorated with bar codes painted in squid ink. (Scanned with a phone, they led to an explanatory web page.) Lately—rumor had it in response to disapproving pressure from the Japanese culinary establishment—he'd reined in the more fanciful flights of his imagination in favor of more subdued, classical fare. We were at Ryugin at Chang's urging. Working in Tokyo as a young man had left him with mixed feelings about the city at best, but he worshiped the discipline Japanese chefs brought to cooking in all vernaculars, high and low, East and West. Someday, he predicted, as labor laws and dreams of easy stardom made Western cooks soft and slow, all classical technique would reside in Japan. "It's going to be like the Library of Alexandria here," he said as we sipped champagne and dug into an appetizer of soft, buttery monkfish liver painted with miso.
It was a quiet meal. The trip was winding down. So was the year. And our mood might have been a premonition of how momentous 2011 would turn out to be for all. Murphy had decided to fold LCD Soundsystem, feeling that the band had grown too large for him to have a full life. "It's not good for me anymore," he said. "I like being successful. But I never expected that success would mean only being able to do one thing." The farewell concert he went on to stage at Madison Square Garden in April felt like the end of a particular era of New York underground life—perhaps the last such era—a measure of which was the mournful panic the announcement set off in Murphy's fans; the concert sold out within minutes.
Chang, too, talked about escape, in his case to Australia, where he'd been spending time working on a Sydney branch of Momofuku. New York had grown frustrating: He couldn't actually cook in his restaurants, because diners insisted on taking his picture. "I've got all these great kitchens now, but I can't work in any of them," he said. And yet plenty more was already brewing. That coming summer, Chang would launch a new food journal, Lucky Peach, along with a companion iPad app. He'd take on an improbable featured-acting role—as a heroic bohemian artist-chef—on HBO's Treme. He'd attend a state dinner at the White House. He'd have morphed into an unlikely King of All Media.
As for Ansari, the third season of Parks and Recreation would debut and finally move from the safe corner of "beloved but unwatched" to the glare of mainstream expectation. By the end of the year, it would generally be considered one of the best comedies on TV. For what it's worth, I myself was only a few weeks away from putting all my belongings in storage and boarding a train to live in New Orleans after nearly twenty years in New York.
In short, we were four men on the cusp of Further Complications, and for the first time it began to feel that this trip was more than the product of simple gluttony or a social-media accident. Strange times lay ahead, stranger even than the lurid landscape in which, paradoxically, we were finding a moment of suspended peace before the storm.
The final courses arrived, seeming to encapsulate both poles of Japanese culture. First, humble sublime simplicity: a bowl of rice tossed with rough cubes of Wagyu beef, the melted fat from the meat just barely slicking each perfectly al dente grain. Then, gleaming futuristic fireworks: In front of each of us, waiters placed a plate on which sat a tiny perfect shining apple, as though it had been lifted directly from Snow White. Chang figured it out first: "It's not an apple," he murmured. He took his spoon and cracked the top of what was actually a thin shell of sugar. Inside was a deep-frozen thimbleful of powdered-apple ice cream. It sent off a glistening little puff, like fairy dust. We all were suddenly grinning.
Then someone said, "We should go do karaoke."
I'm told that Zima, that strange clear drink so ridiculed Stateside, is actually quite popular in Japan—so much so that when MillerCoors discontinued American production of the malt beverage in 2008, it continued to be sold in the Land of the Rising Sun. This does nothing to diminish the shock we all feel when the elevator doors open and we are presented with a maintenance man wheeling a huge trough of ice and clear bottles.
"Zima!" cries Chang, eyes gone wide. He falls upon the shocked janitor, pries the top off a bottle, and downs it. "Better than Four Loko," he declares, perhaps the least helpful tasting note ever issued by a renowned chef.
Once we cram into the room, having picked up some of Murphy's friends from previous trips along the way, the other guys show off their own special powers, like some kind of ninja superteam: Whap! Power of Hyperkinetic Comedian! Ansari climbs up on a banquette and goes bouncing around on the upholstery, performing both parts of B.o.B and Bruno Mars's "Nothin' on You." Zing! Power of Lead Singer! Murphy dials up Lou Rawls's "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" and launches in with a rich, rolling, buttery vocal that brings the room to a dead halt. The Mrs. Claus girls appear in the door as somebody dials up "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Ansari wanders into the room next door and sings the Backstreet Boys to the shocked party. Their group joins ours. Or maybe we end up in the hallway. More Zima. Candy spills out across the floor. Somebody dials up A-Ha, and Murphy, Ansari, and Chang join arms:
Take on me
(Take on me, echo the rest of us.)
Take me onnnn
I'll be gone
In a day or two
Somehow it's become 4 A.M. We roll out into the wet, shockingly empty streets, still singing, and try to orient ourselves home by the blinking roof lights of the Cerulean. What began with a pleading tweet from Ansari ends with a triumphant one: #WeDominatedTokyoKaraokeTonight.
Five hours later, Chang and I are back at Narita, spending our remaining yen on whatever we can find: bowls of ramen, katsu curry, bento boxes of premade sushi. It is Christmas Eve, and the terminal is mostly empty. As we walk down the boarding ramp, I can already feel the dreamscape of Tokyo falling away. Chang puts a pill in my hand; a twinkly-eyed male flight attendant with a beard and a Scandinavian accent takes my jacket and hands me a glass of champagne. I close my eyes, and when I reopen them we're already on our final approach to JFK, coming down out of the clouds, back to the real world, banking in over the placid, gray winter sea.
The Actor's Workshop
Ron Swanson, the cult hero of NBC's offbeat comedy series Parks and Recreation, is one of the most weirdly compelling characters on prime-time TV: a deadpan, mustachioed municipal bureaucrat in fictional Pawnee, Indiana, who's a government-hating libertarian, a lover of guns and bacon, and (lest anyone mistake him for a crude caricature) a man of fierce personal integrity, with a sensitive, artistic side. Ron is also an avid woodworker, so awesomely masterful that he can craft an exquisite harp from scratch in a single night after downing six glasses of whiskey.
In one legendary episode, a city planner visits Ron at his beloved workshop, where he's in his element, crafting a canoe. This is Ron's domain, where "arbitrary" safety regulations don't apply: There's a wood-burning stove next to an oxygen tank, a rat's nest of wires, and dozens of other violations of city code. The official, who is also Ron's co-worker, orders him to fix it, and even pitches in to help. Ron grudgingly gives in, qualifying it as "bringing my workshop up to the Swanson code," which just so happens to correspond with city code. Later, the official finds a gleaming finished canoe on his desk, a gift bow on top. Ron, a man of few words, won't say "thank you," but he will give you the greatest present he can think of: something he made by hand.
Cut to real life. Ron Swanson's alter ego, actor Nick Offerman is giving a tour of his woodshop in Los Angeles, talking about the joy and meaning of making things. Yes, Offerman is actually a woodworker, with a successful side business crafting handsome custom furniture, canoes, and soon, acoustic guitars, which he likes to play. For the record, he always works sober, and the Offerman Woodshop is well-appointed and violation-free. It doubles as Ron's shop on the show. (The prop department dangered it up for the cameras.)
"It's really a dreamy man-cave," Offerman, 41, says of the 3,200-square-foot former photo studio he converted a little more than a decade ago. One room houses magnificent slabs of salvaged walnut and redwood he's collected over the years from sources in northern California. The famous Swanson canoe, which Offerman built, hangs from the ceiling. There's a gorgeous hunk of patterned burl, soon to be a coffee table for Parks and Recreation's Rashida Jones.
Just about finished is another table for a feature story in Fine Woodworking about a router jig he invented for flattening slabs. It's ultimately destined for the artfully decorated Hollywood house he shares with his wife, actress Megan Mullally (best known for her role as kooky Karen Walker on Will & Grace). "She's an obsessive, incredible interior designer," Offerman says, and every so often she'll come through the shop and lay claim to a piece. "She'll say, ‘Who's this for?' I'll say, ‘It's for that magazine article.' And she'll say, ‘That's for Mommy.'"
Just off the main studio is an office/kitchen furnished with vintage cabinets painted bright green and odd knickknacks, such as a couple of quirky little wood men carved by a friend. Here, as a country-folk-bluegrass mix wafts softly - occasionally interrupted by the buzz of a drill or saw - Offerman relaxes and talks about his intertwined creative lives. Even without his TV character's trademark pompadour and bland office attire, those distinctive arched eyebrows and that deep, resonant voice give you the strange sensation that you're talking to a hipper, mellower Ron Swanson. It quickly becomes apparent he thinks a lot about handwork - especially its spiritual and social value. He's eloquent, and eager to proselytize.
Craft "carries a lot of medicine," Offerman says, and he prescribes a little dose for us all: Once in a while, get off the computer, turn off the TV (after Parks and Recreation, of course), and turn on to handwork. "It's for your own good if you can find something you can make. And there are so many choices - you can make things in the kitchen, in the garage, in the woodshop; you can blow glass. And with the Internet, you can now learn how to make so many things without ever needing to go to, you know, Windsor chair school." (Not that he personally wouldn't kill for the opportunity to go to Windsor chair school, he adds.)
Offerman has that genuine, down-to-earth quality you see so often in craftspeople (if not always in Hollywood). It's a credit, probably, to his Midwestern upbringing, which emphasized such traditional values as family, closeness to the land, thrift, resourcefulness, and knowing your way around a toolbox. All through his boyhood in Minooka, Illinois, he worked on his grandfather's farm and learned craft the old-fashioned way: making stuff, out of necessity.
"My dad taught me to drive a nail probably when I was 5," he says. Young Nick hung out in the shed with the men of the family, all hardworking, salt-of-the-earth guys who could make or fix just about anything. "My uncles would make MacGyver look like a schoolgirl," he quips.
By high school, Offerman was a skilled tradesman, but his dream was to act. From the beginning, his two talents complemented and nourished each other. To pay for theater school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he spent summers blacktopping. ("They called me ‘The Shovel,' " he notes proudly.) As a freshman, "I was very bad at acting. I was a baby, and all these kids came from Chicago and the suburbs and they had done Shakespeare - who was a playwright, it turned out. I was like, ‘Oh. I've seen Happy Days.' " In scenery class, though, Offerman was a star. "These kids had not used a hammer. Everyone would put me in their show because I would build scenery." That's how he learned acting.
After graduation, Offerman worked as a professional scenery builder in Chicago to supplement his income while he performed in plays. In the late 1990s, he moved to California to pursue film and TV work. To make ends meet, he constructed post-and-beam cabins, decks, and, this being L.A., the odd backyard yoga hutch. When he decided he'd rather work on a smaller, more manageable scale, he realized he could apply the same joinery techniques to furniture. He began reading classic woodworking books by George Nakashima and James Krenov, and got hooked on Fine Woodworking.
"I just was astonished by the Craftsman movement," Offerman says. "There was an honesty to that work, specifically Gustav Stickley, where the parts of the table that hold it together are also the decoration. I loved that aesthetic and philosophy. As soon as I got to Nakashima and [Sam] Maloof, I was like, ‘OK - I'm off and running.'"
That was in 2000, the year he and Mullally started dating; they married in 2003. He was by then a successful (read: working) actor, but "she was an insanely successful actor. I was very spoiled because I didn't have to worry about making the rent." In between parts (including tool-guy roles on American Body Shop and Will & Grace, where he played "Nick the Plumber"), he did commissions for friends and colleagues. Though acting has long been his "first job," woodworking gives him the deep satisfaction of producing objects that are tangible and lasting, with an intimate function in daily life.
"I love making a bed or a dining room table, because those are two very necessary pieces of furniture. You're making someone the board off which they'll feed themselves. Or they'll play cards, or they'll drink and have a rousing good time. To me there's something holy about getting to do that for people."
With a hit show in its fourth season, his time is largely taken up by "that pesky dream job," as he likes to call it. Still, the shop remains. "It's a fortress of solitude, where everything except for the actual nature of the wood material is under my control." Woodworking grounds him, provides the balance he needs to survive and thrive in a high-pressure industry where "you are ostensibly a person with an artistic agenda, trying to create whatever it is you love, in an arena commanded by corporate finance." Describing the dehumanizing ordeal of an audition, he slips into the present tense, as if he's still a struggling actor.
"That's my favorite day - to leave that [casting] room, and come straight here. And whatever it is I'm doing, even if I'm just sanding a board, I sand the board, and I look at it. I've done something tactile that I can look at and see that I've achieved something. That's representative of how woodworking is for me in my whole life."
Like proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement, he sees the shoddiness of mass-produced items as both cause and symptom of a wider disease. "I think we'd begin to see a solution to some of our social problems if we'd just take back our self-sufficiency," he says. "A lot of that can be grasped by realigning ourselves with the crafts that we've lost." He urges anyone with an interest in making to read the work of his favorite writer, the agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry, who advocates craft as a cure for society's ills: "It really speaks to the heart of the craftsperson."
And Nick Offerman clearly has a craftsman's heart. "I love being someone who can effect change on the world around me with my hands and with tools. It's a fellowship that I'm very proud to be part of."
Ron Swanson of Parks & Rec vs. Nick Offerman: The Food Interview
Like the character he plays on Parks & Recreation, Nick Offerman is a man with a magnificent mustache. Something of a libertarian, most certainly a contrarian and definitely not a vegetarian, Ron Swanson is the gruff but goofy patriarch who viewers have come to idolize. Such is the curse of success that people so adore Ron Swanson, they often can't, or won't, separate the man in the eye of the meat tornado from the man who plays him.
It's a strange twist of fate for an actor who spent a good chunk of his early career working as a set-builder and performing in non-union theater in Chicago, a choice he likens to canoeing the L.A. River unironically. "Not a lot of people are going to hear about it, but... you're just happy to have done it," Offerman says.
Married since 2003 to Megan Mullally, who played Karen Walker on Will & Grace, the two of them live in the Los Angeles hills, where Offerman spends as much time as possible avoiding the internet and grilling bratwurst.
Over a lunch of prime rib, mashed potatoes, creamed corn and multiple desserts at the Tam O'Shanter Inn, located a few minutes from the Atwater Village workshop where he builds canoes and practices planking (not the stiffening viral trend), Offerman chatted with Squid Ink about mustache mania, his predilection for Dickensian restaurants and why, even in such a food-centric era, Parks & Rec may be TV's most food-centric sitcom.
"It's a great time to be alive," Offerman says. "Popular music all sounds like Neil Young records from 1972, and we're reliving this artisan appreciation in all the food we're eating."
Squid Ink: Now that I've bribed you with prime rib...
Nick Offerman: You've loosened my tongue.
SI: Everybody loves Ron Swanson. I used to do book reviews for Bitch, a feminist magazine. The entire editorial staff loves you.
NO: Wow, thank you... Bitch.
SI: So here's a question from the Bitch editorial staff: "Do you have any problems with fans who refuse to differentiate between you as an actor and your role? (Confession: the entire editorial staff of Bitch is guilty of this.)"
NO: No, I don't have a problem with it. I've seen headlines on blogs that couldn't state it more plainly: "Nick Offerman, Ron Swanson: Indistinguishable." It's very much not the case. I'm crazy about the character Ron Swanson, but Ron is like a Simpsons character. No mortal could survive his diet.
There are things about my personality, but they're very simple points. Ron loves to eat meat and he loves to work with wood and he's a simple guy who grows good whiskers.
SI: And plays saxophone.
NO: I'm not quite as good as Duke Silver, but I do play. There's no way, short of taking me out for prime rib, that the readers of Bitch could begin to understand that I'm just as much of a sloppy dipshit as the rest of us, trying to find my ass with both hands. Ron is a character like Superman. Christopher Reeve seems pretty indistinguishable to me from Superman, but I can comprehend what must be the differences. That was a bad example. Gene Hackman seems indistinguishable to me from Lex Luthor, but I can comprehend what the differences must be.
SI: Do you get a lot of Ron Swanson fan gifts?
NO: I feel like there's been some sort of shift in the zeitgeist, where people are now able to scratch a certain fan itch online. In [wife] Megan [Mullally's] day, we would receive a lot more things sent to our table at restaurants. There was more tangible physical evidence of fan worship. Nowadays, I actually don't get a lot of stuff, which I'm incredibly grateful for. What am I going to do with pigs with mustaches on them?
There have been a few occurrences where people in restaurants have sent me a rasher of bacon, which I am not going to turn my nose up at. I never let them down.
SI: As a food writer, I get a lot of well-meaning but silly food gifts. Eventually, I had to tell people: If you really like me, stop giving me bacon-themed gifts; just give me bacon.
NO: Let's commiserate: I mainly get mustache stuff. Can you imagine me sitting here right now wearing an ironic T-shirt about mustaches?
SI: For the record, you're wearing a dark blue shirt that says "A visual aid for knot tying," which is very practical.
NO: That's going to come in handy. If the shit goes down right now, and we get swept out to sea, guess who's got the knot chart?
I'm so grateful to be in the position where people want to express their love of our show with some sort of mustache-themed gift. I get that. They always say, "I saw this, and I had to get it for you." That's where you need to change the thinking. See it, think of me and maybe have a laugh with your friends.
SI: How do you feel about fancified meat products: bacon jam, truffle burgers, beef foam, etc.?
NO: Yawn. See [the Parks & Rec] beef burger episode. There's no need to improve on meat.
SI: So Ron Swanson's "It's meat on bread" motto is your burger ideal?
NO: Sure. I love cheese. I love horseradish on my prime rib. Here's a difference between me and Ron: If I could order one meal of meat, it would be a bratwurst. I'm crazy about the bratwurst.
SI: When it's a scene with food, you don't have to eat Ron Swanson's food, but you often do.
NO: When you consume something in a scene, you learn to be very circumspect because you may end up having to consume that amount 30 times. When you're young, you think, "Man, it would be really cool if I smoke in this scene." Then, on take 18, you're green and vomiting because you've been smoking for 90 minutes. So you learn with food: If you have to take a bite of something, don't swallow it, and get a spit bucket. Even if you're eating one bite of cake, you may end up eating four pieces of cake by the time you add them all up. It makes sense, especially if you're attractive. I have the good fortune of not being included in that category.
Early on in the show, when I needed to consume something in the scene, the props people would be standing by with a spit bucket and I'd say, "Take that spit bucket away from me. You'll not be needing it." Our show is not like a Kubrick film where we're going to do 40 takes of anything.
There's a scene in the episode about my birthday where at the end, it's just me eating steak and watching Bridge on the River Kwai. There have been many occasions when I receive a new script and I read something in the script that just makes me openly cry with gratitude. One of them was in that script. The tag at the end said, "This will not change: 30 seconds of Ron Swanson eating steak and watching Bridge on the River Kwai in silence." I read that, and the fact that they said, "This won't change," I just started openly weeping.
[That episode] was directed by the great film director Nicole Holofcener. (I'm so happy I've gotten to be buddies with her.) We were shooting that on a Monday, so I didn't eat on Sunday because I thought, "I'm going to eat so much goddamn steak." We got to that scene in the middle of the morning. We shot probably a minute and a half. I got 4 or 5 good bites of steak before she said, "Cut." And I was like, "No, I didn't eat yesterday!" So we went one more time, but then it was ruined. I had a couple more bites, but then it was gluttony. When it's something I'm creating on behalf of the show, it's important that I eat all this meat. When I'm doing it just for myself, I can't stomach that.
SI: Were there "standby steaks"? Did they wrap them up for you?
NO: There were, but I actually am pretty strict with my diet. I have a wonderfully hedonistic appetite, and if I wasn't really strict with myself, I'd weigh 300 pounds. I'm not good with moderation. It's either "Always be vigilant." There's no, "I'm happy." I either have to stay on top of it or become a full-blown alcoholic, which I may do. I'm still young.
SI: You learned not to eat everything on your plate, but I understand Chris Pratt, who plays Andy, just goes all-in.
NO: Chris is a man of many immense talents, none of them greater than his ability to consume comestibles. His digestive system is a gaping maw. And he has such an enthusiasm about eating. Chris can take a bowl containing 10 servings of pasta and, with two fistfuls, make it disappear. He can do that six takes in a row. I've also seen him eat, and this is not an exaggeration, eight slabs of ribs in about three hours -- with absolute glee. He's an amazing human being. Truly a specimen worth studying.
SI: Aziz Ansari is a big foodie too. We've written about him.
NO: He is. He's such an amazing resource because his standup tours take him to every corner of the country and his interest in restauranting have combined into this incredible resource. I will find myself in Kansas City, and we have tonight off, let's go to a restaurant. I'll immediately text Aziz: "Kansas City. Sushi. Go." He's like, "Well, do you like sashimi or..." He has it all broken down.
SI: The Parks & Rec cast is full of people who love food.
NO: It's very food-centric. I don't know if that has to do with it being a Midwestern show with a lot of heart. ("Home Is Where The Hearth Is" read an embroidered plaque on my mother's kitchen wall.) But we all definitely are really into our food. The ladies too -- they just have to use less of it. They're in the business of being beautiful.
SI: Why do you think Ron Swanson, one of the most paleo-libertarian, comically hyper-masculine characters on TV, is such a hero to so many people, especially women? He's really the breakout character of the show.
NO: I think everyone in our cast could carry their own show. If my character is at all any sort of breakout from that, it can only be through some bizarre anomaly of the zeitgeist that I can't begin to wrap my head around. I feel, when asked that question, like a birthday clown who's asked, "Why do you think the kids are so freaked out by your makeup?" It's hard to tell if you're in the makeup.
I think Ron appeals to the simplicity that people crave in this age of information. We have such an embarrassment of riches when it comes to choice. Do you want to hike in the Alps? There are 300 pairs of shoes you can order within the next 10 minutes. You have your choice of everything. Ron ignores all popular choice and just lives really simply.
Also, Ron celebrates things that we've been taught to eschew, like hair on a man. It's something that has been weaned off our Brad Pitts and our Jude Laws. But when you see it, you're like, "Oh, yeah. That's a fucking guy." That's not a Hollywood boy-man, that's a fucking man, who if we need wood chopped, that guy can chop it. I think it just appeals to something sort of elemental in people.
SI: There's also a vicarious thrill to the unrepentant hedonism of Ron Swanson, Don Draper (Mad Men) and Jack Donaghy (30 Rock). We have to think about calories and moral consequences. They just smoke and knock back Scotch and sleep with stewardesses.
NO: They revel in their disdain of moderation. They're like, "I'm going to eat this whole fucking steak and then I'm going to smoke a cigar and it's going to be so delicious, you pussies." I don't like to use that word in that way because it's misogynist, so I'll say, "you lily-livered sissies" instead.
Coincidentally, that was the trip with [Megan's character] Karen Walker on Will & Grace. People loved her because she said what she wanted to. She would drink a martini any time she chose. People love to see that. They love to identify with characters who are able to honestly speak their mind without having to deal with any consequences. Which is so boring and dry for an interview answer.
SI: But there are dimensions to Ron's relationship with Amy Poehler's character. He's not just the dry boss who sticks to his guns. He cares about the people around him, though grudgingly.
NO: It's a Lou Grant/Mary Tyler Moore vibe. The patriarch who is a ridiculous teddy bear, if you can just get through the layers of claws and teeth.
SI: What restaurants in Los Angeles do you like?
NO: Here [the Tam O' Shanter]. The Oinkster. I love The Oaks Gourmet -- great burger. Have you been to Village Bakery? That place is amazing.
SI: Any other favorite foods?
NO: Well, we've discussed bratwurst. I love to cook out. My dad had a big article written about him in the Joliet paper. It was "gas vs. charcoal grilling," probably a 4th of July pullout. Somehow, they got ahold of my dad, who is just a hilarious charcoal grillmaster. He does the Thanksgiving turkey on the grill. He is just an amazing griller.
SI: Do you have strong feelings about gas vs. charcoal?
NO: I guess I do. I stick to charcoal. I have a Kenwood charcoal grill. In our house, if anybody is cooking, it's me. I love making burgers. I love making pork tenderloin. Lamb chops I do on the grill a lot. But you just can't beat brats.
SI: Where do you like to eat sausages?
NO: The Red Lion, of course. That was another "victory meal": their sausage platter and a couple of Hefeweizens. That was a happy time. That was back when you could smoke. These were great places to smoke back then, the Red Lion and the Tam O'Shanter.
For me, coming from a small town in Illinois, there's nothing more romantic than a place in Los Angeles where you can behave like you're in a pub on the wharfs of London. Have fish and chips. Smoke. Have a few pints. I've never known anyone who behaved like this, except characters in Dickens.
The First A.D.
Adam Scott presents this behind-the-scenes look at the world's worst first assistant director, with Ken Marino and Mark Duplass.
Aubrey Plaza World of Warcraft Commercial
Interview with Harris Wittels - AV Club
The Art of Manliness Podcast #34: An Interview With Nick Offerman (AKA Ron Swanson) - listen
Retta named one of TV's funniest women - AOL TV
Will Arnett in Winnipeg - CBC
Rashida Jones on meeting Sinatra - CNN
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