There’s a beer in Tampa with Nick Offerman’s face on it.
It’s called Li’l Sebastian, a reference to the dearly departed miniature horse from the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, on which Offerman played Ron Swanson, director of the parks and recreation department of Pawnee, Ind. Hidden Springs Ale Works named the pineapple-infused double IPA for the horse, but there was never a doubt a Swanson-Offerman image would pop up somewhere on the can label, shedding a single tear for his beloved equine friend.
“I’m flattered,” Offerman said by phone while driving through Massachusetts en route to a standup gig in Albany, N.Y. “But also, beer is already a bit of a barbiturate, and then to look at something as sad as Li’l Sebastian while drinking beer, it seems like it might be kind of a downer. I suppose it’s good to toast in his memory, as long as you can just keep your mind focused on the glory of that magnificent little creature, rather than the sadness of his passing.”
Offerman’s more of a Scotch guy than a craft beer guy — like Swanson, he’s a Lagavulin fanatic, so much so that he recently partnered with them on his own single-malt whisky: the Lagavulin Offerman Edition.
But he’s used to seeing Swanson’s face — his face — pop up in the most unexpected places.
It’s been a decade since Parks and Recreation debuted on NBC, propelling Offerman, 49, into a new kind of comedic stardom. It isn’t just the projects he’s tackled since — films like 21 Jump Street and The Founder, shows like Fargo and Making It, live tours like the one that hits Tampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday.
It’s that Swanson, the gruff mustache of a man Offerman played so pitch-perfectly on Parks, remains a salable sensation even years after the show left the air.
Search Etsy for “Ron Swanson” and see what comes up. Socks. Pillows. Plushies. Cross-stitches. Cookie cutters. Carving boards. Phone cases with Swanson’s face in place of the Mona Lisa’s. Candles portraying Swanson as a saint. Wall decals of bacon, eggs and toast sold as the “Ron Swanson breakfast.” There are dozens of pages of this stuff, and thousands more across the web.
“I’ve never seen the amount of, like, throw pillows with with a character on them, outside of a cartoon like Snoopy,” Offerman said. “It would be fascinating to count how many products people are selling with some version of my face or my hair and mustache.”
Swanson is a dour, deadpan, good-hearted libertarian, a man who believes in Scotch and steak and small government. Like Offerman, he’s a woodworker and outdoorsman, which along with his whiskers and earth-tone wardrobe makes him something of a symbol for Men’s Men Who Love Manly Things. And an object of infatuation among others.
“Ron covers a few different categories,” Offerman said. “I’ve seen him being appealing in a ‘daddy’ sort of way to younger people. I’ve seen him be considered appealing to more of a middle-aged housewife demographic. And then he is, I believe, considered absolute catnip to a certain pie-section of the bears of society.”
Offerman, though, thinks the Ron Swanson phenomenon has more to do with timing. Parks and Rec debuted in the early days of Twitter and meme culture. The show’s precisely crafted characters and sharp, quotable dialogue resonated with fans online (which Swanson would no doubt abhor).
In Swanson, digital artists saw an oaken cipher they could carve into click after click.
“At Hidden Springs, we’re so tough-seeming from the outside — a lot of employees have tattoos, and we like to put that on our beer," said Arielle Katarina Chorman, the Bradenton artist who designed Hidden Springs’ Li’l Sebastian label. "But we also have a vulnerable, endearing side. I just felt like a little image of Ron Swanson crying represented us as a brewery, and showed that you can be some tough person, a tough character, and still have that side to you.”
As an actor, Offerman still feels some ownership over the character of Ron Swanson, even if he knows, legally speaking, the character’s name and likeness belong to the studio. They give him a tiny cut of every official Ron Swanson mug and T-shirt they sell, which he says works out to “the equivalent of, like, three nice lunches."
After Parks premiered, Offerman was offered endorsement opportunities that felt like “knockoff Ron Swanson stuff,” which he said no to, “because I felt inherently that it would be gross to milk that character.” He has called out corporations like Urban Outfitters for selling Ron Swanson merch without NBC’s permission. On his woodworking website, which has a product shop of its own, he doesn’t mention Ron Swanson or Parks and Rec anywhere.
As for the bootleg stuff? That, he still struggles to wrap his head around.
"Twenty-five years ago, if you printed a T-shirt with Jerry Seinfeld’s face on it and said, ‘Yada, yada, yada,’ and sold a bunch of those T-shirts, you would receive a cease-and-desist,” he said. “It’s a well-known thing in Hollywood that you can’t sell a T-shirt with a picture of Elvis Presley on it, without getting in touch with his estate and paying them. And at some point, this shift happened, because of the internet, where suddenly, that was out the window.”
For a while, Offerman tried to keep up with it. He bought a few products, and collected many more images on his laptop. He and his wife, Will and Grace star Megan Mullally, have even acquired some “brilliant, weird” Ron Swanson artwork, though he isn’t sure what to do with it.
“What person that isn’t an asswipe wants a bunch of pictures of themselves around?” he said. “What do you really think I’m going to do with this? Hang it over my fireplace? Like I’m some sort of Coen Brothers villain?”
Eventually, Offerman realized it wasn’t worth pursuing “some small peanuts version of damages" from artists who truly love Ron Swanson. Surreal as he finds it to see his face everywhere, he’s an artist too. And he doesn’t want to quash anyone else’s inspiration.
“Why don’t I shrug and say, More power to you,” he said. “As long as they’re making T-shirts of something that I did, I guess that’s free advertising. That’s my zen acceptance of the situation.”
Ron Swanson would no doubt approve. A round of Li’l Sebastians all around.
$39.50 and up. 7 p.m. Dec. 7. David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org.