Why ‘Parks and Rec’ Writers Couldn’t Figure Out Ron Swanson at First
Sometimes the best comedy ideas come back to bite you in the ass. That’s what happened with Ron Swanson, a character developed to be a foil for Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation. “Leslie is the most optimistic and energetic person. So Ron’s her boss, and he’s the most obstructionist and anti-government person,” remembered show creator Greg Daniels in an oral history of the show. “We thought, wouldn’t it be funny if he were a libertarian and actually doesn’t believe in government?”
There were two problems with that libertarian idea, despite everyone agreeing it was funny. The first: Was the character realistic? Why would someone who hates government want to work in government? To find out, Daniels and company went on a fact-finding mission, including a trip to the city planner’s office in Burbank, California. Daniels tried out the concept on a woman who worked there to see if she could believe a libertarian would work in a park department if he didn’t believe there should be a parks department. “She laughed and said, ‘Yeah, I’m a libertarian, and I don’t actually think we should have a city planning department.’”
Okay, it was plausible. Problem #1 solved. But Problem #2 was a tougher nut to crack. “The original idea that they had for Ron, which we stayed true to, was this genius thing of this guy who wanted to bring down the government, but also ran it,” remembered writer Dan Goor. But how do you come up with stories about that kind of boss? “Generally, bosses provide the stakes for the stories, and when the boss wants the government to fail, it’s very hard to provide the stakes.”
Goor and the rest of the writers found a workaround — they’d make Ron lazy. He didn’t want government to work because he didn’t want to work! But Daniels wasn’t having it. “Greg kept coming into the room and saying, ‘That’s not who he is. He’s a guy with a philosophy. And it may be hard to figure out how that philosophy works and write those stories, but that’s the task,’” explained Goor. Eventually, the writers found ways to make that work — like the glee Swanson took in finding budget cuts with new characters played by Rob Lowe and Adam Scott.
Over time, another of the show’s creators, Mike Schur, told A.V. Club, “Swanson began to represent the kind of guy that’s not shown on TV a lot: a man. He’s a real man. What he wants to do is go to his cabin in the woods, go hunting, kill a deer, eat it, and be alone. A lot of the details are Nick, and a lot of them are us brainstorming for a guy like that — a 19th-century rugged individualist.” That’s all thanks to actor Nick Offerman, whose real-life talents, such as martial arts, playing the saxophone and woodworking, were folded into Swanson’s character.
“I’ve had a very rich life, and I enjoy a great many pursuits. A lot of my experience comes from finding ways to enjoy my life while trying to get better acting jobs,” Offerman told TV.com. “You can either go sit at the Starbucks and wait for your agent to call you, or you can go learn how to build a Shaker blanket chest with hand-cut dovetails.”