How Mark Twain helped Nick Offerman become a weirdo
The comedian brings Twain's 'A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court' to life in a new audiobook from Audible
A version of this story appears in the Oct. 13, 2017 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Pick it up on stands now, or subscribe online at ew.com/allaccess.
Sometimes an audiobook and its narrator are a perfect match — and such is the case with Nick Offerman’s new recording of Mark Twain’s time traveling classic A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It’s not the first time Offerman has taken on the fellow American humorist’s work: He’s also narrated The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for Audible, spending time with a character he’s identified with since he was a child growing up in a small Illinois town.
“If you had said to me 20 years ago that someday one of your jobs will be reading books for other peoples’ enjoyment, I would have fallen over for happiness,” Offerman tells EW. “I’m just so grateful that I get to do this. These books and what they have done for human society mean so much to me, so to play any small role in the delivery of that material just really keeps me minding my manners.”
Below, the delightful Offerman chats with EW about his love of Twain and audiobooks (he and wife Megan Mullally plan trips around which audiobooks they want to listen to, he says).
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is available now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve narrated Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. What made you take on Connecticut Yankee?
NICK OFFERMAN: I love reading and I love audiobooks. I was doing cartwheels when they asked me to do Tom Sawyer. I would do audiobooks constantly if they would have me. I love great writing and trying to communicate that to a listener.
Really? I’ve heard actors say it’s the most exhausting thing they’ve done.
Well, I’ve poured concrete and blacktopped roads, so it would not be in my top five. [Laughs]To recite Mark Twain’s writing into a microphone… it’s one of those things where you pinch yourself and say, “I can’t believe this is my job today.”
It feels like the perfect pairing to me, you and Twain.
Well, that’s very generous. I don’t smoke nearly the number of cigars that guy put away, but if I get accused of being cantankerous, I’ll smile inwardly.
When did you first discover his work?
I grew up in a little town in Illinois that didn’t have a lot of culture in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Only a few wealthy families had TV, so we were limited to mainstream radio stations and three TV channels. So at an early age, I got really into reading, because that was my first outlet to alternative culture. At the library, you could find stuff that wouldn’t appear on ABC on Tuesday nights because it was weird or it was too specialized in some way. I recognized early, “Oh, I want to be a weirdo. I want to read books that not many people like to read.”
So it was an active choice for you to become a weirdo.
It was. I remember learning the word “nonconformity” in like fourth grade and just thinking, “That’s my route.” [Giggles] “That’s what I want to be.” And I think that’s what’s amazing about reading, it allows everyone to find their own inner nonconformist, because everyone reads any piece of writing in a very singular way. For anybody that reads Charlotte’s Web, their imagined Wilbur the Pig is going to be slightly different — or vastly different — and that’s what’s so beautiful and magical about writing and reading.
So, I was at the right age. I believe we had to read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer for school, and I just immediately said, “Oh, this is my bag.”
Who did you like better, Huck or Tom?
That’s a tough question. They both have attributes that I greatly admire, and they both have flaws that I readily identify with. I suppose I liked Huck better because I identified more with Tom. I had a really great upbringing, a really great family life. So I identified with Tom because I wanted to be out in the alleyways and the woods and on the river making mischief, but I had to play by the rules and get home and go to school. Whereas Huck had the freedom to roam, for better or for worse. Turns out that doesn’t, by any stretch, mean he was happier, but certainly as a kid, I always emulated that. It made me romanticize the life of the hobo or the itinerant sailor.
What is it like to read Mark Twain’s books? Are you laughing during the recording, or have you looked at these sentences so many times that they don’t crack you up anymore?
Sorry, that wasn’t my best-worded question.
Oh no, sorry, I’m chewing a Brussels sprout. Forgive me. I apologize.
Well, that’s the thing about great writing. My favorite writer is Wendell Berry, and he has a lot in common with Mark Twain when it comes to delivering a great sense of humor in a really economical way. His jokes aren’t necessarily overt. They’re a lot of behavior or character-based pieces of humor. So it’ll make me laugh 50 times in a row, because that’s what makes his writing so timeless and classic. It’s the same as Shakespeare: It will tickle you every time because it’s a sublime piece of writing.
Yeah. Like you said, that’s why we can still laugh at it in 2017.
Yeah. I think Mark Twain himself would be astonished at how prescient and timeless his writing was. It’s because he had a very true lens into the heart of the human being, and great writing is what allows all of us as readers to think, “Oh my God, I can’t believe he knows that about me. How did Mark Twain see into my soul?”
How do you prepare to perform an audiobook?
My wife and I love audiobooks. Megan is the entertainment director of our household. So [when we’re going on a trip], she’ll audition a bunch of audiobooks. First, it has to be an exciting book one way or another. But then you have to listen to the reader, because maybe there’s something about the reader that you’re like, “Eh… Sounds too much like my high school librarian,” or whatever. So we’ll pick the books and she’ll say, “Okay, I have this book about the timber industry. It’s 13 hours. But then I have this new novel from George Saunders.” So then we’ll choose our destination based on the length of the audiobook. We’re really obsessed with those.
The example I always give is, we started listening to Tim Curry reading the Lemony Snicket stories. It’s always theater people — they’re so amazing at just crapping out 46 incredible voices. And I always wondered, “Do they record one voice at a time and then somebody edits it all together?” I was kinda nervous about that.
So Tom Sawyer, for example, was trial by fire. They just throw you into the deep end and you start recording, and you arrive at the characters and, at least in my case, I had to say, “Okay, Aunt Polly [does an old lady voice] sounds like this.” So, you not only take a swing at it, but then you have to somehow retain that, so when she comes back in 37 pages there’s a continuity to the different voices you choose. And fortunately, that’s one of the most important jobs of the person directing the audiobook — to track those details.
With Connecticut Yankee, my director was very helpful because there were a lot more characters, and it was this crazy time travel story where… especially the amount of knights, the sort of Knights of the Round Table that kept going…
How did you keep all the characters and voices straight?
I made code names, where I was like, “Okay, this is Gandalf. This is Colin Firth. This is Timothy Spall. This is Tilda Swinton.” You run out of voices you know, so then you end up with like, “Okay, this is… Bugs Bunny.”
I’ll tell you one thing that seems pertinent. Knowing his stuff as I have my whole life, I never felt like I did a good enough job with Injun Joe [in the recording of Tom Sawyer]. Like, I tried everything I had in me to create as menacing of a voice as I could. And I just couldn’t get around how terrifying I found Injun Joe as a kid. Hopefully that’s just my own insecurity, and people listening to the book do find him terrifying. I imagine that they do, but… it was funny. I felt perfectly fine with my Becky Thatcher. [Giggles]But my Injun Joe… I kept trying to picture Danny Trejo or Sam Elliott to achieve the most gravelly, menacing, smoky voice that I could muster.
Speaking of multiple voices and of your wife, the Lincoln in the Bardo audiobook you both participated in is the best audiobook of all time.
Well, thank you. We’re both so grateful to know George, but to be a part of that thing… I agree. I think it’s a crazy, singular masterpiece, in the same way that his book is. I love his originality. He has been compared to Vonnegut, and I agree with that very much when it comes to the way he will deconstruct any accepted form.
George says, “Eh… I’m going to write something that’s novel-length, but it’s certainly not going to be recognizable as a conventional novel.” And then the audiobook followed suit. And gosh, getting to read that out loud and do my best to perform it in a manner commensurate with the quality of the writing was such an enjoyable and daunting challenge. Getting to man a threesome with George and David Sedaris made me about the proudest kid on the block. And Megan and Bill Hader are so deeply, gut-wrenchingly hilarious in that performance.