On comedy, corn and common sense: Mirthweek conversations with Bo Burnham and Nick Offerman

by | May 23, 2016

Nick Offerman and Bo Burnham played to an enthusiastic, sold-out crowd at UMSL this spring during the university's annual Mirthweek celebration.
Nick Offerman performing at UMSL

Showing off a ukulele built with his own two hands, Nick Offerman performs a song playfully excoriating the ills of social media during last month’s Mirthweek comedy show at UMSL. (Photos by Rebecca Barr)

Collectively delivering nearly two hours’ worth of laughs and poking fun at everything from country music to Ron Swanson to Mirthweek itself, Nick Offerman and Bo Burnham found an enthusiastic, sold-out crowd at the University of Missouri–St. Louis last month.

The comedic headliners drew roughly 1,600 people to the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center for a much-anticipated Mirthweek performance April 30. Backstage, before and after the show, Offerman and Burnham each sat down with representatives from UMSL Daily and The Current to discuss their work, thoughts on the Midwest, some favorite wild animals – and a little bit of what’s wrong with the world.

Esther Povitsky

Esther Povitsky opened for Nick Offerman and Bo Burnham at UMSL’s Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on April 30.

For Offerman, though, one of the first questions was how the Illinois native and Chicago Cubs and Bears fan felt about being in St. Louis Cardinals territory.

“Are they still playing?” the “Parks and Recreation” star deadpanned.

Asked next for his sense of what works in terms of humor in the Midwest, Offerman said he wasn’t sure, as a relative newcomer to the world of comedy.

“I’m pretty ignorant for all of that. I happened upon Bo Burnham, for example, after everyone else knew about him for four or five years, and I immediately got him on an episode of ‘Parks and Recreation’ I was directing,” Offerman said. “I’m just crazy about him, and I’m so flattered to be invited to appear with him, because I really look up to him. And I feel like a curmudgeonly uncle, like, ‘Yeah, I’ll come do a couple of my songs before the kids get what they really want.’”

He added that the Midwest does seem to respond particularly well to his “bucolic pace,” the “timbre” of his voice and “references to things like cheese” as well as other dairy and meat items.

Mirthweek comedy show crowd

The Office of Student Life sold approximately 1,600 tickets for this spring’s Mirthweek show – the second ever to sell out.

“It’s funny – one of my employees in L.A. is from Indiana,” said Offerman, who founded Offerman Woodshop in East Los Angeles, “and I was running behind the other day. I was cooking dinner for 10 people, having them over. And I said, ‘Marcus, I’m going to need you to husk the sweet corn’ – 36 ears of sweet corn. And he said, ‘OK. What is husk?’ And I said, ‘I thought you were a Hoosier!’ And he had never husked sweet corn before. But nonetheless, people on average tend to know what the word ‘husk’ is referring to in the Midwest more than, say, San Diego.”

Later that night, Burnham said that although he certainly employed jokes specific to Missouri and St. Louis during his own set, he doesn’t really see the Midwest as having a particular comedic culture.

“Usually I’m just playing off the idea of that, you know what I mean? Just the idea of what people may think the Midwest means,” he said, adding that a crowd like the one at UMSL can be refreshing as compared to places where people can be “a little too cool for themselves.”

“I think the worst crowds you actually get are on the coasts, where it’s like, ‘This is the third coolest thing I’ve seen this week,’ as opposed to here, where they’re, like, excited to have you,” Burnham said. “Sometimes in major cities there’s just a sense of [being] over it.”

Nick Offerman at UMSL

Nick Offerman takes a moment to show off his physique while performing at the Touhill. Behind him is a large, framed picture of bacon and eggs, which a UMSL staff member brought to the event hoping the comedian might autograph it. Offerman not only signed the image but asked that it be displayed on stage during his performance.

Both comedians were asked, at the request of a UMSL student, what wild animal they would each tame if they could. While Burnham was quick to say he’d go for a pig – “even though they’re already domesticated” – Offerman took some time to ponder the query.

“I suppose it’s a tossup between a grizzly bear and a wolf,” he answered eventually. “The grizzly bear could harvest salmon and blueberries for me, which ultimately will lead to a longer and more prosperous life of health. But a wolf could bring me a bison, which would be more immediately gratifying. But I’m 45, so I should probably go with the grizzly bear, so I can see 55.”

Best known for the laughter they elicit, Offerman and Burnham each bring a certain depth and cultural critique to the stage. Asked how he balances the comedy with the deeper threads that inform it, Burnham noted that there’s “a conflict” to his shows, in that the thing he most wants to talk about is the thing he participates in: the world of entertainment, one he finds increasingly “awful,” at least in some respects.

“I think we pay a price for it. And I don’t think the price we pay is good versus bad entertainment,” Burnham said. “It’s entertainment period is bad … The floor that dropped out for me is that social media – before it was like famous people and regular people – and now it’s this continuum. It starts at one ‘like’ and ends at Kim Kardashian.”

Convinced that a culture centered around popularity and things going viral and “tastes splitting us apart” makes people feel “yucky” and anxious, Burnham said he’s part of “a generation that hates each other for that reason.”

“That’s why my show’s a mess,” said Burnham, whose performance was also, incidentally, carefully choreographed and energetic. “My show’s just meant to be kind of a portrayal of that confusion to me.”

Offerman didn’t hesitate to take issue with the world of social media, either, saying there are “more delicious ways to live” than via gadgets and screens. He also shared a few thoughts on his favorite writer, Wendell Berry, whom Offerman has been reading and recommending to others for ages.

“I was working at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and this great guy named Leo Burmester, who is no longer with us, gave me a book of his short stories,” Offerman said of his first introduction to Berry. “And they just bowled me over. They reminded me so much of my family, much of whom are farmers, and he’s such an eloquent and prolific writer. But it’s his common sense that is running throughout his work that really moves me, and so I just continue to consume all of his writing voraciously.”

Offerman was delighted to finally meet Berry a while back – an experience he said was like sitting down at his grandparents’ kitchen table.

“I’ve gotten to be friends with their family now, and they’re just hard-working farmers and writers with their heads on straight,” Offerman said. “His life’s mission has been to just wake us up to where our food comes from and subsequently how our farmers use the land and how therefore we treat our farmers or not. And you know the vast majority of our population is completely ignorant to our farmers, which is a bad situation that is allowing us to ruin the soil that feeds us – which is a weighty thing to say. But he’s also terribly funny, and his stories have a wonderful empathy that really moves me.”

Before wrapping up each interview, UMSL Daily and The Current also made sure to ask which historical figure Offerman and Burnham would most love to portray. The answers?

“A lot of people say I look like Laura Dern from ‘Jurassic Park,’” Burnham said. “So that’s what I’ll probably be. Laura Dern, 1994.”

Offerman settled on the 26th president of the United States, giving Mark Twain as a runner-up.

“The answer everyone wants to hear is Teddy Roosevelt, and I’m fine with that,” he said. “Teddy Roosevelt. I’ve missed a lot of the good stuff – I’m too old – but perhaps we could pull it off in medium-to-wide-shot flashbacks … Conan [O’Brien] really wants to produce something with me as Teddy Roosevelt. He’s kind of obsessed with it. And we’ve had some meetings about it, and we have yet to come up with an idea that we think will fly.”

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Evie Hemphill

Evie Hemphill

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