The Dead Singer Behind a Volkswagen Ad

Mr. Indiana

People are always telling Jim Gaffigan, a 33-year-old actor and comedian, that he reminds them of someone else.

“I’ve always been compared with people,” he said. “Every little indie movie I do, halfway through the shooting, somebody will be like, ‘You know, you remind me of Phil Hoffman a lot .’ And I’m like, thanks . And if I’m doing a guest spot on a sitcom, they’re like, ‘You’re just like Drew Carey! You know that? You’re just like that.’ And it’s never anyone who gets a lot of women.” When he was doing commercials, he was always “an Ed Begley type.”

Now he’s hearing it again. He’s the star of a sitcom called Mr. New York , which is being developed by CBS. The concept: A funny weatherman from Indiana (Mr. Gaffigan) comes to New York to pursue his show business dreams. Kind of like David Letterman. In fact, the show is being co-produced by Mr. Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants.

But Mr. New York is about Mr. Gaffigan, not Mr. Letterman.

On a recent afternoon, he was eating bread at Bistrot Margot, a restaurant north of Little Italy. He wore an olive green button-down shirt, a blue baseball cap and a pair of oval wire glasses. He has a snub Letterman nose and a Letterman island of sandy blond hair on his pate. And there’s something about his mouth.

So it’s not like he hasn’t gotten the Letterman thing before. “I think my old girlfriend only went out with me because of it,” he said. “But if I’m going to be compared with anyone, thank God it’s Letterman. It’s not like I’m being compared to that Skakel guy. Letterman’s kind of thin. You think I look thin? You think I look fat, don’t you?”

A waitress stopped by the table, and Mr. Gaffigan ordered the salade avec tomates Montrachet by pointing at the menu. “Could I have the, oh, I’m not going to be able to pronounce that, the salad … and a diet Coke,” he said.

Mr. Gaffigan grew up in Dune Acres, a suburb of Chesterton, Ind. He has five siblings; in the Gaffigan family, Jim is considered to be the third funniest of the lot, after his brothers Mitch and Joe. (Mitch inspired Mr. Gaffigan to put a bit in his standup act about Indianans who drink K.F.C. gravy as a beverage.)

Mr. Gaffigan studied finance at Georgetown, then got a suit-and-tie job in Tampa, Fla., before moving to New York nine years ago. For a while, he tried advertising. He started doing standup at night, honing his act and watching the other comics get pilots and sitcoms, while he got overlooked. “My entire career, people have underestimated me,” he said. “I’m low energy. I’m kind of clean. In New York, I try not to do late spots anymore because I’ll go on stage after some guy who’s been like, ‘You know when you’re eatin’ some pussy?’ ” Mr. Gaffigan screamed the line in a hopped-up Chris Rock voice. The restaurant, luckily, was empty. “You know when your eatin’ it ?” He could never really compete with that.

Five years ago, he quit his day job to become an actor. He played a plumber on Law & Order . He’s been in Rolling Rock commercials and Saturn car commercials and a few films: Three Kings, Wirey Spindell . He did a series of spots as Energizer Benny, a slovenly guy dressed in a bunny suit who wanted to take the Energizer Bunny’s job, but “focus groups thought I was insane.” The spots never aired.

Then, on Jan. 8, 1999, he got his big break: the Letterman show. (He was on with Marv Albert.) After the show, Late Show executive producer Rob Burnett summoned Mr. Gaffigan to his office. They’d never met, but Mr. Burnett told him that Worldwide Pants wanted to do a show with him. Over the next few months, they tried to come up with a concept.

“I’d always had this joke about how weathermen always seem like the outsider of the newscast,” said Mr. Gaffigan. “Doesn’t it always seem like the weatherman’s trying to become friends with the newscasters and they’re blowing him off? I always thought it was interesting that the weatherman was standing and everyone else was sitting, kind of like someone’s stole his chair, and nobody will give him a chair back. They’re like, ‘Hey, Tubby, you lose weight, and we’ll give you a chair back.'”

During one brainstorming session with Mr. Burnett, Mr. Gaffigan was doing his weatherman shtick, but he told the producer, “Well, I really can’t, you know, do a weatherman from Indiana, because Dave would be like, ‘What are you doing ?'”

But neither Mr. Burnett nor Mr. Letterman had any issues with it. Mr. Gaffigan said that in the few meetings he’s had with Mr. Letterman, the two have never mentioned the way Mr. New York’s life sounds like Mr. Letterman’s, or the fact that they kind of look like each other.

Mr. Gaffigan stretched out his legs and tried out some Indiana sarcasm. “Dave hit me twice, for no reason, really. He slugged me in the head,” he said.

–Andrew Goldman

That Volkswagen Song

Pink Moon is the third and final album by Nick Drake, the British folk singer who died of an overdose of antidepressants in 1974 at age 26. It used to be hard to find. For years, he was known only to singers, songwriters and musicheads. But now Pink Moon ranks sixth on’s music sales charts. Sales of the record are up 400 percent in the last year.

A look on the packaging of Pink Moon ‘s cover tells you why. Above a small blue circular sticker with a VW symbol and the tag line, “Drivers Wanted,” is the line, “As heard in the new Volkswagen Cabrio commercial.”

You probably already know the one.

The ad shows a group of friends out for a moonlit drive in a Cabrio convertible. They are listening to Drake’s moody, impressionistic “Pink Moon,” the title song. They reach their destination, a party, but so transported are they by their convertible and by Drake’s firm, wispy voice and virtuosic guitar playing that the group decides to turn back.

In 30 seconds, you’re hooked.

Pink Moon was Drake’s last album, the final statement from a gloomy man who, after attending Cambridge and recording two critically acclaimed but publicly ignored albums, had grown increasingly withdrawn and mordantly shy.

Joe Boyd, the president of Hannibal Records, the label that reissues Drake’s records, was also the producer of Drake’s first two albums. Mr. Boyd said he doesn’t find it odd that the stubborn and idealistic Drake is finally getting famous, because of a car commercial.

“Nick wanted his music to reach as many people as possible,” Mr. Boyd said. “He wasn’t precious about it. Nick wanted to be successful, but he was so shy. He wasn’t very good performing. In bars with people talking, and people drinking beer, he wasn’t the sort of person to tell a joke to get people to pay attention. And he had to retune his guitar between songs. He just got very discouraged and stopped touring.”

Hearing Drake’s music for the first time can be an arresting experience, especially when you’re watching crap on TV. “It’s a very powerful thing,” Mr. Boyd said. “In an evening you’re watching television and most of the music is brassy or electronic, and then suddenly you have this simplicity.”

Now, 26 years after Drake’s death, Mr. Boyd is sending a single of “Pink Moon” to radio deejays who have seen the commercials on TV.

Did we mention the radio ad? There’s the sound of a car door closing. Then “Pink Moon” plays. Thirty seconds later, the door opens and a voice says, “This musical interlude is brought to you by Volkswagen.”

–William Berlind The Dead Singer Behind a Volkswagen Ad