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The Surprising Lives of Famous Pitchmen: Apple's John Hodgman


A nerd by nature, the "PC" in Apple's ads became a famous face by accident.

The erudite, puckish, and amiable John Hodgman became a money-spinning pitchman almost by accident. In 2005, having just booked a gig as a "Resident Expert" on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Hodgman auditioned for an Apple (AAPL) commercial on a lark, and booked the role of "PC."

That was five years ago, and he still does the spots, in addition to major Hollywood films and television shows. He has also published his second satirical almanac, More Information Than You Require (Dutton & Riverhead, 2008), which is based entirely on false information, or, as Hodgman calls it, fake facts.

The non-fake facts, also known as facts, about Hodgman are:

He married his high school sweetheart, Katherine Fletcher, who, like him, is from a suburb of Boston. He studied literature at Yale, then moved to New York in the 1990s and worked his way up at a major literary agency, which he eventually left to launch his own writing career.

In 2000, Hodgman began writing for The New York Times, becoming its first humor editor of the Sunday Magazine, as well as appearing on NPR's radio show This American Life, penning a column for McSweeney's journal called "Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent," and publishing his first book, The Area of My Expertise (Dutton), in 2005. While promoting the book he went on The Daily Show, after which Jon Stewart hired Hodgman to be a correspondent, an unprecedented first for any guest.

A couple months later, Hodgman was called in for an Apple audition. To his surprise, he booked the gig. His portrait of a stubborn, temperamental, beleaguered PC was, and still is, unbelievably good. It's as if a clunky, crash-prone piece of buggy hardware has sprung to life.

Hodgman became a success rather quickly in somewhat related, but nonetheless different and highly cutthroat fields: The first book he ever wrote became a bestseller; he landed an ongoing stint on a major television show, The Daily Show, for which he didn't event audition; then he scored the first commercial he ever auditioned for.

So what's his secret? Playing a know-it-all whose hubris far outweighs whatever expertise he lays claim to, all the while managing to appear entirely earnest. He is literally telling the viewer he is lying to them, but is so good at it, it comes off as unvarnished truth. He's also got perfect timing, both as a performer and in gauging the cultural zeitgeist.

Hodgman is a self-described nerd and he happens to be a nerd at a time when nerddom couldn't be cooler. Hodgman is part of a generation of nerds who are comfortable in their own horn-rimmed glasses and orthopedic New Balance sneakers.

For Apple, selecting a relatively green actor could have backfired. At the time, Apple was doing well enough with iTunes and iPods to lure potential Mac computer customers. Still, Macs cost two to four times more than personal computers that operate on Microsoft (MSFT) systems. To compete with Microsoft, Apple's campaign had to answer the question consumers were asking: Why bother spending the extra cash?

Apple answered with a question of its own: Would you rather be an outdated PC or popular like a Mac? Hodgman and actor Justin Long, who plays the handsome, bland Mac guy, perfectly personified the two options. And since Hodgman was gaining popularity playing a nerdy "expert" on The Daily Show, his appearance in the ads -- where his ultimate message to viewers is to buy a Mac -- also worked in Apple's favor.

Mac ads featuring the two actors began cropping up everywhere -- on billboards, in print, and the Web in 2005. After a couple months on The Daily Show and in Mac ads, Hodgman stepped down from The New York Times.

Today, Hodgman continues to appear on The Daily Show. He is in good company, as past correspondents -- such as Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Lewis Black, Ed Helms, and Demetri Martin -- have had successful post-Daily Show careers.

Hodgman's on-camera career has already accelerated. He has landed roles in hot television shows and films such as Battlestar Galactica, Flight of the Conchords, Bored to Death, Baby Mama, The Invention of Lying, and Coraline.

He was the official narrator of the Oscars last year, reading the voice-over script during the awards broadcast. The most prestigious honor so far, though, may be the invitation he received to be the key speaker at President Barack Obama's first Radio and Television Correspondent's Dinner, an event Hodgman described as "nerd prom." He certainly deserves to be crowned its king.

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