Hollywood and Hockey

Jim Gaffigan took a cab with a Hab (sort of)

Long before The Love Guru, Jim Gaffigan took a cab with a Canadien Saturday Night Live hosting candidates: Jim Gaffigan
Two decades ago, while plugging along New York City's standup circuit, Jim Gaffigan had a cameo in a Nike Hockey commercial. He has since recovered from The Love Guru and now regularly borrows NHL arenas on his comedy tour. (Photo by Steven Lovekin/Getty Images)

Jim Gaffigan and Stephen Colbert did not mention the imminent 10th anniversary of The Love Guru when the chance arose.

Seven weeks before the June 20 “milestone,” the actor and standup connoisseur spent nine minutes beside Colbert’s Late Show desk. Their portrayal of a fictitious Hockey Night in Canada broadcast tandem stayed off that segment.

It was a classic case of knowing when it is better to pass than to shoot. Perhaps the pair did not think to seek, or at least never found, a decent seam for self-deprecation in that moment.

The all-out bust of a film from 2008 was the equivalent of a star-studded team failing to gel and plummeting in the standings. Not even Hall-of-Fame defenseman Rob Blake could stabilize The Love Guru.

But Gaffigan has some hidden hockey-related gems in his pre-mainstream archives. It began when he was plugging around New York City’s standup scene and playing himself in any commercial he could.

Nowhere was he doing the latter more plainly than when he was a taxi patron in a minute-long Nike Hockey spot. Gaffigan’s IMDB profile does not specify a date for the ad. But it was one installment in a campaign that coincided with the NHL’s Fox telecasts in the latter half of the 1990s.

In each ad, a former goalie is reduced to a comparatively thankless job after career-ending performances on the ice. His bitterness comes through in his insistence on wearing the gear from his last game and blaming a given superstar scorer’s use of Nike skates.

Apparently, one exiled Montreal Canadiens stopper migrated to New York and became a cabbie. The unnamed Quebecois prodigy’s time with his hometown team ended in an encounter with Mats Sundin of the rival Maple Leafs.

Long before The Love Guru, Jim Gaffigan took a cab with a Canadien

Nike hockey skates were a crucial plot point in one of Jim Gaffigan’s first commercials. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

And at the 21-second mark of this tongue-in-cheek where-are-they-now fluff piece, there is the clean-shaven, bespectacled Gaffigan.

“Are you Swedish, sir?” asks the goalie-cabbie.

“No, I’m from Indiana.”

“That’s good, because I’m not picking up Swedish people. They remind me of Mats Sundin.”

Gaffigan is indeed from Indiana, and of Irish-Catholic lineage. Although in retrospect, his own-expense jabs at his pale skin tone lend more credibility to the prospect of someone mistaking him for a Scandinavian.

After another 10 seconds devoted to other incidents, we see more of Gaffigan’s ride. He tries in vain to help the deluded driver continue his transition.

“Boy, it’s hot in here,” the cabbie observes.

“Well, maybe if you took off your mask, it wouldn’t be hot.”

“What mask?”

Ultimately, the as-yet-known Gaffigan wants out, implicitly ahead of the stop he had planned on. The former Hab may he stuck in his cab and stuck in the past, but his passenger will hit the big time in the next century.

It took a few years for Gaffigan to break out in earnest. After appearing on Comedy Central Presents, he started turning heads with his 2005 HBO standup special, Beyond the Pale, in Chicago. But in between, he had another little hockey-based project in yet another Midwestern location.

No Sleep ’Til Madison has no Wikipedia page to call its own. It has never been weighed on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer in the 15-plus years since its release. Like most hockey films, this modest-budget independent movie has a hard time building a significant following.

Yet it was also a key short-term vehicle in Gaffigan’s rise to bona fide stardom. He played protagonist Owen Fenby, who is desperate to preserve his time-honored custom of journeying with three friends to watch the Wisconsin state high-school hockey championships.

On the heels of No Sleep ’Til Madison, Gaffigan was back on Fox. The NHL and its Nike ads were gone from the network. But the cab customer from Indiana was now a lovably hapless restaurant manager for two seasons on That ’70s Show, another Wisconsin-set saga.

By the time his character was written off, Gaffigan was a year away from Beyond the Pale.

For all that it lacked in notoriety, No Sleep ’Til Madison recompensed in hitting its relatively low ceiling of memorability. In that sense, it is practically the inverse of The Love Guru. So much so that, in the spring of 2011, Gaffigan mentioned only the former when the topic of hockey came up.

At the time, Ben McGrath of The New Yorker was following a real-life pack of puckheaded pilgrims. The subject of McGrath’s piece was a Toronto man who saw himself and his travel companions in the characters in a Scranton, Pa.-based production about former high-school basketball teammates. Gaffigan, who portrayed Scranton’s mayor, met the Ontarians after they were invited to the play.

As quoted by McGrath, Gaffigan told his guests, “I know nothing about hockey.” But then he quickly remembered, “Actually, I was in a tiny indie film that was called ‘No Sleep ’til Madison.’”

Gaffigan had the last word in McGrath’s piece as well. Of his stint as Owen Fenby, he downplayed, “I’m not saying it’s a great movie.” Then he reportedly turned his attention back to fried chicken, reinforcing his authentic food-loving stage persona.

For all that it lacked in notoriety, No Sleep ’Til Madison recompensed in hitting its relatively low ceiling of memorability. In that sense, it is practically the inverse of The Love Guru.

Maybe not great, but good enough for the low-profile panels that saw it. If nothing else, the movie was well received when it was screened at the 2003 Santa Monica Film Festival. It garnered the titles of best comedy feature and best narrative feature on that occasion. Four equivalent festivals also bestowed an award on it.

The Love Guru hauled home some hardware as well, mostly via the Razzies. But Gaffigan escaped all dubious honors for his part as HNIC play-by-play man Trent Lauders. Even Canadian critics suspended their disbelief while the Middle American actor filled a role that almost always goes to one of their countrypeople in reality.

In more recent memory, Gaffigan has had a few more lighthearted brushes with the NHL. Of particular note, devout Bruins buff and fellow standup star Denis Leary tapped him as one of his A-list guests for the 2014 edition of Comics Come Home.

The annual Boston standup bonanza has benefited Bruins president and Hall-of-Fame winger Cam Neely’s cancer charity since 1995. By its 20th installment, after burgeoning in college arenas, it was ready to hit the TD Garden. There Gaffigan gauged the local crowd’s taste by highlighting his affinity for doughnuts and his common Indiana roots with NBA Celtics great Larry Bird.

Afterward, he and fellow guest Jimmy Fallon engaged in small talk with attending Bruins players. He was especially (if only jokingly) astonished to learn that the 5-foot-9 Brad Marchand was, in fact, a hockey player.

Gaffigan has since been back for more editions of Comics Come Home. In addition, his standup tour has grown to a comparable degree in its own right. Last year he played to packed houses in other NHL venues, such as Tampa’s Amalie Arena and Raleigh’s PNC Arena.

That is presumably more than Sundin’s vanquished Canadien rival can speak of.

Al Daniel

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