I’m in a restaurant the first time it happens. “Hey, Sonic!” says the waiter, a little bit conspiratorially. I smile and say something like, “Yeah, right!” as I do when I have no idea what the hell someone’s talking about. Sonic the Hedgehog? Seattle Supersonics? The waiter sidles a bit closer and says, “You look an awful lot like the guy in the Sonic commercials.” I tell him that I’m not that guy, but he obviously doesn’t believe me. “Right, you’re not,” he replies—you know, no worries, he’s not gonna run to the tabs and tell them to run down here and get a shot of the Sonic guy eating a damn salad.
If you’ve seen a Sonic Drive-In ad any time in the past decade or so, then you’ve seen actors T.J. Jagodowski and Peter Grosz riding through an endless series of drive-thrus, ordering Sonic. Jagodowski, a Holyoke native and the perpetual occupant of the shotgun seat, is the one whose rugged good looks are sowing confusion for the Sonic-loving public. You know how there are websites to help you find your twin? Well, I don’t need those. I see mine during every other commercial break.
It’s a strange situation, because I know exactly what happens to T.J. Jagodowski when he’s walking down the street or buying groceries or hustling to a connecting flight: People are yelling “Sonic Guy!” I hear it from the landscapers working at the house next door. I hear it muttered in surprise by passersby on the sidewalk. I even heard it while driving.
I write about cars, so sometimes I snag the keys to the type of unsubtle machine that prompts onlookers to take a hard look at the lucky dunce behind the wheel. The Ferrari 488 Spider is such a car, especially when painted high-voltage blue and introduced to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the rich people consider a non-rusty Volvo 240 to be a little too showy. So I’m pulling out of a parking garage in Portsmouth, top down, feeling like a total mack daddy, when I hear a startled pedestrian exclaim, “The Sonic guy has a Ferrari?”
I’m already driving away, so I can’t stop to protest this assumption. And it occurs to me that T.J. Jagodowski is, in a way, at the mercy of my behavior. I went around acting like a big showoff in a Ferrari, and now some guy thinks T.J. Jagodowski is a big showoff in a Ferrari. When I leave a tip for a waiter, he tells his friends whether the Sonic guy is a good tipper. I mean, if I went streaking at Fenway Park, 30,000 people would think that Sonic was up to some really aggressive guerrilla marketing.
Conversely, I gotta hope that T.J. Jagodowski doesn’t go on a crime spree. I don’t want to spend my days holed up in a shady motel, using the barrel of my pistol to pry the curtains aside for a peek at the parking lot. When you’re on the lam like that, eventually someone knocks on the door and you think, “Is this the end of the line?” But then it turns out it’s your old lady coming back with a pack of cigarettes. That’s no life for me. I don’t smoke, and I’m not about to start just because I resemble an amazingly handsome burger spokesman.
To add another layer of confusion, I’ve been on TV and my photo runs in magazines, so I sometimes got recognized before the Sonic thing took off. But that happened infrequently enough that I was always flattered to talk to anyone who actually knew who I was. Now I know what it’s like to ascend to a higher, and much more annoying, level of fame. Now that I have lived under the searing glare of the Sonic heat lamp, I feel a certain kinship with my fellow celebrities. Here we are, trying to live our lives, and all we ever hear is “Hey Beyoncé!” or “Hey Leonardo!” or “Hey Sonic Guy!” I think I speak for all of us when I ask you to please respect our privacy, or the privacy of the people you think we are even though we’re actually six years younger and have maybe a little more hair.
Sonic began this ad campaign in 2004, canceled it in 2010 and then brought it back a few years ago. Now the Sonic guys are more beloved and ubiquitous than ever, meaning that I’m consigned to a life of mistaken identity unless I gain 50 pounds or T.J. Jagodowski gets hooked on meth or otherwise finds a way to stop being so handsome. So here’s what I’m hoping for: that Jagodowski, by all accounts an excellent improv actor, gets big, so big that people yell “T.J.!” instead of “Sonic Guy!”—too big for cheeseburger commercials. And then? I’ve got shotgun.