CHARLOTTE, NC (Mark Price/The Charlotte Observer) - Bud Light's "Dilly Dilly" commercials have been inescapable for months and it's rumored three will air during the Super Bowl on Sunday.
But what many Charlotteans don't realize is that the King in those commercials is a South Meck High grad, who sang for years in the choir at Myers Park Baptist Church.
John Hoogenakker – aka "the Dilly Dilly King" – left Charlotte after graduating in 1995 and moved to Chicago, where he has found steady work in films, TV and commercials. He currently has roles in two 2018 series: "Colony" on USA Network and "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan" on Amazon.
Yet fame has come in a way he never imagined: A series of commercials set in a fictitious "Game of Thrones" world where royals will do anything for Bud Light.
Hoogenakker admits being mystified as to why the commercials are so popular. It's a role he won through a Skype casting session, no less, and production has included filming in New Zealand.
"It was going to be one commercial," said Hoogenakker in a phone interview. "I had no idea, no idea it would go this far. For some reason, it really struck a chord. 'Dilly dilly'? It's just a funny sounding thing to say. I think nonsense unites us...Everybody is surprised by how this thing has gone viral."
The dilly dilly craze – and yes, it is a craze – started in August with a commercial about a wizard who entertains a royal banquet by turning things into stacks of Bud Light. Each trick is applauded by the King (Hoogenakker) who dryly utters the nonsensical phrase "dilly, dilly." The commercials have gotten progressively sillier since then, including one where a wine snob gets sent to the castle's "Pit of Misery."
Some writers have attributed the success of the commercials to the popularity of the cable TV series "Game of Thrones." Others believe it's the catch phrase "dilly dilly," which has become a popular toast to nonsense at public gatherings.
"While some people are still asking what 'dilly dilly' means, the Bud Light ads have taken on a pervasive life of their own," noted a recent article in ThrillList.com. "The abundance of commercials is a testament to the ubiquity of the catchphrase...It's been almost impossible to escape, and that's a situation that looks likely to continue."
Andy Goeler, vice president of marketing for Bud Light, told Adweek.com the popularity of "dilly dilly" is too valuable to ignore.
"Consumers have latched onto it and made it their own, which is what makes this such an exciting time for Bud Light," Geoler told AdWeek. "I think we all knew we had something special when we heard the first reads of the 'Banquet' spot, but I don't know that we ever could have predicted it would have taken off like this. People love 'dilly dilly,' and we're more than happy to keep providing new content."
Goeler said the reason for the growing popularity of the ads is that consumers "have taken a liking to some of our characters like the King."
Hoogenakker plays the role in seriousness, adding to the humor level when he utters his ridiculous catch phrase.
"This may be one of the more bombastic characters I've ever played," Hoogenakker says, crediting the director. "He did say that I'm gifted at playing people who come off as the smartest and dumbest person in the room at the same time."
Hoogenakker says he's often typecast as a "white collar jerk" or the "gruff, emotionally distant outsider."
His resume in film and TV dates back to an appearance as a doctor on "ER" in 2005. Since then, his jobs have grown increasingly high profile, including roles in Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Father," Johnny Depp's "Public Enemies" and he played a Ukrainian mobster murdered by a "Wafflebot" in the cult hit "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas."
He has also had recurring roles on shows like "Chicago Fire," "Boss" and "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan," and is in Canada now, filming multiple episodes of the series "Colony" through February.
Hoogenakker's success has come despite a refusal to move to Hollywood, which is the heart of the industry. He lives in Chicago instead, with his wife of 17 years (Kelly) and two children, ages 9 and 5.
His parents, Jerry and Alice Hoogenakker, met in a Sunday School class at Myers Park Baptist back in 1973 and they remain members of the congregation. His father worked full time in the investment business and was a part-time actor in local theater and commercials. His mom is a retired school teacher. Both supported his decision to pursue work in an industry that is notorious for producing more failures than successes.
Alice Hoogenakker admits she isn't sure why the "Dilly Dilly" commercials have become so popular, but she loves them.
"What does 'dilly dilly' mean? I really don't know, but my friends and I laugh every time we hear it," she says. "Let me know if you find out what it means."
She's not surprised by her son's success, noting he was the narrator of a school play at age 4 and never looked back.
Friends who grew up with him in Charlotte remember Hoogenakker as "the long-haired teen in rainbow suspenders." In addition to the Myers Park Baptist choir, he was active in ROTC and excelled on the debate team at school.
Monica Williams, a former classmate, said he was best known on the debate team for humorous interpretations that bordered on stand-up comedy. "He could mimic someone just a minute after they walked away," she recalls. "He took it seriously, too. It wasn't a hobby or a habit. He loved performing."
High school friend Cara Smith Bryan, now a speech pathologist, says Hoogenakker gleefully pushed the envelope at school and at church. She actually has a list of his antics.
Among her favorites: She once saw him stand at a second-story window and preach to a playground full of dumbfounded preschool and elementary students "with a spot-on interpretation of Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham."
Smith says she recently told Hoogenakker that he was "either being super modest or had no clue" in not realizing how popular his Bud Light ads have become in the country.
He admits as much.
"Honestly, I am super critical of pretty much everything I do," he says. "But now that my kids are old enough to see and hear my work, it makes me happy to see how happy my work makes them."