Commercial-Minded My World Of Flops Case File #15: Cavemen
Let’s not delude ourselves: Network television exists primarily as a means to sell advertising. Oh sure, we may hold Parks And Recreation and—to pick a completely random example I doubt will have any extra resonance for this particular audience—Community, near and dear to our hearts, but from a coldly commercial standpoint, these shows serve largely to help sell feminine hygiene products, body sprays that will supposedly cause the men who wear them to be sexually ravaged by beautiful women everywhere they go, and diet beverages women are strongly discouraged from consuming, lest they spontaneously grow penises upon their very first sip, or something.
Network television is essentially an advertising-dissemination machine that sometimes accidentally results in great, challenging art, or at least crackerjack entertainment. Yet when it was announced that ABC was going to be creating a network sitcom out of a series of Geico insurance commercials about cavemen with the exterior of Neanderthals and the literate, refined sensibilities of NPR subscribers, it was viewed more as a milestone in the decline of western civilization than merely as a dodgy, singularly unpromising idea for a new show.
It’s all well and good to use sitcoms to sell advertising, but making a television show based on advertising that could then be used to sell different kinds of advertising? That simultaneously crossed a line and blurred the increasingly wobbly line separating advertising from entertainment.
Even in a culture that views originality as a frightfully non-commercial proposition, making a TV show based on commercials seemed like an awfully cynical proposition. Had Cavemen been a success rather than a publicly eviscerated embarrassment, it might have opened the floodgates to an entire subgenre of advertising-based sitcoms. Sure, we all grudgingly tolerate Flo from the Progressive commercials in 30-second increments, but where does she come from? What are her hopes, her dreams, her aspirations? Why is she so infernally peppy? Is she overcompensating for some tragedy in her past? Is she on drugs? All these questions could have been answered by a Flo From Progressive sitcom or miniseries.
The knives were out for Cavemen well before its pilot episode received such a disastrous reception that it was shelved for extensive retooling. It’s easy to see why. Cavemen was designed to be a satirical allegory about race, identity politics, and political correctness, but its unaired pilot exploited rather than critiqued or subverted offensive racial stereotypes.
The queasiness begins with the sitcom’s main characters, Nick, Joel, and Andy (Nick Kroll, Bill English, and Dash Mihok, respectively) watching a news report about a caveman robbing a convenience store. The accompanying graphic shows a crudely drawn, frightening-looking Cro-Magnon above the words “Primal Fury.” The cavemen are appropriately offended by the news media’s focus on the criminal activities of their people (“Great. Why’d it have to be a caveman?” “Of course it’s a caveman. They only put it on TV when it’s a caveman.”) even before a caveman weatherman puts on a big Uncle Sam hat and does a little jig. “Dance for the man, monkey. Oh my God, you sellout!” Nick, the group’s resident radical/intellectual, yells at the screen. Uncomfortable yet? Cavemen begins by clumsily linking the plight of primitive-looking subhumans with black people’s crusade for social equality and responsible media coverage.
And rather than downplaying these associations, the pilot brings them to the fore with a premise that finds lovestruck straight-man protagonist Joel traveling to his girlfriend’s country club so he can ask her bigoted father (John Heard) for her hand in marriage. En route to the White Neck country club, Nick infuriates Joel by using the slang term “Magger,” a derogatory term for cavemen that sounds uncomfortably like… Well, it’s pretty clear. To spell things out even further, Nick says it’s okay for cavemen to use words like “Magger” or “Cro-Magger” to refer to themselves, but Joel says, “It’s not okay. You can’t change a negative stereotype if you’re out there reinforcing it.”
To further antagonize Joel, Nick begins singing “I like big mags and I cannot lie / You other brothers can’t deny / When a girl walks in with an itty-bitty mag and a round thing in your mag / You get magged!” to the tune of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” This barely makes sense, but it’s faintly offensive and desperately unfunny all the same.
“What’s the sex like? Is it true what everyone says? Is it wild? I bet it’s wild. I want to do one,” the hot-to-trot best friend of Joel’s girlfriend enthuses to the accompaniment of Tone-Loc’s “Wild Thing,” presumably because the show couldn’t secure the rights to The Time’s “Jungle Love” in time.
Judging by the tastelessness and terrible judgment of the pilot, it’s remarkable that the show-runners got a second chance to make a first impression. But after the pilot was banished to the land of wind and ghosts, the cast was tweaked (Dash Mihok was out as Andy, and Sam Huntington was in), the setting switched from the racially charged South (namely Atlanta) to the colorblind utopia of San Diego, and the racial components were toned down.
So instead of debuting with a racially problematic exercise in bad taste, Cavemen debuted with “Her Embarrassed Of Caveman,” an episode where Joel begins to suspect that his hot girlfriend Kate (Kaitlin Doubleday) is ashamed to admit to her friends that she’s dating a caveman. Joel finally musters up the courage to confront Kate, at which point he learns that she’s only ashamed to introduce Joel to her friends because they think she only dates cavemen. She’s got a bit of a history with them. A sexy, sexy history. It’s a lose-lose proposition: If Kate won’t admit to her friends she’s with a caveman, she’s embarrassed; if she dates too many cavemen, she must have a fetish, meaning she can’t appreciate him as an individual instead of part of an eroticized, exoticized minority.
“Her Embarrassed Of Caveman” isn’t anywhere near as offensive or tone-deaf as the abandoned pilot, but it doesn’t have a whole lot going for it, either, beyond the drolly condescending, haughty Kroll as the caveman equivalent of an angry black nationalist, and a funny supporting turn by Nick Swardson as a neurotic little man who works alongside Joel at a store modeled on Ikea.
The next few episodes similarly riff on race and race relations in ways that aren’t offensive, but aren’t terribly amusing, either: The second episode, “Nick Get Job,” finds Nick working alongside Joel at the Ikea-like emporium, then filing a discrimination lawsuit against the company when he’s fired for gross incompetence. In the third, “The Cavewoman,” Nick finally gets an opportunity to live out his creed that cavemen should stick to their own kind by falling into a sordid sexual fling with sexy cavewoman Heather, who turns out to be insanely aggressive and bullying.
Cavemen begins to realize its potential with its fourth episode, “The Mascot.” At the risk of damning it with very faint praise, Kroll, who went on to do fantastic work on Comedy Bang Bang and his Comedy Central special, is easily the best thing about Cavemen. The show’s best episodes explore the buried idealism behind the character’s smug, self-righteous exterior. In “The Mascot,” for example, Nick begins teaching just to make money, and is shocked to discover that he actually likes molding young minds. His elation quickly gives way to dismay, however, when he discovers that the school’s mascot is a crude caricature of a primitive caveman.
The first laugh-out-loud moment in the show comes when a distraught Nick tries to reason with the person inside the crude caveman-mascot costume, who mockingly hits him in the head with a club. Nick grows increasingly indignant and apoplectic until he can’t contain himself and knocks the mascot over, at which point it’s revealed that the person in the costume is a skinny little blonde girl. Kroll’s slow burn and deadpan attempts to reason with a crude caricature sell the scene, but there really isn’t too much difference between the ugly and offensive caveman mascot and, say, the mascot for the Cleveland Indians.
Cavemen’s next big laugh comes in the final episode to air on ABC, “Rock Vote.” The episode pits Nick’s fierce Caveman Nationalist politics against his common sense when he throws his support behind a caveman politician whose platform, alas, begins and ends with a strong, batshit-crazy desire to rid the world of gluten for reasons known only to him.
The show’s ratings declined dramatically over the course of its six-episode run on ABC. Between “Her Embarrassed Of Caveman” and “Rock Vote,” roughly half the show’s audience disappeared. The show was cancelled, and six episodes went unaired. Since the show has never been released on DVD (and probably never will be), the final six episodes are available only through the largesse of some kind soul who put the entire series (including the unaired pilot) on YouTube out of some misplaced sense of devotion and dedication.
Here’s the strange thing: The widely disparaged show started to find its voice after being cancelled. The final four episodes—“Caveman Holiday,” “Andy The Stand-Up,” “Cave Kid,” and “Hunters & Gatherers”—represent a big step up quality-wise from the dire-to-mediocre episodes that actually aired.
“Caveman Holiday” focuses on the trio’s preparations for “Long Night,” a holiday commemorating an evening when cavemen were able to stave off freezing to death by huddling together for warmth. The episode has a lot of fun with the stomach-churning particulars of Long Night, but it also benefits from a warmth unimaginable in the show’s creepy, mean-spirited pilot. The episode highlights how being part of an oppressed minority can bring its own life-affirming set of rituals and traditions. “Long Night” is amusing, but it’s also sweet and promising in the way it fleshes out the caveman culture and mythology.
“Andy The Stand-Up” is even better, though I suspect part of my affection for it is rooted in my love of bad stand-up comedy. The episode has Andy attending an open-mic night Nick hosts, and trotting out a stand-up routine that consists almost exclusively of catchphrases from Austin Powers, Napoleon Dynamite, Ace Ventura, and the like. His act dies a richly merited death until Andy figures out he can win over the crowd with a crudely stereotyped impersonation of a cartoon caveman. Andy is consequently faced with a tough choice: Chase success by selling out his people and indulging prejudices and preconceptions, or go the noble route and risk performing for an audience of none? Andy ultimately decides to go the honorable route, though in his case, that means trading in his self-hating “ooga-booga caveman” routine for equally awful but less self-hating prop comedy.
The first season of Cavemen ends strongly enough to suggest that the show might have become something consistently watchable if it had made it to a second season. A show that began as an offensive, tasteless monstrosity evolved into something at the very least moderately watchable.
People should not be judged by how they behave at their worst or at their best. Hell, for that matter, people probably shouldn’t be judged at all. Nobody is as good as they are in their defining moment of triumph, nor are they as bad as they are at their nadir. The same is true of television shows.
Though the public came to know Cavemen as one of the most colorful, flamboyant, ridiculed disasters of the last 20 years, it did not see the show at its agonizing worst (the unaired pilot) nor at its eventual unaired best. Instead, it saw a show with mercenary origins that married a questionable premise with lackluster execution.
The first season of Cavemen is better than its reputation in part because its reputation is so dire, though it’s not exactly an unearthed gem. Toward the end of its aborted first season, it began to transcend its origins, but by then, it was too late: The show was off the air, doomed to live on only as a punchline and an example of how degraded sitcoms can be. As a sitcom based on advertising, Cavemen is unique, and not necessarily in a good way. So I’m going to honor that singularity with My World Of Flops’ first mixed rating. If someone can turn goddamned insurance commercials into a TV show, I think I’m justified in giving Cavemen a distinctive grade—one that’s as ugly and unseemly as the strange commercialcom that prompted it.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Secret Failuress