Why did Cavemen flop? The unpopular show, sprung from the popular Geico car insurance ads, fatally broke the first rule of sitcoms: you couldn’t tell the characters apart. Think of The Honeymooners, or Three’s Company, or Seinfeld. The characters are distinctly shaped, coiffed, gendered, mannered, or aged. Within a minute of watching, you can tell who’s who and grasp the situation.
A costumed sitcom (coscom?) distinguishes its main characters pretty handily: there can only be one “Alf.” The Addams Family took this principle to the extreme with Cousin Itt and Thing, characters stripped to their essences. The rule of quick distinction extends to any medium in which rapid characterization is paramount. It’s why Groucho Marx cultivated the eyebrows and mustache, Chico the hat and accent, Harpo the wig and the silence. (Predictably, most people forget Zeppo, the brother without a gimmick.) The prosthetically browed Cavemen, perhaps, were too high-definition for most television sets for folks to really register the differences between characters. (Despite years of conditioning through anthropomorphic animal cartoon heroes, viewers instead sought the human behind the Neanderthal.) To our speciesist eyes, the Cavemen (mainly the trio of Joel, Andy, and Nick) were interchangeable, their subtly distinct personalities obscured by tufts of hair and false teeth.
But it was Cavemen’s TV-ad roots that proved to be more troublesome. From the start, viewers compared the show unfavorably to its characters’ original iterations. What was the difference?
As stars of the entertaining Geico ads, the Cavemen created an ironic distance between the ad itself (“So easy, a caveman could do it”) and the viewer sitting at home. By having a Caveman speak for us (the real targets of Geico’s pitch), the ads could deliver their message while acknowledging the alienated situation we find ourselves in whenever an advertisement is directed our way. The Cavemen took issue with the basic maneuver of modern advertising: we’re not thin enough, not smart enough, don’t spend enough time working, don’t spend enough time relaxing. They gave expression to the insulting nature of advertising’s lowered expectations. They were on our side.
In the move from ads to coscom, the Cavemen expanded their commercial critique to the whole of American upper-middle-class society, with its offices and condos and dinner dates. They were here to save us from the capital-obsessed, marketing-driven bourgeois society.
And that’s when the problems really started. Their function was the same in both settings, but the commercials worked too well: the characters became known as “the Cavemen from that Geico commercial.” They achieved their evangelical goal of revealing the dirtiness of advertising, so much so that they themselves fell to their own critique, sullied in their dramatic debut by their own commercial origins.
As meta-shills, the Cavemen’s “primitive” nature allowed them to be explicit everymen. They were outside of history and could approach the world without guilt. But when they jumped to prime time, they could no longer be abstract characters. They were saddled with the history of their own creation—their Madison Avenue résumé—and lost their purity. By being specifically associated with a documented transgression (being in the ads as de facto pitchmen), and by initially being so distant from any built-up historical culpability as characters, the move from pristine, guiltless caveman (in the ads) to historicized caveman (in the show) was that much more shocking.
Were the ads so much “better” than the show, or was this perception a result of categorical confusion? Previous audiences had been used to quarantining ads to two-minute blocks, safely away from proper entertainment. Cavemen spilled over, demonstrating what Fredric Jameson termed the total flow of television, with commercials and programs all part of one experience. The object lesson was too close to horror for prime-time viewers, too far from humor—and too much for the ratings to bear.