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Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Defending the Cavemen

Unpopular Opinions is a new weekly column in which a writer takes a stand against popular opinion, whether it's asserting the true merit of a supposedly guilty pleasure or dissenting against the universally lauded.

In Mike Sacks’ tremendous book of interviews with comedy luminaries And Here’s the Kicker… the legendary Simpsons scribe George Meyer says that, given the choice between getting rid of ads and getting rid of nuclear weapons, he’d choose the ads. I am right there with him. Naturally, a show inspired by a commercial would presumably be terrible, right?

You may have seen one of those ads for Geico featuring cavemen. When I heard that they were going to make a show based on them, I was not expecting anything that rose above the station of a show like Small Wonder, or any other go-to show used for humorous comparisons. The knives were out for Cavemen before it even hit the air. I had no intention of watching until I happened to catch a couple commercials. What I saw surprised me, and shook me to my very core. The show didn’t look bad, in fact, it looked like it might be good. Thus, I found myself thinking words I never thought would cross my mind: “Shit, I’m going to give Cavemen a shot, aren’t I?”

I watched every episode that made it to television before the writer’s strike ushered in its demise. Its ratings were terrible. It was critically lambasted. To a large swath of people, it became the standard of a bad TV show idea. I, on the other hand, liked Cavemen. I even told other people to watch it. That’s right, I was recommending Cavemen to other people. Since then, my opinion hasn’t changed. I still think it was a good show, one that deserved a better fate than it received.

In case you are not familiar with the show beyond the basic concept, allow me a brief synopsis. The show was about the various adventures of three cavemen living together in San Diego. The main characters were Joel (the straight man at the center of the show), Nick (the snarky slacker), and Andy (the dumb one). Nick was played by Nick Kroll, who has since gone on to become a beloved comedy figure. Even beneath all the cavemen prosthetics, he was the most talented guy on the show. He wasn’t the only notable comedic name that took part in the show; the writing staff included former Simpson’s writer/producer Jace Richdale. These weren’t exactly a bunch of scrubs working on this show.

The cavemen commercials were basically one-note jokes about how these cavemen were doing modern things. While that set-up was carried over to the show, thankfully, it wasn’t the focal point. Honestly, the show was really about three friends and some hangers on, and the whole cavemen thing was pretty minor. Cavemen was ostensibly about cavemen but it wasn’t about cavemen.

If anything, the cavemen aspect was used to examine minority life in the United States. For example, in the first episode aired, Joel is worried that his non-cavewoman girlfriend is either ashamed of him or has a caveman fetish. Granted, the fact that this storyline involved cavemen, and the absurdity of that, allowed the show to do some things that they couldn’t have done with, say, Pacific Islanders. The greatest use of the cavemen as minority paradigm was in the show’s best episode, “The Mascot,” in which, Nick gets a job as a substitute teacher at a school that has an offensive stereotype caveman as a mascot. Nick’s interactions with the students, and the staff, at the school were very humorous, particularly once he started complaining about the mascot. It was moments like those that reminded me that at its core Cavemen was aspiring to be a shrewd satire on race.

Still, what really matters is that Cavemen was often funny, and occasionally really, truly hilarious. The jokes were well crafted and told by very funny characters. Had they just kept the non-cavemen related stuff, the show would’ve worked, though, that would have left the show without the hook that got in on air in the first place. This is the danger with high-concept shows: they run the risk of turning people off just in their titles.

I’m not saying Cavemen was a great show, because it wasn’t. And I'll admit that the show probably didn’t have more than two seasons worth of storylines. Still, the six episodes of the show that did air were genuinely good. They were funny and I found them more enjoyable than a lot of stuff that has lasted much longer (I’m looking at you, the vast majority of CBS’ lineup). Certainly, I don’t agree with the show’s reputation as an abomination unto the Lord. Many shows become punchlines and Cavemen is one of them. To me, it should merely go down in the books as another solid show with a short run. Those commercials, on the other hand…

If you have your own Unpopular Opinion you want to make a case for, send a pitch to Jesse David Fox.

Chris Morgan has written for Cracked, Examiner, McSweeney's, and Overthinking It, amongst others. You can follow his adventures in writing and international espionage (but mostly writing) on his Twitter.

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  • Peter Stork@facebook

    The show was mediocre and not worth going out of your way for, but it's true that it wasn't that bad. Some rag had it on a typically overreactive list of "Worst 10 Shows Ever" a few months back and I scoffed; it wouldn't belong on the list of "Worst 30 Shows on TV at the Same Time as Cavemen."

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    I watched one episode, and I think it wasn't as bad as I assumed it would be, but I don't think I thought it was good. I don't remember much about it, but I do remember not liking the characters (caveman or not).

  • http://asianniceguy.com El Sabor Asiático

    It's funnier if you pretend all the roles are played by Zach Galifianakis.