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"Cavemen" stars Bill English, Nick Kroll, and Sam Huntington (left-right) portray scraggly-haired Cro-Magnons struggling to assimilate in contemporary society. (Bob D'Amico/ABC/MCT)
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America has yet to lay eyes on “Cavemen,” the upcoming ABC sitcom about scraggly-haired Cro-Magnons struggling to assimilate in contemporary society. Already, though, it is one of the most mocked and derided television shows in recent memory.


Jeering critics have ridiculed ABC for having the gall to a stretch a gimmicky ad campaign for Geico insurance into a weekly series. Skeptical media buyers have predicted it will be among the first shows to crash and burn. And comedian George Lopez, whose sitcom was axed by ABC, has expressed his utter dismay. “So a Chicano can’t be on TV, but a caveman can?” he asks incredulously.


Despite all the derisive scorn, “Cavemen” could draw robust ratings—at least in its initial outing on Oct. 2—because many Homo sapiens across the nation figure to be curious. Indeed, a recent online survey found that “Cavemen” leads all new network shows in terms of viewer buzz.


“I will definitely watch it, if only to see if it can sustain the gag for a half-hour show,” says Sam Van Zandt, an ardent TV viewer from Walnut Creek, Calif. “The idea of turning those commercials into a sitcom made me laugh.”


Even Tiffany Ramazetti, a Moraga, Calif., resident who doesn’t find the commercials the least bit funny, admits that there’s a chance she’ll take a peek at the show.


“I might watch it once to see if it’s really as bad as I think it will be,” she says.


In the rush to dump on “Cavemen,” it’s easy to forget that television history has featured a number of sitcoms that came into the world bearing weird, silly-sounding concepts, only to turn into surprise hits. The offbeat collection includes, among others, “Bewitched,” “The Munsters,” “My Favorite Martian,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Mork & Mindy” and “3rd Rock From the Sun.”


Maybe there’s a lesson in this. Maybe it’s better to refrain from rolling our eyes until a show actually makes it to air.


“Who would have thought that Ozzy Osbourne would make a great sitcom dad or that boat tourists stranded on an island would hold our interest for four years?” says television historian Tim Brooks, who co-wrote “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.” “Having a show with an off-the-wall concept that can be described in one line attracts immediate attention. Even if it’s negative attention, that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing.”


With that in mind, it becomes somewhat easier to understand why ABC programmers could possibly be drawn to “Cavemen.” Every fall, dozens of new TV shows flood the airwaves, and such a radical concept stands out in a crowd. And, thanks to the Geico ads, its characters come with a built-in fan base. ABC, like most other networks, hasn’t had a sitcom hit in years, so why not take a shot?


“The good thing about comedies is that they’ve been broken for a few years, so people are willing to take chances,” says Steve McPherson, the head honcho of entertainment for ABC.


As fluffed-out for prime time, “Cavemen” is meant to be a sendup of racial relations. Its prehistoric denizens battle prejudice in modern-day Atlanta, where fitting in is a constant struggle. Earlier this summer, TV critics mostly slammed the pilot episode, which was filled with broad humor and heavy- handed depictions of societal stereotypes. It is undergoing a makeover, including a cast change.


Still, executive producer Will Speck, who worked on the ad spots, doesn’t believe it’s such a stretch to envision “Cavemen” as a series.


“When we were making the commercials, we just felt like there were more stories to tell,” he says. “And I think it starts in the purest place, which is us feeling like there’s love and affection for these characters from us. And I think, if we do our jobs right, people will follow suit.”


They have their work cut out for them, according to Brooks, who says the key is to deliver something unexpected.


“You can only live off that title for the first 10 minutes or so,” he says. “But then you’ve got to throw the audience a curveball and/or be better than anticipated.”


A good example of a high-concept show that pulled it off was “ALF,” which debuted on NBC in 1986 and was pegged to a furry little alien creature who crash-landed in the garage of a suburban family. Yes, it sounded totally bizarre, but the curveball of “ALF” was the fact that the title character was not a cuddly puppet, but a gruff-voiced crank who commented with sarcastic wit on the foibles of earthlings. In its second season, “ALF” shot into the Nielsen Top 10.


“It was so much more than just a kiddie show,” Brooks says. “And it underscored the fact that you need to reserve judgment about a show until you actually see it.”


More recently, “3rd Rock From the Sun,” with a very different form of aliens, enjoyed a successful run on NBC (1996-2001), where it served as a dizzying allegorical analysis of human nature. On the drama side, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003) is a great example of a clever, well-crafted show that proved to be so much more than a fanciful premise.


Still, they are rare exceptions to the rule. Television history, after all, is also littered with shows with far-out setups that were Nielsen flops. Among the notable failures over the past decade: “Homeboys in Outer Space” (two guys travel from planet to planet seeking fame and fortune), “Teen Angel” (dead boy with wings guides his Earthbound pal), “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” (a fictional butler in the Lincoln White House), and “Meego” (Bronson Pinchot as a 9,000-year-old space alien).


“Off-the-wall concepts are tough to pull off,” says Brooks. “Once you get people into the tent, you’ve got to have characters. You’ve got to have a voice.”


Speaking of failures, there might be a cautionary tale for the “Cavemen” crew in the sad exploits of “Baby Bob.” This CBS sitcom, pegged to, of all things, a talking baby, also had its genesis in a series of commercials—for an Internet company.


“Baby Bob” debuted in the spring of 2002 and actually featured some decent adult actors among its cast, including Adam Arkin and Elliott Gould. Alas, viewers never fell in love with the chatty cherub. “Baby Bob” lasted only nine episodes, failing to make it even to the toddler stage.


___


Sitcoms with bizarre, far-out concepts are a risky proposition on TV. Here’s a rundown of some big hits, and even bigger misses:


THE HITS


“Bewitched” (1964-72, ABC): If only we could twitch our noses and make magic happen. Climbed to as high as No. 2 in the ratings and was named by TV Guide as one of television history’s best 50 shows.


“The Beverly Hillbillies” (1962-71, CBS): Jed, Granny, Jethro and Elly May invade the land of movie stars and swimming pools. It’s one of CBS’s longest-running sitcoms.


“Mork & Mindy” (1978-82, ABC): Nutty alien from the planet Ork struggles to adjust to Earth’s strange ways, and the world is introduced to Robin Williams.


“3rd Rock From the Sun” (1996-2001, NBC): It’s nonstop lunacy as aliens land on Earth to study a very “unimportant” planet.” Hammy John Lithgow nabs three Emmys.


THE MISSES


“Homeboys in Outer Space” (1996, UPN): Traveling in the 23rd century Space Hoopty was a trip we didn’t want to take.


“Meego” (1997, CBS): Bronson Pinchot played a goofy alien named Meego, but it was a no-go.


“The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” (1998, UPN): Critics and activist groups crucified this crude period sitcom before it even aired.


“Baby Bob” (2002, CBS): Six-month-old baby talks like a full-grown adult. America is not amused.

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