Missing link in sitcom history: GEICO caveman gets ABC show

David Hinckley
New York Daily News (MCT)

The GEICO caveman is one of the first memorable TV ad characters of the 21st century.

That's why someone should pick up a crude wooden club and pound some sense into whoever at ABC greenlighted a pilot for a derivative sitcom about three cavemen in modern-day Atlanta.

On the scale of great ideas, this one isn't quite as promising as, say, fire.

Now just to be clear, I'm not suggesting someone should literally clobber an ABC executive. That's a cartoon image, exaggerated to get your attention.

And so is the GEICO caveman.

He's not Fred Flintstone, a regular guy who happens to live in the Stone Age. He's a cartoon, someone we meet for 30 or 60 seconds, exactly enough time for us to savor the hilarious contrast between our stereotype of grunting, Alley Oop-type cavemen and this guy in a stylish modern outfit speaking well-reasoned English.

Truth is, most great TV ad characters are cartoons: Clara Peller of "What's the beef?," the Maytag repairman, Joe Isuzu. Brooke Shields played a cartoon in her Calvin Klein ads - think Pink Panther. A few ad legends have been literal cartoons: the California Raisins, the Budweiser frogs.

In none of these cases, zero, did we want to know more about the characters. One minute was exactly enough time. It was all the relationship we wanted. Remember Baby Bob, the spooky talking baby who got his own show for about 45 seconds? Have we learned nothing from history?

Spending more time with an ad character is like deciding that since the Exxon attendant is good at filling `er up, we should stay at the gas station for dinner.

Good ads are tightly focused. They tell one joke well, and part of their appeal is what they don't spell out. The caveman ads throw insurance agents, PR people, shrinks, billboards and high-end restaurant menus in front of us, and let us overlay what we already know about them.

A sitcom, in contrast, spells out many of those details because it must fill 30 minutes.

To be blunt, more is less.

Another specific problem lies in this caveman's attitude, which in the ads falls somewhere between sullen and angry.

Fine for 60 seconds. For 30 minutes, not so good. Will he turn accusatory in a singles bar? Will he explain the sophistication of cave wall paintings to a co-worker in the financial services game?

We don't know. All we know is that since GEICO has leased the character, ABC can do what it wants with him and his friends.

And maybe ABC's writers will deliver something brilliant. Maybe they'll find a way to turn "Jurassic Park" upside down - characters from an ancient world navigating the modern world - and have a sitcom tumble out.

Frankly, I think our better hope lies in the fact that only a tiny percentage of commissioned pilots ever become TV shows.

If this one quietly expires, maybe both the GEICO caveman and Fred Flintstone can leave with their dignity intact.





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