‘Cavemen,’ ABC sitcom based on TV commercials, undergoes pre-debut evolution

By Lynn Elber

LOS ANGELES – “Cavemen” had to undergo a pre-debut evolution.

A new first episode with a new setting – San Diego instead of Atlanta – will air when the sitcom begins 8 p.m. EDT on Tuesday.

ABC announced in July that the pilot didn’t properly introduce the idea of Cro-Magnon buddies living in modern society and would be redone. The producers, meanwhile, found it difficult to fake Atlanta in the production based in Los Angeles.

Acknowledging they already faced skepticism about how the Geico insurance company TV commercials would translate to a series, executive producers Will Speck and Josh Gordon said this week they’re hopeful that “Cavemen” will attract viewers and make them laugh.

“It feels like its origin is somewhat polluted, like it’s taking advantage of something that’s popular in the culture,” Speck said, referring to the commercials. “But there’s places to go (with the series) and specific stories to tell, and we feel really proud about the cast.”

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“Cavemen” stars Bill English, Nick Kroll and Sam Huntington. One of the original cavemen, Jeff Daniel Phillips, will appear as a recurring character.

The spots wittily depict shaggy-looking cavemen chafing at misconceptions about their sophistication and intelligence. The series follows another trio of Cro-Magnons battling bias as they try to fit into a world that believes (wrongly, as the show has it) they’re extinct.

It’s unusual for characters from an advertising campaign to move into shows of their own, but not unprecedented. The short-lived CBS comedy “Baby Bob” featured a talking baby that had been used in several commercials.

“Cavemen” will have to strike a different tone than that of the drier, low-key Geico commercials, said Speck and Gordon, who directed the original campaign written by Joe Lawson (also a series developer).

The pair, who teamed to direct the Will Ferrell big-screen comedy “Blades of Glory,” still get a kick out of the concept of modern cavemen with relationships and jobs. One character works at an Ikea-like store called Norsbild.

The debut, which ABC said was still in production and unavailable for preview, finds one of the cavemen hiding from his buddies that he’s dating a Homo sapiens woman. The producers were game when asked to describe scenes that might make viewers laugh.

“The cavemen playing squash is always really funny to us,” Gordon said. He also cited a bit in which one of the hirsute cavemen (the actors undergo extensive makeup) is offended by someone’s offhand remark about “The Flintstones.”

In July, when the producers and cast attended the Television Critics Association meeting, they were asked if the prejudice the cavemen faced in the pilot – for instance, that they were athletically superior – was intended to echo the stereotyping that blacks face.

Not at all, the producers said, reiterating that position again this week. While the show is about how people treat minorities it has nothing to do with any specific real-life group, they said.

“We’re creating a new fake group and having fun with what people think about cavemen,” Gordon said. “For us, the primary focus is for people to think the show is funny and something different, much more so than thinking … about what everything is standing for.”