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Who says ‘Cavemen’ is too low-brow?

YES, THE TV PILOT I wrote this year was rejected while a sitcom version of the Geico caveman commercials made the fall schedule. I get how that’s embarrassing. And I understand why every sitcom writer I know, entertainment journalist I’ve read and George Lopez (who said, upon being canceled by ABC, “A Chicano can’t be on TV but a caveman can?”) has focused so much of their dismay about this week’s “upfronts” -- when networks unveil their fall lineups -- on “Cavemen.” They’re citing it as evidence of how the networks are crass, clueless and controlled by gay men with a predilection for bears over twinks. You work in Hollywood, you learn a lot of gay slang.

But the “Cavemen” script is a lot better than mine. It shrewdly plays on society’s conflicting attitudes about stereotypes and has a good running gag about a modern-day caveman who accidentally hits his girlfriend’s dad with a golf club. Plus, it involves characters who people already enjoy -- even when they’re hawking car insurance.

When I interviewed Matthew Fox at his bar in Manhattan Beach, the actor and his buddies kept talking about how much they loved how the cavemen were exasperated by discrimination. They never once mentioned how hilarious it was when I moved out of my wacky parents’ house and got hired -- young, fish-out-of-water-style -- to work at a stuffy newsmagazine. Or when George Lopez went out and George Lopezed something.

Sure, ABC’s “Cavemen” now has to turn a one-note joke into a character-driven series. But so does CBS’ upcoming sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” which is about a hot girl who moves next door to two super-nerdy physicists. (Not to ruin it for you, but they try to impress her with equations -- which she can’t follow!) And so did “3rd Rock From the Sun,” “Bewitched,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money.”

“Cavemen” has become the mockery of the fall schedule because it started as a commercial instead of a book, movie, telenovela or underdeveloped character on “Grey’s Anatomy.” But it’s not as if Geico pitched the show. Ad writer Joe Lawson did. He’d gotten so attached to his hirsute characters that he wanted to do more things with them. Things such as make more money. He and the commercials’ directors, Josh Gordon and Will Speck -- who also directed Will Ferrell’s “Blades of Glory” -- pitched a finished script to ABC and gave Geico a percentage in return for creative control of the cavemen. Compared to the product placement on “American Idol” or “The Office,” this is art for art’s sake.

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That’s the core of the distaste for “Cavemen”: that an advertising idea is being transformed into art. But every format -- ads, sitcoms, movies, sonnets -- has its own restrictions, and great things can be created within those limits. An entertaining commercial is just as legitimate as any other form of entertainment. My wife slept with a beloved Jolly Green Giant doll as a child. Which, sadly, now causes all kinds of expectations I can’t deliver on.

Lawson’s great artistic crime is that he took a concept for a medium that sells things and shifted it to a medium whose purpose is to get people to watch the medium that sells things. And he did that pretty well. He has three distinct, realistic guys in their 30s, each dealing with being a minority in a radically different way. I enjoyed the caveman obsessed with the offensiveness of “The Flintstones.” He chats up a woman at a wedding with: “So this tiny waitress can carry a rack of ribs that’s so heavy, it can tip over a car made of stone? I’m sorry, I just don’t see what’s funny about that.”

Still, I would have been nervous about taking a job writing for “Cavemen” -- if I’d been offered one. Not because I don’t think it’s good, or because it happens not to be the kind of low-concept sitcom I prefer, but because everyone would pick on me. For no good reason. Which is just how the cavemen feel. And George Lopez. Except for the “good reason” part.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com


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