Was it too good for us?

Why did Cavemen flop? The unpopular show, sprung from the popular Geico car insurance ads, fatally broke the first rule of sitcoms: you couldn’t tell the characters apart. Think of The Honeymooners, or Three’s Company, or Seinfeld. The characters are distinctly shaped, coiffed, gendered, mannered, or aged. Within a minute of watching, you can tell who’s who and grasp the situation.

A costumed sitcom (coscom?) distinguishes its main characters pretty handily: there can only be one “Alf.” The Addams Family took this principle to the extreme with Cousin Itt and Thing, characters stripped to their essences. The rule of quick distinction extends to any medium in which rapid characterization is paramount. It’s why Groucho Marx cultivated the eyebrows and mustache, Chico the hat and accent, Harpo the wig and the silence. (Predictably, most people forget Zeppo, the brother without a gimmick.) The prosthetically browed Cavemen, perhaps, were too high-definition for most television sets for folks to really register the differences between characters. (Despite years of conditioning through anthropomorphic animal cartoon heroes, viewers instead sought the human behind the Neanderthal.) To our speciesist eyes, the Cavemen (mainly the trio of Joel, Andy, and Nick) were interchangeable, their subtly distinct personalities obscured by tufts of hair and false teeth.

But it was Cavemen’s TV-ad roots that proved to be more troublesome. From the start, viewers compared the show unfavorably to its characters’ original iterations. What was the difference?

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Michael Marcinkowski lives in Chicago and works for the Poetry Foundation.

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