Q&A: Joe Lawson, producer of “Cavemen”

If there’s one thing Bullz-Eye and Premium Hollywood readers alike know about me by now, it’s that I’m way too polite for my own good…but even *I* couldn’t find anything more polite to say about “Cavemen” in my Fall TV preview than lines like this…

“Given how people reacted to the mere idea of transforming a series of Geico commercials into a 30-minute sitcom, you’d think that the producers would’ve set their sights on being the best damned comedy of the new season. Instead, they’ve got a heavy-handed and horribly-failed attempt at poking fun at the foolishness of racism, one which will almost certainly have the NCAAP foaming at the mouth.”

…and this:

“Any series which falls back on a parody of ‘Baby Got Back’ in 2007 deserves whatever horrific fate may befall it. If ‘Cavemen’ lasts more than a few episodes, it’ll either be because the writers have figured out what went so horribly, horribly wrong, or, more likely, because people are perversely fascinated by how incredibly bad it is.”

Do I feel bad about making these statements? No, because, hand on heart, the pilot really was that bad. But after having the opportunity to speak to Joe Lawson, who wrote and created the original GEICO commercials that inspired “Cavemen,” I was surprised to find that I was actually kind of looking forward to seeing more of the series…and, honestly, I didn’t necessarily expect that. I’ve got a pretty open mind, and I was planning to keep it open while watching the premiere episode (which, you may have heard, will not be the pilot episode that most of us critics ripped to shreds), but was I actually looking forward to watching it? Not so much. But as you’ll see from this conversation between Lawson and myself, he manages to explain away the pilot without actually defending it, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment in and of itself, while also coming across as a guy who really does think he’s got a good sitcom on his hands.

We’ve only got one thing left to mention in the preface, and that’s that a few quotes from this piece have already appeared in an article for The Virginian-Pilot, since the only reason Lawson and I came to chat in the first place was because of his connection to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia…but The Pilot only wanted 300 words, and since I had just much good stuff left over, it seemed like a shame to waste it!

Okay, read on…!

Bullz-Eye: Hello?

Joe Lawson: Hey, is this Will?

BE: Yes, it is.

JL:Hey, it’s Joe Lawson.

BE: Hey, how’s it going?

JL: Good. How are you?

BE: Not bad. I won’t keep you too long, but I just wanted to talk to you for a few minutes about your Virginia connection.

JL: Oh, yeah, sure, absolutely.

BE: I know you’ve lived in Virginia, but I don’t really know your background as far as how long you’ve lived here.

JL: I lived in Richmond for, I guess, eight or nine years. My wife and I moved there to work for the Martin Agency. And my in-laws live in Newport News.

BE: So you get down there with some regularity, then?

JL: Yeah, we get down there all the time, so that’s great.

BE: Now, in the first version of the pilot…and I know that it has since been changed…but it looked like it was actually set in Hampton Roads.

JL: Yeah, in the pilot, we did. We shot it…well, in the original script, the pilot script, they were going to be living in Newport News. So we pulled some stills and some photography for the pilot. But, then, that changed to Atlanta, and it has now changed to San Diego.

BE: What was the impetus for the change?

JL: Newport News just ended up being too…basically, too quirky, I guess. You know what I mean? No-one would…I mean, it would just require a lot more explanation than we really had time to give. People would’ve been, like, “Why Newport News?” (Laughs) So then we moved it to Atlanta, because it was this big metropolitan place where there’s a lot of young people, and where, logistically, it made sense that the cavemen would move to there. And, basically, for production reasons, it was just going to be easier if we moved it to San Diego, mainly because we’re shooting in L.A., and it’s lot easier to make L.A. look like San Diego than Atlanta. So we wouldn’t have to worry about showing palm trees or the beach or something, we just decided to set it there. But the vibe is still the same. We basically wanted them to live on the water, in kind of an optimistic place, and that’s why Newport News was originally chosen. Or they could live Hampton, in the condominiums on the river. But, now, we really have that exact same vibe with them living in San Diego, so that’s good.

BE: When I first got the pilot and saw the reference to the TV weather report being for Norfolk, I turned to my wife and said, “Do you think these DVDs are watermarked, and that every writer’s DVD has their own city shown in the weather report?” (Laughs)

JL: I know, it felt self-indulgent that I was putting Norfolk right there in the newscast, but they were just following the script, so production just pulled stock images of Norfolk, and there it was. It was kind of neat. But once we got the order to series, the location’s changed a million times, and you basically just do what’s the most practical in the end that’s still in keeping with the characters. And the story was originally that these cavemen are from somewhere in upper or middle Pennsylvania, but that the lead character, Joel, wanted to get away from that and go someplace that wasn’t so boring or dark, someplace like a beach community. He wanted to experience a whole new kind of lifestyle, and that’s why the beach and the water seemed like such a good idea, especially for a caveman. I think they’re just trying to get out of the dark, dank hill country and move to a nice place on the water, so Newport News was definitely that, as was Norfolk…and, now, the same with San Diego. It’s a much better choice than Atlanta because of that.

BE: So, y’know, I was at the TCA panel for the show back in July…

JL: Oh, you were?

BE: Ohhhhhhh, yeah. (Laughs) Now, were you expecting quite the reaction that you got? I mean, obviously, I’m sure you knew people were skeptical of the idea of making a 30-minute sitcom out of a 30-second commercial, but were you expecting the sheer venom that you got hit with?

JL: No. No, we totally expected everyone to hate our guts. (Laughs sarcastically) Yeah, that’s why we’re doing it. No, I went there, and, like you said, I knew there’d be a lot of skepticism from people saying, “Hey, you can’t turn commercials into TV shows! That’s just not done! There’s no way that can work! We can turn a ride at Disney into a multi-million-dollar movie franchise, but no way are we going to let a commercial become a TV show!” Yeah, they’re kind of talking out of both sides of their mouth there, but, yeah, I expected skepticism on that. But I had no idea that people would jump on that racial allegory bandwagon and see it in such a negative light, so that was the big surprise of TCA and what made it sooooooo enjoyable. (Laughs) So, yeah, that was…I mean, I don’t think we were blind to it. I thought there would be a couple of questions, because the show, especially the pilot, was hitting hard on the racial allegory thing.

BE: Yeah, I mean, I went in with an open mind, but even I…I mean, the line that I’ve been referencing to people has been that line, “Dance for the man, monkey.” I mean, I was just, like, “Oh, man, that’s rough.” (Writer’s note: to put the line in context, it’s inspired when the cavemen are sitting around the TV, watching the morning news, and the weatherman – who’s the only caveman on the news team – comes on and performs a decidedly wacky weekend weather jig.)

JL: Um…yeah. But, still, I mean, that was a pilot, and pilots are made to sell a show to a network. So it’s a sales tool, and we wanted the premise to be very clear. And as you’ve seen, what works as a sales tool doesn’t necessarily…y’know, if you treat it as an actual episode…and there are plenty of people who run their pilots, but most don’t, and most pilots are re-shot. But the critics saw the pilot, and then they saw how heavy-handed we were with the premise…which we needed to be, because we wanted everybody to get what we were going for…and, so, yeah, it’s almost like…this is such a cop-out, but it’s true: the pilot, when taken out of context and viewed not as a sales tool to sell a series or premise but seen as a literal episode, I totally get why people went crazy. But at the same time, I think they went too crazy. And I think they ended up making themselves the news, which I thought was self-indulgent. But at the end of the day, we didn’t sweat it, because the pilot’s not the first episode. We’ve reworked the show, and we were going to, anyway. We were in that awkward position of having to defend things that we ourselves didn’t necessarily even believe in. And that happens, and that’s part of the package. But we feel good about the show now, and we believe that all of this will subside after people finally see the first three episodes.

BE: I guess we’re going to be getting copies of those pretty soon, too…?

JL: Yeah, I would think so. We’re finishing them up now, so I think they’re gonna…yeah, they’re getting the little package ready for the critics. But we’re on schedule, and everything’s clicking so far. So far, so good. It’s been busy.

BE: Which leads to my last question: how has the overall experience been of working on your first-ever TV show?

JL: It’s been, uh… (Starts to laugh)

BE: (Laughs) What a great start, huh?

JL: Uh, yeah. It’s been insane. I think I’ve experienced everything you can experience in doing a TV show, all in about six months. It all comes so fast, and it’s so hectic, and the being attacked by the press. Just…everything. If you were going to do a TV show about doing a TV show, my life could be it. But it’s been great. There’ve been really great things about working on a TV show with really talented people that have been really rewarding. But, obviously, it’s been a bit like a boot camp. I’ve had so much knowledge and frustration and glee crammed into my life in such a short amount of time that my head is spinning. But it’s been really rewarding, and I feel like I’m getting an opportunity that a lot of people never get to have…and that I probably shouldn’t have gotten in the first place! (Laughs) So I’m definitely not looking a gift horse in the mouth, as they say.

BE: Are they keeping your spot at the ad agency open just in case?

JL: (Laughs uncertainly) Yeah, hopefully, I didn’t burn that bridge, because I may need to go back. We’ll see. You never say never. But Martin’s doing great without me. And I saw some new GEICO commercials last week that I thought were really good, like the one with “The Flintstones.”

BE: And I guess they’re understandably moving away from the “Cavemen” commercials, if only for purposes of the show.

JL: Yeah, we don’t really get involved in that end of the deal, but from what I understand, GEICO is sort of going to mothball the cavemen commercials, at least for a short amount of time, at least while the show launches. But I think that, after that, they’re more than welcome to start doing more of them again.

BE: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

JL: Absolutely. And thanks so much for your interest!

My closing line: While I’m still interested in seeing the episode tomorrow night when it premieres, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that, to date, ABC still hasn’t provided critics with anything but that original pilot, and that rarely speaks well of a network’s confidence in a show.

Let us see what tomorrow brings…


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