It’s been accused of crass commercialism, a lack of imagination, and even racism—and ABC’s new show Cavemen hasn’t even aired.
But before the show’s Cro-Magnon star left town last month to begin taping in Los Angeles, he gave a downright Neanderthal one-man performance at Chelsea’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.
“What’s up, you cock-ass bitches?” Nick Kroll asked the packed house, playing Fabrice Fabrice, a bisexual Latino character he invented mainly to abuse audiences.
“He says the stuff I wish I could say [as myself] onstage, if that makes sense,” Kroll imparts the next day over lunch. “I wish I were as free myself as I am with Fabrice. For some reason, people like Fabrice better than they like Nick Kroll. Which I’m fine with. I like being able to walk outside after the show, and people don’t even necessarily recognize me. It’s the same way with my Cavemen character.”
Over a sandwich and iced coffee near his apartment in Union Square, Kroll—who in real life is Jewish and straight—looked downright metrosexual in light blue pants and white Vans. Having grown up in Rye, New York, the 29-year-old played with an improv group at Georgetown University called GPIG. In New York City after graduation, he had a successful run in commercials, most memorably playing Andy Roddick’s “mojo” for American Express during the 2005 U.S. Open. (As the human incarnation of Roddick’s mojo, Kroll hit the town with the tennis player’s plastic. Yeah, it was weird.) He’s also been a writer for Chappelle’s Show, and is probably best known as a snarky regular on VH1’s Best Week Ever.
But his fame will reach new heights as a Cavemen lead. The show—which will air Tuesday nights at 8 beginning October 2—is based on the ubiquitous Geico auto-insurance ads, in which modern-day Cro-Magnon men complain about the company’s “So easy, even a caveman can do it” slogan. Kroll read for the part in March and immediately recognized a fit. “I was like, ‘Oh, his name is Nick and he’s a deadpan, sarcastic asshole. It’s going to be a real reach for me.” (The actors from the commercials don’t star in the show.)
Shortly thereafter, Kroll was suffering through 19-hour days and horrific costume sessions. “It was literally like someone was rubbing fiberglass on my face every time,” he says. “They glue this silicone mask to your face, and they would glue my arms and legs and put wig hair on top of them. It was awful.” He says more recently, the make-up team has begun to use less-abrasive materials.
Under the guidance of writer Joe Lawson—who also created the commercials—Cavemen went from concept to pilot to the fall lineup very quickly. Skeptics said this spoke to ABC’s desperation for a hit, and Amy Poehler joked on Saturday Night Live that NBC would counter with its own new drama, 1-800-Mattress.
“Listen, I completely understand that—and if I wasn’t attached, I might be like, ‘That’s bullshit,'” Kroll says. “But Geico is never mentioned, and as far as I know, there isn’t the ‘car insurance’ episode.”
Kroll notes that Cavemen isn’t the first television show inspired by a commercial or product. (Max Headroom
or Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears, anyone?) He adds that television is full of more egregious suck-ups.
“I love The Office, but you’ll see someone say, ‘I’m using my Staples shredder to shred lettuce,’ and then it cuts to the commercial for the Staples shredder. It doesn’t make The Office any less good—I think The Office is amazing. But the idea that any art is sacred from product placement or corporate involvement is bullshit.”
By late July, reporters had sharpened their swords and were back with another charge: The show was racist. “By depicting the Cro-Magnons as good dancers, great athletes and grand sexual partners, the show’s detractors argued, Cavemen was using black stereotypes for cheap racist laughs,” wrote Glenn Garvin in the Miami Herald, reporting on a television critics’ press tour in Los Angeles.
In fairness to the show, its characters are stereotyped more as bratty white people than African-Americans. But racial (er, anthropological) struggle is a central theme. Think of it as Alien Nation with a sense of humor. “They’ve been oppressing our people for 750,000 years,” Kroll’s character says in the pilot, referring to modern types. “When you watch TV, it’s all politically correct, but they air The Flintstones six times a day.”
The episode doesn’t boast consistent laughs, but most series need some time to find their footing. The concept seems at least as sustainable as, say, a fat deliveryman from Queens with a skinny wife. But Kroll won’t be devastated if the show gets canceled. “There’s this idea of getting discovered, or a break, but in reality [my career] is more like a slow freight train carrying a lot of emotional baggage,” he says.