Ad-inspired comedy building buzz

“Cavemen” isn’t the first TV show to evolve out of a commercial. And it’s not the first comedy to address racial stereotypes in a not-so-subtle way.

Yet the frosh ABC sitcom is stirring up plenty of noise among critics, most of whom aren’t quite sure what to make of it.

At July’s TV Critics Assn. press tour, several scribes criticized the show for its take on race — with the show’s cavemen experiencing the same kind of stereotypes that minorities (particularly African-Americans) experience in real life.

Others wondered whether “Cavemen,” which started out as a series of commercials for insurance company Geico, reps another blurring of the lines between Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

That’s a hefty one-two punch for a show that’s looking to made auds laugh, not reinvent the wheel.

“Hopefully we’re making a show that’s funny first,” says exec producer/director Will Speck.

He and the other creative minds behind “Cavemen” say they knew the show would cause a stir, given its unorthodox origins and high-concept premise. But they weren’t quite expecting so much so soon, particularly long before “Cavemen’s” Oct. 2 debut.

“We’re a little surprised that people care that much,” says exec producer/director Josh Gordon. “But it doesn’t bum us out. It’s good for people to have an opinion.”

“Cavemen” started out as the brainchild of Martin Agency writer Joe Lawson, who had penned several irreverent ads for Geico (remember the “Tiny House” reality show parody?). The popular spots were then directed by Gordon and Speck, both of whom also recently helmed the Will Ferrell movie “Blades of Glory.”

In the ads, a variety of cavemen living in modern society are appalled by Geico’s tagline — “So easy, even a cavemen can do it” — and speak out for cavemen rights. Lawson says he thought the characters could be expanded beyond a 30-second spot, and began hammering out a script last fall.

“We wanted to tell these bigger stories,” Speck says. “When the second round of commercials came out, we started riffing ideas on how to expand it. … We shot so much of the guys improvising and realized there’s so much more here. We feel it’s not a gimmick. There’s a real humanity to these characters.”

With Geico’s blessing, the trio pitched the script to the webs — and even though it hit ABC’s door late in the development process last winter, the Alphabet web decided to take a gamble.

In many ways, ABC had nothing to lose; it’s struggling in half-hour comedy and was looking for a spark.

ABC comedy senior VP Samie Kim Falvey admits she found herself explaining the buy to unconvinced players around town. The last high-concept comedy based on an ad — CBS’ “Baby Bob” — had a short run, and laffers with a tinge of fantasy like “3rd Rock From the Sun” are nowhere to be seen on the networks’ lineups.

But as a single-cam comedy, “Cavemen” is nothing like the broad slapstick of a show like “3rd Rock” or “ALF.” And besides, Falvey says, choosing something unlike anything else on the air was the point. ABC knew “Cavemen” would at least get auds to take a look.

“When you hear that something’s based on a commercial, you’re a little skeptical about longevity,” Falvey says. “But these guys came in and they were really funny and smart. And in this tough landscape, here’s something that’s definitely going to be noisy and get some attention.”

And has it. Networks aren’t keen on releasing intent-to-view figures, but thanks to the ads, ABC already has a built-in audience that knows the show’s concept.

“The awareness for the show is really high,” says ABC marketing exec VP Mike Benson. “There’s a drive-by factor, as people will want to see what we do with it.”

One thing viewers won’t see: any mention of Geico.

“It was important for us to separate the show,” Speck says. “There’s a misunderstanding that Geico saw an opportunity to exploit (its) brand. But this was a departure point for us to say, ‘We’d like to take these characters and set them in different context.’ ”

Even if Geico pulls its cavemen TV ads altogether (as expected), auds will still connect the dots — and from an awareness standpoint, that’s beneficial. But Benson says the net faces a challenge in promoting “Cavemen” so that viewers can tell the show apart from the commercials.

“We want to be clear that it’s a TV show, it’s a comedy, so we’ve got to be clear in the copy,” Benson says. “(The promos) don’t look like the ads at all. The shooting style is different. … I don’t believe we should be turning this into a commercial for Geico.”

That may eventually soothe the nerves of other advertisers — particularly rival insurance companies, which, according to Advertising Age, have steered clear of the show.

Meanwhile, Falvey says she’s concerned the buzz surrounding “Cavemen’s” take on racial stereotypes is dominating talk about what the show is.

“Yes, race is an element, but it’s not supposed to be a show about race,” she says. “It’s a show about these guys living together. A lot of the humor (in the pilot) perhaps came from race because viewers don’t know the characters well.”

To that end, ABC opted to push the original pilot — which put viewers in the middle of the “Cavemen’s” world — to later in the season. The show’s team, which also includes exec producers (and sitcom vets) Bill Martin and Mike Schiff, wrote a new first episode that spent more time laying out the series and its characters.

The show now better sets up the premise of three cavemen living in a world that doesn’t quite understand them, the network says.

“This show is different and ambitious,” Lawson says. “That’s half the reason we decided to do this. If we were doing just another sitcom about a bunch of normal people, I don’t think there would be as much interest.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more