It’s only natural, with The Croods opening today in theaters – not to mention news of a study that Neanderthals may have been condemned to extinction because too much of their skull space was devoted to their eyes and not enough to their brains – that cavemen might be much on your mind lately. Here are ten great pop-culture troglodytes of the past century, with those tiresomely ubiquitous denizens of Bedrock excluded from consideration, because let’s face it, we like our number ones to be slightly less predictable than the plot of a Dreamworks animated film.
10. Alley Oop
V. T. Hamlin’s classic funny-paper caveman originated in 1932, gave rise to a catchy novelty song and remains in syndication to this day. He has killer abs, and his woman, Oola, reputedly based on Hamlin’s wife, is pretty hot as well. In 1939, Oop was brought to the 20th Century by a time machine, and soon began hopping throughout history. He even flew to the moon at one point, which you could certainly call a giant leap for cavemankind.
9. Og, Son of Fire
Irving Crump’s cave-kid originated as a strip in the pages of Boy’s Life in early ’20s. In the ’30s, he became the star of a successful radio show, and a Big Little Book. According to Crump, Boy Scouts would practice primitive-style camping in what they called “Og Patrols.” In 1965, Crump wrote a sequel – Og, Son of Og. Apparently the Ogs were the first bluebloods.
Johnny Hart’s smartass, neurotic cave guys were really funny in their earlier decades – after Peanuts, arguably the most laugh-out-loud funny American comic strip, albeit often in a midcentury, male sort of way – before Hart turned the strip into a vehicle for nasty (not to mention chronologically perplexing) conservative Christianity in the ’80s. A hilarious 1973 TV special, B.C. The First Thanksgiving, was released on VHS but not, as yet, on DVD; it can however be viewed here.
7. It’s About Time
It’s hard to imagine that Sherwood Schwartz could have made a sitcom more insipid than Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, but he managed the feat with this one-season wonder from 1966, in which two astronauts go back in time and encounter such cavedwellers as Joe E. Ross, Imogen Coca and Mike Mazurki. About halfway through the run the astronauts return to the present day, bringing the cave-folk with them, which meant that the coolest aspect of the series for kids – the occasional appearance of a stock-footage dinosaur – was lost. Probably the best thing about the series was the opening animation and theme song, although the first two lines (“It’s about/It’s about space/It’s about two men in the strangest place“) inspired a painfully recalled (if metrically superior) variation among elementary-school bullies: “It’s about time/It’s about space/It’s about time I slapped your face,” at which point they would do so.
The show also inspired a terrific lunchbox.
6. Captain Caveman
Though voiced by the redoubtable Mel Blanc, this title character from Hanna-Barbera’s Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels (1977-80) isn’t exactly cartoon gold. Vaguely resembling a hirsute bowling pin with limbs and a bulbous nose, CC had superpowers – most inexplicably, he could fly – and he served as the muscle to a mystery-solving trio of cuties. Not really the pinnacle of imagination for ’70s-era Saturday morning cartoons. In the late ’80s, CC’s adventures with his equally hirsute son, Cavey Jr., were a supporting feature on…well, on a “juvenile” version of that show set in Bedrock that we aren’t mentioning here.
5. Ringo Starr in Caveman!
This low-comedy gem from 1981 has terrific dinosaur effects, a terrific cast, including the young Dennis Quaid and a cute young Shelley Long, and a rousing score by Lalo Schifrin. Here are the cavefolk holding the first jam session. Maybe the best thing about the picture, though, is that even though he’s speaking caveman language, you can still tell that Ringo is from Liverpool.
4. Encino Man
After wrapping something like Furry Vengeance, does Brendan Fraser ever think back to this 1992 teen comedy, in which he’s a caveman revived by high school kids Sean Astin and Pauly Shore, and think, gee, if only I could get back to that level of material again? Astin and Shore think Fraser will be their ticket to popularity, and Astin is (rightly) appalled when Shore teaches his awful verbal tics to the EM. It’s like evolution in reverse.
3. Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer
The late lamented Phil Hartman played the title character in this recurring sketch from Saturday Night Live of the early ’90s. He was a trial attorney with only one tactic: pointing out to the jury that as a caveman, he didn’t understand modern life, but he understood that his client deserved to win. It worked, and he had the BMW to prove it.
2. The GEICO Cavemen
Part of the dizzying multiplicity of GEICO advertising characters, the cavemen – who took offense at the insurance company’s assertion that their online service was “so easy…a caveman could do it” – were a pretty amusing send-up of sour sophistication and aggrieved sensitivity…for the first commercial or two. Alas, the campaign extended to twenty-odd commercials, plus a TV show that very quickly became extinct.
1. Korg: 70,000 B.C.
According to this live-action Saturday morning effort from 1974, Neanderthals were earnest, caring, mutually supportive types. Every week Korg and his family would struggle to survive some crisis, often discovering something useful – the lever, for instance, or the salting of food – in the process. The shows, produced by Hanna-Barbera with input from scientific consultants, would end with the narrator (Burgess Meredith) noting that “Neanderthal man left no written records of his history, just some bones, tools and burial mounds. This story is based on assumptions and theories drawn from these artifacts.” There’s a becoming modesty to this admission, and to the show in general, which in its crude, low-budget, obviously-a-guy-in-a-bear-suit way is pretty effective, even a little touching at times. Check out the moody opening, with its Planet of the Apes-ish logo here – it’s sort of great how the Korgs gaze out in gobsmacked wonder, simply at finding themselves in existence. Warner Archives recently released all 16 episodes on a two-disc set; on the back cover it notes this is Hanna-Barbera’s other stone-age family.
By the way, since the term “caveman” has different, coarser connotations in pop culture than “cavewoman,” this list remains Paleolithic in its gender politics. If it weren’t, it would of course include Raquel Welch and Martine Beswick in One Million Years B.C. and Rae Dawn Chong in Quest For Fire.
M.V. Moorhead won five Arizona Press Club awards for his work in Phoenix New Times. His reviews, essays, poetry, fiction and other writings have appeared in Wrangler News (wranglernews.com), Phoenix Magazine, USA Today, Weird Tales, Elysian Fields Quarterly, The Big Click and many other publications in the U.S. and Australia, and may also be found at his own blog, Less Hat, Moorhead ([email protected]). He's also a produced playwright, and was a talk-radio host in Phoenix for two years. A native of Pennsylvania, he lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife, his daughter and three Chihuahuas with five eyeballs between them.