Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Starlee Kine: My friend Noel works in advertising.
Roman: That is Starlee Kine and this is her friend Noel.
Noel Ritter: My name is Noel Ritter and I’m an associate creative director.
SK: What does an associate creative director do?
NR: Oh, boy…. Um,an associate creative director guides, helps, helps, oh, my God. I don’t know what I do.
SK: [chuckles] In 2003 Noel was working at an agency in Richmond, Virginia. Everyone wanted to work on flashy spots like Apple or Nike or Gatorade. Do you know what wasn’t flashy? Insurance, which is why I wanted a company called Geico became a client, everyone hoped the campaign would end up on their desk.
NR: People would run the other way when the creative director for Geico would come down the hallway.
NR: Yeah, definitely. Some ducking was happening.
SK: Noel wasn’t sure if he was at the wrong water cooler at the wrong time, or what, but he ultimately got stuck with Geico. His job was to help them somehow figure out a clever, not painfully boring way, to explain how simple it was for people to sign up for their insurance online.
RM: So, put this into context for us, because I’ve seen about a million of these ads at this point.
SK: It’s true, I feel like these ads run all the time. Do you watch the Bravo channel at all?
NR: [chuckles] No, not at all.
SK: [chuckles] If you did, Top Chef is still good, and if you watch Bravo, every single commercial for Bravo is an insurance ad. And it’s not just Geico anymore because now, it’s all these TV people selling insurance. Right? There’s the president from 24, he’s selling you insurance, and there’s that loser boyfriend guy from 30 rock who sells it to you.
NR: Oh those, the mayhem ones– I kind of love those.
SK: You like the mayhem ones? Really?
NR: Yeah, absolutely. The kids make me skip back and watch them again.
SK: But see there’s enough on now that your kid can actually have a favorite. Like, back then like, before Geico, there weren’t any on. So, nobody could even– you wouldn’t, nobody would be competing about which was there favorite insurance commercial, because there were no insurance commercials. And I guess when Geico first came to Noel’s office, insurance was almost entirely marketed through direct mail.
SK: Noel was also in the midst of reading the short story collection ‘Pastoralia’ by the writer George Saunders. The title story is about a theme park, which has come to learn how other civilizations live. Among the attractions are: Russian peasant farm, pioneer encampment, and wise mountain hermit. The focus of the story though is on the prehistoric exhibit where two actors, a woman, and a man, play the part of cave husband and cave wife. Noel loved the way it contrasted two very different elements that shouldn’t have gone together.
NR: It was like taking a natural cave with stalactites and stalagmites and then showing what life was like back in caveman times, by hiring these low-rent actors.
Caveman: I have to admit, I’m not feeling my best; not that I’m doing so bad, not that I really have anything to complain about, not that I would actually verbally complain if I did have something to complain about. No.
SK: The story is both very funny and very sad. The caveman husband takes his work super seriously using body language to communicate, hardly breaking character, even though weeks pass when no visitors come by to watch.
Caveman: I’m sitting back on my haunches, waiting for people to poke in their heads. Although it’s been 13 days since anyone poked in their head.
SK: The cavewoman, on the other hand, speaks English all the time.
Caveman: Janet’s speaking English to me more and more.
SK: She drinks on the job, and tries to get him to loosen up.
Caveman: Which is partly why I feel so, you know, crummy.
SK: It’s a tedious routine, full of pointless tasks and a lot of the language echoes that of office life.
Caveman: Janet scratches under her armpit, it makes a sound like a monkey. Then lights a cigarette. “What a bunch of [bleep]” she says. Why you insist, I’ll never know. Who’s here? Do you see anyone here but us?
SK: At the end of each day, they have to fill out daily partner evaluation forms and the cave husband always says his cave wife is doing a good job, even when she’s clearly not.
Caveman: I gesture to her to put out the cigarette and make the fire. She gestures to me to kiss her butt.
SK: Noel had hit a wall on the Geico campaign. He and his creative team, whatever that is. Are trying to come up with interesting analogies. Maybe they could show a baby who couldn’t be potty trained, but who could push the few buttons necessary to file a claim with Geico. Or puppets who kept pulling fire alarms. None of their ideas felt right or special enough.
NR: We needed a break, and we had gone to lunch and we’re sitting there eating their lunches and then all of a sudden, I’m like, “Wait a second. These cavemen from the Saunders book, like, that, that’s perfect!” And the whole slogan came to me fully formed. “It’s so easy a caveman can do it.”
SK: Which, of course, became the ads that you are probably picturing in your head right now. Like the George Saunders story, the ads are funny but also a little sad, sarcastic cavemen, who seemed truly pained by the label that society has given them.
Janet: Why did that bother you?
Caveman: Why does it bother me? So easy a caveman can do it.
Janet: Well, it’s just a commercial.
Caveman: Okay, well, what if it said, geico.com so easy a therapist can do it.
Janet: Well, that commercial wouldn’t make sense to me.
Caveman: Why not?
Janet: Well therapists so–
Caveman: Are what? Smart?
SK: Noel says when the caveman commercials first aired, his agency received several letters from individual viewers asking of a blurry caveman playing a piano in the background. One of the spots was the actor, Val Kilmer. The commercial put Geico on the map.
RM: So that got Starlee wondering if she could trace the trail of inspiration back even further. So, she called up George Saunders to ask him about some of the influences in his life that made him the kind of writer he is.
George Saunders: Normally when you’re a writer, and you go on tour and people talk a lot of inspiration, you have a kind of a bu– [bleep] list. A little Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and if you think deeper there’s another list, which is actually sometimes a little bit embarrassing even, or at least it’s coming from a different direction.
SK: And by different direction what he’s trying to say is…
GS: Yeah, Charlie Brown, Peanuts, Christmas and Halloween shows, were embarrassingly big in my childhood. I’d never seen anything it was quite so tonally, I don’t know, complicated or something, but I felt a real direct line between the way I was feeling about things and the way my neighborhood looked and felt. For example, I would do a lot of dreamy walking around the neighborhood, and I really loved that. You’d see Linus doing that; and it seemed to just reassure you somehow that your experience is actually really sacred. It’s really valuable. Your neighborhood is really as important as any other place in the world. You know, part of the thing of influence is that we think there’s something in the world that intrudes on us and changes us. But the other way to see it is there something in us, that finds a mirror. And then I think when you go to do some work something in you rises to it.
SK: George is also influenced early on by The Jerk, Monty Python and JAWS. When he was a teenager, he listened to his favorite Yes album over and over and over again, fixated on the way, they had ordered their songs.
GS: Why is that song third? What did he mean? What did they mean by putting this one last?
SK: Did that later influence how you ordered your stories and short story collections?
SK: After high school, George became an engineer. When he first started seriously writing he read only authors who were dead. Hemingway, Kerouac, Mailer, he consciously tried to avoid all living writers. And one day, just to get it out of the way, he went to the Chicago public library and piled together a stack of literary journals.
GS: Such a lunkhead, but my goal was to read about 15 literary magazines. So I could then totally abandon the contemporary story, not have to bother with it anymore and go back to trying to be Hemingway.
SK: He would open a magazine, start reading a story and then push it aside, thinking it was dumb. Then he came across a short story called Hot Ice by Chicago author named Stuart Dybek.
GS: It was the first time I’d ever had the experience of reading a work of literature that was set in a physical place and time that I knew, and literally in 15 minutes, I lurched forward and I understood the relationship between actual experience in literature in a way I never had before.
SK: I mean, it’s not like your stories are these hyper-realistic. So, it seems–
GS: No. You’re free to invent a 100%. You can just make up whatever [bleep] you want, knowing that your experience will come through on to the page. Even if it’s a theme park, even if it’s cavemen. Because in that story, in the Dybek story, it’s not really a real story at all, but you can feel that Dybek’s heart is saying, “Whatever it takes, we’re going to get this machine up and flying, we’re going to use the streets, we’re also going to use mythology. We’re going to use poetry.” You know, I don’t know what the hell he was doing, it was so crazy. But at the end, I was shaky, I had tears in my eyes, my face was red, you know what I mean?
SK: And then you to do it, then immediately start trying to write like that then?
GS: Yep. Yep. Immediately, like that night.
SK: Which got me thinking, what influenced Stuart Dybek to write the way he did? I called him up at the place in Florida he rents every year, where he catches fresh fish every morning, and then fries them up for lunch. Stuart told me that when he first started writing, he had also fallen in love with the great American realists; Saul Bellow and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nelson Algren. It had never occurred to him to write any other way.
SK: He always wrote while listening to music. When he was 25, he became enchanted with to Hungarian composers, Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók who had traveled around Eastern Europe recording music on phonographic cylinders. He went to the Chicago public library, the same one that George Saunders would go to years later, when he discovered Stewart story, and checked out as many Bartók and Kodály records is he could find.
GS: And I put this music on, and sat down to write a story about some stuff we used to do as kids in the neighborhood Pilsen that I grew up in, an inner-city neighborhood on the Southwest side. It’s kind of corny to you say you went into a trance, but I was taken out of myself. And after I turned the music off and looked at the three or four pages that I had written, I realized that I was writing in a way I had never imagined I could write. In a voice I didn’t know I had, but the music had just opened something up in me.
SK: Stuart says that listening to that music was the central thing that would happen to him as a writer. Everything he would write from that point on, was due to putting those two records on.
SK: Bartók and Kodály were influenced by the work of the French composer, Debussy, who was inspired by the work of the poet Baudelaire, who loved the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Baudelaire wrote that he loved Poe because he was like him. “The first time I ever opened a book by Poe, I discovered with rapture and awe not only subject which I have dreamt, but whole phrases I’d conceived written by Poe 20 years before.” Poe’s, story The Raven, was inspired by a bird in Charles Dickens’ story, Barnaby Rouge, which Poe had actually panned in a review he wrote when the book first came out. The bird in Dickens’ story was inspired by his real-life pet, a raven, named Grip, who died from eating paint chips. Which brings us back to the caveman who surely drew at least a drop of inspiration from the lovely bird song.
RM: Didn’t those Geico caveman ads, inspire a half-hour sitcom?
RM: Did that inspire anyone?