What Gave You That Idea?

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Starlee Kine:
My friend Noel works in advertising.

Roman Mars:
That is Starlee Kine and this is her friend Noel.

Noel Ritter:
“My name is Noel Ritter and I’m an associate creative director.”

Starlee Kine:
“What does an associate creative director do?”

Noel Ritter:
“Oh, boy…. Um, an associate creative director guides… helps (laughs)… helps, oh, my God. I don’t know what I do.”

Starlee Kine:
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 when a company called “Geico” became a client, everyone hoped the campaign wouldn’t end up on their desk.

Noel Ritter:
“People would run the other way when the creative director for Geico would come down the hallway.”

Starlee Kine:
“Literally?”

Noel Ritter:
“Yeah, definitely. Some ducking was happening.”

Starlee Kine:
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.

Roman Mars:
So, put this into context for us, because I’ve seen about a million of these ads at this point.

Starlee Kine:
It’s true, I feel like these ads run all the time. Do you watch the Bravo channel at all?

Roman Mars:
No, not at all.

Starlee Kine:
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 a president from “24,” he’s selling insurance, and there’s that loser boyfriend guy from “30 Rock” who sells it to you.

Roman Mars:
Oh, those. The “mayhem” ones. I love those.

Starlee Kine:
You like the mayhem ones? Really?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, absolutely. The kids make me skip back and watch them again.

Starlee Kine:
But see there’s enough on now that your kid can actually have a favorite. Like, back then before Geico, there weren’t any on so nobody could even… nobody would be competing about which was their 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.

[MUSIC]

Starlee Kine:
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 where tourists 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.

Noel Ritter:
“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.]

Starlee Kine:
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.]

Starlee Kine:
The cavewoman, on the other hand, speaks English all the time.

[CAVEMAN: Janet’s speaking English to me more and more.]

Starlee Kine:
She drinks on the job and tries to get him to loosen up.

[CAVEMAN: Which is partly why I feel so, you know, crummy.]

Starlee Kine:
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?’]

Starlee Kine:
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.]

Starlee Kine:
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.

Noel Ritter:
“We needed a break and we had gone to lunch and we’re sitting there eating our lunches and then all of a sudden, I’m like, ‘Wait a second. These cavemen from the Saunders book, that’s perfect!’ And the whole slogan came to me fully formed: ‘It’s so easy a caveman can do it.’”

Starlee Kine:
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.

[THERAPIST: Why did that bother you?]

[CAVEMAN: Why does it bother me? So easy a caveman can do it.]

[THERAPIST: Well, it’s just a commercial.]

[CAVEMAN: Okay, well, what if it said, geico.com so easy a therapist can do it.]

[THERAPIST: Well, that commercial wouldn’t make sense to me.]

[CAVEMAN: Why not?]

[THERAPIST: Well, therapists are– ]

[CAVEMAN: Are what? Smart?]

Starlee Kine:
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 in one of the spots was the actor, Val Kilmer. The commercial put Geico on the map.

Roman Mars:
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 bulls** list. A little Shakespeare, Tolstoy. And if you dig deeper, there’s another list which is actually sometimes a little bit embarrassing even or at least it’s coming from a different direction.

Starlee Kine:
And by “different direction” what he’s trying to say is-

George Saunders:
“Charlie Brown, ‘Peanuts’ Christmas and Halloween shows were embarrassingly big in my childhood. I’d never seen anything that was quite so tonally complicated, but I felt like 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’s something in us that finds a mirror. And then I think when you go to do some work, something in you rises to it.”

Starlee Kine:
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.

George Saunders:
“Why is that song third? What did they mean by putting this one last?”

Starlee Kine:
“Did that later influence how you ordered your stories and short story collections?”

George Saunders:
“100%.”

Starlee Kine:
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.

George Saunders:
“I was such a lunkhead. 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.“

Starlee Kine:
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.

George Saunders:
“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.“

Starlee Kine:
“It’s not like your stories are these hyper-realistic…”

George Saunders:
“No. You’re free to invent a 100%. You can just make up whatever [bleep] you want, knowing that your experience will come through onto 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?”

Starlee Kine:
“And then did you immediately start trying to write like that then?”

George Saunders:
“Yep. Yep. Immediately, like that night.”

Starlee Kine:
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.

[MUSIC]

Starlee Kine:
He always wrote while listening to music. When he was 25, he became enchanted with two 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’s Story,” and checked out as many Bartók and Kodály records as he could find.

Stuart Dybek:
“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 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.”

Starlee Kine:
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.

[MUSIC]

Starlee Kine:
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 subjects which I had 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.

Roman Mars:
Didn’t those Geico caveman ads inspire a half-hour sitcom?

Starlee Kine:
Yes.

Roman Mars:
Did that inspire anyone?

Starlee Kine:
No.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Starlee Kine with a little help from me, Roman Mars. It’s a project of KALW 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. Support for 99% Invisible is provided by the Facebook Design team who believes that design can bring positive change to the world. Visit them at facebook.com/design. Support is also provided by TinyLetter at tinyletter.com. Email for people with something to say. If you get an email from my son, Mazlo, it would probably be comprised of pages and pages of images of Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk.

Mazlo:
“I love Hulk.”

Roman Mars:
I swear he could stare at those all day. It’s the simplest way to write an email newsletter. Tinyletter.com, from the people behind Mailchimp. 99% Invisible was distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Making public radio more public. Find out more at prx.org. You can find the show and ‘like’ the show on Facebook. A lot of stuff happens on the Facebook page. You should join us there. I tweet @romanmars. Oh, you know what’s brand new? Playlists on Grooveshark and Spotify of songs that I use on 99% Invisible episodes. You can score your life like it’s an episode of 99% Invisible. It’s all there at 99percentinvisible.org.

  1. Dirk Naves

    Love this episode! What the music that starts around 11:18 (in the podcast, at least)? Thanks!

  2. Hammer Jho

    The song is “Les Métamorphoses Du Vide” by Chapelier fou. It’s on the 99% Invisible spotify playlist.

  3. Being Hungarian, I experienced physical pain by your pronunciation of Kodály. Some new generation might learn these names from guys like you and they would know wrong. The wikipedia page tells pretty correctly how to pronounce the name.

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