Most TV programming is designed to sell advertising, but several iconic shows started out their lives as commercials
5. Ted Lasso
Since the Jason Sudeikis starring Ted Lasso was such a recent phenomenon (taking a bow with its final season on Apple TV mere months ago), many fans might know the character originated in commercials. The impossibly positive coach, alongside his curmudgeon assistant Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt), debuted in an NBC Sports promo back in 2013.
The promo established Lasso as an all-American football coach hopelessly lost in the world of professional soccer. The character popped up again in another commercial for NBC the following year. Sudeikis knew they had something special on their hands following the viral buzz the spots created. “One day in 2015, my partner Olivia [his ex-wife, the actress and filmmaker Olivia Wilde] came up to me one day and said, ‘You know, you should do Ted Lasso as a show,’ Sudeikis told Sports Illustrated in 2020. “I said, ‘I don’t know,’ but then after marinating on it, I thought maybe this could happen.”
4. Hey Vern, It’s Ernest
In the late 80s, Jim Varney became a household name by playing the character of Ernest P. Worrell in several movies and a beloved Saturday morning TV show called Hey Vern, It’s Ernest. Southern fans might recall the character making much earlier appearances in TV commercials.
In the early 80s, Varney teamed up with the Nashville Advertising agency Carden and Cherry to breathe life into the beloved character “Ernest”. He’s an irksome and eccentric neighbor to the unseen fictional character “Vern.” In the commercials, Ernest, completely unaware of his neighbor’s animosity, would visit his door. He then prattled on about trivial matters, until Vern, who remained unseen, eventually slammed the door shut in his face. Ernest performed this routine with products such as Mellow Yellow (as seen above) to Purity Dairy.
3. Max Headroom
The Max Headroom TV series debuted in 1987 on ABC and was prophetic with predictions of technology and media going into the 21st century. The series spanned two seasons and revolved around an investigative journalist portrayed by character actor Matt Frewer. With the assistance of his colleagues and the digital manifestation of himself known as Max Headroom, he unravels the hidden truths of the television networks controlled by the ruling class.
However, the character first appeared in Coca-Cola commercials the previous year. It was part of a futuristic-themed campaign designed to attract younger consumers and to promote the ill-fated Coke rebranding.
2. The Adventures of Pete and Pete
A touchstone of children’s programming for Generation X and older Millennials, The Adventures of Pete and Pete TV series dropped on Nickelodeon in 1993 and ran for three seasons. It featured great character actors ( such as King of the Hill voice actor Toby Huss). It also had epic guest stars (Iggy Pop, J.K. Simmons, and LL Cool J), and a soundtrack that featured the likes of Lucious Jackson and The Magnetic Fields.
However, as seen above, the main characters of the show (the titular brothers) debuted back in 1989 as minute-long commercials for Nickelodeon. The bizarre but slam-packed shorts helped buffer young viewers from advertising to the next slatted program. The popularity of the shorts led to five specials between 1991 and 1993 before the series started. A feature film was planned, but by then the actors had aged out of their preteen roles. Nickelodeon eventually recycled the film idea into 2000’s Snow Day.
1. The ultimate commercial to TV show…Cavemen
Of course, the Caveman TV series is iconic because it’s an epically infamous example of a commercial jumping to a full-fledged show. Rooted in the highly popular GEICO commercials with the “So easy a caveman can do it” slogan, the series never took off.
The show featured Sam Huntington, Bill English, and Nick Kroll as three roommates who happened to be cavemen in a predominantly Homo sapiens society. Unsurprisingly, this relatively high-concept show had a short-lived run of just one month before being taken off the air. It was officially put on hiatus during the Writer’s Strike of 2007 and ultimately met its demise soon after.
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