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Defending the Caveman

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Defending the Caveman

Briar Street Theatre

Eight years ago, stand-up was booming. Back then everyone I knew with the guts to stand alone onstage and tell jokes to drunks was breaking into the field. "It's the perfect straight job," an actor friend told me at the time. "The money is so easy." But now, with comedy clubs around the country closing, scores of ex-stand-ups have turned their acts into one-man shows.

Many of these turn out to be pretty bad, mostly because comedy-club material, with its heavy emphasis on dick jokes, easy sexual stereotypes, and whatever topics happen to be hot on TV, seems all the more superficial and sexist over 90 minutes. This is exactly what derailed Robert Dubac in his The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron. Despite his show's I'm-a-sensitive-guy title, Dubac's material turned out to be the same old misogynist shtick ("Women don't have to think. They know everything") that's been floating around clubs since the first fool begged the audience to take his wife, please.

Every once in a while a comedian comes along with an act too radical or eccentric or gay-positive for the status quo-worshiping comedy clubs, who makes the leap from stand-up to a one-person show with ease. And then there are comedians like Rob Becker, who charts a middle course between the sexist depths of Dubac and the artistic heights of a Jeff Garlin or a Jimmy Tingle. Clearly Becker meant Defending the Caveman to be more than an evening's worthy of easy laughs. According to the program, he endured three years of "informal study of anthropology, prehistory, psychology, sociology and mythology, along with dramatic structure and playwriting" to write the show.

After such intense study, one would expect something startling. Or at least unconventional. And Defending the Caveman is neither. The structure is pure stand-up: the comic walks around the stage saying funny things. True, Becker does interrupt his act several times for a whimsical ritual in which he throws his dirty underwear around, lies back in his easy chair, and gets in touch with his "inner caveman." But these are really just breaks in Becker's act that give him a chance to catch his breath and prepare for the next round of jokes.

As for the content--well, at his most unenlightened, Becker is only a notch or two higher than a Dubac or an Andrew Dice Clay. Becker argues that all differences between men and women have been handed down to us from our primordial ancestors, the cavemen. In this remote past, men worked as hunters, women as gatherers, and never the twain shall meet. A million years later, men still think like carnivores tracking their prey, and women like herbivores storing up seeds for the winter. Thus women, instinctive gatherers, like to shop and talk, and men prefer activities that release aggression--playing sports, attending sports events, and watching sports events on TV--but aren't that keen on talking. Sometimes Becker's arguments are just plain ludicrous, as when he observes that male genitals are shaped like spears while female genitals are like baskets.

Many of the differences Becker sees between men and women are not nearly as universal as he thinks. For example, his observation that women like to talk and men don't, while perhaps true for an ex-high school jock like Becker and his sports-addicted cohorts, doesn't hold true in my circle, where it's the men who chatter on and on. I suppose I should be happy that Becker is clever enough to build a two-hour show around a theory--any theory, no matter how suspect. And there is something thrilling about a comic spinning out his argument, clearly working under the assumption that his audience has the intelligence and the attention span necessary to follow the strands of his long, involved, sometimes very funny thesis.

Ultimately, however, what keeps Becker from being as irritating as a Dubac or Clay is not the quality of his material--it's his relaxed, intensely winning, likable stage persona. When he says he's been thinking a lot about men and women and why the sexes have trouble communicating, he exudes so much open-mindedness we believe him. It was only after the show, when I had a chance to think over his material, that I realized how little time Becker spent revealing anything new and how much time he spent reinforcing the same old stereotypes.

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