You know how men behave when they're alone together, right? They don't talk about trivial things like their feelings or about how much they like each others' outfits. Instead, they sit quietly in a strong manly fashion contemplating strong and manly things like fixing manly cars and fishing mannishly. The communal silence is broken only when some guy feels the urge to call his best friend an obscene name or to fart. Women, on the other hand, never fart. They chatter like coke-addled magpies, shop compulsively, go to the bathroom in groups, and take forever choosing an outfit. These comedic observations may not smell particularly fresh. They've been the reliable cornerstone of gender-based humor since sometime in the late Mesozoic era. Nevertheless, they are also the cornerstone of author/actor Rob Becker's Defending the Caveman, the longest-running one-man show in Broadway history.
Defending the Caveman comes off like the blue-collar comics' answer to Joseph Campbell as Becker considers the power of the remote control and theorizes that men and women haven't changed all that much since the days when we were short, hairy, club-swinging brutes.
Men had to be quiet when they were hunting so they wouldn't scare away the prey, Becker postulates. As the tribe's gatherers, women had to communicate frequently in order to accomplish complicated tasks. Talking loudly was a plus because it would frighten off predators. From Becker's point of view, everything that one gender finds annoying about the other can be explained away with a little amateur anthropology.
Chris Sullivan, who took on Becker's role three years ago, describes the show as "life-changing."
"When I started doing Caveman, I was just doing comedy. Now it has become more a philosophy for me -- more a way of life."
Sullivan is a classically trained actor who had never done comedy until three years ago when he was handpicked by Becker to perform the show.
"At first I was just doing a Rob Becker impression," Sullivan says. "But now it's nothing like that. Rob came to a [recent] show and said, 'Well, now you do it better than me.'"
From the beginning of its long run, Defending the Caveman has been cast as the men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus of solo theater. Shortly after its New York debut, the author credited his show's "surprise" success to the fact that he'd invited so many marriage counselors to see the previews, and they turned around and recommended it to their clients.
"The show can be life-changing," Sullivan says. "Every night the theater will be full of 30- and 40-year-old couples, and all of them think that the issues they have in their relationship are unique. Then halfway through the show, they look around and see other couples elbowing each other. They discover that the issues in their relationship aren't unique, and they realize they're not alone.
"The hardest thing about performing this show is keeping both genders on your side all the time," Sullivan adds. "The first half is all about how men are assholes. The second half is about reminding men that women are magical. It takes jabs at both men and women, but it's never patronizing ... and in the end men feel defended and women aren't offended."
There's one problem with Becker's theories about Fred, Wilma, and the whole Bedrock gang. The idea that primitive men were exclusively hunters and that primitive women were exclusively gatherers is a pretty primitive generalization. There's plenty of evidence suggesting that all of our furry little ancestors did a little of both.
"There are a lot of people who won't believe in the theories," Sullivan says. "But you don't have to believe in the theories to appreciate the humor and the perspective. Comedy deals in generalities. If you try to make comedy too specific, then it doesn't apply to anybody."
When Defending the Caveman opened in 1992, it was savaged by critics for being an anthropological study in gender clichés, but audiences poured in to see the show.
"What happens is this," Sullivan explains. "A group of women get together for girls' night out, and they come see the show. Then they go home and they drag their husbands out to see the show, and the husbands like it too."