Anthro-Aplogist Theater: Thanks to Rob Becker's 'Defending the Caveman,' men and women can laugh at their differences, and maybe even learn to get along.

February 03, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The guys in junior high school came to rely upon Rob Becker to explain the great mystery of life: girls. They'd always see him walking to school with his buddy, Michelle, and her girlfriends. The girls, it turns out, had come to rely upon Becker to explain the great mystery of life: boys.

"I became the resident guy of the group," says Becker, writer and performer of "Defending the Caveman," a one-man show coming to the Lyric Opera House for eight performances tomorrow through Sunday.

"So they'd question me on the way to school, you know, 'Why would a guy say this to me? Why would a guy think that? Why in the world would a guy ever do something like this?' ... I had to think about it and observe and have answers for them. Then I would go to school and it would be recess and we'd play kickball with the guys and they'd go, 'Hey, you walk to school with them in the morning. What do they say about this? What do they think about that?' So then I had to think about that and come up with answers. So from an early age I was interpreting males and females to each other."

Rob Becker -- 40 years old, married 10 years, father of a son and daughter -- is still trying to explain men and women to each other. He's been doing it on stage -- starting in comedy clubs, advancing to a one-man show in San Francisco, then a national tour and a 22-month run on Broadway, where he set a record for the longest running non-musical solo show. Now he's off on another national tour, gathering audiences into his metaphorical cave in hopes of casting a humorous light into the abyss of male-female relationships.

New York critics have scoffed. Audiences continue packing theaters. Marriage counselors praise the show as good therapy. The Caveman lumbers on.

"I find him a good metaphor for this whole business of men in general," Becker says of his alter-ego, Caveman, the hunter companion to the female gatherer. Two distinct cultures, hunter and gatherer, often baffling to each other, locked in a perpetual struggle to coexist. So Becker's argument goes.

"It's a metaphor for being misunderstood," says Becker. "It's a metaphor for someone you first think is dislikable then you find out is more likable the more you get to understand and know him."

Becker is instantly likable. He's a tall, husky man with a gut slung over his belt, thinning dark hair and gentle brown eyes. He carries his stunning success without braggadocio, notwithstanding the black limousine that pulls up to the Harbor Court Hotel on the morning of the interview to deposit The Caveman and his two publicists.

The days of the stand-up clubs seem so long ago. Becker, native of San Jose, Calif., started doing stand-up in 1981, as clubs popped up around the country like so many street-corner hot-dog wagons. One evening in 1987, he hit upon the beginnings of a theme. Or perhaps he was thumped over the head with it.

A kick in the pants

At a party in Berkeley he found himself, as he so often does, talking with a group of women about relationships. The trouble with relationships, one woman said, is that men are all, well, anal orifices.Becker looked around, noting with dismay that all the women readily and unanimously agreed.

"It was almost as if she had said the problem with keeping things in the air is gravity," Becker recalls.

He considered this remarkable. And so he told his wife, Erin, when they got home that night. Imagine, he told her, the women agreed that men are all you-know-whats.

"Isn't that astounding?" Becker recalls telling Erin. "And she said, 'No, what's so astounding about that?' "

The psychologists might call it an experience of cognitive dissonance. There sat Becker, a beefy, regular, Bud Light sort of guy with a sensitive ear who knew from childhood that boys and girls were quite different. Girls talked about different things, they thought differently. Their mysterious ways invariably drew him into their company. Just to listen, hear them think. So much to learn.

But then came the 1970s and feminism. Men and women were supposed to be equal not only in opportunity and ability but also in temperament, behavior, outlook. If you thought men and women were fundamentally different you kept your mouth shut. Men and women were alike, only men were egotistical, self-absorbed jerks and women weren't.

Or so Becker heard people say. He heard these women say it. He heard many stand-up comics say it on the stage in San Francisco. The running joke among club comedians had always been, if your act was bombing, if you were desperate for applause, just say, "Hey, how about those 49ers?" Now suddenly there was another sure-fire line: "Hey, aren't men all (blanks)?"

Imagine Becker's shock. Suddenly, "you pick your favorite pejorative word and not only do you not sound like a male-basher, you sound like you're enlightened. I was pretty taken aback by that."

He was also motivated to respond. Surely some men were jerks. But all? Perhaps it was all a misunderstanding. Perhaps there was an explanation.

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