Durham's historic Carolina Theatre scored a major coup when it booked a double performance of Defending the Caveman. Comedian and actor Rob Becker took three years to write this play (actually, a one-man stand-up comedy routine) that examines the relationship of the sexes and the misunderstandings and miscommunication between men and women. Premiering in San Francisco in 1991, it went on to Broadway and in 1996 became the longest running one-man play in the history of Broadway; it still holds that amazing distinction. If that's not enough to whet your interest, then also consider that it has been performed in 45 countries in 30 different languages by an estimated eight million people – staggering numbers and an incredibly impressive resume. Who could ask for anything more? Read on!
A very funny and creative announcement was made pleading with the audience to refrain from texting during the show; it was probably the most creative and funny lines of the evening. Then a screen was lowered and we got to see a short film highlighting the domestic life of Becker and his wife. The airwaves were, and are, filled with sitcoms featuring the "hilarity" of how men and women interact, and this brief film didn't even come close to that level. I feared I was in for a long afternoon.
Becker walked out onto a stage set that was clearly intended to appear like a frame from the 1960s cartoon series The Flintstones. Two murals were hanging: one depicting a quasi-pornographic cave painting and the other, a large, nude pregnant woman. Staying true to the Flintstones/caveman theme, there was a boulder easy chair, a "rock" TV (the centerpiece, according to Becker, of males' focus), and a spear. If, by now, you haven't got the premise, Becker has formulated the comedic (perhaps even genuine) theorem that all of the issues, quirks, arguments, and problems between the sexes originated when, according to some, very hairy humans and dinosaurs shared our newborn planet. To be more specific, men were/are hunters and women were/are gatherers. So that's why women like to shop and talk about their feelings and men like to dominate the remote control and leave wet towels on the floor. What, no mother-in-law or airplane food jokes?
Humor is a serious, difficult, and mysterious business. One man's scrumptious buffet is another's day-old McDonald's Dollar Menu. Why did I sit through this routine for 90 minutes and laugh zero times while the majority of the audience was howling? I'm not sure, but I suspect it has something to do with familiarity with the material. "Take my wife – please" type comedy routines have been around since vaudeville, through the countless comedians I saw perform in the Borscht Belt of the Catskills to The Ed Sullivan Show. It is a relatively safe topic and, of course, nearly everyone can recognize the situations and jokes. While no artist can/should be expected to be 100% original, when an act is mostly a rehash of tired clichés and stereotypes that were a little old even in the 1950s, then boredom and a stone face is my response. In Becker's defense, his routine was not a one-sided diatribe against women; men were skewered as well. He is an engaging performer, and he somehow instills a freshness and spontaneity to his delivery despite thousands of performances. He must be given credit and admiration for effectively re-packaging the greatest hits of "the war of the sexes" for a new generation (can you really argue with such success?), but, for me, that is all it amounts to.
While it's not 50 million Frenchman, can a few hundred Durhamites be wrong? There is no right or wrong when an artist can make people laugh, be happy, and make lives better, even briefly. I was certainly in the very small minority, and that's just one man's opinion. Since we're already mired in seemingly endless clichés: "Different strokes for different folks."