There's a moment in his one-man show, "Rob Becker's Defending the Caveman," which opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater, when Mr. Becker makes an observation that verges on being astute.
A man, he says, can become so involved while watching television that he virtually becomes one with the physical set. Mr. Becker doesn't go on to suggest that if the man were not thus playing his part, the entire television equation would collapse. He doesn't ask whether the television image would even exist if the man were not watching it. Or, for that matter, whether it would exist if a woman were not watching it. Mr. Becker's thoughts don't often recognize philosophical conundrums.
His only point is that men are more single-minded than women, who can look at television and talk at the same time. He has also noticed that women use the remote control differently from men. Though men employ the control as a weapon, to zap (in effect to kill) the stations as they pass by, women pause at each station to pick up information before moving on. Men are hunters, women gatherers.
"From 1988 until 1991," the Playbill reports with its tongue in its cheek, "Rob made an informal study of anthropology, prehistory, psychology, sociology and mythology, along with dramatic structure and play writing." All of this, it seems, was to prepare this show, which is described in the ads as "an affectionate comedy about men and women."
It's also something far spookier. It's not only middle-class mall humor delivered in the jerky rhythms of television's stand-up comics, but it's also comedy whose content is based less on life than on other stand-up comedians and sitcoms. The only truths in Mr. Becker's observations are those that have already been made acceptable by becoming television stereotypes.
Mr. Becker, who is in his late 30's, seems to be an affable man, balding, a bit thick of waist, with a round, often smiling face and a jaw he regularly slackens to mime the witlessness women attribute to men. His aim, he says, is to explain that the differences between the sexes go back to the Stone Age. This is the reason for the faux Flintstone set: a stone easy chair, a stone television set and two cave paintings on the wall.
For 90 intermissionless minutes or so, he talks about, among other things, the joy women take in shopping, which men loathe, and the way men bond by exchanging obscene names (women bond by gossiping). Men don't care how they look, but if you take a woman out and don't compliment her right away, "Guys, you're in big trouble." He devotes a lot of time to the differences in the ways men and women resolve the question of who will refill the potato-chip bowl.
Early in the show Mr. Becker talks about trying to get in touch with his feminine side. He can't, of course. But it's also clear that in rounding up his insights, he himself has been less a hunter than an indefatigable gatherer.
Women, he says, are neat. Men are slobs, which prompts Mr. Becker to smell a dirty T-shirt to see if it can be worn another day. Eventually he discovers that men and women fit together. He talks fondly about his wife, but says men don't appreciate women who like to sleep in physical contact with them. The reason: men are so highly sexed that even the slightest touch arouses them. And, hey guys, how often can you do it?
Such comments prompt laughter, which in turn prompts speculation about something else evident in "Defending the Caveman."
At the preview I attended, the members of the audience responded to Mr. Becker as if they were inside a television show, not just watching one. Nobody had warmed them up before Mr. Becker appeared. No production assistant held up cue cards telling when to applaud. Yet the audience greeted everything with automated laughter.
It was as if they, too, as part of the television process, had become fiction, divorced from life. Having grown up watching telly, a lot of us apparently can't wait to pass into that next dimension and sound like laugh tracks. Aliens aren't turning us into pod-people. It's the tube.
Mr. Becker is right: men (and women, too) are becoming one with the box.
As a child, Rob Becker watched boys playing kill the guy with the ball and girls playing house. That observation, along with what his program describes as a three-year-long "informal study of anthropology, prehistory, psychology, sociology and mythology, along with dramatic structure and playwriting"-- can I have this guy's life? -- led him to the conclusion that women gather, men hunt. Women collect data, men focus; women cooperate, men negotiate; women best friends talk about their feelings, men best friends swear at each other.
Best friends who haven't seen each other in a while, gal version: "You're my oldest and closest friend." Best friends who haven't seen each other in a while, guy style: "Still driving that piece of shit?" They mean, Becker patiently explains, exactly the same thing.
This may not be news to many people -- indeed, it won't even be accurate to many people -- and truth be told, there's a lot in Becker's monologue you will have heard before, including the fact that male drivers, lost, hate to pull over and ask for directions, and that the '90s seems to have produced two sexes -- women and assholes -- and a climate in which it may seem perfectly reasonable to debate whether the penis is a sex organ or a birth defect.
Becker is no Iron John. He's a barrel-chested comic with a beer gut, three goony expressions and a slovenly delivery that makes one wonder if he hasn't recently had his jaw wired and where's the understudy?
So how do you explain the fact that he sells out barns five times the size of the Helen Hayes and has marriage counselors beating a path to the box office? This is, after all, a monologue with a conclusion of men protect the turf in which women can practice their magic, and I'm not making this up.
Well, there's something ultimately sweet and reassuring about "Defending the Caveman," a ramshackle treatise that manages to be hip and retro at the same time. Though the performance reviewed featured a particularly loxlike audience and a sound-effects tape on Quaaludes, Becker persevered in his efforts to explicate the differences between the sexes and argue on behalf of peaceful co-existence.
Take the subject of communication, a fairly fundamental one. Women kaffeeklatsch. Men fish. Mix and match, you've got problems. The solution? It takes a lot of male energy to have the strength to make yourself talk about your feelings when you really want to go to sleep. And it takes a lot of female energy to sit with a guy and watch TV and not say anything. In both cases, just do it.
The appeal of "Defending the Caveman" is its very banality. It's the secret of the sitcom: When it comes to the man-woman thing, most of us are pretty much in the same boat. Many arrows hit the target, even if some inevitably miss. The price is right, and the show should have a run. Take your best friends. Afterward, the girls will compare notes, the boys will watch TV. Go figure.