When Rob Becker was an unknown stand-up comedian and a newlywed in the late 1980s, he had his first lesson in turning domestic squabbles into comedy.
"We had gotten married with really great intentions," says Becker, 42. "We thought we were going to be able to avoid fighting because we thought we were so similar. Then we were having these fights and it turns out we were pretty different, and that was shocking to us, as naive as that might sound."
Becker began talking about this as part of his stand-up routine in comedy clubs around Northern California. "The feedback from the audience was just immediate. People would hang around afterward needing to have a 20-minute discussion about five minutes of material. That never happens."
Encouraged by the response, Becker began to incorporate more and more of the material into his stand-up routine. He read books about evolutionary psychology and did field research at parties, testing his ideas on other couples. "This was a time when you weren't supposed to say that men and women were different," he remembers. "So you could feel the slight tension in the air. But people felt relieved to hear that other people fight."
In 1991, having assembled 90 minutes of material over the previous few years, he introduced "Defending the Caveman" in a small club in San Francisco. And Becker struck pay dirt with his theory that the differences between men and women began in the Stone Age.
The show has had mixed reviews since it opened in San Francisco, where it ran for five months, but it has a way with audiences. It opened on Broadway in 1995 and ran for 2 1/2 years, becoming the longest-running solo show in Broadway history. It has toured 35 cities and makes its first visit to Los Angeles at the Pantages Theatre, Tuesday through Oct. 24.
Onstage, Becker is the slack-jawed, blank-eyed embodiment of befuddled bemusement at the differences between the sexes. The show begins with a homemade video of Becker and his wife. To a soundtrack of Paula Abdul's "Opposites Attract," he sniffs the contents of his laundry basket to find the day's threads; she tries on a succession of outfits from her overflowing closet.
For the rest of the show, Becker--dressed in a T-shirt and jeans--shuffles around a stark stage that consists of a Flintstonian chair, a television and a couple of cave paintings. Women like to shop, he tells the audience, because they are gatherers; men don't ask for directions because they are hunters looking to nail their prey. Like a benevolent self-help guru, he tries to take the blame out of relationships.
Becker answers the door to his suite at the Four Seasons with pillow lines on his face at 10 a.m. on a recent morning. With his meaty frame dressed in a black T-shirt, jeans and loafers with no socks, he looks much like the slightly rumpled figure he portrayed the night before in the first of four preview performances at the Pantages.
Much of the audience was composed of recruited marriage and family counselors. Inviting therapists is part of the marketing strategy Becker developed in Dallas, where he played a year after the San Francisco run. If critics sometimes dismissed his work, the counselors in the audience couldn't get enough of it. Inviting them meant they would spread the word, and some of them sent their clients to the show as part of their therapy.
Becker's material has often been compared to self-help/relationship books such as Deborah Tannen's "You Just Don't Understand" and John Gray's "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." But those books, he claims, just validate what he has been saying all along: that men and women are so different, we might as well think of them as coming from two different cultures.
Critics who like the show say Becker is right on. "His observations of the quirks of male and female behavior are hilariously precise," said Lloyd Rose of the Washington Post. "Often I succumbed to the show's good nature, as did those around me. We all recognized something of ourselves in its observant behavior," wrote Benedict Nightingale in the Times of London.
Becker's critics--and there are many--have found his insights to be more like facile generalizations: that women bond through gossip, for example, or that men don't like to be disturbed while watching television.
In a review of the Broadway run in 1995, the New York Times' Vincent Canby called the show "middle-class mall humor" and went on to imply that even the audience laughter appeared to be canned, as if fulfilling the role of laugh track to Becker's long-winded stand-up routine. "The only truths in Mr. Becker's observations are those that have already been made acceptable by becoming television stereotypes," he wrote.
Becker gets a wounded look at the slightest suggestion that critics exist, and he begins defending himself against the ghosts of bad reviews past.