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Now at Harrah’s, Defending the Caveman is as enduring as the gender issues it lampoons

From San Francisco to Broadway to international performances in more than 30 countries, Defending the Caveman has always been nomadic. Although Las Vegas is a rare permanent encampment for the how, it has had its own bouts of intracity wanderlust.

Caveman just moved into its third Las Vegas venue in the last four years. The show opened at the Golden Nugget in 2007 and then Excalibur late in 2008. When Thunder From Down Under cut a deal to take sole possession of the castle’s showroom, Caveman wrapped its show Jan. 16 and opened at the Improv at Harrah’s on Jan. 17.

In a Vegas market that has been unforgiving to Broadway, Caveman’s ability to find home after home is unusual. Of course, Caveman was already the longest-running solo show in Broadway history long before playwright/original performer Rob Becker moved on. Proof enough of its durability.

Locally, the performance from Kevin Burke—breezy, warm and instantly likable—has a huge hand in its Strip staying power. The fact that it’s a bare-bones show—it’s basically Burke, five props and a few pairs of underwear—has to make it attractive to the production’s bottom line.

Burke—a former Ringling Bros. clown, 15-year stand-up veteran and great-grandson of a fraudulent spiritualist medium—took over for Becker in 2004. When it came time to set up shop here, there was skepticism about the show’s viability in Las Vegas.

“When we first came here, people said, ‘Wait, what? It’s a one-man show and there are no sequins and there are no acrobats and it’s just some guy thinking thoughts? Really? And it’s pro-marriage and pro-relationship? That’ll never work,’” Burke says. “And my take on it was, ‘Of course it’s going to work.’ There’s a market for that in Las Vegas. Las Vegas isn’t all sin. It’s maybe mostly sin, but there are couples here. … It’s really the only show specifically geared toward couples. Except maybe Zumanity, and that’s a whole different aspect.”

Couples certainly are the bread and butter of the show. The roughly 70-minute monologue is a plea for détente in the gender wars through the lens of evolutionary psychology (and jokes about shopping). Long-suffering spouses roll with the shots depending on whether it’s Venus or Mars in the crosshairs.

More than that, though, a look around the Improv at Harrah’s reveals an audience that’s mainly middle-aged. The material is born out of the primordial soup of late-’80s and early-’90s stand-up. These Jerry Seinfeld-ian gags and Paul Reiser-esque observations still resonate with a crowd that made Mad About You one of the top sitcoms of the Clinton years. This is comedy comfort food for the 50-something set.

Although Burke’s tastes run in the opposite direction, it was the show’s sweetness that attracted him to the project. “It’s a comedy that brings people together,” Burke says. “A lot of modern comedy in general is very cynical and dark. The stuff that makes me laugh is the stuff that’s cynical and dark. [Caveman] was the opposite of that. It’s something really sweet and something really nice that makes people feel good about themselves. It’s not Andrew ‘Dice’ Caveman. Had it been Andrew ‘Dice’ Caveman, I wouldn’t have been interested in doing it.”

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