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David Crowe on John Cleese, British vs. American Humor

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Married to a South African woman and born to Canadian parents, both of whom had British parents, Minneapolis-born comic David Crowe is a student of comedy across the English-speaking world. Not surprisingly, it was a member of Monty Python that proved to be his biggest inspiration.

"John Cleese is one of the reasons I got into comedy," he explains. "I just thought he was an absolute riot, and looked like he was having so much fun."

Oddly, Crowe is more familiar with Cleese's work post-Flying Circus and even post-Fawlty Towers.

"I actually haven't seen that much of those," he notes. "He came to Seattle to speak recently, so I went out see him give a lecture, and I realized how little of his stuff I've actually watched. I couldn't quote you Monty Python sketches, and I think I've only seen two episodes of Fawlty Towers. I think it's more the idea of him. I've seen him in movies, and he's always being quoted. I have seen Monty Python plenty of times, but it was all when I was very young."

For Crowe, Cleese represents a very specific time and place in British culture. "It's mainly a very English tradition," he says. "His generation was really the last to have a traditional Victorian-style private education without the interference of mass media. When he was going to school, you didn't have a bunch of stuff on the radio or television. Obviously when he came of age it was there, but at school he was truly immersed in the same subjects that the Victorians were [immersed in] 100 years earlier."

Crowe reasons that this allowed students of that era to develop language skills in a more traditional manner.

"Cleese was not modeling himself after sound-bite media. He was literally learning to write essays, and when you see him speak live, it is like watching a gymnast do a verbal tumbling routine with all of these moves and twists and then sticking the dismount at the end with a final punchy word that gets the big laugh. Even if you wanted to do an impression of him, or imitate that, you couldn't write the sentence. You just wouldn't have the ability."

The Pythons and their peers grew up in a post-war Britain that had finally begun to reject the class structure of previous generations. Crowe witnessed this when he visited relatives there.

"My relatives were all coalminers in the Midlands. The class structure existed when you went into the war, but was completely shattered after the war," he says. "When airplanes are bombing your cities, you don't really care which bloodline someone comes from, you just want the guy that does the job the best. So, all these soldiers came back from the war, and people who had been digging around in coalmines were suddenly found to be great leaders of people and they would be moved into a management sector with British Steel."

Crowe didn't realize how much of his British heritage was in his own comedy until he came across one of his specials on cable. "The difference is the American comic sensibility has what is called the 'screaming man.' It's the guy blowing off steam, yelling, and shouting. There's no expectation of dignity."

In Britain, humor is often derived from the person trying to stay in control as insanity swirls around him or her. "John Cleese is yelling as much as an American might, but there's an expectation, and you see it in his eyes, he's trying to keep it together. Here, there's a bit of that frontier mentality. You're allowed to step out onto your porch and howl at the moon and be a bit of a caveman."

IF YOU GO:

David Crowe

Acme Comedy Co.

708 N. First St., Minneapolis

8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 10:30 Friday and Saturday

$18

For tickets and more info, call 612-338-6393 or visit www.acmecomedycompany.com