Back around 1970, I was at a party. The record supplying the music was done, and I put another one one. A comedy record. People were complaining that they wanted music, and that they couldn't hear what was happening, and meanwhile the party conversations went on, ignoring everything. But after about ten minute, the group slowly became quiet, so they could catch everything being said.
The record was from the Firesign Theater.
They were a group of four writers/performers who started out doing radio plays and quickly graduated to records. They were as big a revolution in comedy as Monty Python's Flying Circus, who were starting out around the same time.
The group took its name from astrology -- all four members were Fire Signs* -- with a nod to the old Fireside Theater radio show. They took the conventions of radio drama and added psychedelic sensibilities and wove it all into a dense collection of comic brilliance. In the early 70s, you could say, "Wait a minute, Danger. What about my pickle?" and people would go off on long riff and quotes of the absurdist dialog that were their stock in trade. The Firesign Theater created more in-joke quotes than anyone except Python:
- "That's just a two-bit ring from a Crackerback jox."
- "She's no fun. She fell right over."
- "Antelope Freeway, one half mile."
- "What kind of chump do you take me for?" "First class."
- "I can shout. Don't hear you."
- "And you can believe me, because I never lie, and I'm always right."
- "You can wait here in the sitting room, or you can sit here in the waiting room."
(Yes, if you know the Firesign Theater, these are as funny as "This is an Ex-parrot!")
At their best, the Firesign theater was far ahead of its time. They would, for instance, stop to listen if they had said thing on the other side of the record, and one half of a phone conversation on one album would have the other half showing up on another. Their work was filled with social commentary (some prescient), slapstick, anything-for-a-joke humor, and more. It never got stale, no matter how often you listened.
They started out in radio on the west coast, but were signed with Columbia Records, and put out their first album, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him in 1968. It consisted of only four tracks. "Temporarily Humbolt County" was a bitter satire on manifest destiny, but the true genius of the album was the title track, which took up the entire second side of the album, about a traveler lost in a country where everything is confusion.
The album was successful enough for a second one, this entitled How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All? It really only had two cuts: the title one, a skewed look at American consumer culture and their best known piece (and comedy classic):
Announcer: Los Angeles. He walks again by night! Out of the fog. Into the smog (cough cough). Relentlessly. Ruthlessly (“I wonder where Ruth is”). Doggedly (dogs bark) Toward his weekly meeting with . . . the unknown. At 4th and Drucker he turns left, at Drucker and 4th he turns right, he crosses McArthur Park & walks into a great sandstone building! ("Oh my nose!") Groping for the door, he steps inside, and climbs the 13 steps to his office. He walks in. He’s ready for mystery. He’s ready for excitement. He’s ready for anything. He’s…
Nick Danger (picking up ringing phone): Nick Danger, third eye!
Phone Voice: Yes. I want to order a pizza to go, and no anchovies.
The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye is a parody of radio detective shows, with the hero meeting a Peter Lorre type mysterious man. And a search for Melanie Haber . . . . Audrey Faber. . . Susan Underhill . . . Betty Jo Bialowski!** This is the point where most people became fans.
They topped this with their next release, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, a parody of the teen "let's-put-on-a-show" movies of the 40s, but with their usual twists and surreal humor. There was only one track, as they followed George Leroy Tirebiter, former child star, in his film High School Madness as he tried to find out who stole Morse Science High, as it gets mixed in with a Korean war movie. The two plots run parallel -- or rather, are twisted like rope.
It's actually pretty pointless to try to describe. You just listen. Rolling Stone has called this "the greatest comedy record ever made," and I certainly agree. Though it's not anything you pick up on immediately. The jokes are so multilayered that it takes several listens to begin to catch them all, and the more you listen the funnier it gets. It was a pinnacle of comedy, as amazing in its own way as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The next album, I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus was a slight dropoff (understandable). They followed that with a collection of their radio shows called Dear Friends, showing their earlier comedy. But their next album, Not Insane was a disappointment, and they never really recovered, even though they did some good work afterwards.
The group remains together today, doing live shows of their work, and the various permutations also released albums over the years. Proctor and Bergman worked together,*** and Ossman and Austin also did solo work. But they never made the break into TV or films, and they became forgotten by all but their long-term fans.
But for their first three albums, they put forth a brand of comedy that was all their own. No one has ever come close.
* An Aries, a Leo, and two Sagittariuses.
**He knew her as Nancy.
***I saw them in the mid-70s.