Sunday, November 28, 2010

Firesign Theater (comedy)

c1967-Present
Members:
Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor
Wikipedia Link
Firesign Theater Website

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.

Don't  Crush that DwarfThe 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. 

imageThe 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.

13 comments:

Thomas said...

Firesign associate and official archivist Taylor Jessen has unearthed, restored and produced a phenomenal compendium: all of the group's live radio broadcasts from 1970 to 1972 - 80+ hours worth of shows, many of which have never seen the light of day until now, with an accompanying book. Go to firesigntheatre dot com and check out Duke of Madness Motors, you won't regret it.

G. L. Dryfoos said...

I've been listening to nearly all their albums again recently. I'd agree about 'ahead of their time' -- but I think the time they were ahead of is maybe one of those alternate futures, like the ones with the flying cars.

Comedy today still hasn't caught up with them, and doesn't even seem to be trying anymore.

As Catherwood said, "Forward! Into the Past!!"

gagabarjarjar said...

oh, boy i think i just found what i have been looking for for so long.

is this the group that put together, County Radio, with Vern the mailman, Chuck Fred one of the hosts, and of course, the epic star of the show, Bobby Jean McMurphy--oh please let it be so

gagabarjarjar said...

oh durranty, oh durrannty, you are my home town!

Vicki Hesse said...

and how do I make my voice do that?

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, admitedly uneven, but you missed the top notch: "Everything You Know Is Wrong". On par with "...pliers" IMHO. Cool site. Thanks

WTXcableguy said...

Chuck mentioned how they never broke into television and yet he's wrong. In the early to mid 80's, they were on USA (I believe) for a brief run. It was great to see them in action. However, I'll take the old albums any ol' day. Being able to listen and use one's imagination on the sounds and the characters, was well worth the time.
Follow in your books and repeat after me, as we learn the next three words in Turkish.

Anonymous said...

I am a wonderful mother. I introduced my children to Firesign Theater when they were teenagers. Actually, that may have been a mistake, now that I think about it. How else do you explain text messages from my daughter that say nothing more than, "Why are they still calling them novels?"

You would not believe how many people don't get that, even after I explain it to them. I fear for the state of irony in our society. I really do.

Anyway, the kids were amazed to find that so very many strange things I say without even thinking about it are actually FT lines. They apparently always wondered what, "Cluck the duck" meant. Now they know. Not a damn thing.

TVC15 said...

My kids grew up listening to those albums! And yes, they are fine upstanding citizens, with a great sense of humor.

PO8 said...

Nice review!

I'm afraid I don't agree about Bozos. As a working Computer Scientist, I find it amazingly prescient, and some of the material is awesome if you understand where it's coming from. "Robot's Rules of Order", for example, is the kind of phrase that is still jaw-droppingly funny to geeks like me. (If you don't get it, c.f. Robert's Rules of Order and Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.) I think the album's popularity suffered from its audience's unfamiliarity with its source material, which is a shame.

Some of the material on Not Insane was later released as Anythynge You Want To (Shakespeare's Lost Comedie), which is as far as I'm concerned as brilliant as anything FT ever did. Like their genre-defining parody of noir radio in Nick Danger, this is the genre-defining Shakespeare parody; not just years ahead of its time but unlikely ever to be replicated in its incisiveness, insight, humor and above all use of language. It took FT another eight years after Not Insane to fully complete this work, and another twenty after that to get it released properly, and the maturity of the final version definitely shows.

Similarly, Hemlock Stones and the Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra is arguably the best Sherlock Holmes parody ever. It's a bit, er, crude, but absolutely brilliant--a must-listen for any true Sherlockian or FT fan, especially in the current age of all-things-Sherlock.

Anonymous said...

Prescient? Hah! They freaking prognosticated the GPS 30 years ahead of its time! (Antelope freeway, 1/2 mile). Amazing. 40+ years and im hearing things layered in for thenfirst time... This, despite having memorized the albums back in the 70's, to the point of precision that i could speak in parallel with the album, turn the volume off, come back 15 minutes later and still be Perfect sync.

What have they done to me....(screams maniacally!)

"I know i know, lets turn him on his head! There- you see? Now its morning!"

Robin Graves said...

It's a little scary - the effect the Firesign Theatre had on listeners. Perhaps it was because we were so young, but I know many people who quote Waiting for the Electrician to this day, including me. It somehow got hardwired into our brains. Was it a Communist plot to make young Americans go insane? hmmmm.

Anonymous said...

Looking for the source of the quote"AROAR,HARR!-cavalry officer's unitelligible order....one trooper says to the other "what'd he say?"... The other trooper answers AROAR,HARR!...thought it was Mel Brooks,but couldn't find it. It's either FST or too much ganja in my misspent youth.