Sunday, November 28, 2010

Firesign Theater (comedy)

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.


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 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.

Bob McCabe said...

Not to be out dated, they went on to do DOOM DOT BUST and Give me immortality or give me Death. And the Shakespearean Anythinge You Want to too. Now where is my catnip ?

billfuddled said...

I'll also respectfully disagree regarding Bozos, in my estimation their best work. Talk about prognostication, computer hackers,(ah, Clem), computer viruses, software back doors (open your gate, Doctor), anti-virus software (the three Macs, here comes Deputy Dan, I read Gypsy, Doctor). The whole concept of "Do you remember the Future? Forget it!" to crash the entire Future Fair system, while Macs 2 & 3 are clamoring, "Forget it/Don't forget it!" Beyond brilliant, in my humble opinion.

Proctor and Bergman's "TV Or Not TV", also a hacking theme, is a close second.

Ted Bojo said...

...lets talk about your car, its screaming ' wash me please'...still cracks me up

Unknown said...

Is Porgie still helping porcelain make the bed?

My Brother and I still quote FT and there's probably less then, %0.00001 that understand.

Kurt said...

Helping Porcelain make the bed--"C-Coming, mother!" "Oh, he's so good with the help."

I have Duke of Madness Motors and listen to Dear Friends on cross-country drives...a lot of improvisation, it's great. The Lucky Duck Garage is offering a free grease and lube job to all newlyweds, let Dan Lucky at her with his wet pump gun and she'll feel like jelly for the next ten thousand rides...Leg O' The Crow Restaurant...Bob's Brazerko Lounge, under the telephone poles in the exclusive Multi-Mart Shopping Center...

As for gagabarjarjar who asked a few years ago in this thread about the radio station parody with Bubba and Chuck Fred, that was the National Lampoon Radio Hour circa 1974, KORN radio from Durante Iowa.

Anonymous said...

Fully factory air conditioned air from our fully factory equipped air conditioned factory--I think

Anonymous said...

Fully factory air conditioned air from our fully factory equipped air conditioned factory--I think

Chris Siple said...

I've been playing these albums more since the deaths of Bergman and Austin. Like many of the other commenters, I use phrases from their work daily. I have a blog called "I'm Always Right and Never Lie" (yeah, I altered the quote, probably accidentally). When I heard episodes of "Nick Carter, Master Detective" on an old-time radio show I realized where Nick Danger came from (with a hint of "Johnny Dollar" thrown in--you know, "the man with the action-packed expense account"). They had an ability to draw us into a strange world that showed us things about ours that we never knew. I agree about "Giant Rat"--I love Sherlock Holmes and they sent it up beautifully, though their characters were obviously more influenced by the movie versions than the original stories. I do think "Bozos" was a dropoff, though a still brilliant work. If it were the only thing they'd done, it would be a one-of-a-kind bit of genius. I saw them live just once, I think in 1973 at Princeton's McCarter Theater. They were damned good, and that's not just the grass talking.

Anonymous said...

"It's a beautiful car with doors to match!"

Anonymous said...

The phrase "She's no fun she fell right over" is still burned into my brain after a very long hiking trip with a couple of FT memorizers... Which album (?) is that from?

Chuck Rothman said...

"She's no fun . . . " was from How Can You Be in Two Places at Once If you're not anywhere at all on both sides, actually ("Didn't I say that on the other side of the record?").

Steve Smith said...

After 40 odd years, I still find myself saying 'It's just this little chromium switch here" to explain some obvious epiphany. And I always cracked up when I heard the refrigerator ad which touted "Close the door and the light stays on!" - Both from How Can You Be...

Saw them in concert twice, and they were awesome!!

A great collection of insightful minds!

Tim Gibbs said...

Love the song Nazi Goring, from TV or Not TV, and Not Insane, from Not Insane.

Anonymous said...

Everything you say is right (and you never lie) but it appears i am left to defend the honor of "Everything you know is wrong". It is a towering pinnacle of achievement, every bit as convolutedly quotable as "the original 4". dogs flew spaceships...the aztecs invented the vacation...the reappearance of bob hind and his travelogue tv show "the golden hind"...

in terms of dropoffs, the way i see their output is the "original 4" were all brilliant in different ways. then, like the rock groups of the era, they released a number of live albums, outtake albums, and solo projects of varying quality. the great "tv or not tv" and the just as great "how time flies" to ones i don't like quite as much.

their return is marked by the giant rat, already referenced, everything you know...(my favorite) and the slightly less great "in the next world you're on your own" which deserves a place in the pantheon, if only for the dead cat commercial and the immortal line "eat fascist death, flaming media pigs" (er...)

that was the album which lost them their major label contract, and i kinda lost track after that (ie, i stopped memorizing their albums). so i will leave it to others to extol the virtues of their later stuff.

sorry if this comment is too long, but this looks like the end...or is it only the begin... [coyote howls] no, it's the end.

stober51 said...

I was in Frankfurt Germany in 1970 and listened to this program on the Armed Forces Network on a weekly basis. The one program I remember most was a "Stardrag" episode. The space craft, crew, Captain Quirk, and Mister Smock, had struck a Space-Turkey deflecting the ship off course. As the skit progressed, Smock would occasionally chime in and "report" the ship was some distance "off course". Astute listeners, as we were, the distance in light-years would progressively increase as the minutes went by and we could estimate what Smock would say next. Later, as the crew determined they needed a spare part to repair damage caused by the collision with the "Space-Turkey", Smock reported the cost was trillions of dollars, even though the part was only 63-cents, the delivery cost were very high because they were 855-trillion, 721-million, 418-thousand, 778 point 3-miles off course captain. Another laugh was just before they struck the turkey, on their monitors they heard, "I am the God of...", CRASH! The whole skit was a terrific laugh. I'd love to hear that one again.

Kip W [Muffaroo] said...

The anonymous who asked may well have shuffled off the coil by now, but "Aroor-HARR!" was from a movie. TEXAS ACROSS THE RIVER, I think. Whoever was leading the cavalry would shout it out. Near the end of the movie, I think the leader of the Native Americans used it as well.

Also, it's so tempting to try and correct all the misquotes in the comments. Must clench teeth and refrain.

I never got to see them live, but Denver's KFML simulcast Proctor & Bergman from Ebbets Field (a Boulder night club, if my sources are correct), and I recorded that as well as I could, and still have it. I only wish I could have recorded their earlier badinage with the KFML announce at the studio beforehand, with ad libs. The thing I remember is when one of them coughed and apologized for having a rare tropical disease. Then the announcer coughed, and they said, "I see you're getting it too!" Only then did I catch on why they were coughing.

(Just noticed the comment before. I know I've heard that skit on Dr. Demento. It was a comedy troupe whose name I've conveniently forgotten, but Dr. D has a website that might provide you with the details.)

Anonymous said...

I've heard bits of this bunch and am still trying to get into them. The author mentions Monty Python as a comparison but personally I'd suggest listening to those who inspired MP - The Goon Show written by Spike Milligan. Spike truly was a linguistic acrobat, a true genius. His incredible books especially "Puckoon' and his 4 part trilogy about his time as a soldier during WW2. "Hitler and my part in his downfall" That series ended up to about 7 books.
I CANNOT recommend The Goons enough.

Peorgie Tirebiter said...

I grew up in Los Angeles and remember seeing the boys doing tv commercials for Jack Poet Volkswagen on Sunset. This was a few years before I was introduced to their records in ‘71. Anyone else remember seeing them on air?