Tuesday, December 07, 2004
The Firesign Theatre
This post is long overdue in several ways, and it comes about because I've taken time the last couple of nights to listen to a majority of the Real Video clips showing The Firesign Theatre at work on the show they did for XM Radio back in 2001-2002. A few minutes after listening to the three parts of “The Fuse of Doom” (which harkens back to one of my favorite albums, “The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra”), it occurred to me that I hadn’t provided a link to their website or to Planet Proctor or RFO.net. Fie, I say! Fie!
For those who are not familiar with The Firesign Theatre, I'll give a quick introduction. First, the Firesign Theatre is four guys, now in their sixties, who created a kind of audio theatre back in the late Sixties and Seventies that has never been successfully imitated or surpassed. They are Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor. They came together by an accident of fate—much as some cosmic dust once came together to form our Sun, the heating system (A Firesign joke)—at an FM station in Hollywood back around 1966. Peter Bergman had a show on this station called Radio Free Oz and he was known as The Wizard. Phil Austin was on the staff. David Ossman had been on staff, had moved on to ABC, but still frequented his old haunts. Phil Proctor was (and is) an actor, fresh out to the coast from NYC who knew Bergman from their days at Yale School of Drama.
They didn’t start out by saying, “Hey! Let’s make ourselves into The Firesign Theatre!” It just happened and evolved. The chance came to make albums, and they did, with a vengeance. “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him,” “How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All,” “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers,” and “I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus” all appeared between 1967 and 1971. Considering that they were also creating radio shows, performing live, and doing pretty much whatever they needed to in order to make a living, that’s not bad.
These albums are absurdist, sometimes surreal, and often flat-out, double-over-laughing funny. Two more albums from 1974/1975 round out the classics for me, “Everything You Know Is Wrong” and “The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra.”
Aficionados of The Fab Four or Five can toss around lines from these albums with a dexterity that would flummox even most Monty Python fans. These are comedy albums that withstand repeated listening. In fact, I’d say I’ve listened to “Dwarf,” “Bozos,” and “Giant Rat” over forty times each. “Giant Rat,” in particular, is interesting to me because (due to it being a Sherlock Holmes parody and due to the constant use of “cocoa” by the hero) it goes at a breakneck pace. (I’ve only recently come to understand that it is their tribute to the Goon Show, and I think they do Spike, Peter, and Harry proud.) However, the more you listen to it, the more it slows down. And more subtlety and ambiance comes to the fore. And nobody does ambiance like these guys.
In fact, back when I was invited to an acquaintance’s apartment by a mutual friend to play around on the analog four-track recorder he had just gotten, I immediately thought of The Firesign Theatre. And we worked together for two years and produced work good, bad, and middling, but we never became another Firesign Theatre. You can’t make these things; they happen on their own.
The scripts that I am writing for “Next in the Series” are not Firesign-like. Some are silly, some are a bit strange, but nothing like that particular world that is The Firesign Theatre. I had to make this my own.