Interview byPaul Remington
(Originally appeared in Cosmik Debris Magazine in November and December, 1998.)
It's Radio Now, the year 2000, a theatre of the mind on the cusp of the 21st century. It's the demise of Joe Camel and infatuation and over-saturation of Princess Goddess. It's the domination of US Plus and despotic rule of Zeros and Ones. It's an invasion by the men with the Eyeball hats--it's Firesign Theatre spinning magic and waxing surrealistic in their first release of all-new studio material in 18 years. Poking fun at social mores and societal concerns, Firesign stretches the imagination of the imaginer through 47 minutes of radio foreplay. Stumbling through multiple format changes, the station preps us for a countdown to the end of the world--a new millennium that heralds the end of time where computer chips and binary bits usurp the power of mankind.
The date is December 31, 1999, and DJ Bebop Loco [Phil Austin] mans the board of a radio station launching itself into the future. Loco is accompanied by a flotilla of Firesign characters that include "Radio Now's On-The-Spot Actuality Now News Team," Ray Hamberger [Phil Proctor] and Harold Hiphugger [David Ossman]. Chump Threads [Peter Bergman] reports the "sports in your shorts," and reminds us not to bet the "pros, they're cons, and the colleges--they're goons on the take," further informing us to put our money on junior high soccer. Captain 'Happy' Panditt is Radio Now's Eyeball in the Sky, riding high in the Now Chopper, reporting the local traffic. Ralph Spoilsport has purchased commercial time, and reminds us that "Everybody must die, but you don't have to be there when it happens." Spoilsport hocks his "new and used body parts in the city of the future. That's why we're having a great 'Going out of Body' sale. You can live forever while your friends fall apart around you like rotten fruit."
Firesign cleverly snares the most sensitive of concerns plaguing the psyche of the late 20th century. Year 2000 (Y2K) concerns are tethered throughout the show with the excitement of Princess Goddess who died to produce her latest film, "Pull My String." The inclusion of Goddess is a playful stab at the media frenzy over Princess Diana, who received similar attention by the "Celebrazzis" in both life and death. Goddess dies as a result of a mud boarding accident while riding over a landmine on the slopes of the English Alps. As one announcer quips, "She's to die for!"
Joe Camel bows out before going through "the eye of the zero," after having been stripped of his smokes, and extracted from his lonely billboard. Asked at a press conference what his plans are for the 21st century, he replies with a laugh, "Party!"
Firesign trademarks abound through double, triple and quadruple entendres, clever use of non-sequiturs and dense characterization. No comedy team to date can compare to these four that become five, as their collective consciousness forms a unified consciousness of its own. This is arguably their best release to date, and in no way lacks creative energy. As with the classic releases of their youth, Firesign still thinks out-of-the-box, beats to a different drummer, and wraps reason and thought in farsighted wit and wisdom. As if heading forward into the past, these four of five have added seasoned maturity to their works--works that spans over three decades.
Firesign first gained popularity through radio station KPFK in November of 1966. It was there that Austin, Bergman, Ossman and Proctor improvised their first acts during the underground radio show, "Radio Free Oz." Radio Free Oz began after Bergman attended a KPFK listener-supported fundraising marathon. Paul Dallas ran KPFK at the time, and was so impressed with Bergman's on-air comedic rapport, he offered him a job. Along with Paul J. Robbins, Bergman started Radio Free Oz in June of 1966. After a few months Robbins left, and shortly after, Austin and Ossman joined Bergman at KPFK.
Proctor, then a writer for The East Village Other, was in LA researching a screenplay about the youth revolution on the Sunset Strip. While there, he became trapped in the confines of a riot. Fearful of becoming part of the clash between youth and police, he held up his press card. The police left him alone, and he sat down in a safe location so as to stay clear of the fighting. He realized he was sitting on a copy of The LA Free Press. Pulling the paper out from underneath him, he saw the face of his friend Peter Bergman staring back at him from the front page. Proctor first befriended Bergman at Yale Dramatic Association in 1958. Beside the picture of Bergman was the headline, "KPFK Newsman Peter Bergman Interviews a Returning Vietnam War Veteran." He called Bergman at KPFK and was invited to join the crew at the station. The four met for the first time, and began what would become a 32-year relationship that continues to this day--four members, all Fire signs, became Firesign Theatre.
Radio Free Oz was a production fueled by improvisation and creativity that spanned three to four hours per show. Clearly ahead of its time, it defined Southern California's underground radio, and blended well with KPFK's unique mindset: "To promote cultural diversity and pluralistic community expression; To contribute to a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors; To promote freedom of the press and serve as a forum for various viewpoints . . ."
Firesign Theatre was a natural progression from Radio Free Oz. Each show contained any one of a number of elements: phone calls from callers needing to vent or on bad acid trips, on-air Tarot reading, musicians, guests, and improvised comedy acts. Their tenure on Radio Free Oz proved their talent at improvising comedy bits, and it was at KPFK that the group explored their unique chemistry for the first time.
The recording medium became the next logical step for Firesign, and in 1967 Columbia Records contracted Firesign for an LP with only one stipulation: "Make a profit." The team's first LP, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, hit the racks in 1968. Electrician was a release that metaphorically explored the fears of coexistence between the counter culture and the Establishment. Out of its grooves poured political activism and hope for the dwindling dreams of America's youth.
Electrician also found Firesign exploring the capabilities of a new medium. Their approach to recorded material mirrored the production found on rock LPs of the time, which included thickly layered scripting and multi-tracking, sound effects, panning, backwards tracking, etc. In the studio, the group expanded their creativity while utilizing the ability to record, listen, and rewrite their material, perfecting it as they produced.
1968 was a rocky period for Firesign. Sales for Electrician were sluggish with only 6,000 units sold, and the team suffered personality clashes that resulted in several break-ups. Executives at Columbia threatened to drop them, and their KPFK radio show ended. Management was an integral factor, and Jim Guercio was brought on to steer the team towards higher ground, and salvage their contract with Columbia. Guercio's credits included managing Chicago, Chad and Jeremy, and The Buckinghams. Guercio's work began with the recording of musical segues for Electrician, which was of great managerial importance to Firesign since their production utilized many of the same techniques used by the rock scene of the day.
With the help of Guercio, Firesign released their next album in 1969: How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All? Side one sports a free-flowing thought process played out through the characterization of a used car salesman's delivery of an automobile to our main character, who goes for a joy ride with us in the back seat listening to the thought, sight, and sound of everything our hero experiences. Side one closes with a reading from James Joyce's "Ulysses," which is artfully layered above a collage of aural activity. Side two features perhaps Firesign's most accessible and popular character, Nick Danger in, "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger." A humorous play on radio shows of the 1930s and 1940s, the bit was recorded by Firesign on the original RCA mikes CBS used to produce the old radios shows.
Firesign's second LP was a hit, and record sales soared as college students, campus radio stations, and curious Firesign newbies took to the record shelves to experience for themselves the new voice of the new humorists. A cult following emerged as fans began to memorize segments of material for later laughs with those in the know.
Fans discovered the density of Firesign through multiple listening. While the first hearing of a new Firesign album reveals the premise, further listening reveals the meaning. So much layering and thought is packed into each Firesign release, it is impossible to properly absorb or appreciate each release in the first listening.
While their reputation was building through each recorded release, with a past in radio, their next project was geared towards celluloid. They were contracted to contribute in the writing of a movie screenplay called "Zachariah."
Zachariah, released in 1970 by ABC Pictures, was a late '60s style western wrapped in psychedelic rock regalia, and featured a few top name acts of the time: The James Gang, and Country Joe and the Fish. Jazz drummer Elvin Jones, known for his tenure with saxophonist John Coltrane and others in the jazz scene, appears as a gun fighting villain while simultaneously flexing his musical chops as the fastest drummer in the West. Fiddler Doug Kershaw also makes an impressive appearance. A youthful Don Johnson plays a co-starring role in the movie, one that launched his film career.
Zachariah was not a vehicle that allowed Firesign the independence to which they were previously accustomed. As a result, Austin abandoned the project, and Bergman, Ossman and Proctor flew to Mexicali, Mexico to tighten the script and attend shooting of the film. Both Bergman and Proctor appear in the film, Bergman as a bank teller who's been robbed, and Proctor as a priest. While the movie was never an enormous success, it did provide enough revenue to help produce their third LP, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.
Dwarf was released in 1970 and received as much favor from fans as it did from the group, and proved to be an indelible follow-up to their previous LP. Based on the concept of bartered immortality, George Leroy Tirebiter trades his soul in return for eternal life in the repeated airing of late-night television movies. The concept took off with their audience, and Firesign was branding their style of comedy into an acceptant fanbase and US campuses. Some colleges offered Firesign courses, while cloned comedy teams formed, mimicking Firesign's unique comedic style. Riding high on their success, Firesign didn't miss a step. They immediately entered the studio and produced the wildly creative I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus.
The 1971 release of Bozos told the story of a vindictive computer programmer eager to plot against "Big Brother"--a corrupt computerized government cleverly disguised as an amusement park. At what some may consider the peak of their creativity, Bozos was a true creative masterpiece reflecting the natural chemistry and talent the team had to offer. They were hitting their stride not only in the recording medium, but also through radio airplay. While their releases purred in the marketplace, Firesign continued producing radio shows.
After 21 episodes of their radio show, "Dear Friends," the troupe followed up their many performances by releasing a collection of comedy bits as a multi-LP set compiled from 24 shows of prime radio material recorded on Sundays during a six month period. The material spanned from 1968 to 1971. The set included radio material from 1968: "Regulars on Radio Free Oz" (KRLA); 1969 to 1970: "Live from the Magic Mushroom" (KRLA); 1969 to 1970: "Early Sunday Morning Oz" (KMET); 1970: from February to July, "FST Radio Hour" (KPPC); and 1970 to 1971: "Dear Friends!," broadcast Sundays from September to February (KPFK). With so much material archived during this period, Firesign edited the best material and made the 12-hour LP Dear Friends collection available by subscription. Only 200 copies were pressed, and today the collection remains a rare and highly sought-after item in the Firesign catalog, currently fetching upwards of $1,200 per set.
Firesign's popularity remained active through the early seventies, although the group sputtered as a unit. Increasing tension between members made it difficult to complete some projects, due to continuous work schedules and ambitious projects. As a result, Bergman and Proctor mounted splintered tours. The two produced three LPs together: TV or Not TV in 1973, What this Country Needs in 1975, and Give Us a Break in 1978. Ossman and Austin produced solo albums during this time. Ossman's, How Time Flys, appeared in 1973, and Austin's, Roller Maidens from Outer Space, appeared in 1974. Ossman and Austin also hit the road as a unit, and mounted a production called Radio Shows of the 1940s. They also briefly collaborated with Harry Shearer in a show called LA Radio All-Stars.
1974 found Firesign resolving their differences and coming together again as a unit. Everything You Know is Wrong was released as an LP, and appeared as a film in 1975. Regretfully, it did not gain commercial success in the marketplace, or immediate critical acceptance from their fans. The movie received little distribution, and was deemed a commercial failure. Interestingly, it still survives as a popular title in video rental.
Columbia refused to resign Firesign to a new contract in 1975, and to close their current contract they released In the Next World You're on Your Own, written primarily by Austin and Ossman. Columbia released a Best Of compilation, Forward into the Past, in 1976, and this marked the end of their tenure with the label.
1977 found Bergman and Proctor departing again to tour and focus their creative energy on screenplays, soundtracks, and films. The group took time off to work on individual projects, yet did manage to record The Case of the Missing Shoe, a pilot from their Nick Danger radio series, released by Rhino Records in 1979. It wasn't until 1980 that their next studio release appeared, Fighting Clowns, which was their last formal studio LP.
Firesign continued in the 1980s as a three-man unit, sans Ossman. They produced two LPs: The Three Faces of Al, and Eat or Be Eaten, as well as a variety of video projects. It wasn't until the 1998 release of Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death that the group rediscovered their maturity and creative energy as a foursome, once again exploring the boundaries of popular culture.
But don't be fooled. Firesign's catalog is enormous, and during the years covered in this article, far more releases, movies, radio shows, and scripts have been written by these prolific four. They have made appearances on TV shows, such as Evening at the Improv, and commercials for Carnation Instant Breakfast, A-1 Slacks, Craig Stereo, and The International House of Pancakes. They have discreetly woven themselves into the fabric of our society, and each member has also been responsible for many interesting and fascinating contributions.
Austin, Ossman, and Proctor each contributed the background voices on Chad and Jeremy's Of Cabbages and Kings album. Austin appeared with other artists, such as David Crosby, on the 1967 Columbia LP release, The Astrology Album. He created Tales of the Old Detective, a double-cassette audio book containing nine original detective stories that spoofed LA private detectives, and has also appeared as a psychiatrist on Barbara Streisand's HBO special.
Bergman has co-written The Official Millennium Survival Handbook. He created a highly successful parody of the CD-ROM game MYST, called PYST. He popularized the phrase "love-in." He also attended a seminar in Berlin for playwrights with Tom Stoppard, during Stoppard's writing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
Ossman wrote the original liner notes for Bill Cosby's Best of LP. He also recorded radio spots for the Grateful Dead, Don Ho, and Frank Zappa. He wrote and directed the 50th anniversary radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Ossman translated Pablo Neruda's early poems for publication. Both Ossman and Proctor's voices appear in the upcoming Disney film, A Bug's Life.
Proctor has appeared on St. Elsewhere, General Hospital, The A-Team, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He's starred in the 1971 movie, A Safe Place, with Jack Nicholson, Orson Welles, and Tuesday Weld. He's also the voice of the Drunken Monkey on Dr. Dolittle, and Howard on The Rugrats. In his earlier years, he undertook the quietly historic task of traveling cross-country to research a project that became the 1969 film, Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson.
Firesign has also worked with producer, director, and writer Steve Sandoz who, through a grant from Wieden and Kennedy Productions, has created a 13- minute film short starring the Firesign Theatre titled God's Clowns. Sandoz' previous credits include marketing campaigns for Nike, Alaskan Airlines, and Windows95. The film short is about a brotherhood dedicated to making God laugh. Austin plays Brother Groucho, Bergman is Brother Moe, Ossman is Brother Slappy, and Proctor is Brother Shecky Green. Proctor notes that this is a rather unique film in that no one has featured Firesign in the creation of a film. The film will premier at the Northwest Film Festival on November 6th, 1998 in Portland, Oregon, and if Sandoz has his way, the short will be nominated for an Academy Award.
With too many credits to imagine, Firesign Theatre continues to spin their yarn and look forward into the new millennium. Their realization that Firesign is here to stay has sparked a new beginning to what they started over three decades ago. Firesign will not die. As Austin has come to realize, "As long as I'm living and breathing, there will always be a Firesign Theatre." The creative energy of the four continues to flow, and while their past works have defined their present direction, their karmic future seems pre-determined. They truly do own the idea of Now.
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© - Paul Remington 1998