The Firesign Theatre interviewed by Paul Remington
(Originally appeared in Cosmik Debris Magazine in November and December, 1998.)
Cosmik: Your work really relies on the audible nature of what's created--the ability to close your eyes and totally imagine what it is that is happening.
Proctor: We all came together under that one very strong premise. We realized the power of the stimulation of the imagination of the listener, when you could create reality simply by the use of your voice and the establishment of certain kinds of familiar sound patters that make people think they were listening to something that they had heard before. It was a standard pattern or style of the culture. Once we kind of got that, we all embraced it. When we had an opportunity to go into the studio, since all of us were "radio babies," and had been raised in the realm of aural imagination, we took to it very gratefully. [We] said, "Hey, we can take radio to where we think it would have gone had it continued to evolve." If television hadn't silenced it, what would it be like? Where would it go? In the classic McLuhan sense of taking a cliché, rubbing it against another cliché, and creating a new cliché, we were able to kind of take radio, rub it against phonograph recording, and rub it against television. What we came up with was kind of like a blind television on disk. We took it to the next level where the production that we were able to create allowed the listener to be in two places at once when they weren't anywhere at all--enter into this fantasy world that we created just out of sound. And because that's such a cheap way to do things, we were able to make "movies for the mind." As Stan Freeberg said, you can do anything you want on radio. It just doesn't cost anything. The only limits are someone's imagination. We found we were able to stimulate the listener's imagination to the extent that they bought our records, they liked what we were doing, they liked our ideas, they liked the places we took them, and the surrealistic way that we took them, to unknown worlds and unknown places, and then that supported us enough that we could do it. It doesn't take a lot of money to make these records or to sustain us at the time. We were four Hippie artists, basically. We could go in and do another record, and then another record. So all our successes have been based on real popular success. There's been an absolute minimum [amount] of hype and falsification in anything that we've done. The people either like the records or they don't. [Laughs] If we made money from them, we could go and do another one, which is kind of our intention now with this latest CD.
Cosmik: How do you feel this release stands apart from other releases you've created in the past?
Proctor: Well, it's interesting because now that we're in the post-production and post-release phase, we're involved now in these interesting discussions with people like yourself where we're asked these questions. Basically, it seems to me that what has happened with this record, in keeping with my fascination with McLuhanism . . . and Peter and I did have a chance to meet McLuhan and hang out with him . . .
Cosmik: What was that like?
Proctor: It was up in Toronto, up in McGill University. He kind of expressed a desire to meet us because he wanted to add more humor to his lectures. Of course, we were fascinated in talking with him because we wanted to add more McLuhanisms to our work. We used to hang out in his professor's quarters up there. He had a liveried butler complete with white gloves and waistcoat. He would come in and serve us tea. One day I remember McLuhan brought out these Cuban cigars from his little safe there, and we all lit-up Cuban cigars. We were sitting around having tea and Cuban cigars, and all of a sudden, BANG! BANG! He had put loads in our cigars. [Laughs] He was a terrific character. I was so sorry that he passed away. He was relatively young for such a great mind. But, getting back to your original question, in this instance, what I think we've done is we've created an interactive CD. It's not a CD-ROM, mind you. It's an interactive CD. What I think the new cliché is, that we took talk radio . . . look, radio became interactive. Once talk radio firmly established itself in the consciousness of American culture, a new form of radio was born--that is called Interactive Radio. It's a natural evolution from the interactivity of computer life, and the Net. Here we are speaking for a magazine that goes on the Net. Well, the Net is an interactive, global function. It's a revolutionary function that is a natural result of the electric revolution, which McLuhan said "eliminates all boundaries." There are no boundaries of space and time anymore. So we presently live in a time that is politically, socially, and economically without boundaries. That's why all of the things that are happening now are happening. That's why the global economy creates an entirely different playing ground between the rich and the poor, which is affecting marketplaces all over the world. Political information can be passed from one place to the other.
Cosmik: Is that the reason for the reference to "designer borders" on the CD?
Proctor: Yes. Designer borders have to do with the fact that people are actually talking about putting up different kinds of walls that will look nice. They have to put a wall between a border, but you can't put a wall between a border. That's all nonsense. A designer border is a joke, really. It's ridiculing the idea of borders, as far as I'm concerned. But, it also has to do with the electronic revolution. Basically, the way I always used to look at it was, the satellites freed the satellites. When I was in Russia, the dissemination of information was through people who could pick up Radio Free Europe on their shortwaves, and from books and magazine articles that we could smuggle in to them, and leave with them, which was very dangerous, and also just information passed from one person to the next, which was also dangerous unless you knew who you were talking to. The way we used to impart information to our Soviet friends, at that time, was to walk late at night, on those huge, huge streets, made huge to prevent more revolution. They learned from the revolution in France that the small streets were easily blockaded. So when the Soviets designed their cities, they used the great space of Russia and made these huge, huge boulevards that are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to blockade. If you remember, during the abortive White House coupe back however many years it was, you know, "Live, we'll be back to the Russian Revolution after this brief announcement!" I actually heard that on CNN. They used trolley cars to try and block these big streets. Remember, they built these barricades [made] of trolley cars because these streets are so freaking huge! Anyway, to get back to what I was saying, the birth of Democracy in Eastern Europe happened because they could get information from satellites that were placed up in space, and they could not jam the satellite signals. And so, the satellites freed the satellite. No boundaries . . . no boundaries. So, what I feel has happened with this record is that taking the inspiration of the Net, of the Cyber world, and of the virtual world, of unlimited communication and imagination, and rubbing that against a CD, or recording, what you get is a record that requires interactivity. In this day and age, people do not find it difficult to sit in front of a machine and play a game for hours and hours and hours on end. But, to sit down, put a CD on, and listen to something for 47 minutes or for almost an hour, seems to be . . . everybody's saying is an impossible task. Nobody has the time or the attention span to be able to do that. Well, I say, BALDERDASH! HOGWASH! [Laughs] That's what I say. That's just trite! I think people are more than willing and able to sit down, close their eyes, get involved, and interact with a CD that isn't a CD-ROM. I think it's a CD-REM--Rapid Eye Movement. We've created a CD-REM. It's something where you can enter into a world of dreams, because even though this appears to be a very linear event, a common simple story about eight hours in a radio station that's been basically distilled into an hour [long] experience, it isn't. It takes you to lots of very, very, very interesting places. It does a lot to stimulate your imagination and to exercise the associative faculties of your brain, which is good for you. I think people are going to be more than willing to sit down, shut out the real world or even the virtual world for a while, and give themselves over to this experience. Interact with this story. Furthermore, for the first time we've been able to put index points--cut points--into the record. There are 29 cut points. You can hop around, you can program it randomly if you want, which I'm looking forward to doing. I want to program it randomly and see what happens. What kind of story will it tell when it's all out of order? What will that do to our brains? But, it becomes truly an interactive experience. You can say, "Hey, I want you to hear this funny ad for Polar Pro," or this traffic report, and there it is. You couldn't do that [before]. You had to search our record by manually lifting the needle up and putting it down and saying, "Oh, here it is, here it is." You couldn't put those kind of subtle index points into a disk in those days, nor did we really consider doing it. When we wanted to promote the record, the company had to put out a special edition that [contained] excerpts from the record. That was common practice. So it is, once again, I think, a new art form, even though it doesn't look like it is. Subversively, we have created, yet, another revolution in the art of entertainment, I think.
Cosmik: In this release, it seems as though you've satisfied this generation's need for a short attention span. I'm thinking of the MTV generation; every five minutes there's something different. Your latest release is geared towards that.
Proctor: The flow of the record is very much like that. Conventional wisdom isn't what the people say. That's the joke of conventional wisdom that everybody recognizes. Conventional wisdom is like expectation. So, the expectation is, as you say, the record's 48 minutes long, but that's not the experience. The experience is something quite different. That is, after all, what the entire revolution of the 1960s [is about]. The revolution of consciousness we've been undergoing for decades and decades now--probably since consciousness evolved--is a slow, arduous process of the evolution of consciousness. Part of it is letting these things flow over you, and come into your own conclusion, your own perceptions about things, and honoring that. This is the hardest aspect of both moral and political evolution that we have to face all the time, which is the fact that we are entirely and personally responsible for our perceptions of the world, and that we color them by our inner attitudes, and our programmed thinking. How we react is what we are. That's at the heart of the scandal of truth that we're undergoing right now. I read in the paper today one comment about [President] Clinton; it said, "Clinton isn't the first President that's lied to us, he's the first President who's admitted it." [Laughs] He admitted it! That's very, very interesting. Now there's a real non-judgmental twist on what's happening, and that's the way I tend to look at things. So anyway, I think that the opportunity to enter into the world of Firesign Theatre under the circumstances of our latest opus is very much about that. It's a liberating experience in freethinking. It's not that it's a moral world that we've created. Our people actually have family values. Bebop [Loco] would very much like to be with his family and his baby. But he can't--he's got to work for US Plus! He's got a job, you know? And that's the nature of most people's lives. Not that we're trying to create a folk hero, or being Brechtian about it, but, again, there are very simple realities about existence on the planet, and existence in the societies we've created that are a common ground that everybody has to start from. Everybody's not born rich. So, most people have to make a living of one sort or another, and in essence, we're doing the same thing. We're artists who are making a living through the creation of comedy out of chaos.
Cosmik: Every writer is interested in knowing his or her audience. You've been creating and performing with Firesign Theatre for over 30 years. Currently, your material is marketed to appeal not only to this generation but also to past generations. How would you characterize your acceptance in the 1990s?
Austin: To me our work is one of those things in show business that isn't really concerned with what the audience thinks. I think we've just come to trust our audience over the years that the kind of person who buys a Firesign Theatre product is not somebody that we have to worry about. We neither have to speak up to him or speak down to him or her. Somewhere in the back of our mind we know that if you're going to buy a Firesign product, you're just as crazy as we are. So, we don't worry about you. You're on your own. You'll laugh at the jokes you think are funny, and you'll forgive us for the ones that you think are not.
Bergman: Well, the first people that will buy the album, and we want to sell the album to initially is the fanbase. Their average age, my guess is, [thinks] let's see, maybe they're 45 . . . 40 to 45. Tough! They don't go to record stores. They don't hang out at Tower. We get to them first because they're loyal to the Firesign Theatre, and they believe in our material. And then, through nerd of mouth, we spread the word. I'm hopeful, in fact, if I could have my druthers, I want this to be a hit in the colleges. Of course I want it to be a hit. Of course I want to sell out all the albums, but really because I love the material and I think it's good for people. I think it's really good for people in college because it's a great explanation of what's going on. I don't know of a better way to explain it. [During the time of our classic releases], we were of college age at the time. Also, I should say that college radio was a lot more open then because I'm not that conversant with it now. But the fact is, is that, if colleges are open to this, I'd hope that they would play the album and play it long and hard and crack the whole thing, and let people really have the chance to get it. The college situation is perfect. To listen to this album, you need 47 minutes of uninterrupted time. Only in college can you gather people around, close the door, and listen to something for that long. [Laughs] Everybody else is too busy. So, I'm very hopeful for the colleges. I'm hopeful for the bright kids in junior high and high school. It's a "G" [rated] album. You can play it for anybody. What's shocking about it is the insight, and the surrealism. It's not foul in its language. That's very important.
Proctor: Well, we don't know yet. I mean, speaking of Now, we don't know. We have a high expectation that we're going to be embraced by the best and the brightest, as we were before. As far as I'm concerned, the 1990s are a time of no boundaries and of great excess, and of facing certain kinds of demons. It seems to me, as we end the 1990s, we are more aware than ever of the superstitious nature of most of our belief systems. Religion and other aspects of commonly held wisdom have an awful lot to do with keeping a population in the thrall of fear, and of playing off of the superstitious and primitive nature of human consciousness. There is a real conflict going on between the nature of the control of church and State. There's a war going on between church and State that's kind of reaching a particular high point even though it's not very well recognized. It has basically to do with the fundamental Christian ideals versus common sense and scientific reality. Basically, what's happening is, there's a real conflict of concepts of reality based on superstition, literal interpretation of Biblical words, and misinterpretation of where God lives. The concept of God consciousness has been evolving since the revolution of the 1960s, particularly into the recognition that it's an inner state--it's an inner guidance system, if you will, and not an easily codified or dogmatic reality to most people. As globalization has happened, there's such an awareness of the differences of the politics of religion, that we're basically fighting a war against Islamic extremists. In this country, we're fighting a war against Christian extremists. These kinds of attitudes are completely antithetical to what the Firesign Theatre teaches, which is that you are individually responsible, regardless of what kind of a God you believe of, or what superstition you embrace for your value system. You're ultimately responsible to your own conscience, and that is the way that you have to live, and you should, if you're a true human, accept this in other people. That's why we kind of mix all kinds of religious thinking into this record. It's not just because it's apocalyptic. It's because we are involved in a religious war for the minds and spirits of people. I call it a superstitious war. I think what is underlying it is politics, not religion.
Cosmik: Do the other Firesign members share this same feeling in this area?
Proctor: No, I don't think so, and I don't think it's necessary because, once again, what happens in our discussions and in our work is that we each bring something to the table. These are underlying philosophies. This is just like an underlying philosophy that I've been struggling to articulate. We have different feelings about all this. I go to the Church of Religious Science, which is a metaphysically oriented church that pretty well articulates the way that I feel about spiritual reality on the planet today, for me. Peter Bergman tries to espouse his Jewish heritage as best he can, but he's a very, very much more political creature than any of us are, and much more radicalized, and much more up-to-date. He's probably the one that would be our front man on Politically Incorrect. I worked with Bill Maher [host of the television show, Politically Incorrect] on a show called Hard Knox, on television many years ago, and know him as an actor. But Peter is our political front man, and has always been the one that we look to for an articulation of what's going on in the world that way, certainly in our country. David Ossman tends to be much more literarily oriented, and much more artistically oriented. I think he's still perhaps the most Bohemian of us. Phil Austin is much more hermetic. He writes in solo much more than I think any of us do, except maybe David. But he writes for television and films, and so he's much more plugged into that aspect of the world. So this is a roundabout way of saying that when we sit down and work together, we discuss these things philosophically, and they will find their way into the work, but sometimes we can be contentious about it. We seem to be all pretty much agreed with what's going on in the world today, but that's not always the case, and that hasn't always been the case with us. Yet, when the work is created, this stuff just manages to manifest itself in the work and doesn't become anything that keeps us from expressing ourselves.
Cosmik: Had the Clinton scandal with Monica Lewinsky transpired while you were writing, have you given any thought as to whether you would have absorbed the scandal into the CD?
Proctor: Yeah, we did. We had written some material for Chump Threads. For instance, where people were calling in and saying, "Hey Chump, what are the chances of the President being kicked out of office?" His response was, "Ah, stop bombing me with bimbos!" We were playing on the fact that obviously he had this checkered past--using a Nixon reference--and that he might sooner or later have been caught by it. At the time it was just Paula Jones, but there were rumors aplenty that he was a womanizer, and that he had a sexual addiction, and that this was the nature of his private personality. Of course because there's no boundaries, there's no such thing as private life anymore, it was inevitable that his dalliances would become common knowledge. And yet, our albums are not about personal politics. Our albums are about greater themes. Our albums are about the very essence of these kinds of concepts. Like, what is privacy? Where is privacy? Is there privacy? Is privacy gone? That's why we have this whole articulation of the Celebrazzis, and the celebrity stalker, and the Princess Di exploitation--Princess Goddess exploitation--etc., etc. So, we were dealing with larger themes than the plight of the President. After all, what's happened to President Clinton is that his private life has been used against him for political purposes--for Christian, right-wing political purposes. Well, I don't want to live in a country that is that narrowly focussed. I want it to be a representative Democracy, and we do live in a multi-cultural society. So, the majority rule is not as simple as it used to be. [Laughs] When we go to look at our record sales, it's broken down into Black, and Hispanic, and Wealthy, and Student, and people who listen to MTV, and people who don't listen to MTV, and you know . . . "Oh, I see that we sold 22 to the Hispanic market, and eight to the Black market." Well, the Black market has always been part of my philosophy. [Laughs] I've sold things on the Black market and bought things on the Black market for years, so I embrace it. [Laughs] So, you know, it's much more complicated than politicians would like you to make you think. That's part of the fun of it, too. So, we deal with those kinds of issues. We deal with the much more complicated, more universal and spiritual issues, and culturally significant issues than just the story of one man at one time because what's happening to Clinton is represented in our record in other ways. At the end of the world, as you know it, whatever the end of the Clinton story is during the next two years, that is going to affect us in whatever way it affects us, but we can let it affect us individually to the degree that we want to be scared by it, or excited by it, so that it's not really the end of the world. We make fun of that. That's why Chump Threads ultimately says, "The odds are that you'll be popping a brewski and mowing your lawn as usual," the day after the apocalypse, after Y2K. But nobody knows because what we're dealing with again is a funny admixture of scientific reality and fear and superstition, which is what we put into the album. Y2K--the year 2000 bug--is a real thing, and it bespeaks of the fact that people are very shortsighted. Again, if you get down to the basis of it, it speaks to the fact that people are shortsighted.
Cosmik: Exploring the cultural concept and concerns of our society is bound to produce prophetic content. I'm thinking of content such as Bozo's predicting interactive computers and simulated adventure rides found in modern theme parks of today. Have you been aware of predictability from past releases, and what do you feel might transpire from this release?
Ossman: Well, certainly we're aware of it in the past. We knew, in particular, with Bozos that we were dealing with a subject that was very, very, very new. For us to talk about programming, and even the language of the computer, was absolutely new. All of that language--the Dr. Memory language--is real computer language that was the very first computer language that we acquired, much as you'd acquire a text in a foreign tongue. So we were aware that what we were doing was making a piece of science fiction. I think that's the most science fictional album that we had ever done as a foursome. It really was taking a few ideas that were current in the present and taking them way into the future. The form of that album was Disneyland combined with the World's Fair of 1939. When you talk about this one as radio, not Radio Now, that one was Disneyland, which we had never dealt with. The only thing that Disneyland then had other than ides was the talking Mr. Lincoln, and the talking Mr. Lincoln was a major thing. So predictability . . . a number of things have happened, phrases like, "Bozos" has entered the language, and all kinds of lines [from] Everything You Know is Wrong. Things that we have said have entered the language, which I always think is the greatest compliment an author can get is to have contributed something to the language. But, I don't think you can write with the intent [of predictability]. There's no way you can say, "Gee, that's clever." You can be self-conscious about it, but we aren't very often that way. We own the idea of America. That's a line that you have to admire, but it's neither predictable, nor do I feel it will enter the language. It says something really surpassingly true. The idea was to put ourselves a year and a half ahead. I think if there's a moment where we're self-consciously being predictive is right at the end of the album in the hellos and good-byes, which is really the Firesign talking to itself. So I don't know if that has any predictive aspect to it. I know one thing that's happening. I've been told, though I haven't seen the news story, that someone has actually thought of featuring Princess Diana in a movie, digitally. Now, I'm not sure if she had to die to star in the story of her own life. It sounded, when I was told about it, brutally close to that. The album has only been out for two weeks, so these ideas get out there very quickly. [Laughs]
Bergman: One of the reasons for [the predictability], I believe, we have four minds operating together. If any one of us had to do all the predicting, our score would probably be no better or no worse than anybody that calls themselves a futurist. But when you put four together and the only predictions that you allow to get burned into the CD are the ones you agree on, there's a certain power to that. And, you know, it's not like where you get group decisions and you go for the middle. This is the kind of group decision where you go for the top, that's why it takes longer. Because if one person goes, "Oh, well, I'm not sure," which is not how committees normally work, then we just don't do it until we get everybody together. So it has to be truly unanimous, and I think that has a lot to do with it. Plus, all four of us have areas of interest that are different from the others, so the predictability comes from a mix of different expertise, different viewpoints, and approaches. We're not mechanically the same as thinkers and doers.
Proctor: You know what else we predicted on [Bozos] was that our protagonist was the first Hacker. Ah Clem was a Hacker that planted a virus in a computer system and brought the government down. That's what he was. We didn't know that we were writing about Hackers. We knew nothing about viruses. But what we posited was pretty much that. He went into the memory system of the computer, and he put in a virus--a question that could not be answered. [It] froze the machine up, made the yes, no, yes, no, happen, which is all that it is. That's all that a computer is, it's just yes, no, yes, no, and it brought it right down--brought it to its knees.
Cosmik: So, you're aware of the predictability of your past releases.
Proctor: To an uncanny degree. Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, which was our first album back in 1967, was the story of an Eastern European country, unnamed, unspecific, that was going through a revolution and overthrowing the Totalitarian Dictatorship that was controlling it. Now, the first country--and this happened a decade or two later--in the Eastern European block that was able to free itself of the oppression of the Soviet domination was Poland, and the man that spearheaded that movement was a man named Lech Walesa, and his job was he was an electrician. So, that's the genesis of that. There are many, many things that have come true in very uncanny and weird ways. Yasir Arafat came over to [America to] speak in front of the United Nations for the first time, and in a press conference they had with him, one of the questions was, "What do you expect from these meetings?" And Yasir Arafat said, "More sugar." That's a Firesign Theatre phrase. "What do you want from the market honey?" "MORE SUGAR!" What he meant by that was his share of the good things in life. And many, many, many other things--we predicted the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in a live show we were doing at the Improv. It was then called the Ash Grove. We came home from the first or the second performance of this piece in which I was a Kennedy character that was shot by Lyndon Johnson from the stage, and I was among balloons, confetti, and things, because it was the Democratic convention. I was all of the Kennedys asking a question of Lyndon Johnson that he didn't want to hear, and so he took out his six shooter and he shot me. Then we went into a quiz show where David Ossman came out in judicial robes, I was sitting there with three other people, and it was Who Done It, that was the name of the show. Who assassinated Kennedy? And it turned out I killed myself, and we came home from doing this performance, I turned on the television set, and I watched Bobby Kennedy's acceptance speech live, because he just won the primary out here. As I was watching, a balloon came up and obscured his face. A balloon was actually hanging over his face as he was speaking, and he finished that speech, [Bobby Kennedy's voice] "and now onto Chicago." And I thought as I was watching this balloon covering his face, why don't they change the angle? I thought of the first announcement I heard of [John] Kennedy's assassination. I was having breakfast in Greenwich Village, and I heard a bulletin interrupt the music, and it said, "Firecrackers had been thrown at the Presidential motorcade. The President has been cut by flying glass and according to one policeman, he is dead." That was the first bulletin I heard. I remember, as I'm looking at this, I thought of that, because I thought of balloons popping, and the sound of gunfire, which is never as is portrayed in the motion pictures. It sounds more like, "POP," "POP," "POP-POP-POP!" The next thing I know, he'd been shot dead. So, we had to change our show, of course, accordingly. It was suddenly macabre. So, we stay away from politics also for those reasons. We then tend to mask our political ideas in other metaphors--in other forms, and yet, our albums are full of politics. We like to deal with the aspects of power and politics itself, instead of the outward manifestation of it, because there will always be another President. It's about the power of the Presidency. That's what the nature of this entire political [scandal] even right now is about--the power of the Presidency. [Referring to the Clinton scandal] The Republicans are basically trying to take away the power the Democrats have of the Presidency, because the Republicans have a majority in the House and the Senate. They want to wrest-back the power the President has taken in controlling the middle of the road, politically. That's why they've become so radicalized, because this President is much more of a Moderate than he is a Liberal Democrat. No matter how much they try to deface him by calling him a Liberal Democrat, it's really ludicrous. The whole idea of calling the media a Liberal controlled media is ludicrous now. It's ludicrous! The media is almost entirely controlled, it seems to me, by the right wing. I can't even listen to talk radio locally anymore because you don't get any other opinions. I listen to radio and read newspapers, and live life because I'm challenged by other people's opinions. If I recognize a monolithic state of mind, I turn it off. I just don't watch anymore. I know what they're going to say. Rush Limbaugh is a shill for himself, but he's an interesting character. Now, Howard Stern is a monkey. He represents the anarchism. I admire what Stern does, although [Laughs] I think that the way that he does it is often reprehensible! But I admire the spirit of his art. He's a maverick, and he makes fun of people in high places. He is the guy that says the Emperor has no clothes. Again, it's no boundaries. He's able to exist because there are no boundaries and there is no privacy anymore. And that's why there are the Jerry Springers and Real TV, and the blah, blah, blah, blah . . . all of that. But, basically, what disturbs me is that in local radio they've taken off the liberal voices, like Michael Jackson, because they couldn't compete financially with the audience Limbaugh was getting. What they've done is they've replaced him on local stations with similar right wing puppets--with people who articulate the right wing philosophy. So now you go from station to station to station, and there's basically like three major talk radio stations, and they're all babbling right wing philosophies. So, you seldom, if ever, get a Liberal perspective, or just a different perspective. That's boring! So I end up not listening to any of them. Not only because there's nothing to listen to in that regard--there's nothing exciting in terms of debate--but because I already know what they're going to say. They've been saying it ever since Clinton got into office, they've been attacking him, and it's just the same-old, same-old. So, why listen? It doesn't make me feel any better. There's nothing new to be said that hasn't been said already. I'd much rather read the paper and see what's really happening, or what's supposedly happened. So, when you get into politics, you're getting into a lot of opinion, and you're getting into a lot of bipolarization. You're getting into a lot of areas that tend to divide us instead of get us together.
Cosmik: Doesn't the aspect of predictability in your writing, especially in regards to politics, go through each of your minds while you're writing new material?
Proctor: Well, yes and no. As I say, it's more in exclusion than it is in inclusion. We tend not to deal with political issues because they're hot potatoes, and if you put it on a disk very specifically, it's going to color the life of the material to a certain extent. So we tend to deal with generalizations than with specific things. But, because we're dealing with generalizations, the opportunity to predict the future becomes much greater. This is based, to a certain extent, on the fact that we're dealing in our writing on trends. What we try to do is expose the underlying psychic, psychological and social trends of our particular culture at a particular time. We're, in a sense, dealing with the subconscious of the culture, and bringing that forward. And when you do that, you are naturally exposing the underpinning--the engine that drives the society. Therefore, when we deal with that, we're going to be involved in a more predictive aspect of direction, because we're kind of reducing it to its basics, as opposed to becoming distracted by all the "spin" on the top. We're looking at the currents underneath that make the whirlpool. Because we deal with that kind of stuff, it will lead us, naturally, as writers, to certain assumptions, and sometimes those assumptions come true. More often than not because we're dealing with evolutionary ideas, and evolutionary ideas tend to become revolutionary ideas when they manifest. "It was time for change!" Well, you know, okay . . . so people change things. But all of that comes out of these remarkably complicated and ever changing, and ever evolving attitudes on the part of individual consciousness in the world and in society that will change the kinds of choices people make. Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no . . . it's a very existential kind of way of looking at the world, and that will ultimately influence the direction of the world, and of the evolution of culture. If everybody believed one way, that would be the way we'd [go]. The Soviet society was such a classic example of it, where their entire philosophy was that we're building Communism. We may never actually create Communism because Communism is a Utopia. It is Heaven on earth. Why, because everybody will believe the same way and live under the same system, and therefore there will be no conflict. In the Russian language, the word for peace is "Mir." It means both peace and it means the world. So, the propaganda philosophy of the Soviets was, "We want peace." It also meant, at the same time, "We want the world." I made a joke in the early Firesign album, Waiting for the Electrician, which was, "Yes, we want peace of world!" Mir is peace of the world, and it means, literally, peace of peace . . . world of world. "Workers of the world unite," which, of course, if you move the letters around is, "Workers of the world untie." So inherently, in the system, there was a fallacy--the fallacy being, they were holding the carrot of Communism in front of the donkey of the masses, and the donkey would plod along towards this unattainable goal. If they got everybody moving in the same direction, they had achieved Socialism, and basically it would work. But, of course it didn't work because the country was too big to be managed by a central authority in one place--in Moscow. [It was] just too big. They're sowing these seeds of this failed social experiment even now because there were all these so-called Russian Mafias. [There were] all these decentralized power mongers--decentralized little chieftains who basically controlled all the distribution of goods and services in the far-flung reaches of the Soviet Union. [They] lied and skimmed and scammed in order to keep the system going for them and their constituents far away from Moscow, and Moscow was none the wiser for it because they'd just send reports back to them. It was difficult to send out people to check on all this because it was such a big damn country. When the sun was rising on one side of the Soviet Union, they used to say that it was setting on the another. It was that vast. This is the whole conflict between federal control and state control in our country. What should be controlled by the local state, by the local city, by the neighborhood, and what should be controlled by the government? That's the conflict that all societies are constantly involved in. How much of your life is your own? How can I live my life and be happy doing what I want to do without feeling like I'm being pushed around or bullied, or I can't say what I want or do what I want. For the most part, our country still has more personal freedom than any country in the world.
Cosmik: You say Firesign's material tries to stay away from political content, yet much of your thinking is heavily steeped in politics. There does seem to be some mirrored images of political content in your latest release. The Joe Camel press conference, for instance, speaks of our fight for freedom of choice, wrapped in the auspices of whether or not we, as a culture, should be allowed to choose to smoke--what we can and can't do with our own body. How can you avoid political content?
Proctor: We don't. We are political beings. But, with the Joe Camel content--yes, exactly. Although we are not making a value judgement [whether you] smoke or you don't smoke--it's your life. That's the judgement that we're making. But I don't find any problem with the government telling me that it's dangerous to smoke, and making it perhaps more difficult to smoke in public. I'm personally affected by the fact that somebody is smoking in my presence. I mean, I am! I don't mind if they smoke outside, or if they smoke privately, or what have you. I don't even mind if they do smoke in my face, if they ask me, "Do you mind if I smoke?" I don't mind that. On the other hand, there are people who are affected by it, and it's one of those things that has to do with intrusions of privacy. Again, it's no boundaries. It's like trying to establish boundaries in a situation where there aren't any. That's the political challenge of these days anyway. So, yeah, there's politics involved, and in a sense we're making fun of it, and we're being ambiguous about it. Yes, it should be your personal freedom to smoke, and it should be your personal freedom not to be around somebody who is smoking. Well, the person who is smoking could be asked to step outside, or the person who doesn't want to be around the smoke can step outside. We know that, but there's nothing to impede our personal freedom. A friend of mine was in England and was waiting in line to eat at a restaurant, and there was a smoking section and a non-smoking section. She heard these two old ladies go up to the hostess and say, "Do you have to smoke if you're in the smoking section, if you eat in the smoking section?" And she said, "Oh no, no . . . you don't have to smoke." They said, "Well, we'll sit there then." Now, you see? There it is. They didn't mind being around smokers while they were eating, but they also didn't want to take up the space of somebody else who had to smoke when they were there. The hostess could have said, "Yes, it's exclusively restricted to those people who smoke, and if we let non-smokers sit there, that means that the smokers are going to have to wait until you get up before they can go in and sit and smoke with their dinner." You see what I'm saying? So, there was an issue, even though I always thought it was funny. There's an issue of politics in that as well. These questions are kind of unanswerable, at least I think, and they just have to do with one's individual responsibility to it. You get a parking ticket, and maybe it's not a just parking ticket because the sign is obscured, or something. Here actually is a reason why you shouldn't have had that ticket. Well, the ticket is for $40. How much is your time worth? If you're going to fight that ticket, you're going to have to show up in court, you're going to have to do [whatever], you're going to have to drive there, spend money on gasoline, and you might end up beating the ticket, and it might end up costing you $40 anyway. What's the point of it? These are decisions that you make for yourself. On the other hand, if it's really important for you to fight that ticket, and you want to make sure that they know that there was an obscured sign there, you go do it. You have the time to do it, you're willing to put the money and the time into doing it, and you do it. These are personal decisions. They're individual decisions, it's what makes the world go round, and there's no right or wrong in regards to any of it. The only right or wrong is if they say, "Second hand smoke can kill." Well, that's something that is still not, to the society's satisfaction, proved. It's obvious, if you're a non-smoker, and you're sitting in a smoke filled room, you're going to be affected by it. Whether it will ultimately kill you [Laughs] is a little extreme. But you can be made uncomfortable by it, and if you don't like to smoke, you don't want to be there! It's common sense. I agree with the even more radical right spokespeople about common sense. I'm closer to a Libertarian when it comes to that. I really do believe that there is such a thing as common sense. We've gotten way, way out of line in the rule of law in this country, which is due, of course, to the lucrative nature of the legalistic system--the rise of lawyers as Ayatollahs in our society, and the litigiousness of the society, and the misinterpretation of many correct ideas of non-harassment in the marketplace, etc., etc., etc. But there comes a point where common sense has to take over, and law has to take second place. I don't feel that the pendulum has swung in that direction yet. After all, the whole reason for the Clinton debacle is that Paula Jones wanted to press a sexual harassment suit against Clinton, not because he allegedly asked her to come up to his hotel room, which he did freely, and allegedly took out his "piece," and said, "Would you like some of this?" which is shocking, but not breaking any laws in our society. The reason why she was pressing her suit was she felt, because she turned him down, slighted and punished for it. She didn't get flowers on Secretary's Day, etc., etc., and she wasn't really able to prove to a judge's satisfaction that there were any bad results from this particular harassment. Now, on the other hand, it's reached the point where you have a Playboy calendar of naked women up in your desk cubicle and a woman says, "That's insulting to me as a woman," you have to take it down. So, what's the line? It really does have to do with relations between people, and how people feel about one another, and how you deal with a male or female jerk that you're working with; it's common sense, it seems to me. And the law's kind of gotten in the way, and muddled-up a lot of things. To my way of thinking, this is repressive thinking. It's not my idea of a good time. These are issues that, again, have to do with human respect for one another and issues of privacy in a time when there isn't any. So, we all have to re-analyze what it means to us to be private, and to live privately. These are political ideas--yes, they are political ideas, but they're not political in the traditional sense that they can be labeled as liberal or right wing, it seems to me. Our thinking as a four-man unit tends to be much more apolitical than it is political. So, there it is.
Cosmik: Firesign has been referred to in the past as "America's Monty Python." Monty Python structured their humor around slapstick while Firesign practices "Theatre of the mind." Do you feel America's Monty Python is an accurate label?
Bergman: I think the reason it's used is that the Firesign Theatre is hard to explain to people. Monty Python, to an English crowd, is very easy to explain because even if you haven't seen them, they can be described as the modern Goons, and everyone will get it. But what do you say the Firesign Theatre is? You can't say it's the Modern Marx Brothers. You could. I would rather, in fact, say that the Firesign Theatre is the modern Marx Brothers than America's Monty Python, but the thing is that Monty Python did deal with this highly intellectualized and socialized stuff that we deal with, and the Marx Brothers weren't really there. They did another thing. They did a broader slapstick. Monty Python might be slapstick, but the stuff they deal with, they'll be talking about Trotsky at the same time they're having tea as old ladies. So, it's not just slapstick. It really isn't. Cheech and Chong were much more of a slapstick group, and there's a tradition of that. I think they use that expression to try and explain the Firesign Theatre to people, and I don't think you can. I think the only way to understand the Firesign Theatre is to experience them. No one has ever pointed to a group and said, "this is the new Firesign Theatre," right? Now, "This is England's Firesign Theatre" or "Australia's Firesign Theatre." They don't exist. I've always been surprised, and now I've begun to realize why. It's just almost impossible to get four people who are right for each other to work under these conditions. Under any other conditions, all four of us would have gone onto very successful, individual careers in film, television, and stand up comedy, and we haven't. We haven't been necessarily unsuccessful, but we have not really approached it that way, which is rather something that I don't completely understand either. It's almost as if the Firesign Theatre is so important to us as a means of expressing ourselves that we choose other routes when we're not doing that.
Ossman: I actually feel that both the Firesign Theatre and Monty Python owe a debt to the Goon Show--Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe--which was a radio show from the 1950s that was surreal, and just wild. That's really where Monty Python comes from in its surreality. We often do things that are Monty Pythonesque, but they do television and we don't, and I think that's the basic difference. They're visual and we haven't worked in that medium in the same way.
Cosmik: Where do you feel Firesign Theatre intends to go in the 21st Century? Austin has stated, "As long as I'm living and breathing, there will always be a Firesign Theatre."
Ossman: Yes, indeed . . . indeed. That's true, and that's how we all feel, and at the moment we're having a great time with Rhino. They're just fantastic. We love them; they are very good to us. We're looking forward to a long association with them, and we've already started writing the next album. We've got to start now because it has to come out a year from now. We're looking to do a 1999 album and a 2000 album, at least--and a 2001. So, I don't think anything can stop us from getting back in the rhythm of these albums.
Bergman: I think that we've got at least another four really fine albums in us on this run, like the first four. The energy feels like it's there--the interest is there. There's so much going on. There are at least three full themes that we started to write and did not include on this album. I think this album is just the right length. You finish, and you feel like, "Oh, man,it's over!" But, it's not like it's too short. It's like, "Oh, okay, now what?" I think we're going to probably step back in the next album and make it pre-millennial, although, that's probably not going to be the issue. I don't know. I'll only know once we start writing it, and we won't start writing it until we finish the writing of this show, and the writing of this show is probably going to tell us something about the next album. So, it works on and on, and we'll probably end up going into the studio sometime in the Spring, and the album would be ready for, I would hope, the same time next year. So, well see . . . we'll just see. But, what's the next step for the group? The Foxtrot! [Reference from How Can You Be] Where are we going? More work--more opus. We're probably going to spread our wings into film, is my guess, besides audio recording. But, the film's not going to be what people think. There's already talk about televising the show that we're going to be doing as a special. And I'd be very interested to see how the Firesign Theatre comes off as a TV special, from a stage show. I think if the TV direction was done really, really well, you can probably pull it off and make it fucking fascinating, but no guarantee. I just don't know, I think it's real risky.
Austin: I think we're at the point now that we could easily do three or four more of these kind of albums. It took us five years to get here, when we all started talking to each other again. When this new found maturity sort of began to poke its head above the battlefield that our lives have been over the last 20 years, four years between just doing 10 shows nationwide and getting along with each other, and Sony putting together a compilation album and a tour album that Mobile Fidelity put out. It's taken us four years of actual work to figure out how we were going to go back and try and do a Firesign Theatre album, and to do something that was as good as we all recognize our early work can be. We've actually had to work at it, and what you see is really only stage one. I think, actually, we've gotten our techniques back together and we've sort of gotten the unit back together. It's going to be real interesting to see what the next one's going to be like.
Proctor: [We're] inspired by the fact that we seem to have a hit on our hands. My daughter, for instance, I talked with her in Cambridge yesterday, and she told me that there's an ad for our record in the Boston Globe. It's an ad from a local record store. "Firesign Theatre on Sale Here." The first printing is apparently sold-out, and so we're into reorders already. That happened like a week and a half after the record was out. I don't know what kind of success we're going to have. Nobody would be happier than me if we had a true popular success, and we sold a tangible amount of records and got into Billboard, and all that kind of stuff. None the less, we're thrilled just at the fact that there's an online record supplier called CD-Now. When the record was issued, we were included in the top-10 best selling new released albums. We're under Marilyn Manson, Bette Midler, and Barenaked Ladies, and above Morrisey and Depeche Mode.
Cosmik: That's amazing. Ever since the seventies it seems as though the market for comedy releases has diminished. I've always wondered if and when a resurgence would occur.
Proctor: I agree with you. I've always kept an eye on the marketplace for comedy, and am always intrigued at what the next trend was going to be, and what was going to happen. I've been kind of appalled at the paucity of creative material that's come out there. I guess we're the only ones that do this, and therefore it's unique enough that it is creating an interest again. Some who don't know us may, by sheer curiosity, buy the record, and we're getting airplay. The thing that I said about interactivity, the fact that we're able to put index points on [the CD] meant, much to our surprise, that suddenly people were able to play cuts from our records. Like the funny ad parodies, or a traffic report, mixed into their Morning Zoo [morning radio show]. We didn't know that that was going to happen. So we're suddenly getting publicity for our album from places that people could never play our albums before because it was a 25-minute record. Because it wasn't accessibly to being played in an exerptable form. Unless we sent out a promotional record, people wouldn't do it. They just wouldn't naturally do it. And now because we've created this interactivity, they can. So this has affected the market for us by getting the word out.
Cosmik: What projects are each of you currently working on, or have completed?
Austin: I am basically someone who is peddling a collection of my short stories put out by an audio book company called Audio Partners, and it's called Tales of the Old Detective and Other Big Fat Lies. It will also come out in book form. Although, it's weird . . . me reading my own stuff is something that Oona and I didn't realize until after we did this. In a way, it's almost better to hear me read my stuff than to try and read it yourself because I have an odd way of narrating it. I don't know what it is, but it is sort of odd and it is sort of unique. Originally, I thought of the audio book part of it as kind of a poor relation, and I've now come to think, God, maybe this is my natural form as a writer is someone who reads his own stuff. I'm about to do another one of those under the auspices of the Firezine; the magazine that's put out about The Firesign Theatre, out a year now. They're going to put out a CD of me reading a long story I've just completed that's been published in that magazine. It's called, Ed Woodpecker Private Eye. I'm in, hopefully, the final stages of writing a big fat long novel called Beaver Teeth. It's not at the point where anyone can really read any of it. One chapter of it was published in the magazine, and it's something I would hope to see pretty damn soon now because I've personally been working on it for five years, which is way too long to be working on it. [Laughs] I'd like to move on to something else. It turned out to be a bigger and thicker project than I expected it to be, and very different than writing short stories. You can't have five laughs every page if you're writing a novel. Other than that, in order to try and make a living, I do voice-overs in commercials for radio and television, and try to take on as many writing jobs as I can. I just finished a project developing a television series, which is not sold anywhere, but which is an interesting project to conceive of and work on. And I occasionally do screenplays.
Bergman: I'm a performer. I do high-tech comedy. I go out there and I speak to corporate gatherings and technical gatherings. Austin is a writer--I mean, we all write, of course, all four of us. Ossman is a producer--he produces radio. On the other hand, I just finished a book, which is being published. So, I think that makes me a writer too. I have a book coming out called The Official Millennium Survival Handbook. It's going to be in bookstores, and its publishing date is December 1st. I wrote it with David Samson, who's the man who wrote The Joy of Depression. He's a comedy writer. The Official Millennium Survival Handbook will be available, along with other material, plus there will also be a lot of funny stuff on a Website that David and I are launching. We expect to have it up on the Web by November 1st, and it's at www.laughtherapy.com. So on laughtherapy.com you'll get Bergman and Samson, and we'll hot link to all the Firesigns, and hopefully they'll hot link to us. I have a Website, also, at www.rfo.net/main.html, which is Radio Free Oz, The Funny Bone of the Internet. So I have two sites out there. And I am available to do high tech comedy. I've been out there speaking to Hewlett Packard, IBM, Prudential, PeopleSoft, Fortune conferences, the CIO Forbes conferences. I give keynote addresses, and I do after dinner. It's comedic, but it deals with the millennium, it deals with the digital lifestyle, it's a funny look at the future.
Ossman: I think the most interesting thing that is coming up is that I have a major part in the new Disney Pixar [Studios] animated film called A Bug's Life, which comes out at Thanksgiving--it comes out November 25th. Phil Proctor is in it as well doing a bunch of voices. I play Cornelius. He's an elderly guy who is Phyllis Diller's best friend in the movie.
Proctor: My wife and I play the parents of a Siamese twin during the Vietnamese war in an upcoming film called The Independent, starring Jerry Stiller, Ben's dad, and Jeanine Garafalo, which should be released sometime [towards] the end of this year or early next year. Ray Hamberger is the voice of the Masters of Fantasy series on the Science Fiction channel, and we'll be going into the studio tomorrow [September 29, 1998] to do a special about John Carpenter's films. He's already narrated one about Annie May, a Japanese animation, and one about Industrial Light and Magic, and one about our dear crazy friend Harlan Ellison. I am the voice of numerous insects in Pixar's upcoming A Bug's Life, including, I think, a psychotic grasshopper. I am also the voice of Howard, the father of the twins on the Rugrats series--have been for five years. I am represented on the Rugrats movie, which is coming out Thanksgiving, as Igor, a Russian circus worker. I've done voices for numerous other cartoons and things that are coming out, but those are the most exciting. I did some voices for Robin Williams' upcoming film, What Dreams May Come, which was very challenging and very interesting. It's going to be fascinating to see how that's received. I did some interesting work on Soldier of Fortune, which is a syndicated series on the UPN network, and they now call it SOF. I'm the voice of the drunken French circus monkey in Doctor Dolittle, and got great success and great notices for that. The latest thing that's happened, and this I can't speak with complete certainty about it, but it looks like I'm going to be playing the part of Catbert on the new Dilbert primetime television series. If all goes well, I will be sitting in the Catbert seat. Chris Elliot, by the way, who is another person that I admire because I'm a great fan of Bob and Ray--always have been. Chris Elliot is Dogbert. So, if I get to play Catbert, Oh! I'll be a happy guy! [Smiles] There's a lot of stuff happening, and a lot of stuff is happening because the Firesign Theatre has re-entered the cultural landscape. I can't tell you how many people I run into in the business now who are so tickled and delighted that we're back. It's very, very satisfying and gratifying to be recognized again because almost 20 years have kind of like, you know, "What happened to you guys?" Well, now we can say, "We're back and we're beautiful!"
Cosmik: Do you ever interact with any other talents that do voice characterizations, such as Billy West [voice from Ren and Stimpy, and other characterizations]?
Proctor: No, I don't run into Billy West too much. You know, the voice over industry is an odd industry. Typically, when you do [voice characterizations], you come in alone and you do your thing. You see Billy West sitting out in the hall, and you say hello. But basically, for the most part, the work that you do in voice over is pretty much isolated. It just so happened that my last sessions in that overlapped with Albert Brooks.
Cosmik: Is that right? I think he's a brilliant, brilliant writer!
Proctor: Yes, he's a genius, I think. Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, and George Carlin are certainly three of the writer/actor/performer--oh! I just admire them so much! But anyway, I got to go in and at least chat with Albert and watch what he was doing, then he was able to see what I was doing, and we admired one another, exchanged E-mails, blah, blah, blah.
Cosmik: Brooks did a little known movie called Real Life that I thought contained such bright comedic writing.
Proctor: Oh yeah. Harry Shearer wrote that with him. He fits into that same panoply. He's another person I greatly admire as a genius of comedy and politics, and all kinds of things. He's very inspirational. I never miss his Le Show every Sunday, and we stay in communication as well.
Cosmik: In closing, tell me about Firesign Theatre's next release.
Proctor: We have kind of a working title for our next piece, and we are starting to write it. It's presently called, You Just Don't Get it, Do You. As Bergman said, it's about the rise of the Ayatollahs. It's about politics in America to the extent of smokers versus the non-smokers and the sex police versus the sex police. Those issues have to do about splinter groups becoming increasingly vociferous and active in society. It also has to do with, on the ugly side, the rise of global international terrorism and the dire predictions that are coming forward in that regard. But we want to deal with some of that from a comedic point of view. What does that mean? Is it comic terrorism? I'm not exactly sure, but those are the basic themes. It's going to definitely be dealing with 21st century ideas because these mileposts, like the end of the millennium--although they're totally artificial--they do afford humanity the opportunity to look at itself and make some assumptions about the past, the present, and the future. The symbolism of the eyeball hat, if you will. The people in the eyeball hats are dangerous because they have a much broader perspective. They're revolutionaries. They can learn from the past, they're living in the now, but they're eyeballing the future. These are the people who are much more dangerous than somebody who's just living in the past or living in the present. It's not going to be a problem for us because they're not looking forward. But we're looking forward to the New World. We're always looking forward to something.
"The sense of humor is the just balance of all the faculties of man, the best security against the pride of knowledge and the conceits of the imagination, the strongest inducement to submit with a wise and pious patience to the vicissitudes of human existence."
Richard Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton)
Memoir of Thomas Hood
Return to Cosmik Debris' Firesign Theatre Playbill
(C) - Paul Remington 1998
Cosmik Debris thanks ALL of the ultra-cool Firesign Theatre websites for allowing us to wade into their photo galleries and pilfer at will. Most of the images came from either...:
Firezine, the official magazine of all things Firesign (and a site all you new converts to the ways of the four or five guys should immediately bookmark), and Benway's House of Firesign, the official Firesign Webring homepage and home of a collection of photographs that must be seen to be believed. Moocho grando thankos to all Bozos involved.