Firesign Theatre: Still Funny After All These Years
New album and live satellite radio show puts troupe on a roll

by Chuck Crisafulli -- October 19, 2001 Grammy Magazine

After 35 years of surrealistic slapstick, with some 25 albums, scores of radio shows and countless live performances behind them, the anarcho-satiric comedy troupe the Firesign Theatre has certainly earned the right to slack off a bit. But as Peter Bergman, one fourth of the troupe, is quick to point out, "These are no times for coasting. Even before the attacks on the Twin Towers, we felt there was way too much going on out there for us to get lazy." And so Bergman, along with Firesign cohorts Phil Proctor, Phil Austin and David Ossman, finds himself in the midst of a remarkably busy year for the Theatre.

On September 4, the group released The Bride of Firesign, an album of new material that takes some sharp, inspired jabs at life in the digital age and explores the possibility of love amid the machinery of a techno-corporate entertainment culture (and if that doesn't grab you, it's also got penis jokes and funny noises). The group also recently shot their first television show, a PBS special titled "Weirdly Cool," which will mix renditions of classic Firesign bits with testimonials from such Firesign fans as George Carlin, Chevy Chase and John Goodman (the show premieres nationally Dec. 1). And, taking a historic leap into new media, the group will help christen the fledgling XM satellite radio network with a live monthly Saturday night radio show called "Fools in Space." There are also plans in the works for a live tour in the fall of 2002.

Firesign Theatre
Left to right: Phil Proctor, Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman
"We're on a roll," says Bergman, "but over all these years we really haven't changed the way we work. We still write for ourselves -- to make each other laugh. All four of us have to agree on something for it to go in to whatever we're working on. Each member has veto power over anything. And each person contributes according to their inspiration. Basically, we approach our work like we're making movies that you can't see -- we're a directorate. We're really creating a whole world for the listener to fall into every time out."

Firesign fans have embraced the opportunity to fall into the worlds showcased on such albums as Nick Danger, Third Eye, Don't Crush the Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, and a pair of GRAMMY-nominated works, 1983's The Three Faces of Al and 1998's Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death. On the new Bride album, the Firesign world includes the return of meta-noir gumshoe Nick Danger -- this time battling both the nefarious Dr. Firesign and Frank Gehry architecture -- along with bad cop Al Bradshaw, ever-sleazy Rocky Rococo and the wired denizens of FunFunTown.

Phil Proctor says he's looking particularly forward to the radio world the group will create on XM's comedy channel. "We've got a live, two-hour nationwide broadcast to play with, and that's very exciting. It's a chance to be a little more improvisational, and a chance to be more 'of the moment.' These are difficult times but we feel like people may be just getting ready to laugh again. The XM show will allow us to find some humor in these times in the particular way that surrealism allows you. It's a chance to do some healing through comedy." Washington-based XM began broadcasting to limited markets in September and will go nationwide in November. The 100-channel service brings the model of cable TV to radio, and requires that listeners have a special digital receiver and pay a monthly subscription fee.

Proctor says the key to Firesign's comedic longevity may lie in their uniquely skewed approach to the world around them. "We're a kind of a comic aberration," he laughs. "After all this time, we still can't really be classified as any particular kind of comedy. I think we've really carved out our own niche, and that niche is, in short, a comic American nightmare. Our albums aren't light and frothy -- they're pretty dark. And they demand a certain amount of mental participation and commitment from the listener. The stories are complex and they're about the American psyche and what we find both horrifying and flat-out funny there. We'd like to think that we use comedy as a positive force to give people some objectivity about the society in which they live, and to help them take some things not so seriously and some other things perhaps a little more seriously.

"Not that we've got it all worked out," Proctor adds with another laugh. "When we work together we're as amazed and amused at what comes out of us as anybody else."

(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based writer who contributes regularly to the Hollywood Reporter and