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The Firesign Theatre

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The Firesign Theatre (also known as The Firesigns)[1][2] were an American surreal comedy group who first performed live on Los Angeles radio station KPFK during the mid-1960s. They produced thirteen record albums and a 45 rpm single under contract to Columbia Records from 1968 through 1976, and had several nationally syndicated radio programs during that period, the most famous of which was Dear Friends. They also appeared in front of live audiences, and continued to write, perform, and record on other labels through 2010, occasionally taking sabbaticals during which they wrote or performed solo or in smaller groups.

The Firesign Theatre
Memorial for Peter Bergman 03.jpg
Surviving members of the Firesign Theatre paying tribute to the late Peter Bergman on April 21, 2012; left to right: Austin, Ossman, Proctor
Medium
  • Radio
  • recording
  • film
Nationality American
Years active 1966–2012
Genres
Subject(s)
Notable works and roles
Members
Website www.firesigntheatre.com

Firesign Theatre material was conceived, written, and performed by its members Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor. The group's name stems from astrology, because all four were born under the three "fire signs": Aries (Austin), Leo (Proctor), and Sagittarius (Bergman and Ossman). They acquired an enthusiastic following in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

One of the group's most popular early albums, the 1970 Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, was added to the National Recording Registry of the US Library of Congress (LOC) in 2005. [3] In the induction, the LOC called the group "The Beatles of comedy."[4]

Contents

Radio Free OzEdit

Bergman and Proctor met at Yale University in the late 1950s, where Proctor studied acting, and Bergman edited the Yale comedy magazine. Bergman studied playwriting and collaborated with Austin Pendleton as the lyricist for two Yale Dramat musicals, Tom Jones, and Booth Is Back In Town, in which Proctor starred.[5][6] In 1965, Bergman spent a year working in England for the BBC, on a program with surrealist comedian Spike Milligan.[7] Bergman formed The Firesign Theatre on November 17, 1966, on his nightly radio comedy talk show Radio Free Oz airing on listener-sponsored KPFK FM in Los Angeles, with Proctor and station employees Phil Austin and David Ossman. Bergman originally named the group the "Oz Firesign Theatre", but had to drop "Oz" from the title after legal threats from MGM, who owned copyright to The Wizard of Oz.[7]

The Firesigns were strongly influenced by the British Goon Show. According to Ossman:

We all listened to The Goon Show, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, at various times in our lives. We heard a lot of those shows. They impressed us when we started doing radio ourselves, because they sustained characters in a really surreal and weird kind of situation for a long period of time. They were doing that show for 10 years, all the way through the 1950s. So we were just listening to them at the end. It was that madness and the ability to go anywhere and do anything and yet sustain those funny characters. So when we first did written radio, where we would sit down and write half hour skits and do them once a week, which we did in the fall of 1967, we did things that were imitative of The Goon Show and learned a lot of voices from them and such.[8][9]

The Firesigns initially chose an improvisational style. According to Proctor:

We each independently created our own material and characters and brought them together, not knowing what the others were going to pull. And it was all based on put-ons; that is, we were assuming characters that were assumed to be real by the listeners. No matter how far out we would carry a premise, if we were tied to the phones we discovered the audience would go far ahead of us. We could be as outrageous as we wanted to be and they believed us—which was astonishingly funny and interesting and terrifying to us, because it showed the power of the medium and the gullibility and vulnerability of most people.[7]

In September 1967, the Firesigns performed an adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges' short story "La Muerte y La Brujula" ("Death and the Compass") on Radio Free Oz.

In 1969, they created a number of improvised television commercials for Jack Poet Volkswagen in Highland Park, California, with the characters of Christian Cyborg (Bergman), Coco Lewis (Proctor), Bob Chicken (Austin), and Tony Gomez (Ossman).[10]

The Firesign Theatre also appeared as hosts on Los Angeles radio station KPPC-FM.

Recording careerEdit

Bergman coined the term "love-in" in 1967, and promoted the first Los Angeles Love-In, attended by 40,000 in Elysian Park, on his program. This event caught the attention of Columbia Records staff producer Gary Usher, who sensed commercial potential for the Firesign Theatre and proposed to Bergman they make a "Love-In album" for Columbia; Bergman countered with the desire to make a Firesign Theatre record, and this led to a recording contract with the label. Chapman also used the Firesigns' audio collages on songs by The Byrds ("Draft Morning") and Sagittarius (the 45 RPM version of "Hotel Indiscreet") in 1967 and 1968.

The album was given the non sequitur title Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, taken from Bergman's undeveloped 1965 idea for a comic film. The Firesigns changed their improvisational style, producing tightly scripted and memorized material. According to Bergman: "There was no leader. Everything was communally written, and if one person didn't agree about something, no matter how strongly the other three felt about it, it didn't go in."[7] The resulting synergy created the feeling of a fifth Firesign; according to Austin: "It's like, suddenly there is this fifth guy that actually does the writing. We all vaguely sort of know him, and a lot of the time take credit for him."[7] This resulted in the group inventing the name "4 or 5 Krazy Guys" to copyright their work.

Electrician was released in January 1968, followed by three more studio albums in the next three years: 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. They performed a one-hour live series on KPFK, Dear Friends, from September 9, 1970 to February 17, 1971. These live programs were recorded and then edited into slightly shorter shows and syndicated to radio stations across the country on 12" LP albums. Their fifth album, Dear Friends, was a double-record compilation of what they considered the best segments from the series, released in January 1972.

In 1972, the group performed their first live stage show, a Shakespeare parody, Anything You Want To, at Columbia University. They also produced a live radio broadcast titled Martian Space Party, which was also filmed. These were combined to produce the October 1972 live album, Not Insane or Anything You Want To.

1973 sabbaticalEdit

 
Proctor (left) and Bergman (right), 1976

The Not Insane album performed poorly, and the Firesigns were disappointed with it. In the liner notes to the group’s 1993 greatest hits album, Shoes for Industry: The Best of the Firesign Theatre, Bergman criticized Not Insane, saying it "was when the Firesign was splitting apart". Ossman said that the album “was incomprehensible, basically” and that “it was not the album it should have been and I think that caused us to slope off rapidly in sales."[7]

The four decided to take a break from the group in 1973 to work in separate directions. Proctor and Bergman performed as a duo to write TV or Not TV: A Video Vaudeville in Two Acts.[11]

Meanwhile, Ossman wrote a solo album How Time Flys, based on the Mark Time character he created for a Dear Friends skit. He co-directed the album with Steve Gilmore, and the other three Firesigns starred on it, along with several guest personalities including disc jockey Wolfman Jack, Harry Shearer of The Credibility Gap, and broadcast journalist Lew Irwin.

Austin penned the album Roller Maidens From Outer Space, based on a hardboiled detective in the same vein as his Nick Danger character. All four Firesigns also performed on this album, along with a few extras.

During this period, Austin and Ossman wrote the album In the Next World, You're on Your Own, which the reunited Firesign Theatre would produce in 1975.

ReunionEdit

Later in 1973, the group reunited to produce the Sherlock Holmes parody The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, released on vinyl in January 1974. This was followed in October by Everything You Know Is Wrong, which satirized the developing New Age movement. The Firesigns made a film lip synched to the album and showed it in a live appearance at Stanford University. The film was released on VHS video tape in 1993.

In 1975, they released the black comedy album In the Next World, You're on Your Own, penned earlier by Ossman and Austin. This album also sold poorly.[7] Proctor and Bergman produced a live show, What This Country Needs, based in part on material from TV Or Not TV. The Firesigns closed out their Columbia Records contract with this live album in 1975 and a greatest-hits compilation Forward Into The Past in 1976.[7]

The group took it easy for the rest of the 1970s, producing a 1977 album Just Folks... A Firesign Chat based largely on as-yet unreleased Dear Friends radio material, and a Proctor and Bergman studio album in 1978, Give Us a Break, which lampooned radio and television of the time.

In 1979, the group produced a brief (2:24) syndicated comic radio serial starring their Nick Danger private eye character, with 5 episodes titled Nick Danger: The Case of the Missing Shoe. The episodes were released on an Extended Play record.

Their last album of the 1970s was the 1980 Fighting Clowns, consisting largely of comic songs written by the group.

Reagan EraEdit

The popularity of the group seemed to cool off after 1980 as the social and political climate of the United States changed with the election of President Ronald Reagan.[7] In 1982, they produced the compilation album Lawyer's Hospital, and expanded their 1972 Shakespeare parody into a road show and album, Shakespeare's Lost Comedie. (This would be expanded again and re-released in 2001 as Anythynge You Want To.)

Then Ossman temporarily left the group to work as a producer for National Public Radio,[7] as the remaining three Firesigns produced a new album in 1984 with the further adventures of their Nick Danger character, The Three Faces of Al, followed by the 1985 Eat or Be Eaten.

1990s revivalEdit

Energized by the election of Bill Clinton as president, and with Ossman back in the group, the Firesign Theatre reunited on April 24, 1993, for a reunion tour in Seattle, with an audience of 2,900.[12][7] This was followed with the 1994 greatest hits album, Shoes For Industry: The Best of the Firesign Theatre. This started a second wave of popularity, with the albums Back From the Shadows (1994) and Pink Hotel Burns Down (1996).

In 1996, Bergman revived Radio Free Oz as an Internet-based radio station, www.rfo.net, calling it "the Internet's funny bone."[13]

The Firesigns satirized the turn-of-the-millennium Y2K scare with what became another popular album, the 1998 Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death, in which they revived some of their classic characters such as used car salesman Ralph Spoilsport (Proctor) from How Can You Be In Two Places At Once, news reporters Harold Hiphugger (Ossman) and Ray Hamberger (Proctor) from Everything You Know Is Wrong, and game-show contestant Caroline Presskey (Proctor) from Don't Crush That Dwarf. They developed this into a "millennium trilogy" with the 1999 Boom Dot Bust and Bride of Firesign albums. Characters from Give Me Immortality were used on the 2001 live album Radio Now Live.

In 2008, they released a four-CD boxed set Box of Danger, compiling all material which featured their most famous character, Nick Danger, including fan-produced material sent in to their website.

Their final album was the 2010 Duke of Madness Motors: The Complete "Dear Friends" Radio Era, a combination book and data DVD consisting of over 80 hours of their 1970s radio shows

Later workEdit

The Firesign Theatre's most recent performances were a series of live performances in December 2011.[14] They claimed to be the longest surviving group from the "classic rock" era to still be intact with the original members (at the time of the claim in 2011, 45 years).[15]

Peter Bergman died on March 9, 2012, from complications involving leukemia,[16] and Phil Austin died on June 18, 2015, from cancer.

MediaEdit

RadioEdit

AlbumsEdit

FilmsEdit

  • Zachariah (co-written by Firesign Theatre) (92 min., 1971) Comedy western, inspired by the Hermann Hesse novel Siddhartha
  • Martian Space Party (Firesign Theatre with Campoon workers) (27 min., 1972)
  • Love is Hard to Get (Peter Bergman) (26 min., 1973)
  • Let's Visit the World of the Future (44 min., 1973) based on characters from I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus, directed by Ivan Stang)
  • Six Dreams (Peter Bergman - executive producer, Phil Proctor) (13 min., 1976)
  • Tunnel Vision (featuring Phil Proctor) (70 min., 1976)
  • Everything You Know is Wrong (40 min., 1978) lip-synch to the album
  • TV or Not TV (33 min., 1978) lip-synch to the Proctor and Bergman album
  • Americathon (86 min., 1979) Based on a sketch created by Proctor and Bergman
  • J-Men Forever (75 min., 1979) Proctor and Bergman; compilation of Republic Science Fiction serial clips with new dialogue overdubbed
  • The Madhouse of Dr. Fear (60 min., 1979)
  • Nick Danger in The Case of the Missing Yolk (60 min., 1983) Originally an Interactive Video, Pacific Arts PAVR-527; broadcast on the USA Network series Night Flight
  • Eat or be Eaten (30 min., 1985) Austin, Bergman, and Proctor, RCA Columbia 60566
  • Hot Shorts (73 min., 1985) Austin, Bergman, and Proctor, RCA Columbia 60435
  • Back from the Shadows (1994)
  • Firesign Theatre Weirdly Cool DVD Movie (2001)

BooksEdit

Straight Arrow Press, Rolling Stone's book publishing arm, published two books authored by the Firesign Theatre: The Firesign Theatre's Big Book of Plays, and The Firesign Theatre's Big Mystery Joke Book. These feature background information, satirical introductions and parodic histories, as well as transcripts from their first seven albums.

  • The Firesign Theatre's Big Book Of Plays. San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1972.
  • The Firesign Theatre's Big Mystery Joke Book. San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1974.
  • The Apocalypse Papers, a Fiction by The Firesign Theatre. Topeka: Apocalypse Press, 1976. Limited edition, 500 copies
  • George Tirebiter's Radiodaze (1989 Sparks Media) a solo cassette by Ossman
  • The George Tirebiter Story Chapter 1: Another Christmas Carol (1989, Sparks Media) by Ossman
  • The George Tirebiter Story Pt.2 Mexican Overdrive / Radiodaze (1989 Company One) by Ossman
  • The George Tirebiter Story Pt.3 The Ronald Reagan Murder Case (1990 Midwest Radio Theatre Workshop) by Ossman
  • Tales Of The Old Detective And Other Big Fat Lies (1995) by Austin
  • Backwards Into the Future: The Recorded History of the Firesign Theatre. Albany: Bearmanor Media, 2006.

GamesEdit

  • In 1983 Mattel released two Intellivision video games with Intellivoice: Bomb Squad, with Proctor as the voice of Frank and Bergman as the voice of Boris; and B-17 Bomber, with Proctor as the voice of the Pilot and Austin as the Bombardier.[17]
  • In 1996, a computer game written by Bergman, Pyst, a parody of the game Myst, was released by Parroty Interactive.

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ "Peter Bergman: Remembering The 'Firesign' Satirist". National Public Radio. March 12, 2012. Retrieved November 15, 2017. 
  2. ^ Harvey, Doug (December 5, 2001). "Firesigns of Life". L.A. Weekly. Retrieved November 15, 2017. 
  3. ^ Wendy Maloney (September 29, 2017). "Firesign Theatre Comedians Share Their Story". blogs.loc.gov. Library of Congress. Retrieved November 16, 2017. 
  4. ^ Dan Bacalzo (September 17, 2009). "Firesign Theatre to Celebrate Creation of Nick Danger with Forward, Into The Past". TheaterMania. Los Angeles. Retrieved November 16, 2017. 
  5. ^ "Who Am Us, Anyway? Peter Bergman". Firesign Media. Retrieved December 1, 2017. 
  6. ^ Proctor, Phlip. "Bride of Firesign liner notes". Firesign Media. Retrieved December 1, 2017. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Simels, Steve (1993). Putting It Simply, There's Never Been Anything Like The Firesign Theatre Before or Since (Liner notes). Laugh.com. Retrieved November 28, 2017. 
  8. ^ "FIREZINE #4: Under the Influence of the Goons". Firezine.net. Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  9. ^ Ventham, Maxine (2002). Spike Milligan: His Part In Our Lives. London: Robson. ISBN 1-86105-530-7. 
  10. ^ "Jack Poet Volkswagen commercials : Firesign Theatre : Free Download & Streaming: Internet Archive". Archive.org. Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  11. ^ "Proctor and Bergman | Bottom Line | New York, NY | Jun 8, 1978 | Late Show - wolfgangsvault.com". Concerts.wolfgangsvault.com. 1978-06-08. Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  12. ^ Bergman: "I dreamed it back. Sure enough, when we kicked the fascists out of office it was time for The Firesign Theatre to come back."
  13. ^ PeterBergman; Filmkauai.com Archived July 24, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  14. ^ Official website announcement, retrieved August 30, 2011
  15. ^ "Firesign Theatre Still an Original After 45 Years « Audio Eclecticism in the 60s". Davidgordonschmidt.wordpress.com. Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  16. ^ "Peter Bergman, Firesign Theatre founder, dies at 72 | 89.3 KPCC". Scpr.org. 2012-03-09. Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  17. ^ Voices; Intellivisionlives.com

SourcesEdit

  • Official website 19 January 2006
  • Firezine.net FAQ, 23 January 2006
  • Marsh, Dave, and Greil Marcus. "The Firesign Theatre." The New Rolling Stone Record Guide. Ed. Dave Marsh and John Swenson. New York: Random House, 1983. 175–176.
  • Smith, Ronald L. The Goldmine Comedy Record Price Guide. Iola: Krause, 1996.

Further readingEdit

  • Marciniak, Vwadek P., Politics, Humor and the Counterculture: Laughter in the Age of Decay (New York etc., Peter Lang, 2008).
  • Ossman, David. Dr. Firesign's Follies: Radio, Comedy, Mystery, History. (Albany: BearManor Media) (2008) ISBN 978-1-59393-148-3
  • Ossman, David. The Ronald Reagan Murder Case: A George Tirebiter Mystery. (Albany: BearManor Media) (2006) ISBN 1-59393-071-2
  • Wiebel, Jr, Frederick C. Backwards into the Future - The Firesign Theatre. Albany: BearManor Media, (2005). ISBN 1-59393-043-7
  • Santoro, Gene. Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock & Country Music. (New York: Oxford University Press) (2004) ISBN 978-0-19-515481-8

External linksEdit