by Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr. -
February 11, 2002
(Editor's Note: Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr. is the former 'Freditor' of "Firezine -
The Official Official Digital Magazine of the Firesign Theatre.")
"Firezine has released many great Firesign Theatre-sanctioned
bootlegs . . . [Firezine] . . . has some really good ones," says Richard Metzger,
"especially the "Let's Eat" 5 CD box set (it's a mini-repro of the original
10 LP set syndicated to radio stations in 1974). It's excellent. You can't believe how
quick these guys are; it's like the Marx Brothers doing improv."
The name The Firesign Theatre evokes many mental images. A nostalgic
warmth for the good old days that never were. Of thousands of Americans gathering around
their citizen radios listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's weekly fireside chats.
Zodiacal puns for the pot smoking patrons of the psychedelic sixties and seventies, trying
to escape from a club swinging world gone mad with war and political upheaval. Guerrilla
Theatre in the streets, humorously deprogramming a populous from the narcotic of pop
culture. Fighting clowns against the powers that be. Of Shakespearean comedy in a time of
Orwellian tragedy. A Theater of the Mind, built with the bricks of politics and poetry on
the solid foundation of the golden age of radio. The images pile on and on, and on, with
double, triple, quadruple entendres and non-sequiturs, layering a baklava of subconscious
surreal and blatantly silly humor acting as a political poultice for the wounds of a sick
society. The Firesign Theatre is all of things and none of these things.
The Firesign Theatre really is a group of Media Magi on the cutting-edge
of technology and satire. Four or five crazy guys with their fingers poised to push the
buttons: Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Phil Proctor, with the fifth being
the collective entity conjured by communal thinking. The Firesign Theatre is a comedy
troupe, but not a band in the sense of musicians that practice what they preach everyday.
These highly creative individuals put their personal lucrative commercial careers on hold,
to occasionally come together to give testimony to the masses, in the form of concerts and
recordings. Not willing to rest upon their laurels of almost thirty-five years of
collective reasoning purveyed on over thirty albums of recorded comedy, generating
millions in sales, sold-out nationwide concert tours, dozens of syndicated radio shows and
TV appearances cast into the ether, gaggles of videos, motion picture scripts, books,
plays, poetry, magazines, newsletters, newspaper columns, comic strips, photo ops, voice
overs, commercials, and you name it: they have now opened the windows of the Microsoft
world of computers, CD-ROM and DVDs to breathe fresh air, and revive the undying Theatre
of the Absurd.
The Firesign Theatre had its humble beginnings in the fledgling LA
Pacifica radio network affiliate station KPFK during the 17 November 1966 broadcast of
Peter "The Wiz" Bergman's five-nights-a-week underground hit radio show Radio
Free Oz. Under the pretense of "The Oz Film Festival", the four improvised a
series of imaginary movies projected and narrated by pseudo filmmakers. There was an
instant unique chemistry formulated that continues to attract and combine their diverse
elements to this day. The Firesign Theatre began a series of roundtable discussion writing
sessions to script out the hours of open-air play, filling any vacuum or space that was
offered to them. They were their own best audience with the ultimate result and the
highest compliment, being to make each other laugh. From the very beginning, Firesign
employed the truest sense of democracy: only material that they all agreed to incorporate
became part of their compositions. The one-man veto and the filtration system of four high
intellects stimulated a group built on trust and a handshake of legal anarchy.
They threw the flotsam and jetsam of their own daily lives into the stream
of consciousness, free association humor of their audio mind movies, churning out
surrealised versions of classic radio. They developed a continuing theme of power,
paranoia and populism, running the entire political gauntlet of American culture.
Their rise in popularity and cohesive writing skills caused Columbia
Records to sniff them out with an off handed, uncensored recording contract to book
unlimited studio time, with the only stipulation that they make a profit. The initial
album, Waiting For The Electrician, Or Someone Like Him (1968), was expanded from their
first formally written performance piece and largely patterned after Stan Freberg's
History of America Part 1 LP. It heralded the anti-culture's response to the institution
and disintegration of the counter culture and straight America's manifest destiny of
destruction of the land and the indigenous people. A series of short sketches satisfied
Columbia's concept of a comedy album, leaving the entire second side free for the title
cut's Bulgarian satire of European avant-garde plays. The 'Electrician' was power, power
to drive the turntables of political activism, and power to fix the broken dreams of the
burnt out circuits of idealistic youth. The theme - power and electricity, power and
politics, a rondo, ever continuing with the automatic tone arms returning to the beginning
of the record until the plug is finally pulled.
But this was not the first recording released by the group. Electrician's
basics were recorded in the spring of '67, but the final mixes weren't done until the
fall, when Bergman returned from a sojourn to Turkey. In the meantime the rest of Firesign
were used by producer Gary Usher to provide voices for Chad and Jeremy's Of Cabbages and
Kings second side psychedelic pre-Sgt. Pepper's extravaganza, "The Progress
Suite", and to provide gunshots and battlefield sounds for The Notorious Byrd
Brothers LP cut of "Draft Morning", put out by The Byrds.
After a rocky start, several break ups, flat record sales, threats from
the Columbia top brass to drop them, and being fired from their long running radio show,
the reformed Firesign Theatre apprehensively approached the new year of 1969 by recording
their second album, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once, When You're Not Anywhere At
All?. The side 1 title was another performance piece from the previous summer. How Can You
Be . . . is a nightmare odyssey on the highway of life guided by a psychedelic Homer in
the mantra of a used car salesman. It was run on writing transferred to the recorded form,
using readings of James Joyce's Ulysses interspersed with dope deals, acting as the gods
or fates tempting our traveler away from the rightful return route to home and family.
Side 2 was Firesign's tribute to old time radio, and their most accessible
and popular recording to date. The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, was a send-up of
every cliché-riddled 1940s-style Hollywood radio detective. Originally written as a pilot
for a canceled thirteen week series, it was inspired by the old "Johnny Dollar,
Insurance Investigator Show" and pulp novelist Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlow.
Recorded on vintage RCA mikes in the old radio studios of CBS in LA, Nick runs into
Firesign's most memorable characters as he tries to solve the mystery of his own life by
using flashbacks and over thirty secret Beatles references to "Cut 'em Off At The
Past." Rocky Rococo (Proctor), Catherwood (Ossman), Lt. Bradshaw (Bergman), and Nick
Danger (Austin) himself, became reference points for Firesign voice identification,
partially due to the mug shots included in the gatefold LP jacket. A segmented version of
side 2 with wrap-a-rounds was put out for radio play, as a whole album called Nick Danger,
Thrid Eye, Case No. 666, and is a much sought after collectable today. A portion of side
one, "Yankee Doodle Comes to Terms" was included on a 7" promo EP sampler,
with the album jacket featured among others on the sleeve. By the time The Firesign
Theatre looked forward to writing the next record, the magic of their spoken words began
to turn tricks. Sales figures took off and soared on the strength of their second album.
Mostly by word of mouth, drug-induced group therapy sessions, and minor airplay on college
campus-oriented radio stations, a hardcore following of fanatic fans began to develop.
These Firesigntists dissected every word and phrase, memorizing and repeating entire
passages, much to the annoyance of the uninitiated. At first listening many of the un-hip
didn't find anything funny about the records at all, but were fascinated by the rhythm and
musicality of the words, and hypnotized by the subconscious humor. The surreal inducement
of a radio comedy group using rock and roll production techniques, to do movies on
television for phonograph records, played upon their minds. By the time the novice
listener got to Nick Danger it was a welcome relief to rest in the pools of blatantly
funny and silly hilarity, finally allowing them to laugh along with their peers, in self
satisfaction. The records were designed to be played over and over again like a favorite
music disc, revealing more of the secrets and layers of comedy with each spin.
The clout of a major label secured a spot in the record bins, and a path
toward their rightful and continuing place in the history recorded comedy. Firesign's rock
and roll manager Jim Guercio, the genius behind such bands as The Buckinghams and later
Chicago, began to steer the group in the right directions and started to receive offers
for outside projects. An elusive single Station Break/Forward Into The Past was released
with a picture sleeve that saw little airplay before it was withdrawn. It was the only
record produced by Guercio himself, and is an extremely funny mini-album with the fake
commercials and TV channel switching that became hallmarks for the group.
The Firesign Theatre was contracted to help write a screenplay for the
first psychedelic western, Zachariah (1970), produced by ABC Pictures and it was their
official introduction to Hollywood, and the world of control. Originally conceived by Joe
Massot, the man who directed the movie Wonderwall (1967) featuring the music of George
Harrison, Zachariah was pitched as a vehicle to star Bob Dylan, Bridget Bardot and Ginger
Baker, it ended up with Don Johnson, his first movie, John Rubenstein, son of world class
pianist Arthur, the rock groups Country Joe and The Fish and The James Gang, jazz drummer
Elvin Jones, and fiddler Doug Kershaw. For the first time Firesign were being told what to
do and the project slipped out of their grasp, producing mixed results. Although 90% of
the remaining dialogue is in their own words, most of the hippie concepts and the scene
they wrote for themselves as Doctor Firesign's Antique Theatre of The Plains and Eclectic
Buffalo Show, singing "Marching to Shibboleth" fell to the merciless power of
the well known, unsuitable, veteran director George Englund. How could the establishment
understand The Firesign Theatre? Austin walked, but the remaining three traveled to
Mexicali, Mexico for on-location rewrites and smoke-ins. Only Proctor and Bergman actually
appear with the cast in the film (Bergman as a robbed bank teller and Proctor as a
priest). A soundtrack album was released with music from the groups featured in the movie,
and some bits of dialogue written by Firesign as well. These inspiring experiences and the
relatively big money, allowed them to concentrate on developing their third album concept
that was destined to take up the entire disc.
Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (1970) was a masterpiece in all
respects, and is considered by many to be the best concept comedy album ever produced. It
is the life story of a man, George Leroy Tirebiter who sells his soul to the TV set,
becoming forever young and forever old on the reruns of late night movies. Tirebiter,
named after the unofficial canine mascot of University of Southern California's athletic
squads, is trapped in a Dantesque Hell of perpetually watching his life unfold on the
electronic screen. The Firesign Theatre uses the audio effect of channel surfing, clicking
from station to station, developed on previous records, to tell the story of the four ages
of man, and the constant sell-out of his ideals to make it in the modern world. Some of
the ideas worked up during the Zachariah writing sessions as well as the current event of
the Kent State student massacre were incorporated into the script. It was released with a
poster insert comprised of Polaroid snapshots of the group providing clues to the secret
life of the comedians. A one sided six-minute promo single, "This Side" was
edited out of the LP and sent out to radio stations in a picture sleeve with a
black-and-white version of Robert Grossman's jacket design. Dwarf is undoubtedly the
personal favorite album of the members of the group and the majority of fans as well.
The record was a smash hit, spawning many spin-off comedy groups, and even
college courses on Firesign material and concepts. The follow up LP was in part inspired
by a 1939 World Fair souvenir booklet showing an amusement ride on the Funway. I Think
We're All Bozos on This Bus (1971), was a perfectly flawless science fiction of a
disgruntled employee - citizen, who was able to get into the system and destroy the
masters of control and bring down the evil phoney government of Big Brother disguised as a
benevolent amusement park. It was the culmination of their early years at Columbia, and
the pinnacle to which none of their subsequent recordings were ever able to measure up to.
Another DJ single was pulled out of the album featuring a song by the group that has
remained a Firesign anthem. "The Holy Gram's Song" better known as "Back
From The Shadows Again", sung by the projected programmed vegetables of Bozo land,
and was backed with "Mr. President", the Nixon voiced computer mask of Dr.
Memory, the true villain behind the scenes.
While all of this was going on, The Firesign Theatre was appearing weekly
on the radio in various shows at various stations including twenty-one shows of Dear
Friends, which ran on KPFK from September 1970 to March 1971. The group came up with the
idea of trying to syndicate some of these shows by editing together twelve-hour length LPs
and offering them to subscribers. Only about two hundred copies were pressed up and self
released, and contained hours of Firesign material not available anywhere else. The Dear
Friends set is a highly sought item by Firesign fanatics.
A double album was put together by Columbia, with the best routines culled
from their radio series, Dear Friends (1972). It was released and whole heartily accepted
by their fans for what it was, a collection of hilarious improvisations and scripted funny
commercials, giving them a glimpse of what they'd been missing during all those years of
live broadcasts. Two singles were released to radio stations from the album 40 Great
Unclaimed Melodies, a hilarious parody mail order record advertisement recorded before a
live audience, backed with "Live From The Senate Bar (If You Call That Living)"
from the radio show, and "Mr. President" again from Bozos with "Live From
The Senate Bar (If You Call That Living)", again as well.
The obvious tensions and stresses of four egos, and non-stop work for
seven years, burnt out Firesign's writing sessions, causing internal and personal problems
that the group was not able to solve in 1972. They broke up again during the preparation
of their next record Not Insane, Or Anything You Want To (1972), a mish-mash of material
derived from live performances and their first short film, The Martian Space Party (1972),
a low budget pseudo documentary of a special radio broadcast. Many of the group's
followers were terribly disappointed with the new release after being spoiled by their
former masterpieces. Listening to the record twenty-five years later, without preconceived
prejudices, it's not as bad as remembered, with some terribly funny bits and pieces
confusingly thrown together with dated psychedelic production qualities. It tries too hard
to achieve a non-linearity that is not present in the material, and doesn't finish some of
the story lines developed.
A DJ interview album, A Firesign Chat With Papoon (1972), the group's
presidential candidate for the election was released by Columbia. Papoon never shows up,
and neither does the whole group, leaving Proctor and Bergman acting as campaign managers
to comment on the pre-election strategies on side one and the post-election results on
side two. It's very silly and shows just how good Proctor and Bergman worked together as a
Proctor and Bergman then splintered off to tour and record several team
albums, TV Or Not TV (1973), What This Country Needs (1975), Give Us a Break (1978), and
solo records were also produced by Ossman, How Time Flies (1973) and Austin, Roller
Maidens From Outer Space (1974) individually, but with the rest of the group participating
as well. Singles were released from the solo recordings, "Communist Love Song/Nasi
Goring" commercially from TV Or Not TV, and for airplay "Dick Private's Mystery,
an EP edited from Roller Maidens, backed with songs from the album, "Switchblade
Pitch Forks" and "The Bad News."
All was forgiven or at least put aside in 1974, as the group reformed to
put out a version of the lost Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Tale of the Giant Rat of
Sumatra (1974), starring Hemlock Stones, as the coke-snorting detective. The pun
filled-album, with many scatological and sexual jokes, again disappointed fans looking for
another high class non-linear Dwarf or Bozos, and turned their backs on the group,
drifting more towards British rivals Monty Python, who were just emerging on the American
scene, systematically invading ABC television, movie Theatres and record bins.
So within the year The Firesign Theatre tried to regain them with a come
back LP, the UFOlogist Erich Von Daniken inspired Everything You Know Is Wrong (1974).
This lunatic fringed interpretation of American history failed to reach the sales it
deserved. It harkened back to their best work without being a commercial formulation. A
promo EP was released with cuts from the album and "Station Breaks" on For Your
Ears Only. Columbia also bankrolled a small budget promotional filming of the album as
Firesign lip-synched to the already prerecorded soundtrack. The Everything You Know Is
Wrong (1975) film, shot by burgeoning cinematographer Alan Daviau, saw little release in
the movie Theatres but is gaining popularity today on the video market. It's the closest
the group ever got to visually attaining the comedy and pace of their recordings.
Unfortunately most of their audience was lost by that time and Columbia decided not to
renew their contract.
The Firesign Theatre repeated the formula for the Dear Friends
subscription set by offering a ten album package of selections from their radio show Let's
The group dissolved again and Proctor and Bergman went out on the road.
Austin and Ossman teamed up, toured the West Coast and wrote most of the group album, In
The Next World, You're On Your Own (1975), knowing it was to be their last under the
Columbia contract and. They tried to sum-up and conclude The Firesign Theatre engagement.
Proctor and Bergman returned for the recording but contributed little to the writing.
Plans for a Bicentennial album, with a gatefold game board printed on the inside jacket
were shelved along with the group by Columbia, who offered up the Forward Into The Past
(1976), "Best Of" double-album anthology as a finality, instead. Its a
satisfying album that is book ended by the "Station Breaks/Forward Into The
Past" single. The break with Columbia ended an era, the Vietnam War was over and
Disco was king.
A one off LP with Butterfly, a disco label, Just Folks . . . A Firesign
Chat (1977), reprised Dear Friends, with the brightest moments being the fake commercials,
The Ben Bland Show, a mid-morning TV matinee movie satire, and Pass The Indian Please, the
group's excellent encore performance piece. A bootleg album soon surfaced on the Dog and
Cat label put out by Wizardo records of a Berkeley concert called Firesign World (1977).
Proctor and Bergman again departed, produced more records, movie scripts,
film projects, toured, and were almost shot to death in a Chinese gangland massacre at the
Golden Dragon restaurant in San Francisco, after a performance.
The Firesign Theatre took a two-year hiatus from the studios, reforming to
record a projected, but unbought Nick Danger radio series pilot The Case of the Missing
Shoe (1979) that did find release on Rhino Records. They were back and ready to work.
Firesign produced a pilot computer adventure game parody, The Pink Hotel Burns Down (1979)
that was not sold but excerpted later and remixed for a Roland Sound Sampler CD (1991).
They were hired by MGM to write a self-starring screenplay for a modern version of the
Odyssey. MGM was sold and the new bosses canned the project. An HBO Halloween TV special
was produced starring Don Addams and The Firesign Theatre, utilizing public domain horror
film clips interspersed with live action for The Madhouse of Dr. Fear (1979). They did
political commentary on the 1980 election for National Public Radio's "Morning
Edition", and also for NPR's "Earplay" an hour version of Shakespeare's
Lost Comedie, Anythynge You Want To. The election commentaries were collected by Rhino and
offered to subscribers and periodically mailed out as The Cassette Chronicles (1980). The
Firesign Theatre was hired to present a one hour performance at NPR's Airlie Conference,
The History of The Art of Radio, which was released as part of a fifteen volume in-house
cassette package of the entire event to the participants.
The Firesign performed several new shows for the Roxy Theater in LA,
recording the last show, and later releasing it augmented by studio productions as
Fighting Clowns (1980) on Rhino/Firesign Records. A half a picture disc single with the
painting by comedian Phil Hartman off the Fighting Clowns cover was released with a song
on each side representing the two candidates for the presidential election,
"Reagan", and "Carter", with the winner's song to be placed on the
A national tour was booked featuring this Brechtian musical review,
drawing relatively small crowds. Fighting Clowns failed to spark most of the old fans.
Sales were dismal, and not what the album deserved for it was a well thought out
introduction to the 1980s with songs and dialogue pieces wonderfully put together. The
Firesign Theatre referred to themselves musically as the 8 Shoes but they seemed to have
lost their footing in the Reagan years.
They appeared on the live TV comedy show Evening At The Improv, performing
another Nick Danger piece Frame Me Pretty (1981). Some of the previously recorded projects
were released on Rhino, Lawyer's Hospital (1982), an interesting collection of unreleased
live appearances, segments from the Cassette Chronicles and real commercials for Jack Poet
VWs. An edited album-length version of the NPR Shakespeare's Lost Comedy (1982) was
released at the same time.
The Firesign Theatre was producing a lot of work and nobody seemed to
care. All but the most loyal fans had all but dissipated. They worked very hard at
numerous projects but none seemed to pay off for all the effort. Nobody could figure out
how to properly market the group or its products, a problem that continues up to this day.
This started to put a financial strain on the group, particularly Ossman, who had been
living in Santa Barbara, and was out of the Hollywood commercial pipeline. Reluctantly,
Ossman left the West coast to take a job at NPR in Washington, DC hosting a five-hour
weekly "Sunday Show" in 1982 and later to pursue a solo career producing radio
programs for WGBH in Boston, and conducting workshops in radio Theatre arts across the
country through the decade.
The others formed Pyro Playhouse and opened up offices in Hollywood to do
business in any media they could. The new Firesign Theatre groped through the teflon
decade of the empty 1980s without one of it's major voices, and tried to compensate for
this by pushing the envelope of technology. They hooked up with former Monkee, Michael
Nesmith's Pacific Arts Video and a Japanese company to produce a project that was to be
the first interactive video. In a sense all of Firesign's recordings were interactive
because they demanded a lot of participation from the listener. The Japanese pulled out
along with their financing, and the project was barely salvaged by personal funds from
everyone concerned. The Case of the Missing Yolk (1983) was an interesting, classy, low
budget, Nick Danger vehicle with some very funny commercial parodies, and videographical
sight gags and special effects. It received some cable TV air play and is still widely
available in the video rental stores, and is scheduled for re-release on DVD.
Firesign went for another media by producing an RCA CD video-disc, using a
laser activated needle, only playable in RCA machines. Hot Shorts (1984) was a vocally
overdubbed collection of lightly edited Republic Movie Studio cliff hanger serials of the
1940s and 1950s, spiced up with blatantly sexual humor and dialogue. It was a project that
was very similar to Proctor and Bergman's 1978 film, J-Men Forever, though not as highly
edited or as cleverly written. Hot Shorts has since been transferred to video-tape and it
too is widely available for rental. Next, they transformed the Nick Danger episode, Frame
Me Pretty into The 3 Faces of Al (1984), their first 'new' material in years and the very
first digitally recorded comedy album. It was released on Rhino on vinyl and CD and
nominated for a Grammy but lost out to Weird Al Yankovic.
In 1985 The Firesign Theatre was approached by Phillips to write two
demonstration games for their new CD Interactive machines. Eat Or Be Eaten, was recorded
as a 99 track demo and the accompanying graphics made but the actual finished project was
never published commercially. Danger In Dreamland, a Nick Danger Hollywood studio back-lot
murder mystery game, was written but not recorded. Eat Or Be Eaten (1985) was salvaged and
released as the first CD with subcode graphics, and the game paths strung together to form
a story with some commercial parodies, on Mercury Records. The commercials were excised
and put out for radio airplay in both a 7" and 12" version called Bites From Eat
Or Be Eaten. The theme was further developed into a highly successful 30 minute Cinemax
special, also called Eat Or Be Eaten (1985), that too, has been released on video (1986).
The remaining Firesigners also provided voices for some of Mattel's Intellivison games,
including Bomb Squad and B52 Bomber.
In the late 1980s, Pyro Playhouse ran out of work and closed their
offices, officially ending The Firesign Theatre. All four individuals then concentrated
solely on their own careers and families.
Mobile Fidelity Labs purchased the rights to release the essential
Columbia Firesign albums on CD, soliciting new liner notes from the former members. Don't
Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers (1987) came out with startlingly good sales figures.
Old fans were delighted with the clarity of sound that was missing from their old,
over-played, phonograph records. Mobile Fidelity continued its re-releases with How Can
You Be In Two Places At Once, When You're Not Anywhere At All? (1988), I Think We're All
Bozos on This Bus (1989), Waiting For The Electrician, Or Someone Like Him (1992), and
Dear Friends (1992). Sales were respectable, prompting the men to talk of a reunion when
all four gathered together, for the first time in many years, to attend Phil Proctor's
third wedding in 1992.
A promotional group came up with the money to sponsor a one-off 25th
Anniversary Reunion Concert (24 April 1993), at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle. Media
Moguls and die-hard fans gathered from across the country to attend the event. The four
members approached the stage with apprehension and trepidation, but the audience received
them with a five minute standing ovation before they could even say a word. It was a
humbling and exhilarating experience, enough to give them the confidence to allow the old
chemistry to work its magic again.
A nation wide tour was booked and quickly sold out. Columbia/Sony, who had
kept the first few albums in print as cassettes followed suit, helping to promote the tour
with a new retrospective two CD set Shoes For Industry (1993) in their Legacy series. The
tour was a nostalgic review for the audiences who recited along like a Greek chorus with
the updated versions of the routines from Firesign's most famous and popular albums. Sales
were brisk at the souvenir tables where patrons could purchase squeezable rubber Bozo
noses and toy pickles, T-shirts, tour jackets, and Nick Danger shot glasses. After the
shows, The Firesign Theatre came out for autograph sessions to greet and thank the fans by
signing photos, books, record jackets, and CDs.
They created a following of die-hards, affectionately called Fireheads who
treated the band like they were the Grateful Dead, preceding them to every venue to try
and catch every show. The Firesign Theatre staged endless press conferences, and
interviews and appeared on many local and National Public Radio affiliates across the
country promoting their comeback and cementing their base.
Mobile Fidelity released Fighting Clowns with the "Carter" song
on CD in 1993, and a double CD set of selected live performances from the 25th Anniversary
Tour, Back From The Shadows in 1994. The sales figures of the CDs has caused CBS/Sony to
not renew further licensing to Mobile Fidelity with the hope of doing their own reissues.
In August of 1995 How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All was
released on the Sony/CBS Comedy Legacy series with the original artwork.
The Firesign Theatre also made a deal to market their own product creating
More Sugar, offering mail-order sales of videos and audio cassettes, including the
full-length version of Anythynge You Want To (1993), the video of Everything You Know Is
Wrong (1993) and Martian Space Party (1995).
After all the hard work and promotion re-establishing themselves, the
highly creative group began to feel stifled under the umbrella of a nostalgia act. With
the countless same questions and the constant rehashing of twenty year-old material, The
Firesign Theatre desired more of a current take on their visage as America's Comedy
Theatre, and Electric Vaudeville. In the summer of '94 they booked a series of festival
dates to subscription Theatre audiences in the northwest presenting yet another
resuscitation of Anythynge You Want To, as an open rehearsal of a piece dating back to the
very beginnings of Firesign. For some reason the troupe seemed moderately surprised that
an upscale audience, who was mostly unfamiliar with their work, enjoyed themselves, and
found them funny.
In April of 1995 The Firesign Theatre assembled in the studio together for
the first time in fifteen years to record four Nick Danger radio spots for Pizza Hut's
stuffed crust pizza. Also the guys were hired to provide voices for the animated series,
The Tick. They then set up a Web site with a few cryptic messages. The group did an
excellent job but they weren't out of the woods yet. Just when they thought things were
starting to turn in their favor, they received several bad breaks.
The group's scheduled appearance at the Interactive Media Festival where
they hoped to video-tape Shakespeare's Lost Interactive Comedie, still another evolution
of Anythynge You Want To, for distribution, was canceled along with the entire day's
events, due to the promoters lack of funds. Then their newly acquired manager quit, and
along with that hopes for a summer tour dissipated with the winds of change. Frustrations
mounted within the group, personality clashes re-surfaced and it seemed to be a rerun of
the early 1980s with an impossibility to produce new writing.
With this realization they discovered that they themselves needed
deprogramming if they wanted to survive as a unit in the 1990s. All of the sudden they
were in their mid to late fifties with a whole new set of life experiences that had to be
dealt with. But how to address these revelations in an era where the new comedy concept
album is nearly non-existent, and the TV market is closed to groups of aging sycophants is
quite a serious dilemma. The personal developments of the individual artists, spoiled by
the freedom of calling their own shots for years, made it extremely difficult to conform
to collaboration. How do you give up the survival instincts for an out of sync ideal? Was
the fifth crazy guy dead or just asleep with the dreams of reason?
Again the solution seemed to lie in advanced technology. During the
1993-1994 reunion tour various companies approached the group with proposals in the CD-ROM
arena. Peter Bergman had been turning his attention toward CD-ROM and computer games for
several years and was on the brink of breaking through. If he was successful he promised
to forward the flag and renew the group as he did in the early days of Radio Free Oz.
However, in-fighting in the group again dissolved most of those plans.
Proctor and Bergman began writing a CD-Rom parody of the best selling game
Myst. Eventually Bergman took over the reigns and assembled a team to record and produce
Pyst for Palladium Interactive. The services of John Goodman along with Proctor and Ossman
were used. A corresponding Web site was developed that was accessible from the disc.
Bergman took most of this troupe to New York City in June of 1996 to
appear live at the Knitting Factory as part of the Toyota Comedy Festival. Presented as
The Firesign Theatre's Radio Free Oz Big Internet Broadcast it was carried live on the
Internet. The routines were run of the mill comedy sketches based around eccentric
characters and musical numbers delivered in a radio format.
Phil Austin was unaware of the Firesign billing and again internal
tensions mounted. The group was officially disbanded before writing on the projected
Firesign album The Illusion of Unity was even begun.
Undaunted, Bergman forged ahead with his plans of reviving Radio Free Oz
and set up RFO.net on the Web featuring streaming audio performed by himself along with
Proctor, Ossman, Goodman, Edie McClurg and other members of the Radio Free Oz Players.
Firesign Theatre had been based on a continuing conversation but they were
no longer speaking to each other. Firesign fans, however weren't willing to let the group
dissolve. A publication, Firezine: The Official Official Magazine of The Firesign Theatre
was started by Fred Wiebel and Chris Palladino to solicit articles and interviews with the
various members. The plan was to feature an issue on each of the members and then the full
group as the final instalment.
Wiebel was a big time Firesign recording collector and substitute radio
talk show host for WEPM in Martinsburg, WV. While the regular host was on a week's
vacation, Wiebel, took advantage of the situation and scheduled long phone-in interviews
of the various individual members and played Firesign album cuts throughout the week. In a
sense the group was working together and the conversation continuing.
Over the next year the fans networked together around Firezine and set up
various Firesign web sites and newsgroups. The main goal being to get Firesign back
together and generate enough interest to get their classic albums re-issued and numerous
live and radio recordings archived.
The group eventually made up and desired to make a return to the recording
studios. They decided to record a pilot for a radio program for NPR that was broadcast (2
January 1998) as Everything You Know Is Wrong About The Future for "Weekend
Edition." A thirty-year Firesign career retrospective symposium was held a month
later at the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles. This led to the group
producing a series of nine short fake commercials and news 'bytes' for an April Fool
Broadcast on the nationally syndicated Radio Today network show "Pop Quiz."
Firesign Theatre was back writing and recording together. Phil Austin felt
that the time was right to try and land another major record deal. He worked with Wiebel
and the fans to help promote the group by re-scheduling the all Firesign issue of Firezine
to reflect the recent activity and upgrading their Web sites.
A recording contract with Rhino Records was landed for two CDs including a
Nick Danger release. Rhino was unsure of Firesign's marketability after a 10 year major
recording hiatus and wanted an 'ace in the hole' to cover their bets. The Nick Danger
routines were always the most popular and accessible Firesign. Some of the Radio Today
material was used and further developed for Give Me Immortality Or Give Me Death (1998)
which was a millennial meltdown using a radio format to tell the story of RadioNow and
bring Firesign World up to date just in time for it to go full tilt bozo. It was full of
lovable characters and lots of jokes harkening back to their best work. Rave critical
reviews pumped up enough interest to warrant a Grammy nomination, moderate sales and a
West Coast mini-tour.
The dormant www.firesigntheatre.com was revamped by the Firezine
Webmasters and the magazine began releasing sanctioned CDs of various live concert
performances and radio broadcasts to help raise funds for publication and website
maintenance for Firezine. Among the twelve related CDs eventually released were The
Firesign Theatre Live At The Westbury Music Fair 1975, Questions And Answers, The Fighting
Clowns Ronald Reagan Assassination Show 1981, In The Firezone Live In Seattle 1999, Let's
Eat, Still Waiting For the Electrician and the WEPM Firesign Festival with the eventual
goal of releasing an example from every Firesign Theatre tour available for the hardcore
collectors and fans.
More Sugar began to license, manufacture and distribute some of these and
other CDs, The Pink Hotel Burns Down, a collection of rare recordings, and again,
Anythygne You Want To so that Firesign could receive royalties.
For the next Rhino CD some ideas were kicked around about Nick Danger In
The 21st Century, a re-release of The 3 Faces Of Al with new wrap-a-rounds by David Ossman
for a segmented version of it or a collection of various unreleased Nick Danger live
recordings including Frame Me Pretty. Firesign had a much greater desire to do an all new
storyline for their next CD rather than a Nick Danger episode or augmented re-release of
old material. Give Me Immortality was enough of a financial and critical success to
warrant this approach. The follow-up Rhino release was Boom Dot Bust (1999) which showed
the dark side of the economy centered around the political machinations of mythical
Billville by pushing the envelope of the latest studio techniques. Firesign had produced a
Billville show at the Roxy in 1979 and some of that material re-surfaced in Boom Dot Bust.
Rhino decided to use it to initiate their advanced audio, DVDA, souped up with short
videos, graphics and supplemental material. Sales for Boom Dot Bust were less than
spectacular. Part of the problem was that the warmth displayed by the characters in Give
Me Immortality was totally missing and the CD just wasn't all that funny, though it did
have its moments. The DVDA format also failed to take off in the market place so the DVDA
version release was delayed for over a year.
On 1/1/2000 Firesign rang in the new millennium by broadcasting over the
Pacifica network, from the KPFK studios where they began, performing The Alternative Rose
Parade. Listeners were encouraged to tune in the real television broadcast, turn down the
sound and listen to Firesign do commentary. The audio was later edited and released by
Firezine as The Firesign Theatre's Alternative Rose Parade.
A Rhino DVD video project Weirdly Cool went through several directors and
art directors. Thousands of photos were shot of Firesign in character in various poses
that were to be animated into a story or presentation. Hours of video was shot in the
recording studio of Firesign sitting around the microphones digitally re-doing their
classic bits as presented in live concerts. Live footage from the 1999 tour and vintage
film was solicited. No clear vision of the project came into focus with financial support
so the project was shelved.
With these disappointments and internal friction, Firesign activity
dropped off for most of the year as the group members went their separate career ways.
They did record some real commercials for a New Jersey Auto Insurance agency and made a
brief appearance on David Ossman's centennial adaptation of the Wizard of Oz for the LA
Children's Museum. Firesign played the Hammerheads for this all-star production that was
broadcast over NPR and released on a four CD set by Lodestone.
Firesign Theatre still technically owed Rhino a Nick Danger CD as a
contractual obligation. With dismal sales of Boom Dot Bust Rhino called in the 'chits'.
Hopes were high that the radio noir detective could find a clue to turn it all around and
put the group into the mainstream. The guys got back together in the summer of 2001 to
write and record The Bride of Firesign. They pulled out all of the nostalgic stops by
referencing almost all of their former recordings throughout the story of their familiar
characters coming together for one last romp. Not surprisingly missing were the Boom Dot
With that off their backs, Firesign decided that a multimedia marketing
blitz was the only way to do it or die as a group, so they evolved the mail order More
Sugar label into Firesign Records and worked out an in-store distribution deal with Ryko
and Whirlwind Media, the DVD re-vamp of Mobil Fidelity Sound Labs to release CDs and DVDs.
First up was an augmented re-release on DVD of the 1993 reunion tour MFSL CD Back From The
Shadows. Developed for Firesign Records was Radio Now Live, a double CD recorded in
Portland during the 1999 tour, a re-release of Fighting Clowns and Anythygne You Want To,
the More Sugar version with a new cover. These were expected to do well in the comedy
record bins augmenting the Rhino CDs and "Best Of" Sony collection.
In another surprising move to control more of their product they stopped
Firezine from producing and releasing any new CDs, essentially putting the printed
magazine out of business. They are allowing the Web site to continue offering their
product but scrapped five planned CD releases.
Also a deal was worked out with PBS and Rhino to resuscitate Weirdly Cool
as a pledge raising broadcast/DVD/video package. The viewer potential was rated in the
millions: bringing more exposure than Firesign has ever had. Rather than spend a lot of
time trying to piece together Weirdly Cool from the disparate elements, it was decided to
book time at the CBS television studios in Hollywood in August and video Firesign in two
live performances before an audience, culling out the best of each. PBS's WHYY out of
Philadelphia produced the show and pre-recorded pledge pleas and testimonials and intros
by famous comedian fans George Carlin, Robin Williams, Chevy Chase and John Goodman.
Firesign promised to help by making live appearances during the pledge drive broadcasts in
Philadelphia, New York and other cities over the Thanksgiving weekend. Rhino would
manufacture the DVD/VHS premiums with plans to mass release Weirdly Cool in late spring
2002. Pre-recorded items from the former Weirdly Cool with non-broadcast and vintage video
and unreleased recordings were to be incorporated. It seemed like a smart move as Rhino
could cover some of their losses and all concerned probably take a substantial tax
write-off for donating to Public Broadcasting.
On the radio front, Firesign accepted a deal with the burgeoning direct
satellite service XM as comedy consultants and hosting a monthly live show Fools in Space
ad-libbing, performing scripted material and playing comedy and novelty records.
All the above was planned to come together for the 2001 Christmas season
and theoretically designed to secure a bright future for the group and a new wider
audience. However all the plans of mice and comedians don't always work out.
The Bride of Firesign was released just days before the 9/11 terrorist
attacks. Even it's Grammy nomination failed to spark much attention under those
The XM broadcasts started in October 2001. However there was a major
distribution problem with the $300 home receiving sets and the $10/month subscriptions
were not pouring in as expected. The shows were very good however as Firesign was right in
their proper element. Too bad the majority of their fans weren't able to tune in.
The Philadelphia Weirdly Cool showing was on the Wednesday before
Thanksgiving 2001 with just three Firesign members in the studio, Austin stayed home. This
show was taped and used for the feed for most of the other stations. The PBS stations that
picked it up opted for a one time broadcast late Saturday or Sunday night. During the
breaks the guys looked old and tired from their trip, forgot to mention their website and
new Firesign Record releases and spent more time talking up the Sony reissues offered as
premiums only referring to The Bride of Firesign once in the broadcast. The Weirdly Cool
DVD/VHS premium was prominently touted and the show itself was well performed but failed
to bring in the expected pledges. Had the show been repeated as most pledge programming,
the results would have been far greater.
Unbeknownst to Firesign members, Laugh.com acquired the CD rights to the
classic Columbia albums produced in the 1960s and 1970s. Re-issues of Waiting For The
Electrician, How Can You Be . . ., Don't Crush That Dwarf, I Think We're All Bozos, Not
Insane, The Giant Rat of Sumatra, Everything You Know Is Wrong and In The Next World
You're On Your Own were released by year's end.
Not to be outdone by any upstart comedy record companies, Sony, learning
of the Weirdly Cool broadcast, rushed into production budget-line versions of Waiting For
The Electrician with an extra track, How Can You Be . . ., Don't Crush That Dwarf and I
Think We're All Bozos and released them (4 December 2001) right after the scheduled
When Firesign fans hit the stores, most opted for the vastly available
Sony re-issues of their long out-of-print favorite albums. Internet shoppers went for the
laugh.com releases. The Rhino issues were hit or miss in the stores. Lost in the shuffle
were the over-priced poorly distributed Firesign Records releases that most fans already
had in one form or another. Firesign's biggest sales competition turned out to be
It all seemed like the last go round for the quickly aging wild bunch of
the four or five crazy guys. However, we've learned never to count the boys out. 2002 may
yet be the Year of The Firesign Theatre. With all of their classic albums finally back in
print, interest is bound to be generated and new fans captured. Things could change
quickly if The Bride of Firesign wins the Grammy for Best Comedy album of the year but
they're up against stiffer competition this time from the extremely popular veteran George