PHIL AUSTIN: Radio Today is an outfit in NY headed by Dan Formento. He contacted David Ossman originally in NY and David asked me to follow up on it. Dan, I believe, I tell this story and I think it's right, Dan invented "The Source" at NBC, left after some years and formed his own company which is called "Radio Today", which syndicates nationally. Somewhere between 100 to 200 stations across the country will be playing 10 one minute pieces that we did specifically for the network for April Fool's Day.
DAN FORMENTO: Radio Today is really the largest independent syndicator of radio programming. Independent meaning, not owned by a network. We have a lot of shows and in fact have been using Firesign Theatre drop-ins in our biggest show which is called "Flashback". That show has been on for about 10 years. It's a kind of classic rock, baby boomer, nostalgia show. We use Firesign Theatre quite a bit there. Most of our shows go out on CD. We service thousands of radio stations throughout the United States and the world really.
I'm a huge Firesign Theatre fan, as are a lot of people in our company. We wanted to do something with them but we weren't able to think of quite what it was. I guess it sort of started with conversations about a year ago with David. We were thinking about how best to do something together. Usually on radio it's best to target special programming to holidays. We were thinking, "What holiday makes sense for the Firesign Theatre?", and April Fool's Day came up. So then I had more conversations, at that time, with Phil Austin. So that's kind of how it came about. Phil asked me for suggestions and to jot down anything we wanted them to do and I hesitated because I didn't want them to do my ideas. I wanted them to do Firesign Theatre stuff. How can I come up with something better than them? So I did give them some ideas but I think they very wisely went their own way.
What they did for us was a series of ten phony funny radio commercials. They're produced to sound like they're real but they're Firesign Theatre comedy things. And they were right on target as far as I'm concerned. I think they're great, they're very funny. We're really excited about it and we're hoping the stations are too.
It went out on CD as part of another series we do called "Pop Quiz". "Pop Quiz" is a daily show that we do that's really a fun thing, where people can win prizes in a trivia contest. They're going to be played April Fool's Day, throughout the day. So the stations have an option to play them anytime they want to.
I've been thinking about what else we can do. We want to keep them on radio. It's difficult to do long form comedy shows on the radio, unless it NPR. It's just not the way people use commercial radio anymore. It seems to the best to use short form stuff. There may be other ways to do this.
PHIL PROCTOR: I loved all of the material. I can say indisputably I thought every piece was funny and charming. And I 'm really really tickled by all of it. I think it's very very very funny. Even the topical little "News Bite" skits are amusing and interesting. I couldn't say that there wasn't anything that I didn't thoroughly enjoy making, participating in the writing of, and listening to afterwards. I thought it was great.
PETER BERGMAN: I did too. I thought that boded well for us.
PP: By the way, Phil Austin pulled together the production of it magnificently. He's really gotten his chops even more together as a producer. We've always admired his focus on that aspect of our work but I think he's really on to something. And I love to, with the combination of Peter's production expertise he's gained over the years and some of the studio connections that we've had, I'd love to be able to feel the confidence that we could go into a well produced session and create more and more inspirational work.
PB: The April Fool's stuff was recorded in a studio in the Valley at a place I'd not been to before. It was quite nice. And I don't remember the name of the place where we posted it, which was also near KPFK. It was kind of a small place. I was surprised that we were posting it non-digitally. I hadn't worked non-digitally in post for almost 3 years now. We were posting by kind of like ping-ponging DAT tracks, and I haven't done stuff like that for a long time. I'm so used to using Pro-tool.
PP: We recorded the Fools pieces at Sound Vendors in North Hollywood, session engineered by the owner, Larry Gondhue. The post-production was at NOVA in the Valley, with great assistance from our engineer Troy and his boss, Nick Omana. Phil Austin had recorded "Danger Down Under" there with Patrick Fraley, and it was a smooth session.
DAVID OSSMAN: We had a great time doing it. It's going to be very interesting to see what the response of the radio stations out there, who are going to get this stuff, April 1st is going to be. They certainly have worked when I've played them for people. They were written going in. Everybody had written more than was done. I wrote one called "Disney Disney", which was about opening a new resort in Las Vegas called Disney Disney, "All the fun without the mice." We didn't do that one because everyone thought that Disney Disney might sue sue. Then there were others. There were many more than 10 spots. There were 15 at least, maybe 20. There were only 10 finished but we did the voice tracks for "Disney Disney" and another one, as well, that we ended up not producing. The "News Bites" are very funny. They're so fast. Each one of them are a minute and they power pack a lot of stuff in it and that's what we like, I think. Everybody likes how much was packed into a very very short piece. It's a typical case that that "Darwin Beer" spot had been around for a long time. Proctor, I think, had written it first, you know, and Austin had written the "U.S.Plus" thing, but if you look at the script, you can see how they were completely revised in the studio. It is typical of our working style, which is to revise in the studio before it's recorded.
Different audiences would receive those messages in different ways. "U.S.Plus" would be very quiet, unassuming underwriting credit, whereas the mattress ad would be on like channel 9, or channel 11 or whatever it is that turns it out. There was a variety of things that were suggested by that material and just by the way we tend to write. Our reactions are different to the world at large. Peter will write a piece on what he's interested in, say, you know, the millennial crisis in trying to get your computers to register the year 2000, as a "News Bite".
PA: My favorite, of course is "Unconscious Village". I believe it's one of the finest pieces of advertising falsehoods I've ever made. We all do a lot of advertising. Doing advertising is where the ability to satirize it comes from. Proctor and me in particular. We're all dying lately of the Proctor voice on the "U.S.Plus" ad. In fact the "U.S.Plus" ad in general is everybody's favorite. It's really defining things as to what this new project will be. It's kind of like going to be the main direction we're going in.
PB: "U.S.Plus" is a take off on those fantastically generic ads that appear on television.
PP: I remember saying to Phil and Peter, when we were doing the U.S.Plus material, which was something that all of us had been cogitating on for several years, finally got a version of out, "This is subversive, This is subversive material. I'd be surprised to see any of this on Saturday Night Live." Because it really does go to the basis of biting the hand that feeds you. Besides that, it cuts to the heart of what is presently the bill of goods that is being sold to the Americans, which is that somehow a benevolent corporation is going to take care of you, like benevolent government. Somebody will take care of you, don't worry. Everything will be all right.
You never know what you're buying from these people. You know it might be that they're manufacturing the remote control device you're using to change channels, to cut away from their commercial. They'll be making a buck every time you switch off their commercial. You never know anymore, it's gotten so Machiavellian and baroque. But they're not baroque and that's the point, they're making oodles of money at our expense, I guess.
PB: I've often wondered why we were told from time to time that people on Saturday Night Live would go up to producer Lorne Michaels and say, "Why don't you have the Firesign Theatre on?" "Oh no! No! Not Firesign Theatre!" We heard these rumors. Right? I could never figure out what the Jones was all about. Maybe it was just a rumor. Maybe it was he thinks we're going to bring in material like this. I've always mixed politics and humor and the Firesign Theatre allowed me to be politically funny, to be a funny radicle.
PP: "U.S.Plus" has always been my favorite idea, and I thought was hysterically well realized. OK? Well you know, that's another irony, which is that I do make my living doing commercials but as Bergman said after I did all these different voices on this thing, "If you could do, what you do on our parodies, when you read for these commercials, you'd probably get them all." Of course that's amusing to hear, and I certainly understand where Peter's coming from, but having been in this business now for 20 years, I can say in all honesty, that's not the way it works, unfortunately. The way it works, in the industry, when I'm doing a reading like that, I'm doing somebody who already has the job. You know? And they're going to hire that guy. I'm not being negative or anything, I'm just trying to be realistic and share some of the bizarreness of the commercial business. I've used the metaphor before, when we look at the back of a dollar bill, there's a pyramid with a big eye at the top. Now if you want to start at the bottom and walk all the way to the top of the pyramid, you can do that and maybe you'll be in that shinning eye eventually and looking down on all the rest of us, supported by all those other poor stones. But the fact is, what that represents is that the buck is going to go to the people who are in the Masonic circle, or who are in the inner circle, at the top of their profession or the top of their political power or whatever. And in every industry, particularly today, because the industries have grown so huge, there are a group of extremely talented people, who can be trusted to do exactly what the producers want them to do, and they get the majority of the work. And that's just the nature of the beast. On the other hand, there is another rule of the economy that goes into sway, which is, that if somebody is not available, to do something, then it goes to a second tier. The people are all busy, they're all busy. They can't have conflicts with other products because they have exclusive contracts with various products. So that opens the field up to the lower echelon. And then if those people get hired then the rest of us get an opportunity to work. I'm on about the 3rd level. Sometimes I jump up to the 2nd level but I seldom stay in the 1st level. So the work that I do in those commercials is in a way, I am parodying the quality and style of the voices that are already there. And I can do those readings, and I do, but they're going to say, "That sounds a lot like Bob Berserkowitz, let's hire him. What's he doing?" So you have to kind of bring your own uniqueness to everything.
The only time that we all work more is when we do a lot of work. Then they need us to do our work. And that's just the way it is. I get more work because of my flexibility than I do because I have a really great announcer's voice. And that's really strange. I should be getting a lot of work because I have a really great announcer's voice, then I don't. Go figure, let's find out why. We'll ask somebody. What are you gonna do? And another odd thing about our business is that it can change overnight.
So to get back to the reality of parody, you try to touch upon and exaggerate the styles that are prevalent in the propagandistic sense memories of the population. And that's what we do. We exceed the limits of reality in order to create. I mean Austin's "Unconscious Village" Lord Eddie Beaverbrook is an outrageous exaggeration of people we have all heard and seen on television and radio. You know, he's not... it can be that stupid. And the character voice that I do, it can be that warm and believable and straight and menacing. You know? I mean you hear them all the time. That's the fun of it.
And I agree with Peter that being able to go that far is something which you can only do in a free artistic environment. You can't always do it with clients because they want to be safer. They have something specific in their mind, and they may also already have somebody they have already contracted and they're just reading some other people in case they can't come to the proper 6 figure deal with their celebrity impersonator.
PA: The Firesign Theatre is an odd thing. My philosophy is to keep at them in a very pleasant way. No matter how right I think I am, if I'm not entertaining them, they're not listening to me. You've got to entertain them and they've got to feel it's fun.
PP: Various members wrote pieces. We brought them in and then we would re-write them on our feet and improvise through them till we were satisfied and then we would lay them down on tape and then we would listen to it and revise it further. It's always been the fun of working with the group which is that you can inspire and create comedy at a moments notice, from the others minds.
DO: The folding everybody into your work is a key thing. In my professional life in radio everywhere, I've always said that's the Firesign style. What I'm going to teach you, is the Firesign style. It's inclusive, not exclusive. We are inclusive. That's what makes it work. That's very unusual in a hierarchical world, to be inclusive. I think that really marks us as a style.
PA: As a writer we would come in with your little sheet of paper and say, "Boys I think you'd be really great doing this." And you'd walk out a half an hour later and the piece of paper is shredded and ripped and everybody, all 4 of us tend to work over every word. And then all of a sudden they'll pull off something like the "U.S.Plus" ad, which I had initially written, and that last line, I didn't write that, "We own the idea of America". That's Proctor's line in the studio. And it suddenly bumps the whole thing up to a level that I hadn't even seen when I brought it in originally. I remember thinking, "Oh this is fun. Love that Firesign Theatre." They're a great bunch of guys and that makes it worth it to me.