A Firesign of the Times
by Brad Schreiber
In the lobby of that glitteringly attractive, architectural aberration in Beverly Hills, the Museum of Television and Radio, I was talking to the gifted cinematographer Allan Daviau on the subject, "Everything You Know Is Wrong."
Daviau had shot the film version of that Firesign Theatre album, and he proudly spoke of the new, digitized D2 master, and revealed it was Phil Austin in the bear suit, peeing in an arc about 25 feet in the air on the commercial parody "Bear Whiz Bear." And that's the kind of inside dope that gave everyone a comedic contact high at the MT&R's symposium on February 26, "Thirty Years of the Firesign Theatre."
Last year, Proctor and I, as museum members, had attended a screening of the late and greatest British T.V. dramatist, Dennis Potter's final work, "Cold Lazarus", about an author (Albert Finney) caught between his past and a present that's in the future, with his head cryogenically preserved in a laboratory.
At that time, Proctor had mentioned this upcoming appearance of the Four or Five Krazy Guys and it was a modified thrill to interview him in a special, luxury hallway, while folks strode by and the Museum publicist asked me to move our chairs while I was recording.
Despite the brouhaha, Proctor had my attention, especially when he announced the commercial parodies they had been recording would air on a number of radio stations nationally on April Fool's Day as "Pop Quiz", provided by Radio Today. Further news included Sony's Legacy label examining the fine print on releasing Firesign's first three or four albums on CD. And there's even a new album project they've been batting around, like a cat torturing a mouse, for five years.
When I asked Proctor to harken back to memorably weird performances, he looked no further than a recent, outdoor staged reading in Seattle of their previously ancient, newly rediscovered Shakespearean Lost Comedie, "Anything You Want To".
"And there are helicopters thrumming overhead and there are sirens--(wails, including Doppler effect)--And there are boats out in the sea beyond us--(bellows a ship's horn)--in the most inappropriate places. And again, it's the thrill of live performance."
As was the Firesign gig years ago at an East Coast university. Proctor recalled it was during their "hippie artist" days, staged in a quonset hut with a parachute for backdrop and a Jeep driven into the back of the hut to provide the only lighting.
Phil Austin sidled over during the mayhem, analyzing the success of a group that has broadened the boundaries of film, t.v., radio, all sorts of home audio, the Internet and CD-ROM.
"Firesign Theatre has always been something I find hard to describe," Austin explained with a certain vague lucidity. What about the rigors of collaboration versus writing prose, like his audiobook "Tales of the Old Detective"? "We tend to give up to each other very easily...My oldest...analogy about the Firesign Theatre is still the one I work off. Which is, it's a conversation. We try to take the best pieces of the conversation out and show them to the public. But our real life is this endless yattering."
And some of those best pieces were assembled in an opening reel, played with accompanying slides before the crowd of dedicated Fireheads. Material included a hilarious Pizza Hut radio spot done in the style of Nick Danger and Friends, plus The Chinchilla Show from their "Dear Friends" era.
During the symposium itself, barely moderated by a well-intentioned curator with a deer-in-the-headlights expression plastered on her face, Peter Bergman showed off his roots, so to speak, recalling the Radio Free Oz show on KPFK-F.M. which got them performing together. The group was originally to be called "The Oz Firesign Theatre" but, according to Bergman, "A Disney attorney said, 'We own the word Oz.'" Austin chimed in, "But we said, 'We own the word lawyer.'"
An audience member queried how much of their material was improvised. Bergman reached into his jacket, pulled out a piece of paper and read stiffly, "Most of it...was improvised." Bergman did get a surprise of his own, when, from the audience, a former next-door dorm mate from Yale complained, years late, about Bergman singing Wobbly protest songs and playing guitar late at night.
David Ossman, who a decade ago had directed my radio adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "The One Who Waits" at the Midwest Radio Theatre Workshop, took his own terminal tumble down Dr. Memory Lane with an "antidote" about "The Hilltop Theatre in darkest Tujunga." He proudly recalled, "We dressed in the barbershop next door." The marquee read, appropriately, "Fahrenheit 451, Firesign Theatre, next week: The Marquee Chimps!"
With a nod toward the future, Firesign treated the assembled to a script-in-hand reading of one of their aforementioned "Pop Quiz" spots, recorded earlier that day. It was an uproariously received commercial for nebulous, ominous, ludicrous mega-corporation U.S. Plus, whose motto is "We Own the Idea of America." The response from the crowd indicated they certainly hadn't lost their delicate touch.
There were tributes to many comedic influences, engineers and business people, like producer John McClurge, who defended Firesign when execs wanted to drop them after their second album: "If you take them off Columbia, I'll put them on Masterworks."
Alas, Ossman, perhaps in the persona of his character Mark Time, guided things to a gentle, rumbling close. After thirty years of remarkable material, the audience headed to the Big Lobby for autographs, secretly hankering for Bergman's newest hi-tech acquisition, the Retrotonin Watch: "It makes sidereal time run backwards so you don't have to enter the 21st Century."