Firesign of the times

After 20 years, everything you know is STILL wrong!

January 10, 2002

What a weird year it was. And, as the title of this article is meant to convey, life’s great jest is that you never know what’s really going on.

America’s need for some sort of diversion from the big questions manifests itself in different ways. The Prez says “go shopping” (gee, thanks) while others find solace through a diversion called entertainment, or more specifically, comedy. It’s easy! Pop open a brew and laugh at the poo-poo fart antics of South Park just to keep it simple, because who wants comedy with brains?

Especially four brains. Comedy that requires the act of complete thought normally goes the way of endangerment, although there are still few of us who need that influence. Hence the Firesign Theatre. Ask anybody who remembers Firesign material from the 1970s for a quick explanation of the quartet and I bet you’ll be met with a combination of confusion and laughter.

The Firesign Theatre still exists. In fact, they’re not letting up. Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Phillip Proctor “re-formed” back in 1993 for a reunion tour, and 1999 saw Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death, their first new release in nearly 20 years. This was followed by Boom Dot Bust and, most recently, the Grammy-nominated Bride of Firesign.

That’s just a taste, dear friends. Recently, Sony Music has blessed us with reissues of Firesign’s four classic masterpieces: Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once (When You’re Not Anywhere At All), Don’t Crush the Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, and I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus. Far from being conventional comedy records, where fulfillment is had after one listen, this is transcendental stuff that takes a while to digest. Or to really understand what the hell is going on.

The 1967 Firesign debut of Waiting for the Electrician parodies the birth of our nation and its fast-food approach to colonization, with a title track tribute to Kafka’s The Trial. The story continues on 1968’s How Can You Be In Two Places, dissecting consumerism, patriotism and “the convenient way of life.” Loopy constructions like these are Firesign at its best: drawing a thin line between what is real and what is imagined—only the imagination has no leash and can be brutally honest.

The unhinged imagination also insinuates itself into 1970’s Don’t Crush that Dwarf, the teetering reality of a single character viewing his life via 4 AM television’s commercials, evangelists, game shows and B-movies. Just Another Bozo on the Bus concludes this strange history as the listener is swept along with Clem, the main character, to the Future Fair Tour, a twisted Epcot ride that parodies educational tactics and “futural technology” born of the paranoid Eisenhower years. When Clem hops on the Wall of Science ride, for example, he hears this narration of evolution: “Before the beginning, there was this turtle. And the turtle was alone. And he looked around, and he saw his neighbor, which was his mother. And he lay down on top of his neighbor, and behold, she bore him in tears an oak tree. Which grew all day, and then fell over like a bridge. And lo, under the bridge there came a catfish, and he was very big, and he was walking, and he was the biggest he had ever seen. And so were the fiery balls of this fish, one of which is the sun, and the other, they called the moon.”

If you read it again (and maybe a couple more times), it really is a lot funnier than a fart joke. The subtle concepts of the Firesign Theatre stretch the boundaries of what comedy can achieve. The stories in each release are really quite simple, but their technique in delivering myriad characters, sound effects, and multiple layers of background conversations is to fill every perceptible audio corner.

It’s an over-the-top approach for mere comedy recording, but it went hand-in-hand with the inner revolution of those times. Social concepts are dissected, abstracted, put into language in the manner of Firesign madness. While they don’t say outright that society is stupid, it’s perfectly clear that they find it silly.

And it’s still silly. Thirty years after the conception of these fine works, they are as relevant as ever. A healthier form of escapism? Sure! With no visuals to push it along, the listener’s imagination has to gallop to keep pace with the Firesign Theatre’s ever-evolving thought process. Widely considered the Beatles of comedy, it wouldn’t hurt to add a Grateful Dead reference here as well.

The Firesign Theatre just celebrated its 35th anniversary by conducting a live broadcast of their new online radio show (check www.firesigntheatre.com for downloads and broadcast schedules). It’s still as funny as anything the group did from their Dear Friends 1971 radio broadcasts. To sweeten the pot, virtually everything Firesign Theatre has released in its long history—hard to find records, cassette-only releases, VHS movies—have all been reissued.

Thank goodness, because we need this stuff. We all need to admit we’re all Bozos on the bus. I sure do.

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