Saturday, June 20, 2015

On the Firesign Theatre

One of the greatest gifts my parents gave was introducing me to the work of the Firesign Theatre.

My parents had a sweet way of sitting me down and saying, "We are now presenting to you something very important because we feel you are ready," and then we would watch an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus and they would ask me what I thought. They also sat me down by my father's bulky old record player and introduced me to the Mothers of Invention.

It was the same way with the Firesign Theatre. I was an adolescent but don't remember the exact year. They sat me down, said "Listen to this, just listen," and played me Side B of the Firesign's album How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All. An excellent choice for the uninitiated, this was their famous pastiche of radio noir drama, the first-ever episode of "Nick Danger: Third Eye." Since the listening was going pretty well, my parents poured me a coke and flipped the record over to Side A of that unforgettable album.

This was legally as close as my parents could have come to simply dropping acid with me.

But that's a joke. Good art should not be casually likened to recreational drug use. The superficial comparison is that listening to this (which I did repeatedly thereafter) opened up my imagination to what was possible, what could be done with words and sound, and how a story could be constructed. Comedians make you laugh; this was more than that.  This album combined ingenious writing and inspired improvisation edited into a genre-busting "comedy" album emulating stream of consciousness while being as rich and exhilarating as a Pynchon novel.

They began in radio in Los Angeles during the 1960s, improvising radio programs and television commercials, and recording several albums that are iconic for fans of the group, weaving satirical narratives around zany characters, lampooning political figures, media, human relationships with technology, and more. The albums contained references to one another and some characters were recurrent, creating a whimsical universe. Their fourth album, I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus, exemplifies how they burst through the limits of genre with a first-rate science-fiction tale about technology, history, and intelligence both human and artificial. (In one of its unforgettable moments, a robot President Nixon gets hacked by the protagonist.) I feel great affection even for their albums that were more chaotic, like Not Insane.

The Firesigns (the four members of the group all claiming fire signs in their astrological profiles) were exceptional writers, voice actors, and improvisators. Their full discography and their various solo ventures are well documented elsewhere. Sometimes it feels as though their following is a hidden community. It is fun on occasion to throw out one of their unmistakable catch phrases ("He's no fun, he fell right over") to see if anyone recognizes it.

They are artistic heroes to me. A few years ago, I was informed that an audio play I had written would be performed at a festival and that Philip Proctor, one of the Firesigns, was likely to be one of the actors. I was beside myself - one of the most exciting days of my life. Unfortunately, the festival reneged and my excitement was crushed. (The beginning and the end of my association with the National Audio Theatre Festival.)

I am writing this because yesterday I learned that one of the members, Phil Austin - the voice of Nick Danger among many other characters - has passed away and so moves "forward - into the past." He was involved with the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles in its early days and worked at KPFK, where he got involved with the other members of Firesign.

He joins Peter Bergman, the delightfully mad Yale economist turned playwright who created a radio program on KPFK that convened what became the Firesign Theatre. Bergman passed in 2012.

In the photo above, Bergman and Austin are both to the right. Younger in that photo than I am now.

Now there are two left: Proctor, who has had an impressive career as an actor, voicing characters in several Pixar films and other projects; and David Ossman, who has continued to do a lot of audio theatre (including programming for children) and other radio production.

In my zen school we chant "Ji Jang Bosal" for people who have passed. I cannot help fanciful notions of the bodhisattva joining them in a vehicle purchased from Ralph Spoilsport and all of them ending up in the Land of the Pharoahs, discovering a hotel inside a giant pyramid, and so on...

It's never too soon to thank the people who have inspired you, if you have the opportunity. And I certainly intend to maintain my parents' tradition of introducing my own sons to cool things. I think of listening to Waiting For The Electrician with them and a smile comes to my face.


Dave Logan said...

Thanks for sharing. I think all Firesign fans remember that first time we strapped on a pair of headphones and stepped into their brave new world.

Sheila said...

I always regretted that Bonnie and I never got the dog show van called We're All Borzois On This Bus...