Popular Culture (Humor) 20110624: The Firesign Theatre

(9 PM – promoted by TheMomCat)

Hello, all!  This installment was inspired by Kossack dsteffen who correctly identified a rather obtuse reference to the abovenamed comedy troupe in the comments at the big orange Wednesday past on My Little Town.  I gave him two honorable mentions in the comments there, but perhaps this more than honorable one will get him some notice.

The Firesign Theatre was, and continues to be still, a very bizarre and very funny comedy troupe.  This is going to be an extremely difficult piece, because most of their work was on vinyl, and around 45 minutes long.  In addition, everything sort of interlocked, so what is hilarious in context is likely to fall flat without the previous half hour or so of it.

I shall attempt to extract the ones that can sort of stand alone, and for the ones that do not shall attempt to include what might seem to be rather long pieces that do not make sense until the end.  Hey, that is what we do here sometimes.

Before we get to my take on them, it is appropriate to give you the Wikipedia (which actually should be spelt Wikipaedia) opening blurb about them.

The Firesign Theatre is an American comedy troupe consisting of Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Philip Proctor. Their brand of surrealistic humor is best known through their record albums, which acquired a cult following in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

The troupe began as live radio performers in Los Angeles on radio stations KPPC-FM and KPFK during the mid-1960s.

The group’s name stems in part from astrology, because the membership encompasses all three “fire signs:” Aries (Austin), Leo (Proctor), and Sagittarius (Bergman and Ossman). The name also refers to Fireside Theatre, an early television series that ran on NBC from 1949 to 1955, followed by Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theatre (1955-58); it may also refer to the Fireside Chats radio broadcasts made by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a parody of which can be heard in one of the Theatre’s Nick Danger adventures.

That is a more concise description of their origins than I could have composed.  Let us look a bit more into it.  I am not into astrology, although I am a Pisces but do not like water.  Go figure.  The name Jane Wyman perked up my antennae immediately because she was Ronnie Raygun’s first wife, and later played Amanda, Mr. Spock’s mum on the original iteration of Star Trek.  Apparently she was a hot item back in the 1940s and 1950s.  I am more dubious of the claim about the fireside chats, but since they actually used that topic at least once it might have some credence.

Phil Austin, born 19410406 in Denver, is sort of the leader, if such an anarchistic group can have one.  He, like all of the rest, is still with us.

Peter Paul Bergman, born 19391129 in Cleveland was most likely the person who gave birth, so to speak, of the group.  He had a comedy radio show in Los Angeles that began in mid 1966, and the others sort of got involved.

David Ossman, born in Santa Monica 19361206, has been active both in TFS and with other projects, notably some historical pieces for NPR.

Finally, Philip Proctor, born 19400728 in Goshen, IN, still does lots of voices for animated motion pictures including some that you probably know well, like several of the Toy Stories series and Finding Nemo.

All of these folks are not what anyone would consider young now, but their humor is still funny, and quite political.  Update:  After watching the clips, I have withdrawn my comment about still being funny, more explanation at the end.  Much like The Who (until Keith died), their membership never changed, and is still just the four of them.  Perhaps they had other talent from time to time assist, those four were and are always The Firesign Theatre.

Let us try to make sense of some of their work.  In my estimate, it was heavily influenced by psychedelic drugs (whether or not they themselves used them is not relevant) and by Cannabis.  I do not think that anyone who is familiar with their work can provide a cogent argument otherwise, but if you disagree, please do so in the comments.

My favorite piece of theirs is Everything You Know is Wrong, so I shall concentrate on it.  This came out in 197410, and was originally on a vinyl LP.  I shall speculate that these videos are later remakes, but they are very faithful to the original LP.  Phil Austin plays the narrator, Harry (Happy) Cox.  Note the resemblance of the name to the Monty Python character, Harry (Snapper) Organ.  This is not a coincidence.  Both of those seminal comedy troupes had their roots in The Goon Show, the brilliant British radio comedy conceived, written, and performed by the very gifted Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers (yes, THAT Peter Sellers), and Harry Secombe.  Here is the first bit:

Update:  the visuals are distracting.  This was originally an LP, so turn off your screen while the clips play if you want to get more of the original flavor.

I am not expert enough to pick out who played what part, but I suspect that some of you reading can set this straight.  As I listen, I think that I heard what have might be the first reference in the modern sense to “the new age”.  Soon after he mentions “the comet” and it is important later.  Also notice the extremely subtle reference to Plan Nine from Outer Space, the horribly good classic film by Ed Wood, more lately immortalized in the Depp film, Ed Wood.  I know that I am getting very involved in the details, but The Firesign Theatre were ALL about details!

The interview with the cop is priceless!  “I’m not a drinking man ON DUTY….at first I thought it was a dog, but then decided it was one of them werewolves…”.  Of course, the sheriff was none other than Luger Axhandle, from Heater County, CA.  This is important later for another very subtle joke.

Now notice the name of the newspaper, the Hellmouth-Heater Democrat.  This is also important later.  I could not make out the name of the editor, either on vinyl or here.  Any assistance would be appreciated.

Whilst it did not come out on the audio only version, look at the page of the archived newspaper while the editor says that this only comes up around every ten years or so.  The page is completely disintegrated by handling!

Then they go to the history part, with Benj. Franklin (one of my real personal heros) being touted as the “only American President who was never President”.  That is actually true, in my estimate.  If he had been younger, it is extremely likely that Washington would have stood aside to allow Franklin to be chosen.  I should go into more detail here, sort of apart from the original topic.  If being too political gets to you, please scroll down some two or three paragraphs.

Franklin was the foremost scientist on the entire planet in his time.  I need not go into his history here, but take it from me, he was.  He was also the foremost diplomat of his time.  Hell, he got France to support an upstart not even a nation against the greatest military power at the time.  He was also quite the lady’s man, seducing many, many women even after he was quite old, even by modern standards.  If he had been twenty years younger, he would have been the first President of The United States of America.

If that had happened, our country would have been quite different.  We think of Washington as our best President, but he was essentially a military guy, and to THIS DAY we worship military guys.  What would we have been if a SCIENTIST, the foremost of the era, had been our first President?  Methinks that science would no longer be perverted by the worst that religion can inject into our schools.  Franklin was no atheist, but had a better understanding of religion than even “modern” folks have, for the most part.

Would that I had a TARDIS and a pair of Time Dams to take to around 1750, to keep him in temporal stasis whilst he slept, to keep him younger before the first presidential election!  Then Washington would have been the SECOND President, and science would be considered more important than military force.  If anyone has a Type 40-B laying around, I would be happy to pay the shipping to make it so.

Back to the troupe.

The references to hemp are actually correct historically.  Washington himself grew lots of it on his plantation, but it seems like it was of the sativa variety, not the indica kind, so was grown mostly for fiber and not for any drug use, but that is also quite unsure.  It is quite possible that strains containing THC in psychoactive quantities were grown, and also smoked.  My expertise on the history of that is limited, and hope that readers can fill in the blanks with historically accurate information.

Here is the next part.  It starts off sort of slow, but gets funnier near the end.

The Bear Whiz Beer commercial is a classic, and I always chuckle at the weather when he says, “It was hotter than Hooker in Heater, and hotter than Heater in Hellmouth.”  Also be sure to catch the reference to Rebus Kniniebus.

The next part is the very psychedelic UFO in the eggs bit, and also the alien neighbors one.

The final loop is where Rebus jumps into the crater that the comet made whislt burrowing to the center of the earth and when the aliens actually do show up, but only seen only by Cox.  I have a few observations about the piece, having not listened to it for many decades.

First, the vinyl is better than the remake.  You should actually turn off your screen whilst the loops play, as I find the visuals to be a distraction.  Second, Firesign has not held up to time the way that Python has.  After listening again after all these years, the writing is just not as good as Python, and Python was more cerebral.  In addition, Firesign is much more stream of consciousness whilst Python actually had very tightly written scripts even if it did seem so sometimes.

Remember, Firesign originally was made for radio, and then vinyl, whilst Python was designed for the visual medium.  This is why I recommend that you turn off your screen while you listen.  There is a final reason that Firesign is just not that funny now:  my state of mind.  Back in the day I used to be involved with what the Founding Fathers were in the clip above, and only listened to Firesign in such a state of mind.  I think that this is the main reason why I thought that they were so funny then.

It is funny how one’s tastes change with the years.  Now, I still think the Python is hilarious, and Dr. Strangelove is still one of the best films of all time, but my feelings about Firesign have changed completely.  Since starting this piece I almost decided to write about something else but thought it was important to go ahead and finish it if for no other reason to make the point about how tastes change.

Please add your thoughts in the comments.  I would be interested not only in your impression of Firesign, but also about how your tastes in humor have evolved over the years.

Warmest regards,

Doc

5 comments

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  1. formerly funny things?

    Warmest regards,

    Doc

  2. I very much appreciate it.

    Warmest regards,

    Doc

    • RUKind on June 25, 2011 at 6:05 am

    Better living through chemistry and all that. Plus advances in cross-breeding cannabis strains.

    I still love Firesign.

    Passport, please?

    • RUKind on June 25, 2011 at 6:07 am

    Squeeze the wheeze!

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