They were the Fab Four of Funny. There was nobody else like ‘em, though hundreds of FM jocks tried to be. Back in the Sixties, not everything on the turntable* was the Golden Age of rock & roll. Some of it was the Golden Age of comedy records, and the very best, the very best, were by The Firesign Theatre.
They were four radio guys from L.A., each with a perfect announcer’s tone but lots of funny dialects and faux-falsetto women’s voices in the toolkit as well. Best of all, they were inveterate punsters; not the kind of puns that made you groan, but the kind that amazed you with their erudition and broad cultural knowledge, just as the Mystery Science Theater folks did twenty years later. (MST’s Frank Conniff tweeted earlier today that Firesign paved the way for pretty much everybody who came along later, and it’s lovely that Frank is gracious enough to acknowledge the debt.)
I keep using the past tense, and Frank tweets about Firesign this very day, because early this morning Peter Bergman, who founded the group along with Phil Austin, David Ossman and Philip Proctor, died of leukemia at 72. It really does mean the end of an era because although the boys went their separate ways several times, they also kept writing and performing as Firesign all these years. Not all their stuff was as mind-blowing as their first four albums for Columbia (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 THAT DWARF, HAND ME THE PLIERS; and I THINK WE’RE ALL BOZOS ON THIS BUS), but it was always sharp as a tack.
We used to pore over those records with headphones on, because some of the funniest Firesign stuff was mixed way in the background, or flew by so fast that you really had to pay attention. Strategically deployed, um, medication helped you concentrate, but even when its effects had worn off, Firesign was still funny! I’ll admit naïve wonderment – the cover of TWO PLACES was the first time I’d ever seen Marx & Lenin depicted as Groucho and John: whether or not it was new to them, it was to me. But that joke requires connections on so many levels! The group’s very monicker represents elaborate wordplay: they’re not only name-checking a Fifties TV drama series, FIRESIDE THEATRE (not to mention FDR’s Fireside Chats), but all four guys also happened to be born under zodiacial fire signs!
What Firesign was really doing was re-introducing radio drama to a generation that hadn’t grown up with it. The difference was, now the medium was the grooviest one of its day, the Lp. They were postmodern before the big-brains had even given that a name: their characters knew they were on a phonograph record, opposite sides of the record could call back to each other. The effects and mixing were every bit as carefully crafted as a big rock star’s would be – in a way, Firesign were even hipper than rock stars. Their work was already self-aware in a Pythonish sense when FLYING CIRCUS was just a gleam in its parents’ eyes. That Python Lp with three sides, depending on where you dropped the needle? Pure Firesign.
It was a cult, but it was a big one. To this day, you can walk up to a Firesign fan and convulse him/her by simply saying, “Who am us, anyway?” See, it’s a cult. Arcane catchphrases out of context. You had to be there. But guess what? The records are still around – I strongly recommend the four I’ve cited above – and there are even published transcripts in case you don’t have time for the 60th playing. RIP, Peter. Thank you for making us laugh and making us think, and wherever you are now, even if you’re not anywhere at all, I’d just like to give the wheeze one last squeeze in appreciation, ya big bozo.
*Ask your parents.
6/26/15: And now we have lost Phil Austin as well. Damn.