The Firesign Theatre

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The Firesign Theatre
Firesign Theatre at the Magic Mushroom.jpg
The Firesign Theatre performing at the Magic Mushroom club in 1967: Proctor, Ossman, Bergman, Austin
Medium
NationalityAmerican
Years active1966–1985, 1993–2012
Genres
Subject(s)
Notable works and roles
Members
Websitewww.firesigntheatre.com

The Firesign Theatre (also known as the Firesigns)[1][2] was an American surreal comedy group who first performed live on November 17, 1966 on the Los Angeles radio program Radio Free Oz on station KPFK FM. They continued appearing on Radio Free Oz, which later moved to KRLA 1110 AM and then KMET FM through February 1969. They produced fourteen record albums and a 45 rpm single under contract to Columbia Records from 1967 through 1976,[3] and had three nationally syndicated radio programs: The Firesign Theatre Radio Hour Hour [sic] in 1970 on KPPC-FM; and Dear Friends (1970–1971) and Let's Eat! (1971–1972) on KPFK. They also appeared in front of live audiences, and continued to write, perform, and record on other labels through 2012, occasionally taking sabbaticals during which they wrote or performed solo or in smaller groups.

The Firesign Theatre was the brainchild of Peter Bergman, and all of its material was conceived, written, and performed by its members Bergman, Philip Proctor, Phil Austin, and David Ossman. The group's name stems from astrology, because all four were born under the three "fire signs": Aries (Austin), Leo (Proctor), and Sagittarius (Bergman and Ossman). Their popularity peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and ebbed in the Reagan Era. They experienced a revival and second wave of popularity in the 1990s and continued to write, record and perform until Bergman's death in 2012.

In 1997, Entertainment Weekly ranked the Firesign Theatre among the "Thirty Greatest Comedy Acts of All Time". Their 1970 album Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers was nominated in 1971 for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation by the World Science Fiction Society, and their next album I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus received the same nomination in 1972. Later, they received nominations for the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album for three of their albums: The Three Faces of Al (1984), Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death (1998), and Bride of Firesign (2001). In 2005, the US Library of Congress added Don't Crush That Dwarf to the National Recording Registry and called the group "the Beatles of comedy."

Before Firesign[edit]

Peter Bergman and Philip Proctor met while attending Yale University in the late 1950s, where Proctor studied acting, and Bergman edited the Yale comedy magazine. Bergman studied playwriting and collaborated as lyricist with Austin Pendleton in 1958 on two Yale Dramat musicals in which Proctor starred: Tom Jones, and Booth Is Back In Town.[4][5] In 1965, Bergman spent a year working in England on the BBC television program Not So Much a Program, More a Way of Life and met surrealist comedian Spike Milligan.[6] While there, he saw the Beatles in concert, which inspired him to form a four-man comedy group.[7]

On returning to the US, Bergman started a late-night listener-participation talk show Radio Free Oz on July 24, 1966, on listener-sponsored KPFK FM in Los Angeles. According to Bergman, the show "featured everybody who was anybody in the artistic world who passed through LA." Guests included the band Buffalo Springfield and Andy Warhol.[7] There, Bergman worked with producers Phil Austin and David Ossman. Proctor was in Los Angeles looking for acting work and watching the Sunset Strip curfew riots. When he discovered he was sitting on a newspaper photo of Bergman, he called his college buddy, who recruited him as the fourth man for his comedy group.

Bergman originally named the group the "Oz Firesign Theatre" because all four were born under the three astrological fire signs (Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius), and debuted them on his November 17, 1966 show. He had to drop "Oz" from the name after legal threats from Disney and MGM, who owned movie rights to The Wizard of Oz and other associated works.[7]

Radio Free Oz[edit]

The Firesigns initially chose an improvisational style. According to Proctor:[7]

We each independently created our own material and characters and brought them together, not knowing what the others were going to pull. And it was all based on put-ons; that is, we were assuming characters that were assumed to be real by the listeners. No matter how far out we would carry a premise, if we were tied to the phones we discovered the audience would go far ahead of us. We could be as outrageous as we wanted to be and they believed us—which was astonishingly funny and interesting and terrifying to us, because it showed the power of the medium and the gullibility and vulnerability of most people.

On nights when he had no guests, Bergman would have the Firesigns come on the air and pretend (including himself) to be outrageously interesting guests. On their November 17, 1966 debut, they pretended to be the panel of an imaginary "Oz Film Festival": Bergman was film critic Peter Volta, "writing a history of world cinema one frame at a time"; Ossman was Raul Saez, maker of “thrown camera” films, who had just won a grant to roll a 70 mm film camera down the Andes; Austin was Jack Love, making "Living Room Theatre" porn films like The Nun and Blondie Pays the Rent; and Proctor was Jean-Claude Jean-Claude, creator of the "Nouvelle Nouvelle Vague Vague movement" and director of a documentary Two Weeks With Fred, which lasts a full two weeks.[8]

The Firesigns were strongly influenced by the British Goon Show. According to Ossman:[6][9]

We all listened to The Goon Show, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, at various times in our lives. We heard a lot of those shows. They impressed us when we started doing radio ourselves, because they sustained characters in a really surreal and weird kind of situation for a long period of time. They were doing that show for 10 years, all the way through the 1950s. So we were just listening to them at the end. It was that madness and the ability to go anywhere and do anything and yet sustain those funny characters. So when we first did written radio, where we would sit down and write half hour skits and do them once a week, which we did in the fall of 1967, we did things that were imitative of The Goon Show and learned a lot of voices from them and such.

In the fall of 1967, the Firesign Theatre broadcast on Sunday nights from The Magic Mushroom club in LA.[10] In September 1967, they performed an adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges' short story "La Muerte y La Brujula" ("Death and the Compass") on Radio Free Oz.

In 1969, they created a number of improvised television commercials for Jack Poet Volkswagen in Highland Park, California, with the characters of Christian Cyborg (Bergman), Coco Lewis (Proctor), Bob Chicken (Austin), and Tony Gomez (Ossman).[11]

Golden age[edit]

Early recording career[edit]

Bergman coined the term "love-in" in 1967, and promoted the first Los Angeles Love-In, attended by 40,000 in Elysian Park, on his program.[7] The Firesigns performed there, which led to Radio Free Oz moving to KRLA 1110 AM, which had a much wider audience than KPFK FM.[12][8]

This event also caught the attention of Columbia Records staff producer Gary Usher, who sensed commercial potential for the Firesign Theatre and proposed to Bergman they make a "love-In album" for Columbia. Bergman countered with a proposal for a Firesign Theatre record, and this led to a five-year[13] recording contract with the label.[7] Usher also used the Firesigns' audio collages on songs by The Byrds ("Draft Morning") and Sagittarius (the 45 RPM version of "Hotel Indiscreet") in 1967 and 1968.

The album was given the non sequitur title Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, from Bergman's undeveloped 1965 idea for a comic film. The Firesigns changed their improvisational style, producing tightly scripted and memorized material. According to Bergman: "There was no leader. Everything was communally written, and if one person didn't agree about something, no matter how strongly the other three felt about it, it didn't go in."[7] The Firesigns always billed themselves alphabetically on their album jackets and other printed materials.

The resulting synergy created the feeling of a fifth Firesign; according to Austin: "It's like, suddenly there is this fifth guy that actually does the writing. We all vaguely sort of know him, and a lot of the time take credit for him."[7] This resulted in the group inventing the name "4 or 5 Krazy Guys Publishing" to copyright their work.[14] Their contract with Columbia, in exchange for a low royalty rate, gave them unlimited studio time, allowing them to perfect their writing and recording.[7]

Electrician consists of four pieces. Side one is a trilogy of plays: starting with a satire of the Europeans' displacement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas; followed by a satire of the 1960s hippie culture; leading into a projected future in which the roles of the hippie and the Establishment cultures are reversed. Side two, the title track, is a stream-of-consciousness play about an American tourist to an Eastern Bloc country (Proctor), who ends up in prison and is rescued by the CIA. It was recorded in CBS's Los Angeles radio studio from which The Jack Benny Program and others had been broadcast; the original RCA microphones and sound effects devices were used. It was released in January 1968, selling a modest 12,000 copies in its first year.

The Firesigns continued to work on the radio and began performing in folk clubs such as the Ash Grove.[7] Radio Free Oz moved again to KMET FM until February 1969. The Firesign Theatre Radio Hour Hour [sic] aired for two hours on Sunday nights on KPPC-FM in 1970.[8]

The Firesigns almost lost their recording contract after their first album. According to Bergman: "Columbia was going to kick us off the label, so we scripted the next record and the old guard at Columbia took a look at the script and said 'This isn't funny—this is dirty!' And to our rescue came James William Guercio [(producer of the Buckinghams)] and John Hammond." Austin says, "With Hammond backing us up, CBS came around."[7] They went on to produce three more Columbia studio albums from 1969 to 1971. Each grew technically more sophisticated, taking advantage of up to 16 tape tracks and Dolby noise reduction by 1970.[7]

How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All, released in 1969, consists of a stream-of-consciousnous play on side one about a man named Babe (Bergman) who buys a car and goes on a road trip that turns into a parody of Norman Corwin's 1941 patriotic radio pageant We Hold These Truths.[15] Side two, The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, is a parody of 1940s radio, about a hard-boiled detective (Austin) who became possibly the Firesigns' most famous character.

Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (1970) is a single play centered around an actor named George Tirebiter (Ossman), who gradually ages into an old man while watching his old movies on television: a Henry Aldrich parody High School Madness, and the Korean War film Parallel Hell. This album was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1971 by the World Science Fiction Society,[16]

I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus (1971), also a single play, centers on a young, early-technology computer hacker (Proctor) and an older "bozo" with a large nose that honks like a clown's (Austin), who attend a Disneyesque Future Fair. This album also received a Hugo nomination in 1972.[17]

Meanwhile, from September 9, 1970 to February 17, 1971, they were performing a one-hour weekly live series on KPFK, Dear Friends. These programs were recorded and then edited into slightly shorter shows and syndicated to radio stations across the country on 12" LP albums. Their fifth album, Dear Friends, was a double-record compilation of what they considered the best segments from the series, released in January 1972. Dear Friends was followed with the KPFK show Let's Eat! in 1971 and 1972.[8]

In 1970, the group had performed a live stage show, the Shakespeare parody The Count of Monte Cristo, at Columbia University. In January 1972 they decided to expand this and retitle it Anything You Want To for their next album. On March 9, Columbia signed them to a second five-year contract.[18] On March 30, they ended Let's Eat! with a live broadcast titled Martian Space Party, which was also recorded on 16-track tape and filmed. The Firesigns combined parts of the two shows with some new studio material to produce their sixth album Not Insane or Anything You Want To. But before releasing the album in October 1972, they had discarded their original story line idea and some newly written scenes.[18]

1973 sabbatical[edit]

Proctor and Bergman started working as a duo in 1973 on TV or Not TV.

The Not Insane album performed poorly, and the Firesigns would later claim to be disappointed with it. In the liner notes to the group’s 1993 greatest hits album, Shoes for Industry: The Best of the Firesign Theatre, Bergman criticized Not Insane, saying it "was when the Firesign was splitting apart; it was a fractious, fragmented album." Ossman called it "a serious mistake" and said it “was incomprehensible, basically”, and “it was not the album it should have been and I think that caused us to slope off rapidly in sales."[7]

The four decided to take a break from the group in 1973 to work in separate directions. Proctor and Bergman decided to perform as a duo, and made a separate record deal with Columbia,[19] producing TV or Not TV: A Video Vaudeville in Two Acts.[20] The record predicts the rise of pay cable TV, and depicts an amateur station run by two men who must constantly block a group of teenage hijackers. They turned this into a vaudeville-type show which they played on tour. While promoting the show, they did a radio interview with disk jockey Wolfman Jack.[19]

Meanwhile, Ossman wrote a solo album How Time Flys, based on the Mark Time astronaut character he created for a Dear Friends skit and used on I Think We're All Bozos. He co-directed the album with Columbia producer Steve Gillmor, and the other three Firesigns starred on it, along with several guest personalities including Wolfman Jack, Harry Shearer of The Credibility Gap, and broadcast journalist Lew Irwin. Mark returns from a twenty-year round trip to Planet X on New Year's Eve, 1999, only to find the space program has been dismantled, and no one cares about him except for an eccentric impresario (Bergman) who kidnaps him for his video recordings of encounters with alien life.

Austin penned the solo album Roller Maidens From Outer Space, based on a hardboiled detective in the same vein as his Nick Danger character introduced on the B side of How Can You Be In Two Places.... Roller Maidens, released in March 1974 on Columbia's Epic label, also featured all four Firesigns, and included actors Richard Paul and Michael C. Gwynne. The album satirizes series television, televangelists, the 1973 oil crisis, and the Presidency of Richard Nixon.

Reunion[edit]

The group reunited in late August 1973 to produce the Sherlock Holmes parody The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra,[18] based on one of the plays from their 1967 Magic Mushroom broadcasts. This was released on vinyl in January 1974, followed in October 1974 by Everything You Know Is Wrong, which satirized the developing New Age movement. Ossman said this record "grew out of our basic interest in those parapsychological things ... from Castaneda to the hollow earth theory to the guy who bends spoons. Originally, when we started writing it, it was going to be a much more complicated and 'cinematic' record; we were trying to write a radio movie." The Firesigns produced a film made by Allen Daviau (who later filmed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) using the album as the soundtrack.[7] The film was shown in a live appearance at Stanford University and released on VHS video tape in 1993.

In 1975, they released the black comedy album In the Next World, You're on Your Own, penned by Austin and Ossman. The story centers on an alcoholic dirty cop (Proctor), whose son (Bergman) is a by-the-book cop, and whose daughter (Proctor) is a porn actress. In a parody of Marlon Brando's 1973 Academy Awards protest, the brother and sister stage a terrorist attack on an Oscar awards ceremony. This album, like Not Insane, also sold poorly, and Columbia declined to offer them a third contract in 1976.[7] This time, the Firesigns didn't protest. Bergman said, "The group had really split apart; we had just burned out. I mean it was five years non-stop work. We would stop one album and start writing the next. Frankly, we didn't have five more albums in us at that point."[7]

Second split[edit]

As Austin looked back on this period, he wrote in September 1993 that he saw Proctor and Bergman wanting to take the Firesign Theatre in a different direction than he did, moving away from intensely written albums released one per year, to more live performances with lighter material.[21] Proctor and Bergman turned their attention in 1975 to producing a live show and Columbia album, What This Country Needs, based in part on material from TV or Not TV.

The Firesign Theatre closed out their Columbia Records contract with a greatest-hits compilation Forward Into the Past in 1976.[7] Meanwhile, Austin and Ossman toured the west coast, billing themselves as "Dr. Firesign's Theatre of Mystery".[21] They produced a live stage show Radio Laffs of 1940, which included "School For Actors", another episode of the private eye character Nick Danger introduced in their second album, and a soap opera "Over the Edge". This was performed at the Los Feliz Theatre in Los Angeles in May 1976, and at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco in June.[22]

The Firesigns took it easy for the rest of the 1970s, producing a 1977 album Just Folks... A Firesign Chat based largely on unreleased Dear Friends and Let's Eat radio material. Proctor and Bergman appeared as regulars on a 1977 summer replacement TV series hosted by the Starland Vocal Band. Proctor and Bergman gave up their road performances after witnessing the September 4, 1977 Golden Dragon Massacre, and in 1978 released another studio album Give Us a Break, which lampooned radio and television. The Starland Vocal Band also performed short comic radio breaks on this album.[19]

Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin's Tandem Productions bought the rights to Nick Danger for a TV series to star George Hamilton; and in 1978, New Line Cinema began negotiations to make a movie starring Chevy Chase. Both projects ended in development hell, and rights to the character reverted to the Firesigns.[22] In December 1978, they began writing five short (2:24) episodes of Nick Danger: The Case of the Missing Shoe for a possible syndicated daily radio series. When the syndication went unsold, Austin approached Rhino Records and secured a deal to release the five episodes in 1979 on a 12-minute extended play (EP) record.[22]

Meanwhile, Proctor and Bergman produced a film, J-Men Forever, using clips from old Republic Pictures movie serials with dubbed dialogue, combined with new footage of them as FBI agents tracking down a villain known as "the Lightning Bug" voiced by disk jockey M. G. Kelly. This became popular on the 1980s late-night TV series Night Flight.

Austin called Bergman late in 1979 to make peace and reunite the Firesigns. This resulted in their last album of the decade, the 1980 live Fighting Clowns, consisting largely of comic songs written by the group.[21]

Reagan Era[edit]

...there was something about the Eighties – the anti-surrealist
politics of the Eighties – that was wrong for the Firesign Theatre. — David Ossman[7]

The popularity of the group cooled off after 1980 as the social and political climate of the United States changed with the election of President Ronald Reagan.[7] In 1982, they produced the album Lawyer's Hospital from a collection of live appearances, National Public Radio (NPR) performances, and the Jack Poet Volkswagen commercials from Radio Free Oz. They also expanded their 1972 Shakespeare parody into a road show and album, Shakespeare's Lost Comedie. This would be expanded again and re-released in 2001 as Anythynge You Want To.

Ossman left the group in early 1982 to take a producer's job for NPR in Washington DC.[7][22] The remaining three Firesigns produced a new album in 1984 with the further adventures of their Nick Danger character, The Three Faces of Al, which received a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album.[23] This was followed in 1985 by the album Eat or Be Eaten.

In 1988, Austin was signed by John Dryden to produce over 50 short Nick Danger pieces for his radio satire show The Daily Feed. These were published on cassette tape as The Daily Feed Tapes, and later formed the basis for a 1995 book authored by Austin, Tales of the Old Detective and Other Big Fat Lies.[24]

In the summer of 1990, NPR producer Ted Bonnitt called Proctor and asked him if he wanted to contribute some comedy material to Bonnitt's nightly program HEAT with John Hockenberry. Proctor called Bergman, and the duo agreed to write and perform a serial consisting of 13 five-minute episodes, Power: Life on the Edge in L.A.[25]

1990s revival[edit]

I dreamed it back. Sure enough, when we kicked the fascists
out of office it was time for the Firesign Theatre to come back. — Peter Bergman[7]

Following the 1992 United States presidential election,[7] and with Ossman back in the group, the Firesign Theatre reunited in 1993 for a 25th anniversary reunion tour around the US, Back From the Shadows, starting on April 24 in Seattle with an audience of 2,900.[7] The title was taken from a parody of the Gene Autry song "Back in the Saddle Again", which they wrote for I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus. The tour, consisting of live performances of material from their first four Golden Age albums (Electrician, Two Places At Once, Dwarf, and Bozos), was recorded on CD and a DVD video released in 1994. They also released a 1993 greatest hits album, Shoes for Industry: The Best of the Firesign Theatre containing original material from the first nine albums, TV or Not TV, and Roller Maidens From Outer Space. This was followed with the 1996 album Pink Hotel Burns Down.

In 1996, Bergman revived Radio Free Oz as an Internet-based radio station, www.rfo.net, calling it "the Internet's funny bone."[26]

The Firesigns satirized the turn-of-the-millennium Y2K scare with the 1998 album Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death, in which they revived some of their classic characters such as used car salesman Ralph Spoilsport (Proctor) from How Can You Be In Two Places At Once, news reporters Harold Hiphugger (Ossman) and Ray Hamberger (Proctor) from Everything You Know Is Wrong, and game-show contestant Caroline Presskey (Proctor) from Don't Crush That Dwarf. This earned them their second Grammy nomination, and they developed it into a "millennium trilogy" with the 1999 Boom Dot Bust and 2001 Bride of Firesign, which received a third Grammy nomination.[23] Characters from Give Me Immortality were used on the 2001 live album Radio Now Live.

In December 2001, the Firesigns appeared in a 90-minute PBS television show Weirdly Cool. This contained live, updated performance material based on Waiting for the Electrician, How Can You Be in Two Places..., and Don't Crush That Dwarf; and included interviews and two Jack Poet Volkswagen commercials.

Austin, Ossman, and Proctor pay tribute to Peter Bergman on April 21, 2012

The Firesigns appeared on the NPR show All Things Considered from July 4 to December 31, 2002.[23] These appearances were compiled on a CD, All Things Firesign.

In 2008, they released a four-CD boxed set The Firesign Theatre's Box of Danger, compiling most material which featured their most famous character, Nick Danger, including a bootleg recording of a 1976 live performance.

Their final album was the 2010 Duke of Madness Motors: The Complete "Dear Friends" Radio Era, a combination book and data DVD comprising a complete compilation, totaling over 80 hours, of their 1970s radio shows Firesign Theatre Radio Hour Hour, Dear Friends, and Let's Eat (the last two in both original broadcast, and syndication-edited form). Their last live performance was on November 19, 2011 in Kirkland, Washington.[27] They claimed to be the longest surviving group from the "classic rock" era to still be intact with the original members (45 years).[28]

Bergman died on March 9, 2012, from complications involving leukemia,[29] and Austin died on June 18, 2015, from complications of cancer.

Firesign members[edit]

Peter Bergman 1976.jpg

Peter Bergman (born under the fire sign Sagittarius in Cleveland, Ohio[7] on November 29, 1939; died March 9, 2012) started his radio career on his high school radio system during the Korean War; he got kicked off the air by the principal when, as a prank, he announced a Communist takeover of the school. He studied economics at Yale (class of 1961), and was managing editor of the university's comedy magazine. In his second graduate year he became a fellow in playwriting. As a member of the Yale Dramatic Association, he co-wrote two musical comedies with Austin Pendleton. Later, he considered attending medical school, and helped produce a machine for viewing angio cardiograms and measuring blockage of the arteries of the heart.[4] He had a deep voice, and frequently took African American roles in Firesign Theatre and Proctor and Bergman works.

Philip Proctor 05.jpg

Philip Proctor (born under the fire sign Leo in Goshen, Indiana[7] on July 28, 1940) was a boy soprano in a children's choir, and studied acting at Yale. There, he met his future partner Bergman in the Yale Dramatic Association, where he starred in the two musical comedies written by Bergman and Pendleton. He became a professional actor, with a role on the soap opera The Edge of Night, before contacting Bergman and joining him on Radio Free Oz in 1966. Proctor's adult tenor voice enables him to do a convincing female voice without using falsetto; therefore he usually did most of the female roles in the Firesign Theatre and Proctor and Bergman works, though the other three Firesigns occasionally did female voices. He also has done celebrity voice impersonations on Firesign material, including W.C. Fields (Waiting For the Electrician and How Can You Be In Two Places...), Robert F. Kennedy (Waiting For the Electrician), and a Peter Lorre-like voice for the Nick Danger character Rocky Rococo (Box of Danger). Proctor has also acted and appeared as a voice actor on many television shows and several feature films.

Philip Austin 01.jpg

Phil Austin (born under the fire sign Aries in Denver, Colorado[7] on April 6, 1941; died June 18, 2015), was the youngest Firesign. He attended college but never graduated. He was an accomplished lead guitarist, and was responsible for adding much of the music to Firesign works. He also appeared as an actor and voice actor on television.[30] He used his natural, sonorous baritone voice for Nick Danger, but affected a phony Japanese accent for his "Young Guy, Motor Detective" self-parody of Danger in Not Insane, and a stereotypical, tough-guy voice and accent for the similar hardboiled detective Dick Private in Roller Maidens From Outer Space. He also could do an old-man voice as Doc Technical in the Dear Friends radio "Mark Time" episode, and applied his impersonation of Richard Nixon as presidents in several Firesign and solo works (Bozos, How Time Flys, Roller Maidens, and Everything You Know Is Wrong). He also did an Elvis Presley impersonation singing the news in the Roller Maidens track "The Bad News".

David Ossman 01.jpg

David Ossman (born under the fire sign Sagittarius in Santa Monica, California[7] on December 6, 1936), the oldest Firesign, is known as the intellectual of the group, and is known for doing an old man voice (most famously as Catherwood the butler in the original Nick Danger story, George Tirebiter on Don't Crush That Dwarf, and as the elder ant Cornelius in Disney Pixar's 1998 A Bug's Life.) He used his natural voice as astronaut Mark Time and newsman Harold Hiphugger. Outside of the Firesign Theatre, he has performed several voices on The Tick animated TV series, and worked extensively as a producer and on-air narrator on National Public Radio and several affiliated stations.[31]

Associate Firesigns[edit]

Several people have been accorded unofficial "associate Firesign" status over the years, by virtue of performing on several records with the group.

Austin's first wife Annalee performed in support of the group on several "golden age" albums. She is credited as a member of "the St. Louis Aquarium Choraleers" (singing the hymn "Marching to Shibboleth") and as "the Wake-Up Lady" and for birdsong on Don't Crush That Dwarf; as "Mickey" and with keyboard stylings on I Think We're All Bozos; with film footage on the Dear Friends album; and organ, piano, and vocals on Not Insane.

Ossman's first wife Tiny (Tinika)[32] performed as a St. Louis Aquarium Choraleer and as part of the "Ambient's Noyes Choral" (singing the Peorgie and Mudhead theme song) on Don't Crush That Dwarf; as "Ann" on I Think We're All Bozos; as Nurse Angela and news reporter Chiquita Bandana on How Time Flys; and vocals and percussion on Not Insane. She and Ossman co-hosted a Sunday night radio program of pre–World War II music on KTYD.

Austin married his second wife Oona née Elliott in 1971.[33] She is credited as an anonymous extra in I Think We're All Bozos; was photographed as one of the Roller Maidens From Outer Space and sang backup vocals for the Austin solo album;[34] and appeared as a Reebus Caneebus groupie in the film version of Everything You Know Is Wrong.[35] She is the model for the blonde femme fatale on the cover art of the Box of Danger CD set,[35] and is credited with performing support functions such as photography and catering on several of the later albums.

Proctor's third wife, actress Melinda Peterson, appeared with Proctor and Bergman on their 1990 NPR serial Power: Life on the Edge in L.A..[25] She also performed on the Give Me Immortality ...,[36] Boom Dot Bust,[37] and Bride of Firesign albums[38] and supported the group in the Radio Now Live show.[39]

Timeline[edit]

Cultural influence[edit]

In 1997, Entertainment Weekly ranked the Firesign Theatre among the "Thirty Greatest Comedy Acts of All Time".[23] In 2005, the US Library of Congress added Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers to the National Recording Registry,[40] and called the group "the Beatles of comedy."[41]

Comedians George Carlin, Robin Williams, and John Goodman enjoyed the Firesigns' comedy, and lent their comments to the 2001 PBS television special, Weirdly Cool. Williams referred to Firesign albums as "the audio equivalent of a Hieronymous Bosch painting."

Beatle John Lennon was photographed wearing the Firesign's "Not Insane – Papoon for President" campaign button they had made for Martian Space Party (Not Insane album).[18][42]

Musical satirist "Weird Al" Yankovic paid homage to the Firesigns by giving the title "Everything You Know Is Wrong" to an original song on his 1996 album Bad Hair Day.[43]

Steve Jobs paid homage to the Firesigns' I Think We're All Bozos album by programming an "Easter egg" in Apple's Siri intelligent personal assistant. Siri responds to the prompt "This is worker speaking. Hello" with "Hello Ah-Clem. What function can I perform for you? LOL".[44]

Copyright infringement[edit]

In Madison, Wisconsin in 1974, a pair of University of Illinois students opened the first of a regional chain of pizza restaurants they named "Rocky Rococo"[45] after the Nick Danger character, without any mention of connection to the Firesign Theatre.[46] They hired an artist to design as their logo, a moustachioed Italian with a white hat and sunglasses, suggested by the White Spy from Mad Magazine, and hired comic actor Jim Pederson to portray this "Rocky Rococo" wearing a white suit.[47]

The Firesigns visited the first Rocky Rococo Pizza when on tour in Madison in 1975, and reacted with good humor, joking around with the owners and giving them pictures that said, "To Rocky, from Rocky" which were hung on the wall. But in 1985, by which time the chain had grown to 62 restaurants and the Firesigns had passed their "golden age", they sent the owners a letter claiming ownership of the name. The pizza chain's lawyers found a similar case where an Austin, Texas pizzeria named Conan's ran afoul of the copyright owners, producers of the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian. Since the creator of the Conan the Barbarian comic had similarly endorsed the restaurant by drawing Conan on its walls, the suit lost in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, so the Firesigns settled out of court.[46]

Mark Time awards[edit]

Ossman and his second wife Judith Walcutt formed Otherworld Media Productions in 1985 to produce audio theatre. They created an annual "Mark Time award" for best radio science fiction, named after Ossman's astronaut character. In 2015, they added three new awards named after Firesign Theatre characters:[48]

  • Nick Danger prize for best mystery/detective fiction
  • The Bradshaw prize (after Bergman's cop character) for "service to the field"
  • The Betty Jo (But Everyone Knew Her as Nancy) prize, judged by Phil Proctor and his wife, for best "multi-gender" vocal performance

Media[edit]

Radio[edit]

  • Radio Free Oz (1966–1969)
  • The Firesign Theatre Radio Hour Hour (1970)
  • Dear Friends — syndicated (1970–1971)
  • Let’s Eat — syndicated (1971–1972)
  • A Firesign Chat with Papoon (1972 Columbia)
  • The Proctor-Bergman Report (1977–1978)
  • The Cassette Chronicles (1980 Rhino Entertainment)–a six-cassette collection of the Firesign Theatre’s presidential and campaign commentaries which aired on NPR during the 1980 election season.)
  • Daily Feed 1988 NewsreelThe Daily Feed (1988, DC Audio) a solo cassette by Austin
  • A Capital Decade Daily Feed 1989 Newsreel — The Daily Feed (1989 DC Audio) a solo” cassette by Austin
  • Power: Life on the Edge in L.A. (summer 1990) Proctor and Bergman on NPR's Heat with John Hockenberry
  • All Things Considered (July–December 2002) NPR

Albums[edit]

Solo albums[edit]

  • TV or Not TV (1973 Columbia) Proctor and Bergman
  • How Time Flys (1973 Columbia) Written and co-directed by Ossman, including all Firesign members plus a cast of guest stars
  • Roller Maidens From Outer Space (1974, Epic Records) Written and directed by Austin, including all Firesign members plus a cast of extras
  • What This Country Needs (1975, Columbia) Proctor and Bergman live, based on material from TV or Not TV
  • Give Us a Break (1978, Mercury Records) Proctor and Bergman
  • Nick Danger: The Daily Feed Tapes (1988-1990 Austin)
  • Down Under Danger (1994 Sparks Media) a solo cassette by Austin
  • David Ossman's Time Capsules (1996 Otherworld Media) a solo cassette by Ossman
  • George Tirebiter's Radio Follies (1997 Twin Cities Radio Theatre Workshop) a solo cassette by Ossman

Films[edit]

  • Zachariah (co-written by Firesign Theatre) (92 min., 1971) Comedy western, inspired by the Hermann Hesse novel Siddhartha
  • Martian Space Party (Firesign Theatre with Campoon workers) (27 min., 1972)
  • Love is Hard to Get (Peter Bergman) (26 min., 1973)
  • Let's Visit the World of the Future (44 min., 1973) based on characters from I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus, directed by Ivan Stang)
  • Six Dreams (Peter Bergman - executive producer, Phil Proctor) (13 min., 1976)
  • Tunnel Vision (featuring Phil Proctor) (70 min., 1976)
  • Everything You Know is Wrong (40 min., 1978) lip-synch to the album
  • TV or Not TV (33 min., 1978) based on the Proctor and Bergman album
  • Americathon (86 min., 1979) based on a sketch created by Proctor and Bergman
  • J-Men Forever (75 min., 1979) Proctor and Bergman; compilation of Republic Science Fiction serial clips with new dialogue overdubbed
  • The Madhouse of Dr. Fear (60 min., 1979)
  • Nick Danger in The Case of the Missing Yolk (60 min., 1983) Originally an Interactive Video, Pacific Arts PAVR-527; broadcast on the USA Network series Night Flight
  • Eat or be Eaten (30 min., 1985) Austin, Bergman, and Proctor, RCA Columbia 60566
  • Hot Shorts (73 min., 1985) Austin, Bergman, and Proctor, RCA Columbia 60435
  • Back From the Shadows: The Firesign Theatre's 25th Anniversary Reunion Show (1994)
  • Firesign Theatre Weirdly Cool DVD Movie (2001)
  • Just Folks: Live at the Roxy (2018), S'More Entertainment; live performances 1974-1981)[49][50]

Books[edit]

Straight Arrow Press, Rolling Stone's book publishing arm, published two books authored by the Firesign Theatre: The Firesign Theatre's Big Book of Plays, and The Firesign Theatre's Big Mystery Joke Book. These feature background information, satirical introductions and parodic histories, as well as transcripts from their first seven albums.

  • Exorcism In Your Daily Life: The Psychedelic Firesign Theatre at the Magic Mushroom. 1967
  • Profiles in Barbecue Sauce. 1970
  • The Firesign Theatre's Big Book Of Plays. San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1972.
  • The Firesign Theatre's Big Mystery Joke Book. San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1974.
  • The Apocalypse Papers, a Fiction by The Firesign Theatre. Topeka: Apocalypse Press, 1976. Limited edition, 500 copies
  • George Tirebiter's Radiodaze (1989 Sparks Media) a solo cassette by Ossman
  • The George Tirebiter Story Chapter 1: Another Christmas Carol (1989, Sparks Media) by Ossman
  • The George Tirebiter Story Pt.2 Mexican Overdrive / Radiodaze (1989 Company One) by Ossman
  • The George Tirebiter Story Pt.3 The Ronald Reagan Murder Case (1990 Midwest Radio Theatre Workshop) by Ossman
  • Tales Of The Old Detective And Other Big Fat Lies (1995) by Austin
  • The Ronald Reagan Murder Case: A George Tirebiter Mystery by Ossman. (Albany: BearManor Media) (2006) ISBN 1-59393-071-2
  • Dr. Firesign's Follies: Radio, Comedy, Mystery, History by Ossman. (Albany: BearManor Media) (2008) ISBN 978-1-59393-148-3

Games[edit]

  • In 1983 Mattel released two Intellivision video games with Intellivoice: Bomb Squad, with Proctor as the voice of Frank and Bergman as the voice of Boris; and B-17 Bomber, with Proctor as the voice of the Pilot and Austin as the Bombardier.[51]
  • In 1996, a computer game written by Bergman, Pyst, a parody of the game Myst, was released by Parroty Interactive.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Peter Bergman: Remembering The 'Firesign' Satirist". National Public Radio. March 12, 2012. Archived from the original on November 15, 2017. Retrieved November 15, 2017.
  2. ^ Harvey, Doug (December 5, 2001). "Firesigns of Life". L.A. Weekly. Archived from the original on November 15, 2017. Retrieved November 15, 2017.
  3. ^ This total includes one release on Columbia's subsidiary label, Epic Records.
  4. ^ a b "Who Am Us, Anyway? Peter Bergman". Firesign Media. Archived from the original on December 9, 2017. Retrieved December 1, 2017.
  5. ^ Proctor, Philip. Bride of Firesign. Firesign Media (liner notes). Archived from the original on March 11, 2016. Retrieved December 1, 2017.
  6. ^ a b "FIREZINE #4: Under the Influence of the Goons". Firezine.net. Winter 1997–1998. Archived from the original on June 27, 2006. Retrieved October 28, 2012.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa Simels, Steve (1993). Putting It Simply, There's Never Been Anything Like The Firesign Theatre Before or Since (liner notes). Laugh.com. Archived from the original on December 15, 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017.
  8. ^ a b c d "Legendary Comedy Group Firesign Theatre Celebrates Its 40th Anniversary November 17, 2006; Invite Fans to Cough Up the Goods" (Press release). November 13, 2006. Archived from the original on October 28, 2017. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  9. ^ Ventham, Maxine (2002). Spike Milligan: His Part In Our Lives. London: Robson. ISBN 1-86105-530-7.
  10. ^ Firesign Theatre. Exorcism in Your Daily Life: The Firesign Theatre at the Magic Mushroom, 1967.
  11. ^ "Jack Poet Volkswagen commercials : Firesign Theatre : Free Download & Streaming: Internet Archive". Archive.org. Archived from the original on June 19, 2012. Retrieved October 28, 2012.
  12. ^ "Fall Comedy Reads: A Look Back at the Firesign Theatre". Splitsider.com. December 5, 2017. Archived from the original on March 14, 2018. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  13. ^ According to Ossman's Martian Space Party Diary, Columbia signed the Firesigns to a second five-year contract on March 9, 1972.
  14. ^ I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus (liner notes). 1971. Archived from the original on April 1, 2017. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
  15. ^ CD Liner Notes by David Ossman Archived 2006-10-26 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ "1971 Hugo Awards". World Science Fiction Society. Archived from the original on May 7, 2011. Retrieved April 19, 2010.
  17. ^ "1972 Hugo Awards". World Science Fiction Society. Archived from the original on May 7, 2011. Retrieved April 19, 2010.
  18. ^ a b c d "The Martian Space Party Diary". firesigntheatre.com. 1996. Archived from the original on July 23, 2015. Retrieved April 15, 2016.
  19. ^ a b c Peter Bergman (Spring 1999). "The History of Proctor & Bergman On the Road". Firezine.net. 1 (5). Archived from the original on December 22, 2015. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  20. ^ "Proctor and Bergman | Bottom Line | New York, NY | Jun 8, 1978 | Late Show - wolfgangsvault.com". Concerts.wolfgangsvault.com. June 8, 1978. Archived from the original on September 10, 2009. Retrieved October 28, 2012.
  21. ^ a b c Austin, Phil (1993). Fighting Clowns (liner notes). Archived from the original on December 26, 2017. Retrieved February 1, 2018.
  22. ^ a b c d The Firesign Theatre's Box of Danger (liner notes). Los Angeles, CA: Shout! Factory. 2008.
  23. ^ a b c d "Firesign Theatre, Now Playing on NPR". NPR. National Public Radio. April 22, 2003. Archived from the original on July 4, 2017. Retrieved January 29, 2018.
  24. ^ "FIREZINE #4: Nick Danger: The Daily Feed Tapes". Firezine.net. Winter 1997–1998. Archived from the original on March 6, 2019. Retrieved February 14, 2019.
  25. ^ a b Bonnitt, Ted (1998). Power: Life on the Edge in L.A. (liner notes). Proctor and Bergman. Archived from the original on March 6, 2019. Retrieved March 3, 2019.
  26. ^ PeterBergman; Filmkauai.com Archived July 24, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ "Press release - 8/30/2011". Firesigntheatre.com. December 5, 2011. Archived from the original on October 28, 2017. Retrieved February 1, 2018.
  28. ^ "Firesign Theatre Still an Original After 45 Years « Audio Eclecticism in the 60s". Davidgordonschmidt.wordpress.com. Archived from the original on November 14, 2012. Retrieved October 28, 2012.
  29. ^ "Peter Bergman, Firesign Theatre founder, dies at 72 | 89.3 KPCC". Scpr.org. March 9, 2012. Archived from the original on June 3, 2012. Retrieved October 28, 2012.
  30. ^ "Who Am Us, Anyway?: Phil Austin". Firesign Media. Archived from the original on February 26, 2018. Retrieved January 26, 2018.
  31. ^ "Who Am Us, Anyway?: David Ossman". Firesign Media. Archived from the original on February 19, 2018. Retrieved January 26, 2018.
  32. ^ Paladino, D.J. (June 18, 2015). "Tinika Ossman-Steier Back in the Solstice Parade She Helped Create". Santa Barbara Independent. Archived from the original on September 6, 2016. Retrieved January 30, 2018.
  33. ^ Lentz, Harris M. (2015). Obituaries in the Performing Arts. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. pp. 14–15. ISBN 978-0-7864-7667-1. Retrieved January 30, 2018.
  34. ^ Roller Maidens From Outer Space (liner notes). Epic Records. 1974. Archived from the original on February 16, 2018. Retrieved February 1, 2018.
  35. ^ a b Austin, Phil. Bride of Firesign. Firesign Media (liner notes). Archived from the original on March 11, 2016. Retrieved December 1, 2017.
  36. ^ Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death (liner notes). 1998. Archived from the original on December 28, 2018. Retrieved March 27, 2019.
  37. ^ Boom Dot Bust (liner notes). 1999. Archived from the original on September 28, 2015. Retrieved March 27, 2019.
  38. ^ Bride of Firesign (liner notes). 2001. Archived from the original on March 11, 2016. Retrieved March 27, 2019.
  39. ^ Radio Now Live! (liner notes). 1999. Archived from the original on December 20, 2017. Retrieved March 27, 2019.
  40. ^ Wendy Maloney (September 29, 2017). "Firesign Theatre Comedians Share Their Story". blogs.loc.gov. Library of Congress. Archived from the original on November 17, 2017. Retrieved November 16, 2017.
  41. ^ Dan Bacalzo (September 17, 2009). "Firesign Theatre to Celebrate Creation of Nick Danger with Forward, Into The Past". TheaterMania. Los Angeles. Archived from the original on November 17, 2017. Retrieved November 16, 2017.
  42. ^ "Photo showing Lennon button". Archived from the original on October 22, 2013. Retrieved March 1, 2018.
  43. ^ Yankovic, Alfred M. (May 2000). "'Ask Al' Q&As for February, 1999". The Official "Weird Al" Yankovic Web Site. Archived from the original on December 21, 2016. Retrieved December 21, 2016.
  44. ^ Tannenbaum, Saul (July 24, 2015). "With One Of Its Easter Eggs, SIRI Evokes The Firesign Theatre, Hacker Culture, a 1960s Chatbot and Steve Jobs". Medium. Archived from the original on January 13, 2018. Retrieved March 27, 2018.
  45. ^ "Rocky Rococo pizza co-founder dies at 70". WISC-TV Channel3000.com. Madison, Wisconsin. November 29, 2017. Archived from the original on January 9, 2018. Retrieved February 28, 2018.
  46. ^ a b Breuer, Tom (March 2014). "Rocky Rococo celebrates 40-year slice of success". In Business Madison. Madison, Wisconsin. Archived from the original on March 1, 2018. Retrieved February 28, 2018.
  47. ^ Shultz, Rob (February 9, 2016). "Jim Pederson, the face and personality of Rocky Rococo Pizza for decades, dies". Wisconsin State Journal. Madison.com. Archived from the original on March 13, 2018. Retrieved February 28, 2018.
  48. ^ Walcutt, Judith (January 23, 2015). "New Audio Production Awards Established to Honor The Firesign Theater's Comedy and Satire Legacy" (PDF) (Press release). Freeland, Washingtton: Firesigntheatre.com. Archived (PDF) from the original on April 1, 2017. Retrieved February 2, 2018.
  49. ^ "Just Folks: Live at the Roxy". RockBeat. 2019. Archived from the original on January 7, 2019. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
  50. ^ Amazon.com: Firesign Theatre-Just Folks: Live At The Roxy
  51. ^ Voices Archived November 4, 2014, at the Wayback Machine; Intellivisionlives.com

Further reading[edit]

  • Marciniak, Vwadek P., Politics, Humor and the Counterculture: Laughter in the Age of Decay (New York etc., Peter Lang, 2008).
  • Santoro, Gene. Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock & Country Music. (New York: Oxford University Press) (2004)
  • Wiebel, Jr, Frederick C. Backwards into the Future - The Firesign Theatre. Albany: BearManor Media, (2005). ISBN 1-59393-043-7

ISBN 978-0-19-515481-8

External links[edit]