The Firesign Theatre

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The Firesign Theatre
Genre Humor, comedy albums
Date of premiere 1960s
Location Los Angeles, California, United States
The surviving members of the Firesign Theatre paying tribute to the late Peter Bergman on April 21, 2012. Left to right: Philip Austin, David Ossman, Philip Proctor.
Philip Proctor (left) and Peter Bergman (right), 1976.

The Firesign Theatre was an American comedy troupe comprising Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor. Their brand of surrealistic humor is best known through their record albums, which acquired an enthusiastic following in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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).

Style[edit]

The Firesign Theatre employs a stream of consciousness style that includes direct references to movies, radio, TV, political figures, and other cultural sources, intermingled with sound effects and bits of music. The resulting stories—including the theft of a high school, a fair of clowns and holograms, and aliens who use hemp-smoking to turn people into crows—border on psychedelia, an effect intensified by the frequent appearance of mock "advertisements" satirizing real products.

The Firesign approach to comedy was strongly influenced by The Goon Show. All four original Firesign members have spoken of their admiration for this show. Said Ossman:

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.[1][2]

While their stream of consciousness style has the feel of improvisational comedy, most of the material is tightly scripted and memorized. The group's writing method demands the consent of all four members before a line can be included.[3] Much of their work (including all of their Columbia LPs, now on CD) has been copyrighted under the name "4 or 5 Krazy Guys."

Other projects[edit]

In September 1967, The Firesign Theatre performed an adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges' short story "La Muerte y La Brujula" ("Death and the Compass") on Radio Free Oz.

Columbia Records staff producer Gary Usher used the Firesign Theatre's audio collages on songs by The Byrds ("Draft Morning") and Sagittarius (the 45 RPM version of "Hotel Indiscreet") in 1967 and 1968.

In 1969, they created a number of improvised television commercials for Jack Poet Volkswagen in Highland Park, California, with the characters of Christian Cyborg (Peter Bergman), Coco Lewis (Philip Proctor), Bob Chicken (Phil Austin), and Tony Gomez (David Ossman).[4]

Between September 9, 1970 and February 17, 1971, they performed a one-hour live series, produced by Bill McIntyre, on radio station KPFK in Los Angeles entitled Dear Friends. These live programs were recorded and then edited into slightly shorter shows which were syndicated to radio stations across the country on 12" LP albums. The group later collected the best segments from the series for their fifth record, Dear Friends.

In 1972 and 1974, Straight Arrow Press, Rolling Stone's book publishing arm, published two books authored by the Firesign Theatre. These books, The Firesign Theatre's Big Book of Plays and The Firesign Theatre's Big Mystery Joke Book, feature background information, satirical introductions and parodic histories, as well as transcripts from their first seven albums. Apocalypse Papers, also authored by the group and published by a small press, was limited to an edition of only 500 copies.

In 1983 Mattel released two Intellivision video games with Intellivoice: Bomb Squad, with Phil Proctor as the voice of Frank and Peter Bergman as the voice of Boris; and B-17 Bomber, with Phil Proctor as the voice of the Pilot and Phil Austin as the Bombardier.[5]

In 1996, Peter Bergman began placing radio-show-like comedy sound bites on his own Internet-based comedy radio station, www.rfo.net. "The show will be the Internet's funny bone," Bergman said.[6]

In 1996, a computer game written by Peter Bergman, Pyst, a parody of the game Myst, was released by Parroty Interactive.

In 2008, the Firesign Theatre released a four-CD boxed set based on their most famous character, Nick Danger—"Third Eye." It was compiled from various radio shows, albums and fan recordings that were sent in via their website.

Films[edit]

The group co-wrote the screenplay to the comedy western, Zachariah, released in 1971. The film was inspired by the novel Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

The movie J-Men Forever was made by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman in 1979. The film is a compilation of Republic Science Fiction serial clips with new dialogue overdubbed.

The movie Americathon (1979) was based on a sketch created by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman.

The group adapted their Nick Danger character for a short film, Nick Danger in the Case of the Missing Yolk (1983), which was broadcast on the USA Network series Night Flight.

Group dynamics[edit]

During the mid-1970s, members of the group went in separate directions. Firesign productions continued sporadically, but Proctor and Bergman[7] performed as a duo; while Austin and Ossman worked individually and together in a few stage shows (most notably in the writing and production of In the Next World, You're on Your Own.) In the mid-1980s, Ossman temporarily left the group to produce shows for National Public Radio.

The group's recordings through 1975 were originally released by Columbia Records.

Later work[edit]

The Firesign Theatre's most recent performances were a series of live performances in December 2011.[8] They claimed to be the longest surviving group from the "Classic rock" era to still be intact with the original members (at the time of the claim in 2011, 45 years).[9]

Peter Bergman died on March 9, 2012, from complications involving leukemia,[10] and Phil Austin died on June 18, 2015, from cancer.

Discography[edit]

Commercial releases[edit]

Non-commercial releases (radio, promotional LPs)[edit]

Firesign-related albums[edit]

  • TV or not TV
    • (Columbia KC-32199 — 1973)
      • (an album by the team of Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman)
  • How Time Flys
    • (Columbia KC-32411 — 1973)
      • (a “solo” album written and presented by Ossman, but with all members performing, among others)
  • Roller Maidens From Outer Space
    • (Epic KE-32489 - March 1974)
      • (a "solo" album written and presented by Austin, with other members performing)
  • What This Country Needs
    • (Columbia PC-33687 — September 1975)
      • (an album by the team of Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman)
  • Give Us a Break
    • (Mercury SRM-3719 — 1978)
      • (an album by the team of Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman)
  • Daily Feed 1988 NewsreelThe Daily Feed
    • (DC Audio — 1988)
      • (a “solo” cassette by Austin)
  • The George Tirebiter Story Chapter1: Another Christmas Carol
    • (Sparks Media — 1989)
      • (a “solo” cassette by Ossman)
  • George Tirebiter's Radiodaze
    • (Sparks Media — 1989)
      • (a “solo” cassette by Ossman)
  • The George Tirebiter Story Pt.2 Mexican Overdrive / Radiodaze
    • (Company One — 1989)
      • (a “solo” cassette by Ossman)
  • A Capital Decade Daily Feed 1989 Newsreel — The Daily Feed
    • (DC Audio — 1989)
      • (a “solo” cassette by Austin)
  • The George Tirebiter Story Pt.3 The Ronald Reagan Murder Case
    • (Midwest Radio Theatre Workshop — 1990)
      • (a “solo” cassette by Ossman)
  • Down Under Danger
    • (Sparks Media — 1994)
      • (a “solo” cassette by Austin)
  • Tales Of The Old Detective And Other Big Fat Lies
    • (Audio Partners — 1994)
      • (a “solo” cassette by Austin)
  • David Ossman's Time Capsules
    • (Otherworld Media — Omw 1996/1 — 1996)
      • (a “solo” cassette by Ossman)
  • George Tirebiter's Radio Follies
    • (Twin Cities Radio Theatre Workshop — July 1997)
      • (a “solo” cassette by Ossman)

Filmography[edit]

  • 1970 - Zachariah (co-written by Firesign Theatre) (92 min.)
  • 1972 - Martian Space Party (Firesign Theatre with Campoon workers) (27 min.)
  • 1973 - Love is Hard to Get (Peter Bergman) (26 min.)
  • 1973 - Let's Visit the World of the Future (stars Bozo characters from Firesign Theatre, directed by Ivan Stang) (44 min.)
  • 1976 - Six Dreams (Peter Bergman - executive producer, Phil Proctor) (13 min.)
  • 1976 - Tunnel Vision (featuring Phil Proctor) (70 min.)
  • 1978 - Everything You Know is Wrong (40 min.)
  • 1978 - TV or Not TV (Peter Bergman and Phil Proctor) (33 min.)
  • 1979 - Americathon (Based on a play by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman) (86 min.)
  • 1979 - J-Men Forever (Firesign Theatre featuring Peter Bergman and Phil Proctor) (75 min.)
  • 1979 - The Madhouse of Dr. Fear (Firesign Theatre) (60 min.)
  • 1983 - Nick Danger in The Case of the Missing Yolk (60 min.) (Originally an Interactive Video, Pacific Arts PAVR-527)
  • 1985 - Eat or be Eaten (Phil Austin, Peter Bergman and Phil Proctor, RCA Columbia 60566) (30 min.)
  • 1985 - Hot Shorts (Phil Austin, Peter Bergman and Phil Proctor, RCA Columbia 60435) (73 min.)
  • 1994 - Back from the Shadows
  • 2001 - Firesign Theatre Weirdly Cool DVD Movie

Bibliography[edit]

  • Firesign Theatre. The Firesign Theatre's Big Book Of Plays. San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1972.
  • Firesign Theatre. The Firesign Theatre's Big Mystery Joke Book. San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1974.
  • Firesign Theatre. The Apocalypse Papers, a Fiction by The Firesign Theatre. Topeka: Apocalypse Press, 1976.
  • Firesign Theatre. Backwards Into the Future: The Recorded History of the Firesign Theatre. Albany: Bearmanor Media, 2006.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "FIREZINE #4: Under the Influence of the Goons". Firezine.net. Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  2. ^ Ventham, Maxine (2002). Spike Milligan: His Part In Our Lives. London: Robson. ISBN 1-86105-530-7. 
  3. ^ Tickets.com Archived April 13, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ "Jack Poet Volkswagen commercials : Firesign Theatre : Free Download & Streaming: Internet Archive". Archive.org. Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  5. ^ Voices; Intellivisionlives.com
  6. ^ PeterBergman; Filmkauai.com Archived July 24, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ "Proctor and Bergman | Bottom Line | New York, NY | Jun 8, 1978 | Late Show - wolfgangsvault.com". Concerts.wolfgangsvault.com. 1978-06-08. Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  8. ^ Official website announcement, retrieved August 30, 2011
  9. ^ "Firesign Theatre Still an Original After 45 Years « Audio Eclecticism in the 60s". Davidgordonschmidt.wordpress.com. Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  10. ^ "Peter Bergman, Firesign Theatre founder, dies at 72 | 89.3 KPCC". Scpr.org. 2012-03-09. Retrieved 2012-10-28. 

Sources[edit]

  • Official website 19 January 2006
  • Firezine.net FAQ, 23 January 2006
  • Marsh, Dave, and Greil Marcus. "The Firesign Theatre." The New Rolling Stone Record Guide. Ed. Dave Marsh and John Swenson. New York: Random House, 1983. 175–176.
  • Smith, Ronald L. The Goldmine Comedy Record Price Guide. Iola: Krause, 1996.

Further reading[edit]

  • Marciniak, Vwadek P., Politics, Humor and the Counterculture: Laughter in the Age of Decay (New York etc., Peter Lang, 2008).
  • Ossman, David. Dr. Firesign's Follies: Radio, Comedy, Mystery, History. (Albany: BearManor Media) (2008) ISBN 978-1-59393-148-3
  • Ossman, David. The Ronald Reagan Murder Case: A George Tirebiter Mystery. (Albany: BearManor Media) (2006) ISBN 1-59393-071-2
  • Wiebel, Jr, Frederick C. Backwards into the Future - The Firesign Theatre. Albany: BearManor Media, (2005). ISBN 1-59393-043-7
  • Santoro, Gene. Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock & Country Music. (New York: Oxford University Press) (2004) ISBN 978-0-19-515481-8

External links[edit]