Comedy has lost one of its great innovators -- Firesign Theatre founding member Peter Bergman died Friday, March 9, 2012 due to complications from leukemia. He and his cohorts reinvented comedy with surreal, multi-layered socio-political critiques and wild wordplay. Phil Austin, Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor debuted as the Firesign Theatre in 1966 and became cult heroes by breaking or ignoring boundaries with their surreal, complexly layered material. Their work forms an ongoing critique of modern society, media saturation, and technological alienation, but they are far from overly intellectual, lacing their routines with crazy puns, twisted pop-culture references, and warped -- or invented -- folk sayings and catchphrases. To appreciate their Dadaist comedy requires a long attention span, willingness to follow free associations, and attention to detail.
The prolific quartet dissolved in the '80s, though a 1985 album reunited three members. Proctor and Bergman also worked as a duo for a while. All four original members got back together again in 1993 and resumed recording in 1998. In a 1999 interview with CDNOW (I was thrilled to speak to him via phone), Bergman said, "We overload you with information, so it sets off the circuits -- it doesn't short-circuit you completely, it re-circuits you." Ossman cited as influences "'golden age of radio' programs," Beat poetry, and "Waiting for Godot, Ionesco...Surrealism, Dada, late 20th-century avant-garde literature."
A better (in fact, truly wonderful) obituary than I could write from my brief phone encounter with him already exists, full of fascinating tidbits and warm recollections. (This more formal one is nicely thorough.) I instead will examine the body of work he created with the Firesign Theatre. Picking the best of their catalog is a highly subjective enterprise. With a few exceptions at the end, I have favored stuff that isn't hard to track down (firesigntheatre.com doesn't sell all of them directly, but will point you towards most of them), quartet efforts rather than separate members' offshoots, and releases that were originally conceived as self-contained albums rather than compilations of radio shows and such.
1. Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (Columbia Legacy)
This 1970 album (their third) is Firesign's acclaimed masterpiece. Making sense of it all isn't easy, but there's a constant stream of amusing comedy nuggets, such as the broadcast of a service of the "Powerhouse Church of the Presumptuous Assumption of the Blinding Light," an announcer's boilerplate line, "Those are the headlines. Now the rumors behind the news," a report about the merger of the U.S. government with TMZ General Corp., and a commercial where a woman's coffee lacks "zest appeal." Hints that there may be more to this than mere frivolity come with another announcer's off-handed comment that "last year…the world ended," followed by a reference to "before they changed the water." There's also a commercial for a detergent called Napalmolive ("when the job gets this dirty, there's only one weapon") that comments sardonically on the Viet Nam War.
Eventually we learn that the main character is George Leroy Tirebiter, who's sitting up all night switching television channels in a vaguely futuristic world. Tirebiter seems to be captured both as a youth and as an old man looking back on his movie career, most notably as a maker of Porgy and Mudhead films (a parody of Archie and Jughead; Porgy's last name is also Tirebiter). We hear bits and pieces of a Porgy and Mudhead feature called High School Madness, where it's the day of Porgy's high school graduation, but when he and Mudhead drive up to the school, Morse Science High has disappeared, an event blamed by Porgy's girlfriend, Bottles, on "those bullies at Communist Martyrs High School." Channel-switching gives the already surreal proceedings even less continuity as we also hear the adventures of a character called Lt. Tirebiter in a war movie with many references to "gooks." Back in the world of High School Madness, Porgy's father turns out to be the People's Commissioner and captures his son and Mudhead snooping at Communist Martyrs High School, where they're found Morse Science High disassembled and the parts labeled. At Porgy's trial, he expresses dismay at his father's dual role: "I don't see how you can be my defense lawyer and the people's prosecutor at the same time." Back in the war movie, there's a court martial of Lt. Tirebiter (that refers to "kill" as "prohibited language") where the judge says, "the accursed will be advised of the absence of his rights under the secret code of military toughness" -- a comment relevant once again four decades later. As we're ping-ponged back and forth between the two trials, things get less clear but more ominous, until an ending which explains nothing but provides a touching bit of nostalgia.
2. How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All (Columbia Legacy)
With its famous cover proclaiming "All Hail Marx/Lennon," with pictures of Groucho and John rather than Karl and Vladimir Illich (Lenin), this 1969 album is a classic even before listening, a complex album at once mystifying and transfixing. Its pair of 28-minute tracks display the two main sides of Firesign. The title track is a nearly chaotic, often quickly shifting collage of free associations. Taking off from the premise of a new car whose features -- especially the radio, apparently -- materialize and warp its occupant's life, it flits through the prototypical Firesign scenario in which the Nazis are actually in control, with tangents to Pharoanic Egypt, and Revolutionary America (with the wicked song parody "Yankee Doodle Came to Terms"). Adrift in a constantly shifting landscape of stereotypical accents reading weirdly warped ad copy and radio scripts, complete with a W.C. Fields imitation and a closing takeoff on Molly Bloom's soliloquy from Joyce's Ulysses, the listener may not ever figure out what's going on, but will be consistently stimulated and entertained.
"The Further Adventures of Nick Danger" parodies old-time radio dramas. All the conventions are in place, but twisted, with deadpan quotes of lines from the Beatles' "Rocky Raccoon," goofy puns, and behind-the-scenes references to how the shows were produced and to side one of the LP -- plus a Presidential announcement interrupting this supposed 1941 broadcast to announce the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the immediate unconditional surrender of the U.S. Easier to follow than the more absurdist first track, it's a good entry point for listeners new to the wacky world of Firesign.
3. Fighting Clowns (Firesign Theatre)
This 1980 album relies heavily on music and, partly because of that, is full of set-pieces. It seems to be a traveling recruiting program. A voice promises, "It'll make reality less painful." Someone asks, "Are you ready to sacrifice everything for the cause, because?" It's debatable what the cause is; eventually, it seems to be peace, although along the way it often seems as though it's war. This album's gestation came when the U.S. was in danger of becoming involved in the war in Afghanistan between Soviet Russia and rebel troops, at the same time there was an American Presidential election being contested. (Alas, it became topical again two decades later.) "The Bozos Song" refers back to Firesign's 1971 LP I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus, while its mix of lyrics satirizing capitalism and its sour jazz-blues recalls the low-brow operas of Bertholdt Brecht and Kurt Weill (most famously, The Threepenny Opera). A war reference suggests, "Let's practice being Soviet shooters on our family game computers." Then, in a parody of happy musical songs, "The Four Gobs" finds four sailors about to go off to war singing an ode to quicky sex, inflatable dolls, polymorphous perversity, and...nuclear war, because "blondes are dumb but bombs are smart."
Scattered throughout the album are Presidential candidate theme songs by a group dubbed The 8 Shoes. Gerald Ford wouldn't have felt complimented had he been hip enough to be listening to this LP, but Ronald Reagan is dealt with even less charitably in a doo-wop/soul style, although the phrase "It's never too late to lose again" wasn't very prescient. The bonus track "Jimmy Carter" is a country ode to the President at the time, only slightly more sympathetic. There's also a series of overheard conversations, several set "In the Hot Tub" in California's tony Marin County with such bon mots as "How's the divorce?" "We divided our kids between the two lawyers" and "I had to pay my dentist bill with my gold fillings." There are the usual brilliant Firesign pop-culture references. "In the War Zone," theoretically discussing faulty weapons, notes that "all those Baryshnikovs are defective," while another bit of dialog goes, "What kind of beer was that?" "Henry Winkler Private Reserve" -- this album is definitely more easily appreciated by those who lived through the '70s and remember a certain Russian émigré ballet dancer and The Fonz on Happy Days.
"In the Alley" captures the pre-performance conversation of the band The Fudds, including such throw-away gems as "there's asbestos in this beer." Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers) is the lead guitarist throughout the album and as a member of The Fudds even gets off one funny context-heavy line on this track. The Fudds' "Violent Juvenile Freaks" is a screaming, Hendrixian fuzz-tone guitar fueled ditty complaining about all the bad habits, personal or ecological, threatening the genetic integrity of the offspring of '60s parents. The anti-war tone becomes more obvious on "Oh, Afghanistan," a bizarre reggae track with lots of organ and guitar sung by a resident of the town of Billville (familiar to Firesign devotees); the line "If they take your name away, can't they take us too?" suggests it's an anti-draft song. Finally, "This Bus Won't Go to War" is a '50s-style rocker with "One Little Indian"-style verses and a chorus that says, "Everyone's a bozo on this bus / zips and beaners sitting next to us. / Are you a hostage? Are you a spy? / Or just some berserker who's prepared to die?"
4. The Bride of Firesign (Rhino)
This 2001 release is Firesign's best reunion CD, overcoming the hurdle of the first track consisting of a bunch of insipid penis jokes. After that, Firesign's propensities for puns and pop-culture references are in high gear. The younger characters of Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers have grown up and are trucking partners. At first, they're in a skit about the rampant employee monitoring of the modern office; when an automated supervisor says, "Every key you punch, every bite of lunch, we'll be watching you," the driver responds, "Help, it's the Police." Firesign's most famous concept and character, Nick Danger, their parody of old-fashioned radio dramas and noir detectives, is revived. There's a great anagram ("When you spell my town inside out, you get 'Legs on Sale'"), and such tweakings of narrator clichés as Danger mumbling, "I gotta get a car," after the announcer says, "Nick Danger: he walks again by night." Eventually it becomes apparent that Danger is in the 21st century, and he's not adapting well to digitalization, virtual reality, etc. It gradually becomes clear, as the tracks ping-pong between the characters, that Danger, Porgy, and Mudhead are intertwined in one of the Firesign Theatre's most diabolical plot lines.
5. Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him (Columbia Legacy)
The group's 1968 debut finds many characteristics already in place: humorous anachronisms, quick cuts and non-linear construction, clever wordplay, and gleeful puncturing of pop-culture icons. The nearly 22-minute title track is an absurdist bureaucratic nightmare equal parts Godot and Kafka, with such dialog gems as, "He says he can shout, don't hear you." Revolutionary rhetoric, prison novels, the process of justice, game shows ("Beat the Reaper"), radio reporters, audio language lessons, drug jokes, and the craze for Indian music (demonstrated by "the Mantras and the Chakras" and including a "Sihk-out" recording) are all touched on before the dramatic and silly conclusion. There are no electricians involved.
6. I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus (Columbia Legacy)
One of the group's most plotless albums, this 1971 release spoofs Disney-ized science and history tours. A history of the planet opens with a bizarre creation myth that Freud would have a ball with, and later comments, "Animals without backbones hid from each other or fell down." The arc of humanity beings with the statement, "And so, in fear and hot water, Man is born." We are told that Civilized Man "harnessed the secret of the calendar and, with the power of the week, built the pyramids." Science enters with Fudd's First Law of Opposition: "If you push something hard enough, it will fall over." There are enough such bon mots that the slim plot (which materializes near the end) hardly matters. The deeper message may be the fallibility of technology.
7. Boom Dot Bust (Rhino)
The second reunion album, from 1999, finds the group returning to the complex, non-linear multiple plot lines of their most classic early albums. It was characterized by Bergman as being "about the American bubble and the pricks who live inside it." Corrupt government, class warfare, gung-ho sports, the American equation of bigger with better, apocalyptic weather, and apocalyptic commercials. The group's obsession with coining or twisting folksy sayings is at its peak here, and there are such classic zingers as the slogan of a martial-arts remake of Citizen Kane: "Now it must be told again, because evil never dies, but copyrights expire."
8. Anythynge You Want To: Shakespeare's Lost Comedie (Firesign Theatre)
Over squalling Elizabethan music, the Prologue sets the tone to come with the opening anachronistic line, "O for a microphone and wire that would bestir the electric wave." The three witches of Macbeth are parodied (half the ingredients in their brew are endangered species), and the traveling Archbishop of Pflegm refers to Lord Michelin's Guide. The Archbishop says of the witches' prophecy, "Their metaphors are mixed and thick as gruel." Other familiar Shakespearean scenarios are parodied. One dialog is full of basketball references; all are loaded with outsized accents and clever wordplay.
9. Box of Danger: The Complete Nick Danger Casebook (Shout Factory)
This four-CD box set compiled in 2008 includes not only the expected classics (a few already mentioned above) but also rarities and previously unreleased material. Such total immersion is for fans only, obviously, but well worth it for those who've enjoyed Firesign's most frequently occurring character and their loving spoof of old-time radio and "hardboiled" detective stories.
10. Radio Now Live (Firesign Theatre)
This two-CD set recorded in concert in 1999 partly functions as a "greatest bits" album (though not always so bitty: the 20-minute "Nick Danger, Third Eye" is included). Even the familiar may surprise, though; ad-libs or updatings with references to events since the original routine's creation pop up even in items as heavily scripted as the five excerpts from Anythynge You Want To. And the pace of live performance, slower and with more space, makes some parts easier to follow, so it's a good introduction for those new to the Firesign experience. Similarly useful is the two-CD best-of Shoes for Industry! (Columbia Legacy). - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer whose song cycle setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo is finally complete at twelve songs. It is the most depressing set of songs since Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.