Bozos, Boogies, Beaners, Zips and Berserkers

The four or five funny guys of the Firesign Theatre

I’ll be honest with you: I had a hard time even starting this article. Writing about the Firesign Theatre poses a similar problem to writing about other cult phenomena: they have a small core of smart, dedicated fans, and most of what there is to say about them has already been said. The more research I did, the more I realized that if it was worth talking about, someone had beaten me to it. Frankly, I was stuck for an angle. Lamenting my blockage to a few friends, one of them — a younger guy as removed from me in age as I am from the people who heard the Firesign Theatre when they were new — suggested that I draw in a larger audience (presumably, like him, largely unfamiliar with the Firesigns) by comparing and contrasting them to other artists who had done similar work. (In the hack trade, we call the “If You Like Blank, You’ll Love Blank!” game.) And it was then that I realized the biggest problem, when I recognized why I was having so much trouble: there wasn’t anyone who had done similar work to the Firesign Theatre. Wasn’t, isn’t, and probably never will be.

Probably the favorite trope in the critic’s cliché box is to say that an artist is “unique” or “incomparable” or that they “aren’t like anyone else” — just before comparing them to a hundred other performers the critic happens to like. The Firesign Theatre, though, really is incomparable. There’s literally no one else like them. They created a genre all their own, drawn from the traditions of but dissimilar to anything that had gone before; they recorded a handful of essentially flawless albums in that genre; and when they were done, no one else seemed even remotely capable of or interested in working in that genre ever again. In a world of thousands of “unique” performers who still managed to be similar to other acts who also got stuck with the Big U label, the Firesign Theatre really was unique.

Who were they, that they deserve such singling out? Forget it. I’m not here for biography or hagiography. More and better bios of the Firesign Theatre have been written than anything I could come up with. I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him. They were, in brief, a foursome composed of broadcaster and radio personality Peter Bergman (host of the ultra-hip “Radio Free Oz” program on KPFK Los Angeles in the mid-1960s); actor Phil Proctor (who happened to be Bergman’s haircutter); musician Phil Austin (who also served as Radio Free Oz’s engineer); and poet David Ossman (who was also Austin’s connection). At the ass end of the ’60s, this loosely affiliated quartet that had coalesced around a largely improvised radio show began to do recorded comedic theatre that was anything but improvisational. Working together, the four of them conjured up a “fifth guy” — an imaginary entity who resulted from the process of bouncing jokes and ideas off of each other, and who they always claimed wrote their best material — and they fell face-first into a major-label record contract. From that time until the mid-1970s, the Firesign Theatre somehow managed to record five of the most jaw-dropping, scintillating, hilarious, remarkable and compulsively listenable albums ever made, starting with their second record and ending with their eighth.

Okay, fine — so what was so special about them? What was this genre that they had all to themselves? What made them great, and why do they deserved an audience wider than the cult following they ended up with? As they put it on their first great album, “Who AM us, anyway?” That, I can at least try to answer.

The Firesign Theatre made comedy albums. I deliberately do not say “comedy records”; those have been around forever. Anyone can, and does, make a comedy record, and it’s often an utter disaster. Novelty songs can be entertaining, but an entire album of them is usually excruciating; stand-up comedy is a live medium which doesn’t generally translate well to recording or justify repeated listening; and while there’s been a few (a very few) ambitious sketch comedy groups with the ability and the inclination to work in an audio rather than visual format, they are mostly content to string together bits with no connection and no coherence. The Firesigns, however, made comedy albums — with a few exceptions, their records were designed to exploit the album form as fully as possible. Their albums weren’t just random pile-ups of short-form humor in an audio medium; they were “plays,” concepts — not in the bloated, pretentious sense of “concept album” that we normally associate with the 1970s, but in the seldom-used nonpejorative sense. They made conceptual art — art with ideas, structure and ambition — but their art was comedy. And it was fucking hilarious.

The Firesign Theatre are often compared to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Let’s leave aside the fact that the comparison, while not entirely unfounded (they shared, in particular, a deeply held desire to screw around with the conventions and strictures of their respective media), is lazy — it has become an unconquerable truism that anyone doing intelligent, experimental humor will get compared to Python. Beyond that, the Firesigns simply had more creative freedom than the Python troupe, who were shackled by their high profile and the short leash on which they were kept by a nervous BBC. Given the power to do virtually anything they wanted, the Firesigns — who may not have been more ambitious than any other group of smart comics before or since, but could realize their ambitions under better circumstances — created a series of albums so great that it seemed as if they were defying gravity. They were so good for so long, and their nearly indescribable albums were so unlike anything that came before, that whatever you want to call the genre in which they worked (conceptual audio-comedy? Humorous experimental radio theatre? Laff opera?), they created it and killed it in one stroke. No one else — not “no one” in the sense of “no one important” or “no one you’ve ever heard of,” but no one — ever did anything like it again.

But what was it? It’s surprising that, given the amount that has been written about the Firesign Theatre, almost no one seems to be willing to describe what exactly it is that they do. It’s a lot easier to describe what they didn’t do: they weren’t a musical act, although music played a huge part in their work. They weren’t a theatre group, although their albums have a theatrical structure and the acting is often superb. They didn’t exactly make comedy records as they are commonly understood, although their records are relentlessly funny. And they didn’t write radio plays, although their material both utilizes and subverts classic elements of radio comedy and drama. Somehow, they combined the musical sensibilities of the time, their own theatrical talents, a savagely funny and subtle sense of humor, and a deft combination of live radio traditions and the infinite possibilities of studio techniques to create their art. The albums also shared a certain formal structure: the stories told in the Firesign Theatre’s best work are a demented Pilgrim’s Progress, following the adventures of a naif with an amorphous identity through a bizarre and ever-changing (yet always uniquely American) landscape. In this sense, the Firesigns could be said to have made the same record over and over; but the mercurial changes in identity, setting, tone and character (not only from album to album, but within each album) meant that they also never made the same record twice.

Their first full-length work, 1968’s Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, manages to introduce listeners to almost every element that made the Firesign Theatre great except one: they weren’t yet ready to take on the challenge of presenting the comedy album as a piece of conceptual art, as a series of individual elements that somehow coalesce into a unified whole. Waiting for the Electrician has a number of worthwhile bits; the introductory piece, “Temporarily Humboldt County,” pulls off the neat trick of encapsulating 400 years of the American Indian getting fucked by the white man in just over 10 minutes, and the even neater trick of making it amazingly funny. Two pun-laden attacks from within on hippie culture (“W.C. Fields Forever” and “Le Trente-Huit Cunegonde”), while containing some good moments, have lost a lot of punch after 35 years; they must have seemed pretty powerful at the height of the peace-and-love wave, but today, they lack the immediacy they had back then. The title track, however, which closes out the album, is not only a creepy-funny tale of a innocent abroad that ends with a nasty jolt of black humor, but also represents their first stab at the formal structure that would be used in their best work. Here, the wandering naif is the anonymous tourist P., and his landscape is that of a nameless European nation as metaphor for strangulating bureaucracy. In the end, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him is too much a standard sketch-comedy record to be considered one of the Firesign Theatre’s essential works; it’s really just a collection of sketches, regardless of how good they are. But the next time the group went into the studio, they would begin a breathtaking hot streak.

Technically speaking, the Firesigns’ second album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All, isn’t a full-length comedy album either — it’s two long but seemingly unconnected pieces of one side each. But it’s also clearly their first great album, and the first one where they truly begin to realize the potential of their medium. The production, for the first time, takes on the dense, multilayered quality that became a Firesign hallmark (critical discussions of the group never give enough credit to the album’s producer, Cyrus Faryar, who with Phil Austin helped develop their sound); one can listen to the superbly mixed stacks of sound and hear something new on every play, even after over 30 years.

The first, self-titled side features the travels of one Babe, an eager and simple young consumer who buys a car from hyperexuberant salesman Ralph Spoilsport (one of the Firesign Theatre’s most durable creations and legitimately a classic comic character) and drives it straight into the heart of the American Dream. Over the course of the narrative, he discovers more than he ever dreamed about the American pageant, including the nature of the men who settled this great land of ours (“We were small, angry men with hairy faces and burning feet,” mutter a group of generic immigrants). The piece sets the tone for the group’s future efforts by taking a seemingly shotgun approach that manages to cohere in the end; though you couldn’t possibly have seen it coming, it makes perfect sense when the side concludes with the return of Ralph Spoilsport, giving the world’s strangest reading of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses.

The second side, “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” is an absolutely perfect parody of a radio detective serial, following the adventures of a thick-headed, self-centered private dick through 1940s Los Angeles (he can’t pronounce the names of any of the streets). Filled with clever puns, dead-on characterizations, and inventive tampering with the conventions of radio, the piece is one of the Firesign Theatre’s most beloved, but some critics have attacked it as unambitious. They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s hilarious, well-thought-out, and though lacking the thematic elements of their best pieces, remarkably accomplished and enduring. It ends with a shift as disturbing and amusing as the one on the first side: the “show” is interrupted by an announcement from President Roosevelt that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor — and that the United States has unconditionally surrendered so he can get back to listening to the program.

Where How Can You Be… was an explosion of possibility, the Firesign Theatre’s third album, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, was a nuclear bomb. It leveled the whole notion of recorded comedy, wiping out everything that had come before and leaving something so devastating that nothing ever came close to topping it, not even the later work of its creators. Not so much a change from their previous work as an expansion of it, Don’t Crush That Dwarf followed its optimistic but confused hero through a number of incarnations — Porgie, the helplessly naïve teenage hero; George, the cluelessly cocky politician; Lt. Tirebiter, the hard-boiled Hollywood soldier who can’t bring himself to say the word “kill”; and George Leroy Tirebiter, an old man who sits in a retirement home watching younger versions of himself on TV. It manages to be a devastating indictment of the Vietnam War, a razor-sharp media satire and a surprisingly touching contemplation of the transience of youth all at the same time, while still managing to be unbearably funny. The classic bits are almost uncountable — Pico and Alvarado, two stoned Latino soldiers, giving a blissed-out account of the situation in Korea (a thinly veiled Vietnam); a manic TV clown wishing a happy birthday to one of his young listeners, noting that she’s going to start menstruating soon; a slick evangelist luring worshipers into his flock with the promise of food; a pitch-perfect parody of Archie and Jughead; and the drop-dead funny speech given by a befuddled high school principal who tries to put a positive spin on the obscene heckling of his students. Rumor has it that students at UCLA and Berkeley transcribed the entire album word for word and wrote it on walls; it’s not hard to believe. It’s a towering work, comparable to world-beaters in other media from Citizen Kane to The White Album. The Firesigns attempted to encapsulate the world and everything in it on, of all things, a comedy record; and, of all things, they succeeded.

Having created something that was essentially impossible to follow up, it would have been understandable if the group didn’t bother to try, or even disbanded completely. But they weren’t done yet. They took up their own gauntlet on their fourth album, 1971’s I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus, and signaled their intention to pick up exactly where they left off by, well, literally picking up exactly where they left off: the album begins precisely where the previous one ends, with the jingling bell of an ice cream truck. Formally similar to its predecessor, Bozos is shares themes as well: its hero, a corn-fed Midwestern boy named Clem, sets out to recapture his vanished childhood by infiltrating a surreal amusement park of the future (patterned after the various World’s Fairs and expositions) and forcing the computer that runs it to answer a riddle that has plagued him since he was a boy. Along the way, he encounters a group of Bozos (clownish Firesign representations of the bourgeois everyman) and breaks the President, a wicked vision of Nixon as an audio-animatronic robot who answers questions with a series of preprogrammed banalities. The album features plenty of funny moments, especially the singing holograms who entertain visitors to the park, a popular ride where humans have hand-to-hand fights with household appliances and a lengthy satire of pseudo-scientific “edutainment” that includes such formulations as Fudd’s Law — “If you push something hard enough, it will fall over.” It’s not as good as Don’t Crush That Dwarf — how could it be? — but it’s still an incredibly strong album that suffers only in comparison to its perfect predecessor. And that’s good, because it would be a while before the Firesign Theatre made another worthwhile album.

1972 saw the release of two records from the group, one merely a disappointment and the other a disaster. Dear Friends was a collection of skits from the foursome’s 1970 syndicated radio show of the same name, and while it’s got many terrific bits, following up three earth-shattering albums of conceptual genius with what is basically a best-of sketch comedy record is like tuning into an acclaimed sitcom and having to watch a clip show. However, Not Insane or Anything You Want To, the album that followed, was so misbegotten that it made most fans (including Lester Bangs, who reviewed it with a simple and lethal “Not Insane and Not Funny Either”) long for the mere failure of Dear Friends. It certainly didn’t lack for ambition — it was another high-concept album about alienation and the nature of performance that involved satellites communicating with one another as they tried to stage a live show — but the material just wasn’t strong enough. Worse still, where it was strong, it was incomprehensible; for the first time, the production was too heavy, too layered, with many lines impossible to hear, let alone understand, under the haze of chaos and noise. Instead of being about alienation, it was simply alienating, and it was their first album that just didn’t work. After its release, the Firesigns went on a year-long hiatus, and fans could be forgiven for thinking it was all over, that the group had been so good for so long that they’d burned out and would never recover.

In 1974, the Firesign Theatre returned, once again releasing two albums in one year. The first was a Sherlock Holmes/pulp fiction mash-up called The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, and it seemed something of a change of direction for the group. The humor was still present in abundance: it’s probably the most clever album the group ever did, with the focal point being a seemingly endless series of intricate puns. Once again following Joyce, whose Finnegans Wake was a book in which seemingly every word was a reference, Giant Rat was an album on which every single line was a complex piece of wordplay. Perhaps not surprisingly considering the tenor of the times, the album is also their most sexual, and the drug of choice is cocaine, not marijuana. Giant Rat is unfairly vilified by most critics, who don’t recognize that its less conceptual humor is just as funny, and who mistakenly believe that its traditional storytelling structure means it has no overarching thematic content. In fact, on this most precise of albums, the thematic content is woven into the entire narrative: at the heart of this funny, endlessly quotable parody of ripping yarns is a neat little critique of colonialism and the co-option of culture. Although it’s not a world-changer, Giant Rat is a fine album with a reputation far worse than it deserves.

Everything You Know is Wrong came next, and it was a return to form for the group. It presented a series of seemingly unconnected sketches that hang off of a central questing character (in this case, the New Age conspiracy buff “Happy” Harry Cox), featured subtle but clear thematic elements (here, a contemplation of history — and its end — viewed through the lens of the new American West), and the Firesigns’ frustratingly unique ability to make comedy albums with a beginning, middle and end. Listeners follow the adventures of the cranky Cox as he reveals any number of alternate histories and crackpot conspiracies, punctures the New Age before it became trendy again, and attempts to expose some of his trailer-park-dwelling neighbors as aliens, only to become so obsessed with them that he misses the real earth-shaking events going on around him. It contains plenty of classic moments, like the vacation footage taken by a California couple of their own abduction and murder by extraterrestrials, a dead-to-rights interpretation of a local news team (complete with the self-important anchor and the obnoxious, platitude-spouting, pseudo-intellectual sportscaster), and a paralyzingly funny military training film about what to do if aliens attack. A fantastic album that can stand alongside their best work, Everything You Know is Wrong proved to the world that the Firesign Theatre still had something to say.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be the last thing they had to say. “Happy” Harry Cox closed out the album by saying “The end … or is it only the beginning? No, it’s the end.” And so it was, for a long time. The album that followed, In the Next World, You’re On Your Own, was their darkest yet, and while it featured the thematic and conceptual elements that had marked their greatest albums, it just wasn’t that funny. Overlong, underwritten and fatally flawed by having been largely completed by only half the group while internal feuding broke them up for a time, it was their last gasp on Columbia Records. They soldiered on for a number of years, releasing a lot of unspectacular albums on a lot of small record labels with limited distribution; of their output over the next 20 years, only 1982’s Shakespeare’s Lost Comedie delivered a decent assortment of laughs, and it really was what critics thought The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra had been: a pun-laden gag album with no heart, no soul, no meaning. Generally, the group (whose members would leave and return in various permutations, but always the same four men) put out records like the lackluster Nick Danger in the Three Faces of Al, the baffling Eat or Be Eaten, the abortive Fighting Clowns and the abysmal Lawyer’s Hospital. They succumbed to the ultimate in lazy comedy writing, recycling their most successful characters and their greatest lines again and again in the service of sub-mediocre product.

And yet, it still wasn’t over for the Firesign Theatre. The aging gunslingers reunited in the mid-1990s for a series of stage shows (they were never as successful in other media as they were on record, but that didn’t stop them from trying), and in 1998 — 12 years after their last album, and 24 years after their last good album — they put a bullet right between the eyes of their listeners with Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death, a record that, had it been recorded when they were a bit younger, a bit funnier, and a bit more on the ball, could have been one of their best. As it is, it’s still pretty damn good. Successfully implementing the formula that produced their greatest albums, it tells an entire story (24 hours in the life of a radio station whose format is constantly changing) with an overreaching theme (the march of time and the passage of an old and ugly millennium into a new and frightening one) and a bunch of very funny sketches (a grade-Z sexploitation film starring a wind-up doll of the late Princess Diana; the return of Ralph Spoilsport, now hocking brand-new bodies for people who want to “live forever while all around you, your friends fall apart like rotting fruit”; and a news drought so severe the talking heads are forced to make chit-chat about their broken coffee machine). Sadly, it was followed up by the confusing Boom Dot Bust and the absolutely horrible Bride of Firesign, but it proved something: the band who made the five greatest comedy records of all time — who created, mastered and ended a genre all their own — didn’t do so by accident.

Teslacle’s Deviant to Fudd’s Law, as stated on I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus, states: “What goes in, must come out.” A lot went into the four or five crazy guys’ best work; what came out is essential listening for anyone who thinks that comedy can be funny and still take its place among the highest art.