Monday, September 08, 2008

03:43 Backwards Into The Future: The Recorded History of The Firesign Theatre

Backwards Into the Future: The Recorded History of The Firesign Theatre
Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr.

As a child I was acutely aware that there were two worlds: the adult world and the kids world. The adult world was caught only in glimpses, perhaps an overheard conversation on the telephone, or when I would wake late at night and quietly sneak downstairs where my father was watching “The Tonight Show.” I would sit with him and never fully understand what I was watching, but know the broadcast originated from another world, one in which I did not live. This idea of two separate worlds is hard to imagine now; we all live in kids world. As a child, I remember the sense that, once I learned the rules and the codes of the adult world, I would then be an adult.

Other than manners and rules, adults didn’t really teach you about their world. No, you slowly learned the codes and hidden rules from older kids who were further along the transitional path from kids world to adult world. Older kids were objects of fascination because they were still kids, but had more experience and knowledge.

There are things that always remind me of this period of my life: the Marx Brothers, the Beatles, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and the Firesign Theatre. I first heard about all of them from older kids (either my cousins or my friends’ older siblings) whose enthusiasm about them held me spellbound. All four exhibit a combination of sharpness and absurdity, and all four were very funny. They were part of the adult world but also made fun of it. I believe this was when I decided that, in order to make fun of something, you really had to understand it.

The Firesign Theatre is the least known of the four. They were a comedy group consisting of Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Phil Proctor, formed in the late 60s. Their primary media were improvised radio shows and surreal, longform stream-of-conscious skits released on albums. One of their most famous skits, “Nick Danger,” is in the form of an old 1940s radio detective show. At the climax, Nick instructs everyone to “take off your…” But you never find out what he was going to say, because the broadcast is interrupted by President Roosevelt, announcing that Pearl Harbor has been attacked by the Japanese. America has met its Date with Destiny and can only offer her unconditional surrender to the Japanese. As a boy heading towards puberty, I couldn’t imagine Nick’s instruction as anything but “take off your clothes!” I remember telling my mother about the skit, and when I got to the interruption, she said without missing a beat: “masks.” When the album was released on cd in the early 90s, Phil Austin wrote in the liner notes that he always thought the missing word was “guns.”

The group’s heyday was roughly 1968 – 1974, after which they succumbed to the personal differences that seem to inevitably sink all group endeavors. They’ve reunited sporadically since then, to varying degrees of success. Backwards Into The Future: The Recorded History Of The Firesign Theatre is a collection of interviews from a fanzine in the 1990s when the group was experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Complaints first, mainly with the book’s production rather than its content. The design is a little amateurish, the photographs look like Xerox copies, and the entire text needed another round of proofreading and editing. Well-known playwright Tom Stoppard’s name is written as “Tom Stofford” and some of the redundancies in the interviews should have been trimmed. I also wish that more recent follow-up interviews had been included. At one point, David Ossman mentions he’s transferring his radio archives to DAT tape and all I could think was “Oh, David, nobody uses DAT anymore,” my heart sinking at his wasted efforts. I would have liked to hear what they think of America’s various fiascos of the last eight years.

However, for fans like myself, the book is a wealth of information. The interviews convey the sense of four older gentlemen looking back on their lives, trying to explain how they came up with such amazing work for a few years and then were not able to anymore. Their work, though satiric of our world, seemed to come from a completely alien one. But this book shows how it was the result of four men dealing with political, social, and personal issues. The fact that they were so funny given the turmoil of the times makes their work that much more impressive. The interviews reveal how their best work was the product of a specific time (the paranoid new-age of the late 1960s) and place (California, where else?).

“Diana Dew, who had invented electric strobe flashing clothing back in the mid – to late 60s…She invested clothes that strobed. There was this translucent plastic material that would retain an electrical charge and glow. She created a line of men’s ties and men’s and women’s unisex belts and disco dresses and vests and things with this potentiometer that was connected to the side of the dress that would work rhythmically. So that if you are on the dance floor you can adjust the beat of your tie so that it would flash in time to the music. One of her dresses, her most startling, was a black – and – white, plastic vinyl dress, with these strips of plastic material, kind of up-and-down zebra like, slatted, and she could maybe go round circle stroke would not only be a rhythm but we go round in circles even, to the right or to the left. It was amazing! It was great stuff, great disco dresses. It ended up the company went bankrupt and she… sold it to Salvador Dali, who bought everything. So that’s the only so-called straight job I ever held.”
- Phil Proctor

There are lots of other little gems in the book: Proctor’s stories about getting high with Cloris Leachman; Peter Bergman referring to Bob Hope as “one of the most successful unfunny men ever to live, but what a trooper;” and David Ossman mentioning “this one guy who was heavily alcoholed (sic) or something in the front row of an audience in Washington DC and Phil Austin had to go ask him to leave because he was yelling continually.” I was at that show, I remember that guy and no, it was not me.

Reading these interviews reminded me of reading the letters of Robertson Davies. These are stories of men moving beyond middle age into old age, looking back and making sense of their time on Earth and once again acting as guides for people like me as we move further into the adult world.


erin said...

I love how Mom immediately thought "masks." That's so Mom.

aha4663 said...

I'm charmed at your belief that a "kid's world" still exists. But if you really think that "we all live in kid's world," I invite you to come spend a day with my students. Au contraire, mon frere -- in a world where adults purchase "Grand Theft Auto" for their kids and all "my boys" had seen "Scarface" by the time they were 7, I afraid that now kids all live in the adult world (sad, but true).

the hanged man said...

I think we all live in one world that's a state of perpetual adolescent self-indulgence. The fact that adults even play video games and don't restrict their kids' entertainment and want to like the same thing that kids like makes me call this kids world. But yes, much of it is not appropriate for kids.

Disclaimer: The above was written by a man who still reads comics and watches cartoons...I mean animation.

Chromium Switch said...

Indeed, the Firesign Theatre is still active and planning a show in Monterey, Cal. this April. For more info, check out ''