Right about mid-point between the Golden Age of Radio and the widely dreaded Y2K, America gave birth to a comedy troupe the likes of which it had never known. They called themselves the Firesign Theatre, a non sequitur moniker for a non sequitur era.
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Often referred to as "the American Monty Python," no American comedic precedent paved the way for Firesign as the Goon Show did in Britain for Monty Python. Although members cite the legendary Stan Freberg, Ernie Kovacs and comic surrealists Bob and Ray as influences, none of them had the mass impact in the US that the Goons did in the UK. When Firesign released their first album in 1968, their rivals on the comedy charts included the Smothers Brothers, Don Rickles, Jose Jimenez and Bob Newhart. It comes as no surprise that the comparatively clueless marketeers then at Columbia Records decided to treat Firesign, in the words of Phil Austin, "as if we were a band. That was something they could relate to."
And no wonder they had trouble. It isn't easy--no, check that--it isn't possible to slot Firesign Theatre into a convenient, pre-packaged space. Just when you think you're about to hear a reference to Duchamp, they cut to a bodily function joke. Their full-frontal comedy doesn't pander to its audience by going merely for the cheap gag. It engages your cerebellum....and then goes for the cheap gag.
In a time when the word "synergy" is code for "corporate dysfunction," the constituent components of the Firesign Theatre actually draw from their diverse backgrounds to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Two of the guys (Proctor and Bergman) met at Yale, where they were both active in the dramatic arts (which can also presumably be said to include journalism, as Bergman was the managing editor of the venerable Yale Record). The pair collaborated on a musical version of Tom Jones and a number of other productions in the early Sixties.
Meanwhile, Phil Austin (the voice of Bebop Loco on Give Me Immortality... and the group's official lead guitarist) was following a similar journalism/radio/drama path a few score miles north at Bowdoin College, courtesy in part to a swimming scholarship.
At about the same time, a few miles to the south of New Haven, David Ossman took a job at WBAI Radio in New York City, the flagship station of the Pacifica network (later heralded as the station that caused the FCC to label George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" skit as officially dirty). He also plied his trade as a poet and journalist, publishing articles, plays and books.
In the post-college, pre-Firesign years of the early Sixties, the members of the group had a variety of adventures far too numerous to mention.
Just to touch on a few high points, Phil Proctor played a juvenile delinquent on the CBS soap opera "The Edge Of Night," worked in the Broadway and touring companies of "The Sound Of Music" and guest starred on the Daniel Boone television series. Phil Austin performed Shakespeare around Los Angeles and wound up in the US Army Reserve, attached to the Psychological Warfare Unit, where he trained in radio and broadcast propaganda. It was through this unit that Austin met future Firesign producer Gary Usher. David Ossman moved to Los Angeles and another Pacifica station, KPFK. In addition to his radio duties, he produced the critically-acclaimed book, The Sullen Art, which chronicled his interviews with major American poets such as Ginsberg, Rexroth, Merwin, Levertov, Bly and others. Peter Bergman translated lyrics for a lost Haydn opera, worked in a pet shop and collaborated in London with British comic deities Spike Milligan and Peter Cook.
So it wasn't your average bunch of mooks that found themselves in the studio at KPFK for Peter Bergman's 5-nights-a-week underground radio phenomenon called Radio Free Oz, which later morphed (due in part to copyright reasons) from the Oz Firesign Theatre to the Firesign Theatre.
In January of 1968, the group released its first album, Waiting For The Electrician Or Someone Like Him, on Columbia Records. Although the album sold a mere 12,000 in its first year, the troupe established themselves as the court jesters to the counter-culture. Their ensuing disc, How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All?, featured the debut of Nick Danger, their popular parody of Sam Spade and pulp fiction. It was a staple in dorm rooms, crash pads and car stereos throughout America. The dense audio montage technique pioneered by Firesign in their early recordings meant that (unlike most comedy albums) the material remained fresh after repeated listenings. It also dovetailed perfectly with any variety of altered states of consciousness.
More records followed (including the two classic albums Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers and I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus), but in 1973, Proctor and Bergman released their non-Firesign album TV Or Not TV, and Austin and Ossman came out with Roller Maidens From Outer Space and How Time Flys, respectively. It was the beginning of the middle for the Firesign Theatre. After a two-year "hiatus," they returned in 1974 with both The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra and Everything You Know Is Wrong! Following the next album, 1975's In the Next World You're on Your Own, Columbia and Firesign parted ways, with the anthology Forward Into The Past, assembling their prime bits (including the legendary "Station Break" single) into a two disc set.
Over the course of the late '70s and through the mid-'80s, the group released several records, but solo projects had definitely taken front seat in the group's overall career strategy. David Ossman took a leave of absence from the band in the early '80s, returning for the 25th anniversary tour in 1993.
America embraced the reunited Firesign with open arms, and the group toured nationwide to packed houses, standing ovations and rave reviews. But a group's 26th anniversary is not as compelling as its 25th, and the group went back to their individual careers after releasing Back From The Shadows, which documented the tour.
In a 1995 interview with Discoveries magazine, Phil Proctor speculated that, "I just don't know if we'll be able to do something really startling before the next millennium, as I kind of hoped we would."
In 1997, Radio Today, a syndicated radio service, contacted Firesign to do some April Fools radio spots. The fictional mega-corporation US Plus and the mattress superstore Unconscious Village had their genesis in these spots. A subsequent performance of those bits and others for a guest symposium at the Museum of Television and Radio persuaded the group to make their first all-new, all-four-member recording in over a decade and a half. "We'd been exchanging ideas for almost the entire year," says David Ossman, "and we were just going to invest a little money and time, write the record and then figure out where to place it." No one quite knew what the final record was going to sound like, but Rhino founder (and longtime Firehead) Harold Bronson decided to take a chance.
As the recording sessions for Give Me Immortality Or Give Me Death took place, it was apparent that Firesign had regrooved for the new millennium. In the grand tradition of How Can You Be In Two Places..., known to many as All Hail Marx and Lennon, the new album even had a title controversy. With the group split on the possible titles RadioNow, Unconscious Village, The Mark Of Bozo, Cool Shades In Hell, Welcome to FunFunTown!, Give Me Immortality Or Give Me Death and Walking On A Cloud Of Fresh Pork, they enlisted three Rhino staffers from the sales department to make the call.
Peter Bergman has been through this before, and he's just fine with it. "Hey, some people will call it Radio Now, some will call it Give Me Immortality, but the main thing is that people will be out there talking about it, and that's exactly what we want."
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