Weirdly cool, right?
Think of the four-man Firesign Theatre as the Beatles of comedy. A PBS special on the group airs this weekend on KVIE 6
Hot dog! Let’s eat!”
The words of Deacon E.L. Mouse, presiding over a prayer meeting of the Powerhouse Church of the Presumptuous Assumption of the Blinding Light, ought to be familiar to anyone who’s ever caught Bob Keller’s lunchtime classic rock show, “Café Rock,” on local FM radio. Keller appropriated them from Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, a wildly original album originally released in 1970 by a four-man, Los Angeles-based surrealist troupe named the Firesign Theatre. That album has been hailed as the Sgt. Pepper’s of comedy by more than one enthusiastic writer.
This year, the Firesign Theatre celebrates 35 years as a performing entity. A televised special by the group, titled Weirdly Cool, is currently making the rounds of PBS stations around the country; it will air Saturday, December 8, at midnight and Sunday, December 9, at 5 a.m. on KVIE, Channel 6. The latter is a time slot often referred to as “lunar rotation” in radio.
The 90-minute show contains material adapted from Firesign’s first three albums—Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him (1968), How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All (1969) and Dwarf. Obviously, these guys weren’t drinking from the same well that inspired such contemporary TV fare as Dragnet and Adam 12. Although Firesign may be somewhat of an American analogue to Monty Python, the group’s medium is aural rather than visual, and these skit-like riffs—including “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye” and “Porgy and Mudhead in High School Madness”—are better appreciated on record. Still, Weirdly Cool contains some funny stuff, and for someone who’s never heard anything more than Deacon Mouse bellowing “Let’s eat!” the special is a good place to start. Viewing it may motivate one to run out and buy the three above-named, long out-of-print albums, which were reissued Tuesday on the Columbia/Legacy label along with a fourth title, I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus from 1971.
“The audio equivalent of a Hieronymous Bosch painting,” comedian Robin Williams called it. He wasn’t too far off.
Describing what the Firesign Theatre does as “comedy” is a little like calling the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds “pop music” or The Matrix “a movie”: It’s a little more complex than that.
Imagine an old radio broadcast from the era before television added visual imagery to words, a narrative wherein the characters move the story along by using sound cues to stimulate the listener. There’s something horribly wrong, though; while the story may move along like some Fibber McGee and Molly playlet, the script sounds more like the product of a team effort involving James Joyce, Carlos Castaneda and Philip K. Dick.
Take Dwarf. Beginning with the Powerhouse Church rantings of Deacon Mouse on some late-night televangelist show, it becomes apparent that salvation is best found at the dinner table. George Tirebiter—a name nicked from the canine mascot of the USC Trojans—is asleep on the couch; he wakes up to an empty refrigerator, gets the munchies from watching an ad for Arnie’s Whole Beef Halves, can’t get a pizza delivered to his sector because it’s after curfew, flips around the dial and lands back on the televangelist channel. The deacon is touting “hot-buttered groat clusters,” Tirebiter commands the deacon to hand ’em over, and the deacon does—right through the television set.
Sated, Tirebiter starts flipping through the channels past a game show starring himself as an old man and commercials for Ersatz Bros. Coffee (mystery ingredient: Spanish fly) before landing on a vintage movie. It’s a parody of one of those 1930’s campus-hijinks films titled High School Madness, starring a couple of Mickey Rooneys named Porgie and Mudhead. Porgie, yet another incarnation of Tirebiter, is about to graduate. Sourpuss dad Adolf slaps him around at the breakfast table—“Don’t eat with your hands, son; use your entrenching tool,” he snarls—then Mudhead, a perennial goof-off who only wants to pick up girls, shows up to give Porgie a ride to the Morse Science High graduation ceremony. “With counter-subversive educational priorities the way they are, why, it really helps our side to re-enlist,” Porgie quotes Morse Science’s principal, a man named Poop, to Mudhead before adding that what he really wants to do is cut the soles off his shoes, sit in a tree and learn to play the flute.
Unfortunately, they arrive at a flagpole. “Holy Mudhead, mackerel!” Porgie exclaims. Morse Science High, it’s … disappeared! Thus ends side one.
Side two begins with Lieutenant Tirebiter in an old war movie that sounds like it might have been modeled on the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. The narrative switches back to Porgie and Mudhead finding Morse Science High in Korea, where it’s been boxed up for storage in the auditorium of rival Communist Martyrs High School. It culminates in a court martial of Porgie by dad Adolf, who’s now Porgie’s prosecutor and defense attorney.
Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers was a masterpiece of Nixon-era stoner paranoia that, given the changes in the body politic over the past year, rings especially prescient today. It’s densely layered and loaded with puns and gags, many of which must be heard a number of times before they start to sink in. Like the group’s finer moments, it sounds like Nostradamus meets the Marx Brothers.
But then, the Firesign Theatre was always a little ahead of its time. Phil Proctor, Phil Austin, David Ossman and Peter Bergman began on KPFK, a Pacifica Foundation FM station in Los Angeles; a compendium of the group’s theater of the roasted mind can be found on its 2-CD Columbia compilation, Dear Friends.
While after its first four albums Firesign’s output got more uneven, the group could still swat the occasional homer, such as Everything You Know Is Wrong from 1974, which effectively predicted lunar-rotation, paranormal-themed talk radio as embodied by Art Bell. After 1980’s Fighting Clowns, Firesign’s members pursued other activities, reuniting for the odd Eat or Be Eaten—about a town overwhelmed by kudzu vines—in 1985.
It wasn’t until 1998 that the group got back together to record the Y2K rant Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death for Rhino, which was nearly as good as its best stuff from the 1970s. Boom Dot Bust, about Billville and a paternalistic corporation called USPlus, followed the next year. The Bride of Firesign was just released. “Bride came out of a mutual agreement that we would investigate everything that people would find scary about the 21st century,” explains Phil Proctor over the phone from his home in L.A. “And out of that came the themes of Middle Eastern terrorism, and the giant corporations taking over everything, the United Company of America taking over not only our own country but the rest of the world, by basically being a nation of consumers consuming the world—that kind of thing.”
According to Proctor, there’s plenty of grist for the Firesign Theatre’s mill in the pages of today’s newspapers. “A lot of comics who deal with the surreal,” he says, “such as we do, and Harry Shearer and various others, are constantly astounded at the kind of stuff that’s going on in the world. And we try to take that as an inspiration and go even farther with it, push it even farther out. And because of that—almost anything seems possible these days—we often project things that are just around the corner that actually might happen. And that’s … weird.”
While such facing up to demons may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Proctor insists that perhaps everyone should.
“The Firesign Theatre’s philosophy has always been that you have to be responsible for your own life,” he states. “And that means that you have to stay informed, but you also have to stay free. And that means that the things people impose upon you, you have to make your own personal and moral judgments in regard to how you’re going to live your own personal life.”
In the words of an indignant lady character on the Bozos album: “I said, live it or live with it.” Hot dog.