How could I have missed this? I've had the privilege of interviewing David Ossman once and Phil Proctor twice and seeing the whole group perform during their 25th anniversary tour now 15 freakin' years ago. I have a short list of patron comic saints: Buster Keaton, The Marx Brothers, Ernie Kovacs, Monty Python and the Firesign Theatre. God bless them all.
LOS ANGELES, CA (November 13, 2006): Legendary comic foursome The Firesign Theatre, creators of over thirty LPs and CDs including such classics as Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, a 2005 inductee into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, celebrates their 40th anniversary on November 17, 2006.
Founding members Philip Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor were a group of aspiring actors/writers when they met at the studios of Pacifica Network station KPFK-FM in Los Angeles in 1966. In the decade that followed, they wrote and performed thirteen albums for Columbia Records, full of dialogue that has become part of the national lexicon, with titles such as How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All, Everything You Know Is Wrong, and I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus.
Firesign celebrates its Ruby anniversary on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of their first performance, as guests on Peter Bergman’s pioneering talk show “Radio Free Oz” on KPFK.
On nights when he had no guest, Bergman would invite some of his more subversive colleagues to come on the air and pretend to be a variety of interesting guests. On the night of November 17, 1966, Bergman invited three friends – Philip Austin, the show’s producer; David Ossman, the station’s former dramatic director; and Philip Proctor, an actor – to join him as the four of them pretended to be the panel of an imaginary “Oz Film Festival”.
Bergman played film critic Peter Volta, who was writing a history of world cinema one frame at a time. Ossman played Raul Saez, maker of short but exciting “thrown camera” films, who had just won a grant to shoot a movie by rolling a 70mm camera down the Andes. Austin played Jack Love, son of a leatherworker, who was making movies for the Living Room Theatre like The Nun and Blondie Pays the Rent. And Phil Proctor played Jean-Claude Jean-Claude, creator of the Nouvelle Nouvelle Vague Vague movement and director of the documentary Two Weeks With Fred, which took two weeks to watch.
Following that night’s improvisation, in which the four men realized they had an almost telepathic rapport, Bergman christened the group “The Oz Firesign Theatre” (since the four of them were all “fire” signs of the zodiac). There is no known recording of their debut performance.
“That Oz broadcast was a life-changing improvisation,” says David Ossman. “After that we set out to stone the system, if you see what I mean.” Phil Proctor concurs: “We knew we were on to something. No matter how absurd we were, the audience bought it!”
Soon after, Firesign Theatre landed a contract with Columbia Records, and over the following decade they revolutionized the idea of what comedy albums could be, mashing up James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare in a head-tripping mix of puns, satire, surrealism, and unforgettable characters – and selling well over a million LPs in meantime.
Between 1966 and 1972, Firesign Theatre also had a series of regular weekly shows on various Los Angeles radio stations. Radio Free Oz ran from June 1966 to February 1969, first on KPFK-FM, then on KRLA-AM, and finally on KMET-FM. The Firesign Theatre Radio Hour Hour aired for two hours on Sunday nights on KPPC-FM in 1970; Dear Friends aired on KPFK in 1970-1; and Let’s Eat followed on KPFK in 1971-2.
Hard-boiled detective Nick Danger, Third Eye, is one character who has been ruthlessly, doggedly following Firesign ever since their Radio Free Oz days, and he will soon have his own box set. In 2007 Shout! Factory will release a multi-disc collection chronicling all of Nick’s exploits. The box will assemble for the first time the many radio adventures of Nick Danger, Rocky Rococo, Lieutenant Bradshaw and announcer Dwight Yeast, including “Cut ‘Em Off at the Past”, “The Case of the Missing Shoe,” ”The Three Faces of Al,” and many other rare and unreleased items from Nick’s tattered casebook.
Unfortunately many of Firesign’s radio broadcasts remain lost, but the group invites its fans to dust off their collections and offer up any home recordings, either from Firesign’s radio broadcasts or their even rarer television appearances, that might help fill the gaps in Firesign’s archive. Fans who believe they have vintage unreleased material that the group can’t live without can contact Firesign via their Website, www.firesigntheatre.com.
All four members of Firesign Theatre remain active in the entertainment industry. Philip Austin is the author of “Tales of the Old Detective” from Audio Partners, and writes short and long fiction, most recently for the HarperCollins series “Mirth of a Nation” and “Phil Austin’s Blog of the Unknown”. Peter Bergman is Director of the Los Angeles arts enrichment program Radio Club Afterschool, is on the writing staff of CBS news station KFWB, and has recently produced two seminars on new media in Beijing and Shanghai. David Ossman, now a resident of Whidbey Island, Washington, is a producer of drama and comedy for radio and stage, with a book forthcoming in November from Bear Manor Press called The Ronald Reagan Murder Case. And Philip Proctor continues to act for the stage, screen, and TV while pursuing a celebrated career as a voice-over artist in cartoons, commercials, movies, radio plays and interactive games.
All of Firesign Theatre’s albums for Columbia, as well as their many later recordings, are available on CD from www.laugh.com and www.lodestonecatalog.com.