|Firesign Theatre's offbeat comedy is rekindled
By Robert Philpot
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Published on December 5, 2001, Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
To give you an idea just how offbeat Firesign Theatre's comedy is, its first two 1960s
albums carried the titles, "How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not
Anywhere at All?" and "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers." Both
contain surreal audio plays that are fueled, at least in part, by characters stumbling
through old movies on late-night television.
Now, "Weirdly Cool,"
a 35th anniversary tribute to the Firesign Theatre, is airing on PBS.
Firesign Theatre isn't a building but a state of mind developed by Phil
Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Philip Proctor in the '60s (all were born under
astrological fire signs, hence the name). It isn't easy to describe, although the words
"layered," "surreal" and "subversive" come up often in
reviews and in the special's guest comments by John Goodman, Robin Williams and Chevy
Chase. "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening has described it as an influence,
and Austin says the closest comparison he can think of to Firesign is the old NBC sketch
But here's a try at a description. Imagine old-time radio filtered through
'60s stoner sensibilities, followed by Nixon-era cynicism and '90s millennial alienation.
Throw in puns, pop-culture references, non sequiturs and oddball timing, and you get the
picture. Oh, and then there's the James Joyce influence . . .
But that doesn't quite cover it, and even people who recognize Firesign
catchphrases such as "Shoes for industry!" and "I'm gonna cut the soles off
my shoes, climb a tree and learn to play the flute!" can be hard-pressed to explain
Firesign's peculiar brand of humor.
"The common catch words are 'movies for your mind' and things like
that," Austin says. "But that's a little disingenuous. It's an art form where
you're asked to close your eyes as you're dealing with it. We really ask for your
imagination - particularly your visual imagination. We want you to close your eyes and be
putting pictures to the words we're coming up with."
Consequently, TV is an odd medium for "Weirdly Cool," which
features extended excerpts from "How Can You Be in Two Places at Once" and
"Don't Crush That Dwarf," as well as more recent material from the 1998 album
"Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death" and its 1999 follow-up, "Boom Dot
If you're familiar with Firesign from its recordings, seeing the group on
stage is both illuminating and disconcerting; it helps put the weird plays in perspective,
but it also literalizes the stories, taking them out of the theater of the mind. However,
PBS thought it best to play things safe with (relatively) familiar material.
"It's definitely greatest hits," Austin says. "It's very much
what PBS wanted us to do . . . and in fact, (was) insistent upon. We wouldn't have gotten
a show unless we had done a live performance that went through older classic material as
much as possible."
PBS rekindles Firesign troupe's offbeat comedy.
An early edition of the Rolling Stone Record
Guide said that for the offbeat comedy group Firesign Theatre, changing TV channels was
the fundamental aesthetic.
"It is indeed, isn't it?" Phil Austin, one of the quartet's
members, says with a laugh. "And no one ever points it out, but it isn't something
that starts with TV, it must go back to the dial on your radio, starting about in 1928.
Practically the whole 20th century had to have that in the back."
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