(Roughly) Daily

“Presenting honest stories of working people as told by rich Hollywood stars”*…

A self-contained four-man comedy troupe of writers/actors whose medium was the audio record, they created brilliant, multi-layered surrealist satire out of science-fiction, TV, old movies, avant-garde drama and literature, outrageous punning, the political turmoil of the Sixties, the great shows of the Golden Age of Radio, the detritus of high and low culture (James Joyce meets the found poetry of used-car pitch men) and their own intuitive understanding of the technological possibilities of multi-track recording. Their thirteen albums for CBS, recorded in various group permutations between 1967 and 1975, reveal them to have been at once the Beatles of comedy, the counter-cultural Lewis Carroll, and the slightly cracked step-children of Kafka, Bob and Ray, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick, Stan Freberg, Samuel Beckett and the Goon Show.

Stereo Review

Firesign Theatre started to assemble during 1966 at KPFK, a freeform stereo FM radio station in Los Angeles, which was then a very new thing, during Peter Bergman’s “Radio Free Oz” show. Phil Austin and David Ossman worked at the station and would appear on RFO, while Philip Proctor, an actor friend the “Wizard of Oz” (Bergman) knew from Yale, was invited to join a bit later. The name refers to the fact that all four were born under fire signs in the zodiac, and to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. The late night Radio Free Oz show was so popular—and they were regularly gigging in Hollywood’s folk and rock clubs—that they were quickly offered a record contract.

There are four undisputed “classics” in the vast Firesign canon, all recorded between 1967 and 1971, titled (in order) Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like HimHow Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All (which includes their most famous creation, “The Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye”), Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, and I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus. Their first album was recorded in the same CBS radio studio where The Jack Benny Show was taped using vintage microphones and sound effects. By the time of their second record they were using 16-track tape machines in the studio, constructing tightly assembled radio plays with extremely creative sound effects and spatial cues that suggested time travel, watching something at a domed planetarium, being on a people mover, getting into a car where the inside is bigger than the outside and so on. These four records are the ultimate presentation of their unusual artform—literature as much as performed comedy that’s been carefully sculpted in a recording studio—but there are at least 20 other albums, dozens upon dozens of hours of live performances recorded onstage and during their radio shows, and TV and film work. Dear Friends, a 1972 released two record compilation of the best of their syndicated radio show of the same name is also considered to be a classic Firesign album, but being culled from live radio, it’s less elaborately constructed, and more spontaneous and improvisational. 

These five albums represent the cream of the crop and they are all masterworks of surrealist “theater of the mind” sci-fi counterculture comedy. There was nothing else like them, and the sole thing I can think of to compare them to would be the Monty Python albums. Firesign Theatre were often called “the American Monty Python,” but this comparison would stop at the Python albums, as Firesign were a strictly audio proposition for the most part, and certainly during their late 60s/early 70s golden years. [They are actually much more akin to lysergic Goon Show, of which all four of the Firesign Theatre were fanatical fans. In fact, Peter Bergman wrote some TV comedy sketches in London with Spike Milligan in the early 1960s.]…

These days, everybody is always listening to their favorite podcasts, at the gym, in the car, cooking, whatever, they’ve all got a podcast going on in the background. Why not think of the Firesign oeuvre as the greatest comedy podcast ever made?

Well, you’re in luck as all of the major (and much of the minor) works of Firesign Theatre are streaming from the exact same sources as that weekly true crime thing you always listen to. Spotify, TIDAL, YouTube, Amazon Music, Apple Music, all of them are pumping Firesign Theatre directly into your home. The four (or five) classic albums are super easy for you to listen to. Just a few clicks away from where you are reading this…

An appreciation of past masters: “Firesign Theatre’s ‘Dope Humor of the Seventies’” from @DangerMindsBlog.

* Firesign Theatre

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As we slip on the headphones, we might recall that it was on this date in 1987 that ABC premiered Max Headroom (which had originated on the UK’s Channel 4 in 1985). Painfully prophetic, the series followed the near-future exploits on the digital avatar of Edison Carter, a news host/reporter who hosts the most popular show on Channel 23.

As SyFy Wire explains, this future is a:

…dystopia in which several television networks essentially rule the world. That’s no exaggeration — the government knows all about it too, and plays along, while the networks do what they want without anyone to curtail their schemes. There are no “off” switches on TVs, so you can’t escape the watchful eye of the networks, who’ve even gone so far as to watch citizens through their TVs.

Each episode revolved around the various evil plans the television conglomerates planned to enact on the unsuspecting public. Network 23 is one of the major stations with the highest-rated “new” program, which Edison Carter himself hosts. Real-time ratings are more important than ever in this world, as they translate to money put toward advertisements. In fact, ads have taken over stocks in this world, making whoever performs the best on-air essentially the most powerful entity on the planet.

Every installment of the series is about the inner workings of the crooked conglomerates, up to and including advertisements known as “Blipverts,” which are completely capable of killing people just by airing on television. They’re meant to condense longer ads into a few seconds so the station can run more, but they’re much deadlier than that…

Catch an episode here.

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Written by LW

March 31, 2021 at 1:01 am

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