The first time I heard Firesign Theatre, I think it was 1968. I could research it, but doing your homework is such a hassle. Besides, this is the Opinion page. If I start getting my facts straight, they’re going to want everybody to do it.
If you don’t know Firesign Theatre, first of all shame on you. There is such a thing as cultural literacy. I’m kidding. But seriously, there is. Get to know them. In the meantime, take my word: Firesign Theatre (Peter Bergman, David Ossman, Phil Austin and Philip Proctor) are criminally under-appreciated, arguably the best and indisputably the most creative force in comedy this country has ever produced. Firesign Theatre fundamentally changed my relationship to the world and inspired me to a career in comedy.
On March 9, Peter Bergman died from complications of leukemia. To paraphrase Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” attention must be paid.
I am trying to make sense of a surprisingly personal sense of loss at Bergman’s passing. I never met him. I did meet Phil Proctor at a gas station once, the kind of serendipity that can happen in Los Angeles and one of the few things I miss about the place. Now Bergman will have to remain a hero I never met. He was one of four indispensable parts that, through the alchemy common to all great comedy teams, created a whole greater than the sum of its parts. With him Bergman’s passing, there may be “a” Firesign Theatre, but “The” Firesign Theatre is gone.
Back to 1968ish. The album: “Waiting for the Electrician Or Someone Like Him.” The piece: “Temporarily Humboldt County.” It was a dizzying, anarchic, surreal survey of U. S. History told from the point of view of the Native American. In less than 10 minutes, with meat axe and scalpel, Firesign laid bare the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of European colonization. My world would never be the same. It was like First Contact, the moment when Earth first encounters an extraterrestrial intelligence.
For starters, it showed complete disregard for convention. The Spanish explorers sounded like cholos from east Los Angeles. They brought an Irish priest with a brogue that would have embarrassed Barry Fitzgerald in “Going My Way.” Here’s an excerpt from the opening:
Native American: Welcome home!
Conquistador: Welcome to New Spain! This is your new father, Father Corona.
Father Corona: Hoc venucci nictum. Down on your knees now. Do you recognize what I’m holdin’ over yer heads, lads?
Native American: It’s a cross. The symbol of the quartering of the universe into active and passive principles.
Father Corona (aside): God have mercy on their heathen souls …
Conquistador: What the father means is, “What is the cross made of?” Gold. Do you have any?
It isn’t historically accurate; the political incorrectness probably offended a lot of people. What it also does, in about six lines, is make you laugh while exposing one of America’s greatest shames, spread-eagled like a butterfly pinned to a board. The best comedy makes you laugh and makes you squirm. Firesign Theatre taught me that. They also taught me that if you have something to say, don’t censor yourself.
Part of the genius of the bit, and a reason why political correctness is the enemy of art, is that those stereotypical accents enhance Firesign’s ridicule of a cultural narcissism that destroyed countless cultures in the name of God and glory.
Enough with the analysis. Somebody said deconstructing comedy is like dissecting a frog. It’s not that interesting, and the patient dies. I think I just proved it.
Firesign was a product of hippie, druggie America in the 1960s and early 1970s. They lived in a world that was falling apart or in which all things were possible, depending on which side of the cultural divide you fell on. Even then, they were more cult favorites than mainstream superstars. A sure way of separating the hip from the unhip was to quote Firesign Theatre. Anybody worth talking to would know you were quoting them. Somebody worth befriending could quote the next line.
Some bits have aged more gracefully than others. People they’ve influenced, who may not even know they’ve been influenced, have taken comedy to creative places Firesign never went, although they reached some pretty great places. Rolling Stone rated one of their records, “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers,” as the greatest comedy album ever made. Speaking of politically incorrect. I won’t even try to describe this masterpiece, though I will say two things. It was about 20 years before I could say the title out loud without laughing, and despite listening to it hundreds of times, I can’t remember any reference either to little people or pliers.
I recently wrote and co-produced a pilot for a radio comedy. When one of my collaborators played it for an industry veteran, he said, “It reminds me of Firesign Theatre.”
It’s the highest compliment I’ve ever received for my work.