The Firesign Theatre in five decades at once

By  Kurt Luchs

Firesign Theatre is (from left) Phil Proctor, Phil Austin, Peter Bergman and David Ossman. Courtesy of Shout! Factory.

Firesign Theatre is (from left) Phil Proctor, Phil Austin, Peter Bergman and David Ossman. Courtesy of Shout! Factory.
The Firesign Theatre’s Box Of Danger: The Complete Nick Danger Casebook, a drop-dead funny and beautifully produced 4-CD box set just out from the feisty Shout! Factory label started by Rhino Records co-founder Richard Foos, marks an important milestone for the comedy troupe.

It caps an astonishing 42 years and five decades in show business, surely a record of some kind for a group whose fame rests chiefly on comedy albums, the most transient of audio artifacts. It also neatly summarizes the adventures of their most famous character, detective Nick Danger, Third Eye. His story, it turns out, is in many ways the story of Firesign Theatre itself: Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Phil Proctor.

Nick is a detail-perfect parody of the hardboiled radio noir of the 1940s. How odd to reflect that we are now twice as far removed from Nick’s first appearance in 1969 as his creators then were from the world of old-time radio they so lovingly lampooned. Nick Danger himself has become old-time radio, a knockoff arguably better and more evergreen than any of his inspirations.

His first adventure very nearly didn’t happen at all. Firesign, which had come together in November 1966 at radio station KPFK in L.A., quickly gelled into a working comedy act.

They won a Columbia Records contract in 1967 and released their first album, Waiting For The Electrician Or Someone Like Him, in 1968. The rich, multi-layered insanity owed much to England’s “Goon Show,” Stan Freberg, The Beatles and the modern recording studio. But, it was so new it had not yet found an audience.

After its debut sold poorly, Columbia nearly dropped Firesign. Classical and jazz producer John McClure intervened and prevailed upon the label to give them another chance.

The result was the sophomore effort, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All, the entire second side of which was given over to “The Further Adventures Of Nick Danger.” In half an hour, Firesign turned every old-time radio convention upside down and inside out, from the corny organ stylings to the period commercials (“Fantastic Cigarettes, long in the leaf and short in the can”).

They also threw in countercultural nods to drugs and the I Ching and a string of goofy Beatles references, mostly to The White Album, which had just come out (you could make a pretty good drinking game out of trying to count them all). Even the trick ending, with FDR interrupting the show to unconditionally surrender to the Japanese, can be thought of as an homage to The Beatles. Classic punch lines abound: “There was something fishy about the butler. I think he was a Pisces, probably working for scale.”

Small wonder that the character of Nick (Austin) and the whole ensemble — Rocky Rococo (Proctor), Lt. Alvin Bradshaw (Bergman), Catherwood the butler (Ossman), and Nick’s love interest, Nancy (a falsetto female who could conveniently be played by anyone in the group) — quickly became the best-known Firesign creation. Throughout the years and a host of breakups and reunions, they would frequently return to Nick Danger both in the studio and on stage.

Ossman split in the 1980s for a career at NPR and as an independent audio producer. The remaining members continued to work, and the work was often good but lacked the special sheen that only the four of them had together. Then Ossman was lured back in 1993 by the offer of a reunion tour. The group has stayed busy ever since, releasing three new studio albums on Rhino Records, among other projects.

Much of the material in the box set has either been out of print for years or was never previously available on CD. Only the most avid fan will have heard even half of it. The group talked about the Nick Danger box set and its long career in show business in this interview.

How do you account for the enduring popularity of Nick Danger and the whole ensemble of Lt. Bradshaw, Rocky Rococo, Nancy and Catherwood?

Phil Proctor: It’s a mystery! Perhaps we need to record another episode to solve it!

David Ossman: I’ve always felt that, because “anyone” could do those four voices, people could have fun with the lines almost immediately. The piece arrived in 1969 among some listeners who remembered the original radio programs. It was a familiar form, full of dope(y) jokes and a lot of just very weird language and good one-liners.

Peter Bergman: The noir detective is as American as an electric guitar. My generation grew up on them — they’re the 20th century cowboys, but antiheroes almost to a man. Nick is in that group of subconscious dicks who talk to themselves. Lots of detective novels are in the first person with lots of interior monologue. Nick is more than an antihero; he’s incompetent but is able to muscle and muddle through.

Bradshaw is the tough cop, the traditional nemesis of dicks who straddle the edge of the law. And Bradshaw is a typical ’40s cop — he’s corrupt and vindictive. Catherwood is the butler who always did it but [is] actually the slyest member of the bunch. Americans have always been fascinated with butlers, because so few of them have had one. Detectives came of age in the Depression, so rich people were truly fabulous, and crimes among the rich were perfect ironic meat for Nick. Remember his motto: “I hate rich people!”

Phil Austin: To be lighthearted about a dark-hearted world seems to have struck a chord with people who enjoy our work. I’d like to think that Nick’s popularity had something to do with me, but he seems to live a life of his own. I have little control of him and his absurd popularity.

For that matter, how do you account for the longevity of the Firesign Theatre? I’m trying to think of another comedy team that has lasted so long, and frankly, I can’t.

Austin: Maybe it has something to do with the fact that comedy is our business but not our entire concern.

Proctor: Who says we’re still doing it? We’re kind of “rusting” on our laurels, so to speak, due to age and geography.

Bergman: It’s all about the advances of modern medicine. Our comedy may not live forever, but we could.

Ossman: Yes, we’re all still alive, for one thing. Comics used to drop dead at 50 or 60. Also, there’s the Work.

Nick Danger comes out of 1940s noir and pulp radio detectives like Johnny Dollar. What else inspired you?

Ossman: The narrative voice is classic radio, adapted right from the Raymond Chandler voice in which Philip Marlowe works his way through his stories. There are some ads from various places, plus The Beatles and the I Ching.

Austin: Marlowe, the soldier, the man of honor. I think that’s how Nick thinks of himself, but he lives in an absurd world of no real terror and no real horror and therefore, no real honor. His world isn’t dark enough for him. We just imagined him to be all the radio detectives rolled into one.

Proctor: For me, it was obviously listening to radio when I was a kid, but I was also inspired by parody of the genre right from the beginning: Bob & Ray, Ernie Kovacs and Stan Freberg, among others.

The box lets us hear the same sketch as an album cut and a live performance from your 1993 reunion tour. How are those two different?

Austin: In a studio version, we’re trying to make each other laugh and onstage, we’re trying to make the audience laugh. We try to make each other laugh onstage as well, but the audience is all-consuming once there.

Bergman: That’s a matter of being our audience. In the studio, the Firesign are the best fans in town. Live performance goes back to the clown rituals of ancient days (when men frolicked with dinosaurs, according to Ms. Palin). When it works, it’s like floating on air.

Proctor: If we forget any lines, the fans will yell them out to us, so it makes live shows soooo much easier than trying to keep your thumb on the right place on the printed page in a fluorescently lit studio. What we can’t do, however, is improvise as freely as we do during recording sessions.

Is there anything on the box that you’re particularly glad to make available?

Austin: The last piece, called “Scaled Down Danger,” is so minimal that I’m the only voice on it. I’d like to thank my partners for trusting me with it. It was lonely but fun being free of their annoying talents and sparkling wit.

Ossman: I’m very fond of the “School For Actors” piece, which Phil and I only got to perform twice in “Radio Laffs of 1940.” It has that combination of his and my craziness that I like very much, though sometimes it’s pretty complicated and thick.

Proctor: I thought it was fun to hear “Nick Danger Meets E.T.” and “The Case Of The Missing Shoe” again. And the Phil Austin-inspired, improvised adventures from our “Fools In Space” XM Satellite show is amazing. I think it worked so well, because, like jazz masters, we were able to play our characters like instruments together and create a hot comic set out of the mix. And terror helped, too.

The group split up in 1976 and reunited in 1979. Then, in the 1980s, when David left, Firesign continued as a threesome. How does the group feel now about the work done then?

Ossman: The thing to remember is that we were always working on other jobs, particularly in film, as a group. We were divided in 1976, and the hoped-for LP from CBS did not come through. Austin put us together again in late 1979 and 1980, and we had a very creative run at the Roxy with live theater that took us on to the road in 1981. I can only say of the work during the 1980s that it seemed to lack the essential ingredients: all four of us.

Austin: A lot of the humor in the Danger stuff has to do with the vagaries of employment in the radio business. Each of us — the various sponsors, the networks, the sound effects guys — all are people whose jobs are in pretty constant jeopardy. The writing reflects a lot of the reality in our personal lives and relations with each other over all these years, to be sure. Our best work is surely the stuff where we’re all four together in the same room at the same time. Except those rare moments when I can lose the other three and…I’ll have my own show… yeah, and it’ll be just guys and gals doing normal things, and NO FINNISH WRITERS!

Proctor: The Firesign Theatre is like a marriage, without the sex, so we’ve been able to split up and renunite over and over again — and unlike a musical group, we can’t replace the drummer; our comedic union is too unique and seductive.

Obviously working together and apart in different configurations was both a blessing and a curse, but I feel that in our work, after the upheavals, we all benefited greatly from the experience and were energized by our reunions. Actually, it was my marriage to Melinda Peterson up in Ojai, Calif., that brought us all together again.

What are everybody’s current personal projects?

Bergman: I’m running “Radio Club” (radioclub.org), an afterschool arts program for underprivileged elementary students in L.A. I also appear as a “futurist” before conventions and corporate groups. Go to: www.brightsightgroup.com, click on Keynote Speakers and find me by name.

Ossman: Judith and I have done the International Mystery Writers Festival in Owensboro, Ky., the past two years. They give us a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. We are both writing, with my two books out the past couple of years and poetry in the offing.

Proctor:
I still appear on TV and in short films occasionally and am still fairly active in the voiceover industry, adding voices to films like “Borat” and “W.” and performing roles in interactive games, but the majority of my creative work recently was in realizing many, many characters to pulp stories of every genre written by L. Ron Hubbard from the 1930s to the 1950s and now being released by Galaxy Publishing. Also, check out PlanetProctor.com.

Austin: I contribute to that wonderful Web site, TheBigJewel.com, edited by some genius or other [NOTE: the author]. Currently, articles for The Bark (the New Yorker of dog magazines), anthologized in Howl and Mirth of a Nation. My blog is Phil Austin’s Blog of The Unknown, where most of my current writing resides. I’m about halfway through my novel “Beaver Teeth” there, and readers are being very kind about my agonizing slowness.

As a fan of layered audio comedy, I’ve been waiting for satellite radio or Internet radio or iPods or something to usher in a new era of audio creativity, with the technology to produce and deliver it cost-effectively, and an audience to appreciate it. Do you see that happening?

Austin: I don’t see much happening in pure audio, but the finest writing that’s close to what Firesign Theatre does is to be heard in the “Adult Swim,” late-night programming block on the Cartoon Network. “The Venture Brothers,” “Twelve Ounce Mouse,’ “Squidbillies,” “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law” and the like are cutting-edgers. A lot of people have trouble with the animation, and I won’t argue the point, but the writing is superb if you like oddball comedy.

Ossman: The golden age of audio production was the late 1980s. It is all visual now.

Bergman: No one to my knowledge has picked up the Firesign banner. Maybe the new millennium will come up with something, but I haven’t heard it yet.

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