Remembering Phil Austin and the Firesign Theatre

To get your own comedy seen in today’s media landscape, all you have to do is put it online and make sure it’s really good. It wasn’t so easy in the 1960s when all of your major channels, TV, radio, records, and movies, were controlled by gatekeepers who may not be all that interested in shaking up the status quo. Somehow during that time however, Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Philip Proctor, better known under the collective moniker, The Firesign Theatre, managed to squeeze through those gates and send some truly creative comedy out into the world. With the recent passing of their second member, Phil Austin, creator of perhaps their most enduring character, Nick Danger, today we look back at his life and the legacy of the Firesign Theatre.

The Firesign Theatre began as live radio performers in Los Angeles, which explains one of the three origins of the troupe’s name. It has been said that the “Firesign” in their name is meant to invoke the “Fireside Chats” of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Related to that, NBC aired a program in the fifties called Fireside Theatre. And finally there is the fact that all four members of the troupe are, astrologically speaking, fire signs (for the curious, Austin is an Aries, Proctor a Leo, and Bergman and Ossman are both Sagittarius). If you’re not familiar, The Firesign Theatre’s style of comedy is almost always described alongside the term “stream of consciousness.” This is due to the group’s improvisational feel, random left turns, and large numbers of pop culture references scattered throughout their routines, despite the fact that the majority of their work was scripted when performed. The members have cited The Goon Show as an influence, and it’s these qualities that truly exemplify that.

Though they started in radio, it was on vinyl where they truly made a name for themselves. The group produced a remarkable amount of material and much of it has been lauded by many, including the Library of Congress who called the foursome “the Beatles of comedy” when inducting their third album Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers into the National Registry. This album distinguished itself by featuring one full narrative spread across two sides of the album; they’re first to tell a single story as opposed to a collection of sketches. According to Phil Austin’s notes in a re-release of the album, “Dwarf is the story of the five ages of Man and in particular, the five ages of one George Leroy Tirebiter; a man named after a dog.” More so than their commitment to using the album as one conceptual whole, the thing I love about this record is that the surrealism of this album isn’t limited to the confines of this one album. The record ends with the main character running outside to catch an ice cream truck, the music of which is heard at the beginning of their next album, tying it together. Also on this album, Tirebiter attempts unsuccessfully to order a pizza. On this album we only hear this character’s side of the phone conversation, however the other half was heard a year earlier on their second album, How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All? in a conversation with Nick Danger.

Nick Danger, Third Eye was a parody of the noir detective genre, and the late Phil Austin created Nick and was the principal author of his many comedy adventures on record, radio, stage, television, film and even Pizza Hut commercials. Nick marked the group’s first excursion into sustained comedy material, his first adventure taking up a full side of the album in the form of a pitch-perfect parody of a 1940s radio show. Like much of Firesign’s comedy, Nick’s adventures were incredibly joke dense and incredibly odd. In the very opening of his first appearance, the announcer intones “Los Angle-ous. He walks again by night! Out of the fog, into the smog. (coughing) Relentlessly. Ruthlessly. (’I wonder where Ruth is…’) Doggedly! [Barking] (’Hey, now! Get away from me!’)” That’s a lot of jokes for just twenty seconds. The radio broadcast continues, moving into time travel-induced doppelgangers, until the climax of the program is interrupted by an announcement from President Roosevelt that America has been attacked at Pearl Harbor and that the US will unconditionally surrender to the Japanese.

The group produced films, plays, and live shows, were nominated for Grammys and a Hugo, and generally created a lot of comedy together. They also created some separately. Writing about his departed friend, David Ossman assembled this impressive list of Austin’s solo work: “Phil Austin’s many other writing and voice-performance credits include work with Mama Cass, David Cassidy and Chad and Jeremy, narration for Gary Usher’s ‘The Astrology Album’ and contributions to Barbra Streisand’s HBO Specials. Austin had a hand in several film scripts, including 1970’s psychedelic western, Zachariah, and a movie for The Grateful Dead, The Dead Sell Out. His radio show, Hollywood Nightshift was a cult favorite in the 1980s and his spoken book, Tales of the Old Detective collected a few of the many stories he’d published in magazines from “Crawdaddy” to “Screw.” He published the first half of his novel Beaver Teeth on his blog.”

Like the Goons before them, the Firesign Theatre created a massive body of work, which was just crammed with jokes. I feel like critic Eric Salzman described their unique sensibility best when he referred to their style as a “contemporary, relevant, multi-level, non-linear theater – a kind of verbal electronic opera.” If you haven’t experienced the strange ride of The Firesign Theatre, I’d invite you to hop on board. Before we go, though, I think it’s only fair that we give Phil Austin the final word. In an interview for the Firesign fanzine “It’s Just This Little Chromium Switch,” Austin was asked if he had any great wisdom to impart. “Wisdom is not my strong point. I have been known to have a couple of good ideas and get a couple of laughs here and there. I think that’s more than enough.”

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” just launched a second season featuring Chris Elliott!

Remembering Phil Austin and the Firesign Theatre