Fall Comedy Reads: A Look Back at the Firesign Theatre

Welcome to our Fall Comedy Reads series, where we take a closer look at some of the newly released comedy-related books worth checking out this month.

The Firesign Theatre started in the late ‘60s by four men, Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor, who has co-written a memoir with Brad Schrieber entitled Where’s My Fortune Cookie? Few modern audiences are likely to be familiar with the work of the Firesign Theatre, but their influence is tremendous. It’s hard to imagine comedy podcasts like Comedy Bang Bang or The Thrilling Adventure Hour without the precedent set by Firesign’s loopy, satirical shows that could go from game show parody to history of American colonialism to private eye spoof seamlessly, with dozens of characters voiced by the four members. It was surrealist, psychedelic, and huge among audiences willing to listen closely to their radio broadcasts and records. As Hollywood itself was shifting from the old to the new guard, Firesign was creating trippy comedy for hippies who couldn’t dig Bob Hope and experimental audio production for rock fans addicted to FM radio. Though the cast and writers of Firesign never achieved huge fame individually and their fame as a group was mostly a cult following, their impact is still deeply felt, particularly among audio broadcast comedians trying still to build on how far off the map Firesign Theatre took the medium.

Phil Proctor began tinkering with audio production as a teenager in the 1950s. In Where’s My Fortune Cookie? he recalls buying sound effect records from an office building in New York City and “creating my own absurd soundscapes” with them on tape at home. He attended Riverdale in the Bronx, and then Yale, where he studied drama and worked part-time as a sound editor for the school radio station. His career since then has included a great deal of acting, voiceover work, and comedy performing. Modern audiences likely know him best as the voice of Howard, Phil and Lil’s dad on Rugrats (though his IMDb is dominated by his role as “Additional Voices”). He’s also an extremely spiritual person, peppering his book with coincidences and minor connections that feel significant to him. The book’s title refers to a message delivered psychically by his late Firesign collaborator Peter Bergman, joking about an incident in which the two were nearly killed in a gangland shooting in a Chinese restaurant (both were just bystanders). This hippie energy is a huge part of what fueled Firesign Theatre (so named because all four of its members were born under Zodiac fire signs), but in this book Proctor draws a few connections that feel tenuous at best. At one point he writes, “I went to a famous psychic lady holding court one morning in The Dakota, where John Lennon later lived and was tragically murdered.” These jarring kinds of tangents can occasionally get frustrating.

Where’s My Fortune Cookie? proceeds in roughly chronological order, but Proctor also free-associates connections between events separated by years that a reader might not. This can get even more confusing when Proctor gets his facts wrong, as he does when he suggests that his smoking up Cloris Leachman while shooting 1971’s Zachariah may have led to her divorcing director George Englund “soon after” (1979) and winning “an Oscar for Young Frankenstein.” (She won an Oscar for 1971’s The Last Picture Show, not ever for Young Frankenstein, though she’s terrific in both.) Anecdotes about getting high in Mexico with Cloris Leachman are the kind of thing that make entertainment memoirs worth reading, so it’s unfortunate Proctor doesn’t stay on moments like this. He also doesn’t delve too deeply into Firesign’s processes beyond insisting that it was an entirely collaborative effort where all four members had to agree on every line in every script. When he writes “the only dudes who seemed to understand what Firesign wanted to do…were Country Joe and the Fish,” the reader is left to imagine what that can possibly mean, or even why Proctor spends so much time describing the process of making the now-forgotten Zachariah and so little on the nuts and bolts of Firesign’s records.

The culture clashes of the late ‘60s were very present in comedy programs of the era, but Firesign was unique among them. What made Firesign stand out from, say, Laugh-In, was that Firesign Theatre weren’t suits trying to produce comedy for the youth movement; Firesign Theatre were hippies producing comedy for their peers. Peter Bergman, according to Proctor’s book and other disputed sources, organized the first-ever Love-In in LA’s Elysian Park. Performing at the Love-In, Proctor insists, allowed Firesign Theatre to move from the FM station KPFK, where they’d gained a cult following, to the AM station KRLA, which then had a wider audience. It can be disappointing to read over and over about the material effects of Firesign’s growth in popularity, particularly when Proctor writes so little about the group’s creative processes. Describing the process of writing their album Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, Proctor goes into great detail about where everyone lived and what their commute was like (this has been a focus for him in interviews as well), and absolutely no detail about who contributed what concepts, what if any conflicts arose among members of the group, or even how long it took to write. He does mention, though, that moving Firesign’s work from radio to recorded album allowed audiences to catch jokes on replay they may have otherwise missed. If this adjustment allowed Firesign to write more dense scripts than appeared in their radio and stage work, Proctor doesn’t mention it.

Proctor is understandably enthusiastic about the amount of Firesign Theatre and related material that is now available digitally, particularly online. Peter Bergman especially devoted a great deal of time later in his life to digitizing original broadcasts from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Proctor’s emphasis on this is certainly in part a desire to sell Firesign media to new audiences, but it’s also part of a broader enthusiasm for digital media and its possibilities. The work Proctor made with Firesign Theatre – and a great deal of his work outside of the group – has been dependent on the evolution of recording technology. In his surprisingly detailed account of working on Firesign’s 1998 album Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death, he explains, “Things had dramatically changed…in recording technology… Our work…became denser in its effects and production than anything we had attempted before. We were enthused by our ability to layer sound and to mingle location recording with in-studio scenes.” While two members of Firesign Theatre, Phil Austin and Peter Bergman, have passed away, it’s clear Proctor remains excited about what the group could do with access to today’s digital sound equipment. There are, of course, people doing incredible work today that Proctor (now in his late 70s) may not be aware of, but the fact that he at one point quotes Wikipedia about his own work (sidenote: wow!) suggests he tries to stay somewhat current.

From comedy podcasts to mashups and remixes (a lot of Neil Cicierega’s work has a distinctly Firesign feel to it), Firesign Theatre has been enormously influential on audio satire. Like so many trailblazers, their work has somewhat disappeared in the shadow of what’s come after, which makes it that much more important to explore their work today. Phil Proctor’s memoir is charming and funny and definitely a trip for anyone not close with an aging stoner boomer, but it’s unfortunately short on the details that could better contextualize his work. There are other books providing that kind of information (one of which was released earlier this year), but anyone curious is probably better served by going directly to the source. Many of Firesign Theatre’s key albums are on YouTube in their entirety. The digital revolution has at last allowed Firesign Theatre’s comedy to be in two places at once while nowhere at all.

Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.

Fall Comedy Reads: A Look Back at the Firesign Theatre