I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Firesign Theatre: The Men Behind the Curtain.

by David Selden
Nov. 22, 2011

In Nick Danger:The Case of the Missing Yolk, The Firesign Theatre construct a Chinese box puzzle of parallel universes. Hillbillies, mortgaged to the hilt in order to acquire their home of the future, sit stupefied in front of the TV while neo-noir detective, Nick Danger, uses his third eye to investigate the kidnapping of their adult children. Beneath a machine gun patter of bad puns, those yolks will inevitably be cracked and cracked again, The Firesign Theatre’s TV satire feels like what would happen if Marshall McLuhani had got his hands on the Marx Brothers.

The Firesign Theatre had their origins in live radio in LA in the mid 60’s, performing breathless skits for KPPC-FM and KPFK. Peter Bergman, who claims to have organized the first ever “love in” in Los Angeles in 1967, was (and is) the host of the popular show, Radio Free Oz. When the station recruited Philip Proctor and they hooked up with Phil Austin and David Ossman, the Firesign Theatre was born. Amongst the group’s first projects was a radio adaptation of Borges’ tale of a Kabalistic killing spree, Death and the Compass.ii

They took their name from their collective star sign but also as a knowing wink to NBC’s Fireside Theatreiii and FDR’s Fireside Chatsiv. The Goons-influenced stream of consciousness of The Firesign Theatre was to gain them a cult following and a discography that stretches to 28 releases.

An irreverent mixture of verbal slapstick, zany sound effects and silly voices, to the uninitiated Firesign’s work for radio can be little grating. Yet, as they draw you in to their world what makes them special, what makes this “zoo” unique, are the casually tossed asides about masturbating dentists, ego death and a brief soliloquy in which God takes up residence in an empty green room inside the head of one of the character’s dogs.

As Philip Proctor put it in an interview with Richard Metzger “First we seduced you into the clubhouse then you found yourself paying attention to the man behind the curtain.”v

Beneath the pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap approach to gag writing that will be familiar to fans of Airplane, there is a relentless deconstruction of the media itself. Fake ads jostle for space amongst sound effects and fragments of popular song as the cast rush to speak over each other and Yippie-sympathizers speed by, embellishing improvised comedic riffs on the hoof. Much of this ephemeral material had been thought lost until the tireless work of archivist Taylor Jessen brought original tapes to light. A number of these recordings are available at WFMU.

Originally made as an experiment in interactive televisionvi in 1983 by Pacific Arts, Nick Danger: Case of the Missing Yolk briefly doffs its hat to Steve Martin in Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, that hit cinemas the year before, but Danger (played by Austin) had made many previous appearances in the Theatre’s work and had debuted on their 1968 record, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All. vii

Pacific Arts was Michael Nesmith’s company, and it will come as no surprise to fans of Head that the former Monkee was a devotee. The Case of the Missing Yolk seems both of its time and incredibly timely. In 1983 the Jetsons-like future promised by the American dream was already being retrofitted with dystopian cynicismviii. Virtual reality (here the promise is incarnated in the form of interactive TV) can offer paradise but at what cost?

Instant wish fulfillment at the flick of the remote enables The Firesign Theatre to play with formats and genres, channel surfing from an ad for Old Blind, the duck coffee with an unfortunate side effect, to Lawyers Hospital, a daytime soap within a soap featuring chain smoking doctors. Elsewhere a ventriloquist’s dummy moonlights as a news reporter and ends up being taken hostage, and an ad for Booby Chew promises breast-enhancing chewing gum.

The comedy of The Firesign Theatre borders on the hypertextual. Dizzying layers of freely-associated thought are disguised as throwaway frat boy humour. Tin foil sets and cheap video FX are deployed with gleeful abandon. Their amphetiminized delivery is often reminiscent of Robin Williams as Mork at his most manic, and their infatuation with the nascent possibilities of tape as exuberant as the U.K’s Kenny Everett Video Show. Still, The Firesign Theatre always hinted at deeper, more rebarbative and satirical possibilities than either of the latter.

With 36 years between them the Firesign Theatre can easily lay claim to be “the longest surviving group of the classic rock era.” Their longevity makes them more of a venerable institution than the Fireside Theatre, which they once so viciously lampooned. The Firesign Theatre continues to delight audiences and release books and DVDs, most recently Anythynge You Want To a complete documentation of their Shakespeare parodies.


WFMU : Archives for The Firesign Theatre Radio Hour

Firesign Theatre: Everything You Know Is Wrong

An interview with Richard Metzger at Dangerous Minds

Firesign Theatre Webzine, Chromium Switch


i The Medium Is The Message: With Marshall McLuhan (1968) at WFMU

Side: A, Side: B

ii Borges’ La muerte y la brújula is, coincidentally, given a futuristic retro noir treatment in Alex Cox’s Death and the Compass (1992)

iii A long running drama anthology show sponsored by Proctor & Gamble, which was hugely popular but scorned by the critics for its cheap production values, The Fireside Theatre ran from 1949-1958.

iv Franklin D Roosevelt: Fireside Chat on Banking. March 12 1933

vi Always fascinated by new technologies members of the group, “worked with Mattel's Intellivision wing in the development of interactive video games" in 1982 [ ] The remaining Firesigners also provided voices for some of Mattel's Intellivison games, including Bomb Squad and B52 Bomber”.

vii Indeed the character of Nick Danger would prove so enduring that in 2008 Shout! Factory put out the four disk Box of Danger.

viii See for example William Gibson’s, The Gernsback Continuum from 1981 or Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982).

After a long international career exhibiting video installation and photography, David Selden renounced the art world in favor of the far less superficial drag scene and became intimately involved with a number of notorious London fetish clubs. ‘Retiring’ to Berlin in 2007 having run out of pseudonyms, he has written about music for Dorfdisco and about art for Whitehot Magazine as well as contributing numerous catalogue essays and translations for a variety of publications and websites. His misadventures in the world of anti-music can be endured at affeprotokoll.tumblr.com