I have written a number of articles on this site about various artists who enjoyed prolonged stretches of brilliance, then seemed to fade, not so much with time as with success. Among those I profiled who fell into that category were Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan and the writer Kurt Vonnegut. The Firesign Theatre, on the other hand, seems to get better with age.
That is not to say that their earlier stuff, released between 1968 and 1970, was at all bad or boring. Their first two comedy albums, Waiting for the Electrician or Somebody Like Him and How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All, are very entertaining, while their third, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers was, without doubt, the best comedy album I had heard up to that point in my life. I even put it ahead of The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, George Carlin and Bill Cosby’s best early work, and the Smothers Brothers at their zaniest.
I’d say, if you are just getting acquainted with The Firesign Theatre, you should probably check out these three before you go on to any others. There are characters in those early albums, such as Nick Danger and Porgie Tirebiter (of recent Odd Man Out fame and, for which, I provided a YouTube link), who will recur in later releases.
Let me pause here to acquaint you with the Firesign Theatre’s style, if you are not already aware of it. It consists of what seems to be improvised stream-of-consciousness rambling, featuring wild twists of logic and absurdities that almost sound accurate, but, clearly, are not. You barely have time to catch on to one, when they are on another. Their humor is rapid-fire at a pace that would make the very funny Mel Brooks seem slow and ponderous by comparison.
Also, a great deal of their humor is subtle and quite cerebral. In one of the early albums there is a geographic reference to “the far-flung Isles of Langerhans.” It took me a second listening to catch that the Isles of Langerhans (also known as the Islets of Langerhans) are actually cell clusters within the pancreas. In another instance, a newlywed husband tells his wife that, for their honeymoon, “We’re going to Greece.”
“And swim the Channel?” she asks him, referring to the coating English Channel swimmers typically apply to stave off hypothermia during the effort.
But, while their routines seem to be improvisational comedy at its best, they are actually carefully scripted and well-rehearsed. That is fine with me. If I go to an improv performance, I will expect improv and be suitably impressed when the players carry it off. On the other hand, if I am listening to a comedy routine on the radio or a recording, all I ask for is excellence, and it matters little to me whether or not the performers rehearsed the material, as long as it’s quality stuff.
At some point in the 1970s, the group, consisting of Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Philip Proctor, began to entertain the notion of breaking away to do individual performances, but they never entirely broke up, which is fortunate, because, a number of years later, they were ready to launch into a second stronger phase of their comedy. I would particularly recommend three of their recent albums, Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death (Set in the fictional metropolis of FunFunTown), Boom Dot Bust (set in the even more fictional town of Billville) and Bride of Firesign. All three of those albums came out between 1998 and 2001.
I should point out that some of these albums, particularly the more recent ones, feature what they call “adult language,” meaning dirty words. I am hard-pressed to think of any regular AC reader of my stuff who has not heard those words (and probably used them on more than one occasion), but, I do want to issue the warning for those among you with small children.
Also, I should point out, once again, that the Firesign Theatre’s brand of comedy is what we might call, “out there.” Not everybody is going to appreciate it, and I say that, not to look down on those who may not. Some PHD holders may consider the stuff to be cretinous, while other high-school grads might find it a stitch. All I am saying is that I, with some extensive knowledge here and a great many gaps there, find them to be hilarious. Unlike other excellent comedy albums, I can listen to The Firesign Theatre’s material over and over again.
So, while I would suggest you go out and avail yourself of this group’s verbal artistry, listen to the (lengthy but instructive) links I provided in the Resources section to see if these people are capable of brewing your cup of tea. If so, I wish you many bright moments, as R.R. Kirk likes to say.