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"Who am us, anyway?"
Writer, actor, director
talks about his career with and without The Firesign Theater,
with Peter Bergman and Phil Proctor jumping in from time to
by Geo. Stewart
We were sad to learn about the death of Peter Bergman of Firesign Theater fame on Saturday, March 10, 2012. He was 72 and suffered from Leukemia.
"I don't know how you came by this record but you are now embarked upon a journey that certainly
will lead you to change your life forever. If you were never a special person you are a special
person now. Hello, Seeker! Now, don't feel alone in the New Age because there is a seeker born
every minute....Don't believe it? Well, listen to this..."
--Dr Harry Cox
Everything You Know is Wrong!
They were all born during the golden age of radio and grew up under the tutelage of the
Beatles. In the late Sixties the FCC said all new radios had to be able to receive the FM
signal, and it also said that those few FM stations that were out there could no longer just
rebroadcast their sister stations AM programming. Suddenly station owners needed a lot
of cheap programming on stations that not many people were listened to. Underground
radio was born, and soon became a vibrant, secretive, cult-like scene whose formats were
as revolutionary as the music they played; the electro-magnetic newspaper for a nascent
cultural revolution. One of the most legendary practitioners of this ether-eal magick was
Peter Bergman whose late night program Radio Free Oz mixed the most progressive music
with his free associative word play. Three friends began to join the midnight tea party: Phil
Proctor, Phil Austin and David Ossman, all born between 1936 and 1941, all Fire signs and
all ready to chat, just like the ex-president who saw them through the War. In 1967 under
the moniker Firesign Theater, the four created the first comedy album for the counter-culture. And over the next 35 years they continued to chronicle America, as we, and as
they, too, changed and aged.
Many artifacts from the Summer of Love look as sadly quant as our youthful ideals, whose
quintessence were never assimilated as completely as our long hair and loud wardrobes.
But the Firesign Theater's work has always transcended its time, thanks to its multilayered
narratives, relentless density, and rich characterizations. In the Spring of 2002 Sony
Records decided to finally release on Cd their first four albums, albums that taken in their
entirety create one huge comedic epic. This seemed like a good time to learn about the
Firesign Theater's history from one-quarter of the group, David Ossman.
DAVID OSSMAN: We began our recording career in the Summer of Love, one year after
we started doing radio in Oct of 1966. The four of us came together on Peter Bergman's
radio show RADIO FREE OZ which he was doing on KPFK, a listener sponsored fm radio
station in Los Angles. He was on very late at night. And suddenly it became hugely
popular, and Peter became a radio celebrity. Soon the show moved from KPFK to KRLA
which had a much stronger signal, 100,000 watts of power. This happened on Easter
Sunday 1967 which as it happened was the day of the first love in. In fact it was Peter who
coined the term "Love-In."
>GEO: His radio show was one of the first underground radio shows.
DAVID OSSMAN: Yes, it really was. The so called FM revolution, where the DJ would play
whole sides of really far out records. And of course the music was changing; fantastic
things were coming out all at once, one after another after another. And Peter was the first
show that took on, what shall I say?, the psyche of the young people and played with it.
Peter would go on the air and take on a completely different personae and tell you stories
--Sufie stories or pata-physical storiess or poetry or whatever interested him. He would
present it as if he had thought of it at that very moment. It was just a brilliant device. Peter
had just come back from Europe where he had made a movie. He and Tom Stopper had
just been at the same curriculum in Germany so Peter began to use all these very
European avant garde concepts on his radio show. And that fit in perfectly with my plan
because I came directly out of European avant garde, dadaist, surrealism viewpoint
myself! We four just had a great time on the radio!
[In 1993, when the Firesign Theater was doing their 25th anniversary tour I got a chance to
talk a bit with both Peter Bergman and Phil Proctor. Peter told me about how he had spent
a good time in Swingin' London in the mid sixties:]
Peter Bergman: I was working at the time for Peter Cook's Private Eye magazine. Then my
agent got me a job working on the BBC television show that replaced That Was The Week
That Was called Not So Much a Program, More a Way of Life. I guess I could have jumped
into that with a little more fervor, but something was pulling me back to America: I had seen
the Beatles. A few years earlier when I was over in Germany at a playwrighting colloquium
I saw a picture of the guys and I said,"I'm going to have a four man comedy group someday.
But we are not going to dress alike." And I put that thought away and went back to work
and soon after came back to America. And sure enough almost to the day The Firesign
Theater was formed on my radio show on KPFK. So you get what you want so watch out!
Look what you get!
>GEO: How did you get your first recording contract. Comedy albums were pretty much
dead at the time.
DAVID OSSMAN: Yeah, they were flat, they definitely were. Well, Phil Austin had once
done a single with a producer named Gary Usher. And Peter's program was so popular
at that moment. Clive Davis had just come to Columbia Records was very actively looking
for new acts. Gary came to Peter and said, "Would you like to do an astrology album?" And
Peter said, "No, but I know these guys and we would like to do a comedy album."
Columbia had no idea what they were getting into, frankly, when we started recording our
first album Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him. The engineers didn't, the
production people didn't, and NOBODY knew what to do with it when we had finished it!
But then a significant thing happened: the day they got it, WBAI-Fm, the Pacifica station
in New York City, decided to play the album in its entirety, over and over -- Side One, then
Side Two, then back to Side One, than back to Side Two -- for like six hours, from midnight
to six am. So there was a certain number of people who heard us very early on who said,
"what's that?" There is nothing like having people pull over in the parking lot listening to
your show because they just can't believe what they are hearing!
>GEO: Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him reminds be a lot of the Salvador
Dali/Louis Bunuel film Andalusian Dog in that it perfectly captures the aesthetic and
structure of a dream. The story line in Waiting for the Electrician just seems to morph from
event to event while adhering to its own internal logic. It feels right, but when you think
about it doesn't make rational sense.
DAVID OSSMAN: Absolutely, it doesn't. It's very surreal in its form. It was a dream,
irrational, never know what's going to pop up next. Then you have to put it all together at
the end. That's what I meant when I talked about it coming out of the European avant
garde. People immediately said, "oh, man, its really stone humor." Well, in a manner of
speaking I guess it was, but then so were the surrealists, only they were probably stoned
>GEO: You are obviously working from a well crafted script. You're clearly not winging it;
the structure is too strong.
DAVID OSSMAN: Those were almost the first scripts we had written. We had written some
very short bits before. And then we wrote the three piece that make up Side One of the
album. But when we wrote Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him for the second
side we finally sort of got it.
>GEO: How would you go about writing a piece like that? Was it a collaborative thing?
DAVID OSSMAN: It was always collaborative. Individuals will bring in a bit or a character
or a thematic idea. So we might take a first draft that Phil Procter had brought in about,
say, Ralph Spoilsport and make a few suggestions here and there and then it would morph
into something completely different.
>GEO: Yeah, it ends up being a recitation of Molly Bloom's monologue from James Joyce's
DAVID OSSMAN: Yes! Because Ulysses myth is the male story. I believe that to be the
ur-tale: this poor "Odysseus" trying to get home and the gods keep getting in the way! And
yet he finally does get home. Its a great story. The film Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? just
borrowed it; it's been borrowed and reinvented for years. So I came to believe that what
we were doing over the long term in those first four albums was telling the Ulysses story:
the story of getting home, going through one barrier after another after another, finally
defeating them all, and finding out where you home is.
>GEO: The first four albums, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him , How
Can You Be In Two Places at Once when Your Not Anywhere At All , Don't Crush
that Dwarf, Hand me the Pliers  and I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus  are
interconnected, they're a cycle.
DAVID OSSMAN: Yes. On the second album How Can You Be In Two Places at Once
when Your Not Anywhere At All we continued the Ulysses story of "P" let us call him, as
he gets from one place to the next. But even at the end we don't really know anything
about him. So in Don't Crush that Dwarf, Hand me the Pliers we went back to an idea we'd
explored earlier on the radio which at the time we called The Life In a Day which was a
single day of television. We expanded the idea and came up with the notion of this
character revealing his life -- either his real life or the life he made up for himself --
through television, which is what a great many people were doing at the time. And I think
we demonstrated where this searching character came from. Finally we realized that we
had to end the story, bring it full circle, as you say, which we did on I Think We're All Bozos
on This Bus.
>GEO: The final sound on I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus is of the whispering winds
which was the opening sounds on the first album some four years earlier.
David Ossman: There was a business component to all of this too, of course. It was very
difficult to get the second album released by Columbia Records. And the third came along
as kind of a surprise: "Oh, yeah, you guys can make another album." "Great! Ok, now
what are we going to do?" In the first three albums we had examined the medium of
records, we had done radio, and we had done television. So it was our decision to wrap this
story up and then move on. We were looking for a new medium to satirize at that point.
So we seized on the notion of a Disneyland for the future where our character would finally
de-construct his universe and have a face-to-face with Doctor Memory, the controlling
influence. This, I want to remind everybody, was several years before the movie The
Matrix! -- ya know, like thirty years before!...so finally "P" here called "Clem" breaks
through and destroy the illusion and now can presumably go home and get on with his life.
We didn't know that we were going to do those stories in that way from the very beginning.
There was no way we could have known as we were too dependent on the industry that we
were working in. It was like making movies, where you are completely dependant on box
office of your last one to let you do the next one. We exist as artist in an commercial
business, like musicians do.
>GEO: And you have to make some money and you have do something that is aesthetically
pleasing to you.
David Ossman: Yes, both of those things and then we have to have someone say, "here's
some more money, do the next project."
>GEO: After the first four albums the group changed direction a bit.
David Ossman: Well, we were asked by the record company to do an album that could get
some air play; you know, made up of shorter stand-alone bits. As it happened we had done
a syndicated series of radio shows called "Dear Friends" and so the next album was a
double record set of cuts from the radio show. We were on the radio pretty steadily for a
period of about five years.
>GEO: As a local show?
David Ossman: Oh, no. It was syndicated. That was Dear Friends. We actually printed
up Lps -- a hundred sets -- and sold them to radio stations.
>GEO: Was it a half hour show?
David Ossman: No, it was an hour. Then we did another show that we syndicated in half
hours. We cut the show in half and that series was called Let's Eat. We were doing that
show while we were developing I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus. And the last of the
Let's Eat shows was called The Martian Space Party. It was a great big two hour live
broadcast that was made into a movie. Some of the elements from that were used in the
next studio album Not Insane. That really was the last big thing we did in that early phase
of Firesign Theater. It's a wonderful performance. So I'm hoping it will be out on dvd soon
give everybody a kind of a look how we looked in 1972 as performers. We were really
putting togther a record, live-- a two hour record with all kinds of characters and cut-aways
-- the nomination of George Papoon for ppresident, the launch of the President Nixon on
his final trip to Mars on a spaceship that was being attacked by one of the great Japanese
monsters, Glutomoto. Unfortunately the record that was made from it was not that strong.
And everyone thought, "well, that's the end of the Firesign Theater." This was about 1972.
Our first big comeback was another live performance in '74. We played Carnegie hall --
sold it out, an amazing event. Then we re-worked an earlier piece, a Sherlock Holmes
parody called The Giant Rat of Sumatra which was a chance to do something more Goon
Show like. The Goon Show was one of our great influences. The number of people they
influenced is amazing.
[Peter Bergman was lucky enough to have worked with the driving force of The
Goons, Spike Mulligan during his time in London:]
Peter Bergman: I went to see him in a play in London in 1965. During the run Spike had so
taken over the script that the author had his name removed. I was really thrilled by it and
went back stage and introduced myself. And we got along so well that we decided we would
write a piece together for Queen Magazine. I don't remember what the piece was about.
He did some wonderful things! Once we went into a restaurant and ordered a bottle
of wine and he called the waiter over and said "Waiter, waiter! There's no ship in my
bottle!" Another time, we were walking down the street and he suddenly went into a funeral
parlor and lay down on a table, folded his hands like he was dead, rang the bell and yelled
I didn't meet Peter Sellers until just before his death. I ran into him outside of a hotel and
had a chance to thank him for all the good times he had given me. And I never met Harry
>GEO: Who else were your influences comedically?
David Ossman: Well, I think everyone of us would claim different ones. Phil Proctor has
spoken about Bob and Ray. He use to hear them live back east in New York when they
were on the air on WNBC-AM. They even did some of his material. You can clearly hear
their influence in his work. You can hear those wonderful Bob and Ray rhythms. I think
Stan Freberg definitely was an influence on all of us as he was the only person who took
radio and put it on Lp records. His was the first comedy probably other than Spike Jones
that I was aware of as a radio listener back in the 50s. This was funny stuff, Saint George
and the Dragon Net and all those other great parodies he did. But basically he was a
parodist, which was not something we ever were or wanted to be. It was his ability to
transfer the magic that happened on radio onto record that I liked -- making it seem fresh,
making it sound like he was making it up as he went along. A lot of my comedy influence
are old radio: Fibber McGee and Molly, Jack Benny, all those great radio comedians.
>GEO: The Firesign Theater albums are interesting in that, while they make no direct
reference to the politics of the era, they perfectly reflect them. I find 1973's I Think We're
all Bozos on this Bus to be the quintessential Watergate album.
David Ossman: Oh, yes. Definitely! I mean clearly so when we were saying, "he killed the
president, man". Watergate was intensely going on when we wrote that material. And in
1974 when we were performing it on stage, well, needless to say, it actually was
happening. So we hoped that we had some influence in ditching the Nix. We ran out of LBJ
pretty quickly in the Viet Nam war era -- he was the first president that we opposed in
comedy terms. But I think your bigger point was well taken. When we wrote about the war
in Don't Crush that Dwarf, Hand me the Pliers in 1970 we did it by writing about the second
world war as if it was the Korean war as if it were the Viet Nam war. And we did this
specifically that way because we wanted it to be alive the day after the day after tomorrow.
The proof of the rightness of that decision is in the fact that these albums are still in print
-- every album that we have done since 11968.
Peter Bergman: One of the reasons our material remains ever-green is because we
write it like it's a play It's not that specific. Our specific material is what we of do on
our radio shows. We're like jazz. Jazz ages well, better than most types of music.
When you Pass material through four people it gets thicker and less specific.
Phil Proctor: The writing is the most arduous part, but once we put it up on its feet
we learn immediately what works and what doesn't. And so it's really easy then to
say, "that doesn't work, throw it out" instead of arguing for three days over some
minor point. That's what Shakespear's company must have done. Some actor
would threw in some really funny line and Shakespear would say, "Hey! that's funny!
Keep it in, its good, ya know. Quill it in!" We have an opportunity now to breath new
life into the body of the work we've created over the years. We're constantly refining
our material on the basis of audience reaction just like Shakespear did. Really,
things are just an ever changing metaphor of the same thing. We haven't solved
the problems, we just view them in new ways over and over again.
Peter Bergman: Don't Crush That Dwarf was developed initially on the road. Being
together we throw a lot of stuff around. Traveling has opened me up. I've been so
long on the West Coast. I really haven't had a chance to explore the Mid-West and
the East Coast before. Everything is so different. it just wakes my brain up
Phil Proctor: It's nice being in cities that you can walk around in. In Los Angles,
you're not suppose to walk around. If you move the letters around, it spells "Legs
>GEO: It's great having the albums out on cd.
David Ossman: For me its fabulous; the sound quality is so much better. And now that we
are doing this XM satellite radio show I've been playing things that people haven't heard --
including us -- in years and years and years. So its really great.. It's an exceptional thrill
for a writer to have his work in print.
>GEO: A few things get lost though in the change from Lp to CD. You guys very cleverly
incorporated elements unique to the Lp into the comedy...like how to handle flipping the Lp
over, or having a phone call on Side One be answered on Side Two. All that gets lost on
David Ossman: We began when the Lp was just coming into its own. The notion of turning
that record over was an obsessive concern for us. We always had to find a place, a
reason. On the first album when you turn it over you suddenly find out you've skipped
ahead three sides: "Welcome to Side Five."
>GEO: A line that accidentally got truncated when they remastered it for Cd...
DAVID OSSMAN: Yes. How did that happen?. ..In How Can You Be In Two Places at
Once When You're Not Anywhere at All the record at one point does poke through. In
Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers it's "This Side" and "The Other Side", making
the point about the polarization caused by the Viet Nam War. When you turn over to Side
Two on Everything You Know is Wrong! you suddenly have an invasion from outer space
from out of nowhere. It was always important to us on how to make that transition. We all
played Lps and we knew how people played them. So the idea was that, "yes, this is a bit
of a respite, but we don't want you to rest for too long!" We want you to be excited about
what's going to happen next. Turn the album over!
>GEO: Between 1972 and 1974 the members of Firesign Theater were very busy...
David Ossman: In those two years we did five or six albums. All of us were on my album
How Time Flies; all of us were on the Phil Austin album Fire Maidens From Outer Space.
Procter & Bergman did their Tv or Not Tv in 1974 and then the live album a year later, What
this Country Needs. All of these happened quickly, right after the Firesign Theater Lps
"Not Insane" in 1972, and The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra in '73.
>GEO: What were you guys trying to do differently on the solo albums?
David Ossman: I can tell you from my own point of view what I was trying to do: make a
viable artistic form out of doing radio on records. Being an old radio drama producer and
an enthusiast of radio drama I wanted to explore album as a method of story telling. I
wanted to get away from the collage form that the Firesign Theater had used so well. We
had just come off of We're All Bozos where we had attempted to tell a story in more linear
form. I had wanted to be a radio actor -- or "audio actor" -- ever since I was a junior in
high school, after having read a wonderful radio script by Norman Corwin called "The
Odyssey of Runyon Jones" about an eleven year old kid who goes to heaven to get his
dead dog back. That was an era that really inspired me and that's why I approached How
Time Flies as a narrative. It bites its own tale; it turns around on itself. It was more linear
than anything The Firesign Theater had done up to that time. But the sad truth is How Time
Flies didn't work -- in that it wasn't a commercial success. Everybody said "Oh, they're all
doing independent albums; they've broken up. And they're not as good individually as when
they were a group." But really what we were trying to do was secure a foothold for each
of us in this wonderful medium. Radio may have disappeared for us, but hey, maybe we
can do it with records.
Phil Proctor: We began to find it uneconomical to work together as a group because
we couldn't sustain all the travel expenses and everything. So we branched off.
Peter Bergman and I went off and toured on our own. And out of that came several
albums on Mercury Records, the first of which was Tv or Not Tv which predicted
narrow-casting on cable television, and the info-mercials and buying by phone and
all that stuff. And then we did Give us a Break which is an album of commercial
parodies. And then we did What this Country Needs which is a political satire. And
on my own I did Rappa This as "Vinnie Gumba" for Laurie Records. And around
that time Phil Austin did Roller Maidens From Outer Space.
DAVID OSSMAN: Phil Austin was really interested in this fascinating idea of passing
between channels on television and just what exactly were these radio characters doing
when we're not watching them. Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman also were interested in
television and came up with this concept of a station operated by just two guys -- once
again this was thirty years ago.
>GEO: It reminds me of what SCTV would end up doing for NBC a decade later.
David Ossman: There are certain people who borrowed extensively from our ideas and
used them on television and SCTV I think borrowed that idea. Or perhaps it was just in the
air, who knows?
>GEO: They did make it their own.
David Ossman: Yes, they did.
>GEO: I don't see much difference between the solo albums and the Firesign Lps. Any of
those Lps could have been Firesign Theater albums.
David Ossman: They all are as far as I'm concern. People have said to me, "what would
the album after Bozos been like?" And my answer is: A: Listen to The Martian Space Party
movie because that essentially is the next album. And B: Listen to all three of the solo
albums, "Tv or Not Tv," "Roller Maidens from Outer Space" and "How Time Flies." Those
albums were written directly out of the concerns that we all had, but that we couldn't really
get together into a group album.
Phil Proctor: The difference between the solo albums and the group efforts to me is
that they don't have the four perspectives; they have the very personal perspective
of each of the individual artist. Firesign Theater by its very nature is a square
theater with four inputs. Out of that comes a fifth guy: the Firesign Theater. That's
why we call our publishing company Four or The Five Crazy Guys. The fifth guy is
the work that is created; the muse that comes to us through our collective four
minds. The modus operandi when working on each other's albums wasn't all that
different from creating a regular Firesign Theater album, but we tended to be less
attached to the material because we were not involved in the actual act of creation
of it. So we brought our talents to it, instead of through it, if you will...
>GEO: I always felt that the your next work, Everything You Know is Wrong! was the great
lost Firesign Theater album; for some reason it tends to be overlooked. And again it's a
very good example of you playing with format: When we put on this record, it turns out to
be some kind of conspiracy record that the government doesn't want us to have. I kept
thinking some government thug was going to bust in my door any minute.
David Ossman: We were back in good form when we did that album back in 1974.
>GEO: Firesign Theater was never able to make the success on television the way National
Lampoon Magazine morphed into Saturday Night Live.
David Ossman: I think possibly there were a couple of reasons we didn't make it big on Tv:
There wasn't a Chevy Chase, there wasn't a John Belushi, there wasn't a single star for the
audience to gravitate to. We worked as an ensemble . And television doesn't handle
ensembles very well. And we did do some television. Phil Austin and I with Harry Shearer
did a Nick Danger piece on television -- with the sound effects table and mics there, like
you were watching a live radio show.
>GEO: I'm surprised you guys didn't get to host Saturday Night Live at some point.
David Ossman: For some reason Loran Michaels was reputed to not like us very much and
we were never were offered any sort of guest position or guest host position of SNL.
>GEO: What about a feature film? The later albums were movies of the mind already.
David Ossman: We did try to. Phil and I wrote two movie scripts, Proctor and Bergman
wrote two themselves. The four of us wrote another two. Only Americathon was ever
produced which was based on a Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman play, though it ended up
being hardly like their version.
>GEO: That was in 1979. What happened? Did it get re-written?
David Ossman: Yes. The director, Neal Israel, wrote the final script, based on a notion that
Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman had. One time we did try to put many of the elements from
the first four albums into an Odysseus like movie in 1980 for MGM. We wrote a first draft
for them and then signed one of those "you're gonna be millionaires" contracts. Within a
matter of weeks all those executives at MGM were fired and all new executives came in and
they said, "you're not going to be millionaires; It's all over!" Needless to say that's
Hollywood. Those were the extreme cocaine years in Hollywood, so nobody knew what
they were doing. It was just insane. It finally drove me out of the business and I'm no drug
moralist, but they would yammer away and then not remember what they said five minutes
later! Better they should be smoking pot. I keep hoping that someday someone will say,
"Hey, this would make a good movie and I'm gonna do it!" I think on the most recent album
Bride of Firesign we really perfected the Nick Danger form. Now he has a dog. I can
believe we didn't realize that earlier.
>GEO: Maybe Nick Danger could go to television.
David Ossman: Oh, film is a much more interesting form that television. I personally don't
like televison at all and don't ever watch it, never have. It's just not a medium I care about.
So it never bothered me that we were so seldom on television. I would have loved to have
made the jump to film as Cheech and Chong had done. The were fortunate in that they had
very strong, very funny characterizations and they stuck with 'em.
>GEO: They remind me of your characters Pico and El Dorado.
David Ossman: Oh, yes! Cheech and Chong sort of took Pico and El Dorado and made
them their own and then made five albums out of it and four or five movies. I think if we had
marketed Nick Danger more strongly that that might have made a good film.
>GEO: After 1975's In The Next World You're on Your Own Columbia dropped Firesign
David Ossman: After being dropped by Columbia, we were at sea, we didn't have media
access anymore! And it took us a considerable length of time to figure out what to do next.
Ultimately that proved to be doing something on the stage. We did three different shows.
One was a musical review, something I always wanted to write in college, Fighting Clowns,
which incorporated songs and sketches.
PHIL PROCTOR: Fighting Clowns was a cabaret performance about the end the
cold war and the questions and problems that would arise from it. I was aware of
this impending problem as far back as 1959 when as a freshman I toured the USSR
with the Yale Russian Chorus. I saw that the Soviet Union was a big Fake. They
would repaired front of the building but the inside was the same as it was right after
the Second World War! They truly were putting up an enormous front. During the
war they had lost an enormous number of people and they were sore and paranoid
and in deep, deep shock. So it was clear to me why they were surrounding
themselves with weaponry while whistling and putting up a big "bearish" front. But
the fact of the matter is, if you looked behind it you would see that it was nothing
more than bluster. Yet nobody over here wanted to hear that. America suffers
from denial. One of the things that Firesign Theater tries to do is rip off the mask of
hypocrisy off this false face that America puts forward. America does this in order
to maintain its consumer oriented society. [That was the idea behind Pastor Flashes
Powerhouse Church of the Presumptuous Consumption on Don't Crush That Dwarf.]
America has got to come to grips with the fact that it is consuming itself! We are
paying too much obedience to the god of consumerism. Granted we won the cold
war, but we did it by exporting commercialism and entertainment. It was our
broadcast satellites that freed Russia's satellites by broadcasting for free lots of very
dumb ideas -- emphasize the "dumb", emphasize on the "free" -- into those
countries. There was no way for the USSR to control the minds of these people
anymore. And at that point the iron curtain became a lace curtain and just blew
away. We use comedy as a way to make people see the truth, because when you
make people laugh they drop their guard. The Firesign Theater has always waved
the banner for personal choice.
DAVID OSSMAN: Fighting Clowns did become an album in 1980, thanks to Rhino
Records. But it, too, was a form that had outlived its time: nobody was doing musical
reviews on stage anymore. We took Fighting Clowns on the road in 1981 and it was a
disaster. So at that point, as we all do when we look for a career, we tried to figure out what
to do next. In the meantime I had been offered a job at National Public radio which I was
very happy to take. So I moved to Washington state and produced a series of incredible
programs for NPR.
>GEO: What was the series called?
David Ossman: I was hired to do a show called -- not very cleverly -- The Sunday Show.
It was a five hour weekly arts magazine, covering all of the arts and all types of music. I
wanted it to be what is now called multi cultural; it would cover everybody's arts. I made it
very clear that dead white European males were not my first concern. I was the host and
executive producer. We had to come up with five hours of interesting material per week,
which we were able to do because NPR lavished a certain amount of money and staff on
you -- I think I had sixteen people working for me. So we did 28 shows -- 28 five hour
weekly live shows on NPR.
>GEO: Why did it end?
David Ossman: I was fired immediately after having done a tribute to John Cage on his
seventh birthday. I was told to have my office empty by Monday, they had replaced me,
and they replaced the producer of that piece, too.
>GEO: What did you do five hours of silence or something?
David Ossman: Now that would have been a great idea. But, no. We had commissioned
John to do a piece. He had five of our stations up linked to the satellite and he gave them
each very specific instructions to find "a record six inches down the third shelf from the
bottom in your music library"...or whatever, very complicated instructions. And it was about
a fourteen or fifteen minute piece that involved John and a woman reading live while we
mixed in the miscellaneous sounds from these randomly chosen records from the five
different stations -- San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, DC and two others....It was
all of public radio piled on top of itself for fifteen minutes! It was fabulous! It was one of the
great events in my life!
>GEO: It was a radio happening!
David Ossman: Yes! A radio happening. I met John later at a conference and I told him
this story: "and the next day they fired me!" and he said "Oh, David!" and he gave me a
kiss on both cheeks.
>GEO: I'm sorry that you got fired for doing such creative work. The program sounds like
an updated version of NBC Radio's Monitor which was network radio's last great attempt
to stay viable in the early 60s. I keep thinking someone should revive it, but after hearing
your horror story maybe it can't be done anymore.
David Ossman: NPR is an odd kettle of fish. NPR is just a collection of independent
members stations with the key stations in the network exerting a lot of mussel. Most of the
stations were really little more than classical music jukeboxes. So while the NPR
management can pretty much create any kind of show they want to, they can't make the
individual stations broadcast it. And a five hour program made a lot of the individual
stations indignant because it was taking away a lot of hours that these stations were using
for their local programming. I didn't realize that at the time. NPR always produce an
excess of programs, much more than any station would ever broadcast. We had been
picked up by maybe 60 stations by the time the show went off the air. And it did win a
Peabody award -- but I was gone by that time. So nobody asked me to go pick up the
>GEO: The guy who fired you probably got to do that.
David Ossman: No doubt! He's the one person in all of this that I haven't forgiven. If
somebody hires you they should stand behind their hire. The guy knew where I was coming
from; it wasn't like he didn't know about my work with Firesign Theater. Each episode was
like a pilot for a great idea. But it was too much for an audience that might only want to
listen to classical music or whatever. After that I kind of retired for a while, then began to
work for WGBH in Boston and did a number of radio plays for a series called The Spider's
Web. It dramatized novels and short stories by American authors for kids. I did a couple
of O. Henry stories and some Poe. I did The Red Badge of Courage as a big two hour
production. That's where I met my wife Judith. The first thing we did after we left Boston
was a another series, this one called Radio Movies, which was similar to those BBC long
form radio drama series. That's where we did the War of the Worlds in 1988 on the fiftieth
anniversary of Orson Welles' broadcast. We've done eight or nine major productions since
then, the most recent one being the Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 2000. It was three and
twenty odd minutes, the complete book, for the Children's Museum of Los Angles.
>GEO: In 1983 Sony Records which had taken over Columbia decided that 1983 was your
twenty fifth anniversary -- even though they were off by a few years. To celebrate [or
capitalize on it] they released a two cd Best Of set featuring highlights from the Firesign
Theater's Columbia Lps called Shoes for Industry. I think that when they excerpt highlights
from these albums, they basically end up make hash out of them. The best thing about the
release for me was that it brought you guys back together.
David Ossman: It did. We actually worked with the producer, Bob Irwin, to make it a better
album than it had started out to be. And there are some things on it that aren't available
anywhere else. But as you say it did hash up those pieces. But then again it did make
those pieces easily accessible for radio play. But you're right, it did make us think about
the upcoming twenty fifth anniversary. So we did a twenty fifth anniversary stage show that
was based on those first four albums.
Peter Bergman: The reason The Firesign Theater was able to come back with such
strength is that we were never co-opted.
DAVID OSSMAN: We had done a different stage program in 1974 called Anythown, U.S.A.
The first act was Don't Crush that Dwarf, and the second act was I Think We're All Bozo
on this Bus. In 1994 we went out with a show that had a little bit of Waiting for the
Electrician or Someone like Him, a half hour version of Don't Crush that Dwarf, and enough
of Bozos to tell the story. In 1999 one of the reviews I saw claimed that we had really
simplified these very complicated records for the stage productions -- and there may be
some truth to that. But we had to, there was only four of us to play all those parts! Now,
in Los Angles there's a theater company who's done Waiting for the Electrician and How
Can You be In Two Places at Once as full blown stage productions -- some thirty years
after they were written. In fact we were doubled bill with Sam Shepard!
>GEO: I thought that Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death was a good update of your
solo album How Time Flies. Both are set at the turn to the new millennium as the world is
about to end.
David Ossman: That is interesting that you should say that. It was a real circularity for me
since I had already written my Year 2000 album in 1973! And here we are doing it again
this time as a group project in 1998.
>GEO: I remember listening to it back in 1973 thinking, "boy, the millennium's a long way
off." And then I listened to it again in 2000 and thought, "boy, that's an old album!"
David Ossman: Yeah! When we began the trilogy that we did for Rhino Records [not
knowing that it would turn out to be a trilogy] it was logical to do a millennium album since
it would be the only chance we would get to do one! The idea was how would ordinary
people, people like you and me who had jobs on radio, how would they handle the end of
the world? Phil Proctor's BeBop Lobo had a wife and a child to go home to. Hal and Ray,
our first strongly gay characters, had a life out side the studio. Mr Producer was a poet who
read Ezra Pound to people at late night gathering. These were all very interesting people
-- older people -- caught up in the ennd of the world. How would they confront it? If you
were on the air during one of these incredible crisis...I was on the air for twelve hours the
day that Kennedy was shot, for example, you do your job.
>GEO: What's next for Firesign Theater?
David Ossman: Well, we're doing the live XM Satellite show on the last Saturday of every
month. It's a two hour show and I would say at least an hour is new material and the other
hour is put together from things people haven't heard in a long time. We're doing a lot of
writing for these shows.
PETER BERGMAN: We also have been training other people to go out and be
Firesign Theaters. We have international Firesign Theater franchises that has been
very, very successful. Now some don't think Firesign translates well in to
Japanese, but the Japanese think it's wonderful. Although other who have done
rough translations back in to English say that it bares little or no resemblance to our
original material. But that doesn't really bother us much because the royalties are
good and there are a lot of Super - Firesign Theater fans over there. We're thinking
of starting a Norwegian franchise, and a South American franchise. Again it doesn't
seem to translate that well, bu it doesn't seem to bother the locals. So with that and
the selling of Pickles-in-a-Bag and the fake noses, well, that will probably take care
of us in our old age and pay all our mortgages. Do you know that "mortgage" means
"dead hand"? "Dead hand up the land." So we're paying off our mortgages with our
Pickles and Noses. This not seem like a good idea to you, but the further away you
are the better it looks to me.
DAVID OSSMAN: I think there will not be another Rhino Cd in our future. Their whole
business picture has changed. It just depends on weather it makes economic sense for us
to put something else out on the market.
>GEO: They are now part of AOL Time Warner, they have to sell larger now. But I hear
that the guys who started Rhino are starting a new label dedicated to comedy.
David Ossman: Yes, that's true. We were so glad that Sony put the first four albums out
on cd. And Laugh.com has released the rest of the Columbia albums and the solo albums,
too. Our XM Satellite shows are video taped as we perform them so someday we might do
something with them. And we will be doing some extended pieces on the bi-election for
NPR's All Things Considered. That would be nice; we haven't done anything for NPR since
we covered the election in 1980.
On the other hand, everyone of us is over sixty; we've had a long career together for over
thirty five years. So I guess it can be safely said that we are winding down.
Geo. Stewart is the host of Crazy College, dedicated to all musics odd, silly or forgotten,
heard on several of the more adventurous public radio stations on the east coast. He can
be reached at email@example.com. And check out the Crazy College web site.