Sixties Laugh-In

Sixties Laugh-In

“They’ve come to steal my dreams,” whimpers a female voice.


“They’ve come to steal my dreams,” whimpers a female voice. A series of male voices drifts past: “Get up, lady.” “It’s the trade of the century.” “There’s monster money in every sweaty mattress when you trade in your used dreams at Unconscious Village.” “But those dreams have been with me since the beginning,” she asserts weakly. The response: “Don’t be stuck with leftover dreams in the terrible days to come.”

That’s the kickoff of the disc Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death (Rhino), a wonderfully wide-ranging satire that brings back Firesign Theatre, the fab funny foursome who translated radio and comedy into the anarchic mix-and-match aesthetic of the sixties counterculture. They psychedelically wove their multihued threads of influence–the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Ernie Kovacs, Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, Bob and Ray, Stan Freberg, Lenny Bruce, the Beatles, James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Marshall McLuhan, the Living Theater, jazz improvisation–into hilariously incisive classics. In the process, they harnessed multitrack recording to comedy in provocative, ear-opening ways, creating soundscapes equaled by few musicians of the time, aside from the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.

When I interviewed them a half-dozen years ago, after they’d reunited for their twenty-fifth anniversary tour, troupe member Phil Proctor observed that it’s hard to make surreal comedy when reality is hyperreal. With this new disc, they’ve overcome that problem brilliantly, by sounding just like themselves. And why not? They invented it. So here come the staggering range of oddball voices and bad-joke names popping out of corners of the audio image; the dissolves and cross-fades and collages and jump-cuts mimicking channel-surfing; the endless reams of wince-able puns. The result: this dizzily multilayered broadcast, brought to you by Radio Now (“If it’s not now, it’s too late”) for millennium’s eve.

There’s the digitized Princess Goddess (“She may be dead but she’s obviously a very caring person”) now starring in Bottom/Fiedler Films’ Pull My String. (“She had to die to star in the movie of her life. Now she’ll live for you.”) Princess Goddess passed on while mud-boarding in the Alps–straight into a landmine. She’s the spokesperson for her own airline (“Let her take you for all you’re worth”) and sponsors “doll drops” at Homeless Stadium (“Bring a kid and maybe a doll will drop on her”).

Y2K obsessions? Replacement body parts, from and for Americans (“You can live forever while your friends fall apart like rotten fruit”)? Celebarazzi taking pictures of each other? Contests like triple ripoff, millennial scratch and lick, and, of course, itch-and-sniff (one winner exults tearfully, “Finally I can afford to have someone kill my husband”)? Dr. O’Nann Winquedinque, expert on self-help? Promise Breakers causing massive traffic tie-ups in Metroburbia? Fundamentalist preacher-politicos running eternal sales on mattresses? Slo-mo SUV chases down freeways infested by plagues of locusts and “helmet heads” checking motorists for circumcision, while “funny foam blocks the seven exits between Perdition Pass and Great Satan’s Village”? Straitjacketed formats (“desensitized environmental radio”) that change up on deejay Bebop Loco with every shift, thanks to endless focus groups? Low-key corporate-image ads, complete with plausible deniability, for US Plus (“We own the idea of America”)?

Sound familiar yet, Bunky?

Firesign Theatre–Proctor, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Phil Austin–don’t own the idea of America, but we’d be better off if they did. In a world that thought the Smothers Brothers made daring social commentary, Firesign was complex, multifaceted and off the graph. Unlike their Brit contemporaries Monty Python, with whom they shared the Zeitgeist‘s anarchic irreverence and drive to erase the lines between what the fifties called high and low culture, they worked almost entirely in audio. So there are no endless Firesign repeats floating on the Britophile remains of the Petroleum Broadcast System–and thus no repeated outreach to new fans.

Time to catch up with their twenty-two albums, seven radio series and several videos. Start with their early, frenetically groundbreaking discs: Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him; How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All? (subtitle: All Hail Marx and Lennon, with pix of Groucho and John); Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers; I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus and Dear Friends (all on Columbia). Later came the video Nick Danger in the Case of the Missing Yolk (Pacific Arts). For toe-dippers, Shoes for Industry! (Columbia) compiles the early albums’ high points. Warning: Firesign discs, like Python shows, are conceived as extended works, so Shoes reduces the art simply to very funny skits.

So while the rest of Unconscious Village gags on the Clinton Trial, this year’s subplot in the ongoing Celebrity Sin shows, follow Firesign forward into the past and update your leftover dreams.

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