Perfect Sound Forever

FIRESIGN THEATRE

 

Interview and photos by Bob Gersztyn


In 2005, I was doing interviews for a "religious satire" magazine called the Wittenburg Door which discontinued publication in 2008. I interviewed artists, musicians, writers and comedians about religion and in 2005 I interviewed the "Firesign Theatre." They were a comedy quartet comprised of Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Phil Proctor who first formed in 1966. Peter Bergman died seven years after the interview in 2012 but the remaining three members have continued the group's legacy. At the time that I was interviewing them, they were named as one of the "Thirty Greatest Acts of all Time" by Entertainment Magazine. They became cult icons through their brand of avant-garde social commentary using unique and surreal satire. They released over two-dozen albums and produced or were involved in nearly twenty films, television specials, books and innumerable radio programs. The fictional characters that they created have become part of the fabric of American culture from Nick Danger to Rocky Rococo. However, even with all that the magazine decided not to publish the interview on either hard copy or their website, so I apologize to the Firesign Theatre that it took so long for the interview to finally be published nineteen years later.

The Summer of Love in 1967 was when Peter Bergman was an L.A. DJ who coined the term "Love In" when he promoted a gathering over the radio that resulted in 65,000 people blocking the freeways for miles. This event so impressed Columbia Records producer Gary Usher that as a result, he offered the Firesign Theatre their first record contract. The Saturday in January 2005 that I interviewed them, they were ironing out the bugs of a new show at the time. They debuted it the night before at the Aladdin Theatre where they recorded their Radio Live Now album in 1999. On January 29th, I was able to sit and talk to three of the four group members since Phil Austin couldn't be present since he had to make last minute adjustments to the script before this evenings performance. I met with the trio backstage at the Aladdin Theatre an hour before their show Saturday night with their archivist Taylor Jessen coming in every fifteen minutes to announce the countdown to show time.

Hear some of the classic Firesign material:

"Nick Danger Third Eye"

"Waiting For the Electrician of Someone Like Him"

"Don't Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers"

"How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All"

"In the Next World You're On Your Own"

"Everything You Know is Wrong"



Q: First of all, what are you guys doing right now?

Bergman: It's a new show that we're it taking on the road. We just opened it yesterday here at the Aladdin Theatre. It's called "The Big, Big Broadcast of 2005." It's a full on two act radio based evening of comedy. The first act takes place in a small town called Billville, that we created in our last three albums, Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death, Boom Dot Bust and The Bride of Firesign. It's on this little very homey radio station called K-BIL. In the second act, unfortunately K-BIL has been bought out by US Plus. The whole town has been bought out. So now, suddenly we're in fun, fun town, and we're listening to radio NOW, which is owned by US Plus, and is constantly having its format changed. We use this as a loose structure to put together a whole potpourri of material. None of which is really the old classic stuff. Some of it is a couple of years old, that we've done, but never been seen on stage. A lot is new, and it's very current, without being specifically topical. We used to do a lot more local references than we do now, because the locale we're dealing with is bigger than any one specific place. The opening last night was very well received. The audience was just happy as clams in sauce, and that was good for us. Tonight, well, you always have to watch out for what happens the second night. We have to be on our toes.

Q: That's great! I've been following your careers ever since Waiting For the Electrician or Someone Like Him. Since the Door is a religious satire magazine, we'd like to ask you some questions in that vein.

Bergman: Of course.

Q: Do you think that the Bible is a book of humor?

Bergman: There is some humor in the Bible, but then what Bible are you talking about?

Q: The Christian Bible.

Bergman: Which Christian Bible? The King James Bible, or the Jerry Falwell all annotated and illustrated Bible, or the Rapture Bible? The Left Behind Bible? It's been repackaged so many times that it's hard to tell. Is it a book of humor? There's humor in it, but I think that it's a pretty serious tale. It's not really a very funny document. Certainly the Old Testament, which I was brought up on, and particularly when you had to hear it in Hebrew, I don't know if it was funny, because I didn't understand a word that they were saying.

Q: Okay, then what do you think is true religion?

Bergman: That's a tricky question, because right now, we're seeing a world that's gone to war over what is true religion. I have my own individual understanding of what that is, and I think that true religion basically is personal. I know that there are people who feel that they know the truth, or that they've got it, and that it's their job to proselytize, and save other people with it.


Phil Proctor

Proctor [entering the room]: Hallelujah!

Bergman: I have a problem with that, only because in my study of History, I've just seen too many people end up on the wrong end of that stick. I don't believe for example, that you have to call on any specific person, or deity by name, in order to be saved. I think that to make God that parochial is error. That's real error. If I think of any attributes of God it's ever-loving with an all inclusive love. Otherwise, I don't get it.

Bergman [turns to Phil Proctor and says]: This is for this magazine called The Wittenburg Door. It's a religious humor magazine.

Proctor: Oh, good.

Bergman: It's not just my interview.

Q: We interview people about religion from many persuasions, but primarily Christian. We've interviewed everyone from Rush Limbaugh and Billy Graham, to Jethro Tull and the Grateful Dead.

Proctor: Before or after they were dead?

Q: Ha, ha.

Bergman: Something that I find interesting is how George Bush, born again, decided to take a very hard line on what you needed to be saved. He believed that the only way to salvation was through Jesus Christ. His parents, who were very liberal Christians, were a little concerned with that, so they called in Billy Graham. They said "why don't you talk to Billy Graham about this, because he's like a big mentor of presidents, right?" So George W. Bush says, "isn't it true that you can only get to salvation through Jesus Christ?" Graham then said, "you know, that's really not the issue." He said, "just back off, live a good life, that's really not the issue." But George sees it the other way, in black and white, good and evil, saved and damned. That really bothers me.

Q: Billy told him that?

Bergman: Yes he did. I read it in the newspapers. "Back off," he said, "that's really not the issue." Graham has always been, in many ways a moderate.

Proctor: Graham is certainly not a "Cracker."

Q: When I interviewed Rev. Fred Phelps, who has a ministry called, "God Hates Fags," he called Graham a reprobate backslider, who would burn in hell. Moving on to another area, what do you think the future of America is?

Bergman: Boy that's a big question, and we only have a little bit of time.

Proctor: Come to the show tonight and you'll find out.

Q: I'll be in the front row.

Bergman: I think that the future of America is definitely a function of the vigilance and political will of its people. I think that the country has given its imagination and its political will away, and if it doesn't fight to get it back, we're doomed.

Proctor: We're doomed. That's our philosophy on the end.

Bergman: I'll find out about the rapture then.

Q: Well then, who do you think the anti-Christ is?

Bergman: I don't believe in a concept of the anti-Christ. I don't even know where the concept of the anti-Christ was developed. You certainly don't find it in the New Testament.

 
1st photo: Austin, Bergman; 2nd photo- Proctor, Ossman

Q: What about the book of Revelation?

Bergman: Revelation was pasted onto the New Testament. Excuse me.

Proctor: Revelation is the Biblical sequel, isn't it? The Bible part two.

Bergman: Yeah right. It has nothing to do with the life and teachings of Christ. It's a vision of an interesting individual, or individuals. It's been given the kind of prominence it has, because of people's insane love of prophecy, doom and apocalypse.

Q: So then what do you think will happen in 2012, when the Mayan calendar runs out of years?

Bergman: We'll buy more. Isn't that what China's for?

Proctor: We're not very superstitious people, and we also are not literalist's. All four of us have that in common. We're writers, and comedians, and we believe that life should be taken with a grain of salt, and a sense of humor.

Bergman: Each of us has our own religious understanding. We don't proselytize, and if we use it for anything, we use it to create an even deeper sense of humor. Otherwise, you can't keep four guys together if anybody thinks that anybody else is spiritually unclean [chuckles]. I just hate that concept.

Q: So do any of you practice any particular religious discipline?

Proctor: My wife and I go to the church of Religious Science in Los Angeles, which is the teachings of a fellow named Ernest Holmes. Just to give you an example of the kind of church that we like to go to, our church services are held on the stage of a major Theatre, on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. Our preacher is an ex song and dance man, who gives most entertaining, and enlightening teachings. The church is very much one of the, 'your God is within,' and 'we are all of God,' and 'we are all capable of being God, and following God's ways.'

Bergman: If we're not God, then who is?

Proctor: We're all parts of this great cosmos, this great thing that we're all involved in. It's important for us to live lives that reflect the consciousness of higher understanding, and that's what we believe in.

Bergman: I don't think that any of the four of us were brought up in any kind of a crippling religious household, and therefore had to radically remove ourselves from religion. I find that most people who hate religion, were brought up in very difficult religious circumstances.

Proctor: I was raised as a Protestant and a Catholic, because my father was Irish Catholic, and my mother was Amish Protestant. Once the Amish leave the church, the Amish community, and the old order, they basically become like Protestants. So in Goshen, Indiana I would go to Protestant Sunday school, but every once in a while I'd go to Catholic services, which of course were in Latin, so I really didn't understand, or identify with that religion. It was also very dark and scary to me.

Bergman: I was brought up a liberal Jew, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and always felt that one thing that I missed in Judaism, was that there was nothing personal about it. I wanted to be able to visualize God, or I wanted to have some idea about where I was going afterwards. I wanted more of a story. I loved the tradition and all that, but I did get tired of memorizing long lists of famous Jewish people, so I've looked beyond that, in my own life. Now the other guys all have their own experiences.

Proctor: Do you want us to call Dave Ossman in?

Q: Yes, of course, but before you go Peter, I had a question that I wanted to ask you, dealing with your view of the 1960's today. It's been nearly forty years since the summer of love, and the counterculture revolution of the 1960's. How does our present state look like, or differ from your vision of the 21st century in hindsight.

Bergman: I ran the first "Love In," and I never thought [of myself] as a Hippie leader, which is how they described me, that the world was going to become a Hippie place to live in. I spent too much time working in the US Senate, teaching at Yale, being in, and amongst all of that kind of what you might call cultural elite, to know that the world is a lot tougher, and is a lot more sophisticated than that. The Hippies were able to succeed in three or four areas. They helped stop the Viet Nam war. Helped! They're not completely responsible for it. They finally did away with fashion. (Laughing) There is no longer any like, OK fashion. You can wear anything you want to. And they broke music wide open. As far as what I think of the 21st century? Oh my God, I could go on forever.

Ossman: I don't think that we've entered the 21st century yet. I think that if anything we've moved back a little deeper into the 20st century.

Q: Really? You don't think that 9/11 made that punctuation mark?

Ossman: No 9/11 just scared the hell out of everybody, and made people retreat into superstition. Taylor Jessen [enters]: Thirty minutes to show time.

Bergman: It brought the war back home. It was a wake up call in a sense. We've been running around for fifty years not figuring out that there's really two worlds out there, and that second world out there of religious fundamentalism, and medieval murderous thinking came home.

Proctor: Came a knocking on our door.

Bergman: My first response was, "well I'm not surprised." I guess I'm not surprised, but I don't think we necessarily deserved it. I hold no trust in fundamental religion.

Ossman: None whatsoever.

Bergman: I've got to go put my makeup on, so you can continue talking to Phil & Dave.

Proctor: The whole topic of religion is like politics, which we avoid confronting in our work in any way, other than in an allegorical way. I would say that the overriding philosophy of the Firesign Theatre's comedy is that we are personally responsible, and you are personally responsible for what happens to you, in your life, and that means for good, or for evil. It just depends on how you approach your fellow man, and what your goal is. What you wish to attain in your life. We try to make fun of highly materialistic approaches to thinking, and try to encourage people to think on higher levels of consciousness, and think about greater things than just the momentary perspective of where you are. We try to give a more cosmic overview. Right now, I think that what the problem with America is, as we see it, is that it's lost a lot of its sense of humor, and that people feel very frightened, and basically the government that is in control now has escalated the agency of fear to gain control, and power over the people, and that's always to me a very bad, bad thing. It's a nasty business, and not a great place to be. I'm not very happy living in that kind of America today.

 
Left photo: Proctor, Austin

Q: Do you think that maybe war is simply a tool that is used by civilization in manipulating the process of its own evolution?

Proctor: Yeah, I do, but I also think that it's also a tool in the sense of... who is the great satirist? Not Swift, but who wrote Candide?

Ossman: Voltaire.

Proctor: I'm a Voltarian. I really think that it's part of the cosmic chaos that rules the world, and that there is this balance of ignorant behavior, and if you will, enlightened, or scientific thought. Although scientific thought isn't always enlightened either. It can be very ignorant, and that is in conflict all the time. So that plus the petty needs of people for more land, and food, and all those other balances of nature, create chaos. I think that nature is in essence chaotic, and not balanced and wonderful.

Q: The Indian Ocean Tsunami that just happened would be a good example.

Proctor: Exactly! It's just what happens, and people are then dumbfounded that they're caught with their pants around their ankles. I think that it's kind of amusing. The loss of all these lives in the Tsunami isn't amusing. I think that it's amusing that people are always shocked and startled, and asking, "what did I do wrong? Why was I spared? Why did God do this?" Living a good life is finding some kind of place to be in yourself, that allows you to accept these things without freaking out. To understand that they're part and parcel of change, like life and death. People are so afraid of death, that they made religions out of it. It's just that we come in and we go out. It's kind of funny, really. We don't have any control over any of that, but you certainly do have control over what you can do while you're here. What do I think is the most important thing to do? Live a good life. David should talk a little now.

Q: Okay Dave. What are your views on religion?

Ossman: There's a general subject to start with. I was raised a Christian Scientist, and I'm married to a Tibetan Buddhist. They're pretty much the same, in that Christian Scientist's believe that everyone is God, and you are in fact, God, and that we are all Gods. There is no separation between each of us, as individuals, and God. That's what, or who God is. That's my religion. I believe that we are all God. If that's true, then there is in the fullest sense responsibility for everybody, because we're all in it together. There is no higher source. There is no one that you can get to intercede. We were listening to a religious broadcast on the road, driving down here, and the guy was asking, "are you disappointed with your life? Are you disappointed with your God, because you asked for something, and you haven't received it?" What the hell are we talking about here? That's really talking at cross purposes. If you're asking a supernatural being to help you get an "A" in geometry, or get a new couch, or a better paying job, these are all everybody's personal responsibilities. That and we must all look out for each other, and we do that in a family way. We create families, in order to create order. Don't you think? So we are this family. Sometimes you get along and sometimes we don't get along. Each of us have families and we rely on the training of that family to help improve the world. When my son Orson was very young, he spoke of Orson boys and girls. That was when he was three or four years old. By that he meant a generation of children, who were going to grow to maturity, and could help to change things, because he knew that he was a trans-generational child. He came into the world knowing enough how we don't know. You come into the world knowing things or you come into the world ignorant, or else you come in as an ant. His realization at that very young age, that generationally he could do something to improve the state of the world. That was very powerful stuff.

Proctor: Because of time constraints, you probably won't get to talk to Phil Austin about all this, but when you watch the show, you'll see a lot of what Phil thinks, because he portrays religious characters, because it's part of his comedy. There's a character called Dr. Me, who runs a show called "Pay the Lord," based on Dr. Eugene Scott out of L.A. He blows cigar smoke into the camera, he's completely nuts. He talks about these incomprehensible Biblical passages, in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin, and Aramaic, on his blackboard, until it's covered like wallpaper. He makes a parody of his character.

Ossman: I do Reverend Barnstormer.

Taylor Jessen: It's fifteen minutes to show time, and the guys need to get ready.

Q: Thanks for talking to me. I look forward to the show.



Firesign Theatre Official Website

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