Comedy Influential:
The Start of The Firesign Theatre

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By Phil Proctor and Brad Schreiber


Excerpted from Where’s My Fortune Cookie by Phil Proctor and Brad Schreiber (Parallel Universe, 2017). Book cover art by Robert Grossman ’61.

CHAPTER 10:
THE OZ FIRESIGN THEATRE

I didn’t waste much time in reaching Peter at KPFK, and he told me he was “The Wiz” on his Radio Free Oz show, inviting me to join him on the air that very evening.

I had already improvised comedy on Yale radio with my classmate Victor Miller, who later gained fame by writing Friday the 13th, so I felt comfortable with the idea of just showing up and winging it with my old pal, Peter. And that same night, I met my future surrealist brothers, Phil Austin and David Ossman on the show, and in the process, we learned that astrologically, we were all fire signs. David had a strong connection to poetry and Phil, like me, to acting, although he was now producing Peter’s show.

What Peter was doing on the radio could be fairly described as Aquarian Age Comedy. It was the first counterculture, New Age, call-in talk show, five nights a week. How many of those are still on the air?

Peter had the 9 P.M. to midnight shift, perfect for the late-night freaks of Southern California. We worked from a funky, rundown little upstairs studio at
KPFK, talking into four microphones on a round table covered in felt, with a shaded light overhead and sticks of incense burning in the middle. It was like a
comedy séance, and we got very tight with one another, shortly after we met in March of 1966.

Typically, I might play a character like Ernie, the Wonder Healer, inspired by Philippine psychic surgeons who’d pull pieces of pig entrails out of folks’
stomachs and claim they were cancerous tumors. As Ernie, operating over the phone, I successfully pulled bacon out of callers’ stomachs, even if they didn’t ask me to. Another time, I played a person abducted by a flying saucer. Or we read Tarot cards or talked listeners down from bad acid trips. The theme of each show was different and we would be interviewed as supposedly “real people.”

We quickly learned how much we all were inspired by the absurdity of The Goon Show, with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe. I had heard them a bit when I was in England and the boys exposed me to even more of their wonderfully anarchic humor from a set of transcriptions the station
owned.

On that first show, we did an elaborate send-up that we called the Oz Film Festival. In part, it was inspired by the radio and TV personality Jean Shepherd and the hoax he perpetrated in 1956 on WOR Radio in New York. Shepherd talked about the nonexistent book, I, Libertine, by the nonexistent author Frederick R. Ewing (Very close to Dr. Fred Ewing, the name of the co-producer of my first off-Broadway show, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.)

In those days, the New York Times bestseller list was created based on demand, not actual sales figures. So, Shepherd urged his listeners to ask for the book by name at stores. The ruse worked so well that I, Libertine, which had never been written, wound up on the Times bestseller list.

Our put-on concerned the upcoming Oz Film Festival and although we never mentioned when or where it was going to be held, we promoted it through a series of in-studio interviews with alleged participants on that night, November 17, 1966 – 50 years ago!

Peter pretended to be film critic Peter Volta, who claimed to be writing a history of world cinema, one frame at a time.

With my fluency in French, I chose to be filmmaker Jean-Claude Jean-Claude, who made the revolutionary docudrama, 24 Hours with Fred.

“I follow my friend through all of his life in one day,” I said with a heavy accent, “when he go to the bathroom, when he sleeping, when he has breakfast.”
I guess it was the conceptual birth of reality television, like Big Brother, and for all the shows that came to be in that style, I would like to apologize to everyone. Also, this bit was just before Andy Warhol made his 24-hour movie fixed on the Empire State Building in Manhattan.

David Ossman was the South American director of a “thrown camera” film who had just received a grant to drop a 70-millimeter camera down the Andes.

“How did that come out?” asked Peter.

“Not too good,” answered Dave in an excellent South American accent.
“The camera fell apart after it hit the first rock. So, the film is very short.”

Phil Austin played Jack Love, adult filmmaker and son of a leatherworker. For his Bedroom Theatre, he talked about explicit films like The Nun Exposed and Blondie Goes to the Dentist. We even screened excerpts on the air, creating a suggestive soundtrack over a film projector effect. And just to show how supportive our listeners were (as well as how zonked), when Peter suggested that we should not be allowed to show these “obscene” films on listener-supported radio, the switchboard lit up with people protesting his outrageous call for censorship.

After this brouhaha, I heard about a woman who was interviewed while naked on a radio show that also caused a big uproar. And years later, I was being interviewed on the road and mentioned our hoax and the story of the naked girl, when the lady sitting behind me, whom I’d never met, said, “I was that girl.”

I was tempted to say, “Take off your clothes and prove it,” but I showed rare, good taste and refrained.

The success of our late night, comedic crash pad sessions on KPFK led Peter to suggest that we band together and call ourselves the Oz Firesign Theatre,
combining his radio show name and our astrological identities.


Then Peter and his girlfriend, Brooke, went to Turkey to research a screenplay, and upon his return, Peter joined David in broadcasting Oz every Sunday night at the Magic Mushroom, a club on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, just a couple minutes drive from KPFK.

The show consisted of interviews and live music with folks like Mama Cass Elliot of the Mamas and Papas, and David Crosby, prior to the formation of Crosby, Stills and Nash. It was a kind of flipped out Prairie Home Companion, years before Garrison Keillor’s show.

By October, we included a live, weekly Goon Show inspired twenty-minute sketch as part of the evening’s entertainment, some of which became the basis
for material on our future records. Among the scripts that were later refined, expanded and released as albums were The Giant Rat of Sumatra, our takeoff on Sherlock Holmes with detective Hemlock Stones, and The Sword in the Stoned, which evolved into our Shakespeare parody, Anythynge You Want To.

And on March 26, 1967, Peter organized the first “Love-In” in Elysian Park, where I played a Russian poet character, Yavas Lublyu, and Peter introduced a lineup of local bands. Thousands of stoners showed up, and riding this unexpected crest of popularity, we moved our radio work to the considerably more commercial KRLAAM, which had broadcast a remote from the event and was eager to sign us on.

Our first official stage gig was a premiere performance on April 29 of the fictitious Bulgarian play Waiting for the Electrician at the UCLA Experimental Arts Festival, which became the basis for our first Columbia album, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him. It was a signal to listeners that we were creating long- and short-form soundscapes, challenging them to listen multiple times and discover jokes and meanings they might have missed the first time around.

It was written at Peter’s house in Laurel Canyon. David and his wife Tiny slept on a veranda. I’d just been magically whisked back from the East Coast after breaking up with Diana Dew, hadn’t settled anywhere yet and slept in another corner of Maison Bergman. Phil Austin was living with his wife Annalee, also in Laurel Canyon, so it was quite easy for all of us to get together for writing sessions.

Later on, we wrote on the other side of town, usually at Phil and Annalee’s new big, stone house in Los Feliz. David and Tiny then lived down the hill from
them and Peter was renting a Japanese-style house nearby, so I was the one who had to schlep out from my first home in Benedict Canyon with my second wife, Barbro. But the one who had it hardest in those days was Peter. His former girlfriend, Linda Sugarman had just returned from Vietnam where as a reporter she saw things that truly killed her spirit. Shortly after her return, she deliberately overdosed on drugs and died in Peter’s arms.

Meanwhile, James Guercio, who produced the band Chicago Transit Authority, later simply known as Chicago, became our manager. When we recorded Electrician in the former radio studios at Columbia Records in Hollywood, where Bob Hope and Jack Benny had performed live, Jimmy Guercio’s addition of original music really raised the value of the work to another level.

The reason we got a record deal in the first place was due to Gary Usher, an early outside collaborator with The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Usher
worked with Austin on an astrology album as well as on the Duckman comedy LP and had been impressed by Peter’s Love-In event at Elysian Park.
He approached us to create some kind of “Love-In” comedy record, but at dinner, Phil Austin counter-proposed a Firesign album, and Gary ended up
producing it for Columbia. In a sense, he “discovered” us.

Electrician was about a repressed Eastern European country attempting to overthrow its dictatorial leaders. About a decade later, Poland’s Lech Walesa led the Soviet bloc’s first trade union, Solidarno or “Solidarity,” won the Nobel Prize and eventually became President. His job at the Gdansk shipyards? An electrician.

In a documentary called Some Small Films about the Firesign Theatre, I expounded on the themes of Electrician as follows: “Where does power … electoral, electrical power, come from? It comes from the willingness of people to allow themselves to be governed. So, basically the Electrician figure represents a corruption of power, the madness of power, people…who are of an authoritarian nature, who like to rule and like to control and like to be powerful, enabled by (other) people to get away with it. And many of them go mad. And that’s the genesis of the power-mad Electrician. He wanted more energy, more power, and was willing to do anything to get it. And it’s a metaphor, really, for the oil industry, the rapacious behavior of capitalists and all the rest of it. If you take your power into your own hands, then you become the Electrician. And Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him (asks) who is going to empower you to live your own life the way you want to live it, and how can you best accomplish that.”

The Electrician was also the malevolent character in The Giant Rat of Sumatra. When we performed at the Ice House in Pasadena, after leaving KRLA, we did a stage version of the Giant Rat and The Sword in the Stoned. And we saw a comedian who we truly sensed was going to reach a lot of people. The charming guy who opened for us was Steve Martin. He got mixed reviews and we got great reviews. We couldn’t understand it because we saw how brilliant he was. I guess Steve had the last laugh because it wasn’t long before entire stadiums of worshippers were chanting his punch lines, like Firesign fans, often before we spoke them.

Earlier, in December, we had also performed a piece at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium called Freak for a Week in a benefit for KPFK, which helped us coalesce as a group. I remember that as we started the show, we meandered through the crowd with insect sprayers, dousing the audience with what we
claimed was liquid LSD. It drove the union crew crazy.

But our rebellious approach to comedy began to alienate the suits at the commercial-supported station, and then Peter put the finishing touches on our demise by embellishing a popular Toyota ad campaign. Instead of reading the copy “Get your hands on a Toyota…” Peter said, “Put your hand up the skirt of a Toyota and you’ll never let go.” Well, they let us go. In January of 1968, we were unceremoniously terminated with extreme prejudice. Our last Radio Free Oz broadcast was literally in the lobby of the studios of KRLA.

We had intended to perform the first episode of what we hoped would be a long-running series on the show, called “Nick Danger, Third Eye.” It was to be a silly, surrealistic take on the crime noir radio and film detective craze, but because we lost our weekly slot, we decided to adopt it as part of our next Columbia release. Thus, Regnad Kcin occupied his office on Side Two of our next album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All, which is exactly where we found ourselves, off the air and on a record.

On the way, we were picked up by some pop stars who featured us on their album before our first was ever released. In September of 1967, Chad Stuart and Jeremy Clyde hired a studio in Los Angeles to do a wildly imaginative piece. From 1964-66, as part of the British invasion, they had top 20 hits like “Yesterday’s Gone,” “A Summer Song” and “Willow Weep for Me.”

My girlfriend at the time, Cathy Cozzi, was living with me on Laurelwood Terrace. She was a striking young model and had spent a great deal of time hanging out in the English music scene, especially with Jeremy Clyde and Mick Jagger. So, when they came to Southern California, Cathy introduced me to Mick, whom I joined at a mixing session for Beggar’s Banquet and Firesign was invited to perform material to incorporate into Chad and Jeremy’s “Progress Suite” on their concept album Of Cabbages and Kings.

Cathy and I had a tight relationship and living together, we developed a psychic bond that manifested in interesting ways. Although we both were tokers, she
was a smoker, and occasionally I’d be driving with her and think, “I need a cigarette.” Then I’d look over and see her take one out and light it up. Intrigued by this, we tried some experiments, and I encourage you to do the same.

Lying side-by-side in bed one evening, I said, “Think of an image and try to send it to me.” She did, and this is what I received: she was in an art gallery illuminated by neon lights, viewing a plexiglass installation representing waves.

I articulated my vision and Cathy replied,” I was thinking of waves breaking on a beach illuminated by a full moon.” Close enough. Try it.

Well, Cathy and I eventually broke up and she moved into the famous Chateau Marmont, and while hanging out with her bosom buddy, Donovan’s wife, Linda Lawrence, she met the enlightened singer-songwriter John Sebastian, who wooed her with song and later married her.

Meanwhile, I moved into a huge mansion on a four-acre estate in Encino, which Jeremy Clyde had leased. The place was owned by a radiologist named Doctor Adolph who lived for a while in a smaller house on the property. And what a property it was. I never lived anywhere as nutty as the mansion in Encino. It had a tiki bar situated in a mini-forest of bamboo. It had a flaming fountain at the main entrance and a waterfall running down the side of the staircase. It had a twelve-foot-tall “ape cage” at the front that was used in a Playboy magazine shoot. There was an Olympic size swimming pool and a terrace that overlooked a huge swathe of the San Fernando Valley. There was no tennis court, but Dr. Adolph had a lovely bomb shelter with a four-footthick lead roof raised by a pulley system. And that’s where we stashed our marijuana. What could be safer?

But actually, some neighborhood kids broke into the thing and couldn’t get out. We let them go with the promise that they wouldn’t ever try and get our weed again.

After Jeremy went back to England, I lived there with Jonathan Debin, who wrote with his brother David on The Dating Game for Chuck Barris. Their father
was a New York talent agent credited with discovering Michael Bennett, who won Tonys for his direction and choreography of Dreamgirls, and I got to
appear on Chuck’s show several times, winning a trip to Vegas with one intense cutie and a flight to Switzerland with Deborah Walley of Gidget Goes Hawaiian, although due to Firesign commitments, I couldn’t take the trip, even though my Amish ancestors, the Jotters, come from Bern.

It was a great party house with hot-and-cold running girls occupying some of the rooms. Among them was Helen Hite, a flight attendant I’d met on tour in
Florida with Generation, a show that also featured Les Brown, Jr., the really hip son of the famous band leader.

One day, probably in Palm Beach, Les and I were cruising around in our rented convertible and spotted two knockout chicks on the sidewalk who suddenly stopped dead in their tracks, swiveled their lovely heads and aimed their baby blues at us. What?

We pulled over and introduced ourselves, and there began a long relationship, culminating with the two of them living with me on the estate in Encino. Somehow, I also ended up sharing space there with another adorable creature named Sharon, head of the Atlanta branch of the Elvis Presley fan club, who
eventually played a major role in my life.

But when we weren’t celebrating free love and throwing clothing optional swimming parties, the other Phil, Pete, Dave and I would write, rehearse and plot our future together. The counterculture that was developing in cities in 1968 had not yet fully come to grips with the assassination of Martin Luther King, which prompted riots across the country, and the murder of Bobby Kennedy, which changed the direction of the ‘68 election and the course of our involvement in Vietnam.

On June 6 of that year, we premiered a new skit called “Profiles in BBQ Sauce,” which parodied the upcoming Democratic Convention. We decked out the good old Ash Grove in West Hollywood with crepe and balloons and confetti, and I bought patriotic party hats and noisemakers for the audience who were seated throughout the club at cabaret-style tables.

The show opened with Bergman as President Johnson wearing a cowboy hat and an apron adorned with a carved-up beef half, delivering a rabble-rousing speech about the state of the union that blatantly avoided any direct mention of the Vietnamese War by clever evasions that ended with “…Not to mention, the war in Vietnam.”

From a seat in the crowd, I then stood up as JFK and in his Bostonian accent, asked, “Mistah President, what about the wah in Vietnam?” to which Bergman responded in Johnson’s Texas drawl, “I told you not to mention that,” and he pulled out a six-shooter and shot me. I fell backward onto the floor, sending confetti and balloons flying everywhere. Immediately, a rich organ fanfare blared over the house system and Dave Ossman, dressed in the judicial robes of Chief Justice Earl Warren, took the stage as the host of the quiz show, “Who Killed Jack?” as I was hustled up to take my place with the panel of contestants.

 

Austin applied fake blood to my forehead and with a typical Firesign twist, after a series of odd questions, greeted by a bell or a buzzer, it turned out that I killed myself.

The show was warmly received, and I got home just in time to catch Bobby Kennedy’s victory speech delivered live at the Ambassador Hotel downtown.

(Pete and I were to later write and tape a variety show there called Then and Now featuring famous musical guests and the comedy of Mort Sahl, whom we often followed on tour, as he did a set commenting on the published report of the Warren Commission.)

As I watched the TV, a balloon floated in front of Bobby’s face and hung there for quite a while before they finally changed the camera angle. It caused my mind to drift back to the day of his brother’s murder in Dallas.

I was breakfasting at a diner in Greenwich Village that morning, and I remember that the music playing in the background was suddenly interrupted by a news bulletin: “Firecrackers have been thrown at the Presidential cavalcade in Dallas!” I heard. “The President has been cut with flying glass,” the announcer continued, “and according to one policeman, he is dead.”

And soon after Bobby said “On to Chicago,” and held his fingers up in a victory sign, he was shot dead like his brother. We never performed that show again.

Bergman told me another weird story about JFK’s assassination. As a young man, he was working at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and happened to be at the home of the main crime news reporter when the guy suddenly yelled, “Hey, Pete, come here. You want to watch a murder?”

Peter, puzzled, joined him in front of the TV, just as the live feed from Dallas covered the transfer of Lee Harvey Oswald to another jail, flanked by two cops, when suddenly Jack Ruby darted into the frame and shot Oswald in the stomach. It was a classic set-up, Pete’s pal explained. We’ll likely never know what really happened during those horrible days, but we still do our best to grapple with the loss.

In March of that year, we were part of a big benefit show at a club called the Kaleidoscope on Sunset Boulevard, previously the Hullabaloo, named for the rock music TV show that was taped there. It was the former Earl Carroll Theatre, with two revolving stages that let acts set up prior to performance, changing sets and bands in a matter of seconds.

We were proud to be part of the benefit at the Kaleidoscope for San Francisco’s FM station KMPX, the first underground rock station in the US. Their disc jockeys had gone on strike for better wages and conditions and then Pasadena station KPPC allowed its DJs to walk out in sympathy. KPPC started in the basement of the Pasadena Presbyterian Church, but by 1968, it had novelty record maestro Doctor Demento (Barry Hansen), comedy group Credibility Gap (with Spinal Tap’s Harry Shearer and Michael McKean) and us to bend people’s minds.

As for the Kaleidoscope, we were part of a lineup that I can barely remember and barely believe, including Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, H.P. Lovecraft and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Those were heady times. Bands were encouraged to experiment with their sound and stations like KMPX and KPPC had no playlists, letting the disc jockeys play whatever turned them on. Not only did some radio stations avoid strict formatting, there were some utterly bizarre locations available for performances, as Firesign proved.

We did a show at the Hilltop Theatre in Tujunga, where our opening act wasn’t even an act, but the science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451, based on Ray Bradbury’s novel. The Hilltop was built in 1938, designed by S. Charles Lee, who was noted for his ornate and sometimes over-the-edge designs for movie theatres in Southern California.

It was no legitimate theatre. Our dressing room wound up being the barber shop down the street on Foothill Boulevard and we actually performed in front of the movie screen. I fondly recall that while we had the new experience of seeing “Firesign Theatre” on a classic movie theatre marquee, the thrill was somewhat diminished by the following words at the bottom:

“NEXT WEEK THE MARQUIS CHIMPS.”

Not only were our early local stage gigs pretty nutty, so too were our early local TV appearances. There was something called The Michael Blodgett Show.
He was a handsome chap, with blonde, curly hair and I guess somebody thought giving him an L.A. TV show would make him a heartthrob for teenaged girls. He first hosted a dance party show on the beach on KHJ-TV with the unfortunate name Groovy, but it was on his 90-minute chat show on independent KTTV when we were booked. Alas, instead of Firesign Theatre “killing the audience” we apparently killed the show, as they literally pulled the plug while taping our segment.

But don’t feel too bad for Michael. He went on to write pirate-themed novels and played gigolo Lance Rocke in soft-core porn king Russ Meyer’s Beyond the
Valley of the Dolls, the only movie ever written by film critic Roger Ebert. It was part melodrama, part skin flick, part satire with bursts of graphic violence for good measure. Hey, fame is wherever you can find it.

That summer, we finished How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All and performed it in September at University of California, San Diego. And in typical rock star fashion, having made our most commercially successful album yet, thanks to Nick Danger, we decided to break up in October.

The fact of the matter is that financial insecurity was more of an issue at that time than any differences between us. Don’t get me wrong. We all had to agree on every line that went into our work and sometimes, it got heated. But we needed to find alternative sources of income for ourselves.

And almost as quickly, we realized we could not bear being creative without each other. Radio Free Oz started up again, for three hours each Sunday, this time at rock station KMET, sponsored by wonderful Jack Poet Volkswagen. In 1969, Jack Poet hired us to do a series of six very funny, crazy television ads for his auto dealership. They ran on local station channel 13, which had changed call letters twice before we arrived and was even referred to in ads as “Lucky 13.” Boy, did they get that wrong. Jack Poet got in trouble with Volkswagen and its ad agency, because they didn’t care for us wearing insane clothes, getting locked inside VW buses and delivering zany pitches.

I actually channeled a bit of my own Ralph Spoilsport character into Coco Lewis, based on the nearly comatose Ford dealer Ralph Williams, with this high-speed rap: “A brand new, completely used car, with a two-way, sneeze through windshield and blood-spattered mud guard!”

It was a first in the history of car dealer advertising: Peter, using the name Christian Cyborg, interviewed David, being pushed into a shot in a VW Beetle desperately needing a paint job. David, in his Latino accent and decrepit Beetle, insisted, “I’m Tony Gomez and I want to tell you that I get my car fixed at Jack Poet Volkswagen every morning before I come to work.”

Jack compensated us by giving all four of us free leases on psychedelically painted VWs. I was driving around in a zebra-striped one before he lost the
dealership and they repossessed it, but it was a great ride while it lasted.

Usually, I was the prop master for Firesign. I would search regularly for loony stuff at the Hollywood Toy Store on Hollywood Boulevard right next to the
Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie store, and now, I share a star in front of that same toy store for my work as Howard DeVille on Rugrats. Again, go figure.

At this time in my life, to the best of my recollection, I was living with Marcia Strassman. She was talented, long-legged, funny, loving and playful and determined to become famous. It was 1971, and for some reason after wrapping the recording of our fourth album, I Think We’re All Bozos on this Bus, I flew back to Goshen, Indiana to visit my beloved grandparents.

I woke up abruptly on February 9th in my little bed, padded down the familiar hallway to the bathroom and turned on the radio. “– quake in Los Angeles,” an announcer said. “We’ll be back with more after the hog prices.” I had awakened at precisely the time of a major earthquake in
L.A.

I immediately rushed downstairs to share the news with grandma and gramps, and we rushed in together to turn on the TV in the living room. And there popped up an image of L.A.’s NBC anchorman, Jess Marlow, toupee askew, seated behind a tilted desk with an off-kilter slide behind him.

The magnitude 6.7 Sylmar earthquake had created severe damage in the northern San Fernando Valley, and there I was, safe and sound in the familiar comfort of my own home town. But when I returned, my relationship with Marcia was over, and she went on to great fame and fortune, starting as Kotter’s wife in Welcome Back Kotter.

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  • Phil Proctor January 23, 2018 at 11:59 pm

    Thanks CC, for the generous plug! The book is selling well and getting loving reviews at Amazon.com, and I will be flying east at the end of March to record the thing in sections for a podcast, to be followed by an audiobook release!

  • Peter Miltz January 1, 2018 at 1:58 am

    Stephen Rose
    Thanks, Phil?
    “Tempus Fugit/Augebitur Scientia”
    Hi mom!

  • Stephen Rose December 19, 2017 at 3:46 pm

    Thanks, Phil?
    “Tempus Fugit/Augebitur Scientia”
    Hi mom!

    • Stephen Rose December 19, 2017 at 3:49 pm

      I mean just “Thanks, Phil.” …no question mark (smiley face).

  • Bill Stott December 18, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    FANTASTIC! Can’t wait to read the book.