Firesign Theatre What Makes America Great Essays


Full indecent disclosure.

I cannot be impartial in describing the Firesign Theatre. I cannot be definitive. And I am not responsible, for those familiar with these four owners of vast tracts of comedic surreal estate in recordings, video, film, and the stage would agree: Phil Proctor, Peter Bergman, Phil Austin and David Ossman are conceptually in another world while inhabiting this one. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of their most popular pieces, the far noir "Nick Danger, Third Eye," Firesign shall run laughshod Oct. 14-17, in an increasingly rare live performance at Hollywood"s Barnsdall Gallery Theatre.

My first headlong dive face forward into the Firesign past came at San Francisco State, where a group of actors, as an assignment, recreated the Nick Danger segment from their album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once when You're Not Anywhere At All. Its success led to my creating a comedy group called the Burlingame Philharmonic Orchestra. By the time the '80s rolled around, I met my friend Alex Adams, who had a comedy radio show on low-powered and undernourished NPR affiliate KALW in San Francisco. I insisted we interview Firesign every year they came up to do Halloween shows in the Bay Area.

And so, how can I be journalistically objective, when their material has so impacted me, when their lives and mine have satirically smacked foreheads over lo these many years? I remember Bergman walking me outside a San Francisco club, after an interview and before a show, only to see a long line of Firesign fans waiting to get in.

"All you people in line for the Firesign Theatre," he bellowed, making them whip their collective heads in our direction, "forget them. They're not any good! You should go see James Taylor tonight at the Oakland Coliseum!"

I recall Ossman, directing my radio adaptation of Ray Bradbury's story "The One Who Waits," at the Midwest Radio Theatre Workshop in Missouri, showing me a piece of equipment that amazingly made the lead actress' voice sound like droplets of water inside a well.

I still see my first live Firesign show in my mind, at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Auditorium, and the four Crazee Guys improvising like mad, after the scripted show, leading to Austin remarking on the lack of parking in Berkeley, "Hey, is the name of this place Severe Tire Damage University?"

Or Proctor and his wife Melinda, simultaneously kissing me on each cheek while buying an armful of my theatrical disasters compendium, Stop the Show!, (which they contributed to) at a book launch party.

I may not be objective but I can say that the world's trippiest troupe has shown stunning innovation in the way they stage their work and their recorded comedy is more layered and imaginative than a dozen James Joyces on peyote.

Rabid Firesign fans tend to yell out familiar phrases they've memorized, during a concert. I never have. It's hard for me to make everyone in the house hear lines like this from the time-shifting trial scene in "High School Madness:" "The accursed will be advised of the absence of his rights under the Secret Military Code of Toughness and will act accordingly!"

Follow Brad Schreiber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bradschreiber

On March 7th, New Yorker editor Susan Morrison talked with the writers Paul Simms, Patricia Marx, Andy Borowitz, and David Owen about satire today and the boundaries of humor. The event was part of the New Yorker Nights, a series hosted by the Columbia University Arts Initiative and The New Yorker.

SUSAN MORRISON: Each of you has been making a living—a good living—writing funny pieces. Could you tell us, if you remember, about the very first funny thing that you wrote and got paid for? When did it click that you could actually make a living doing this?

ANDY BOROWITZ: I’ve done some things that I still haven’t gotten paid for!

When I was growing up in Cleveland, there was a sports-radio station that had a lot of call-ins, and they would have essay contests, and I’d always write funny essays. I was fourteen or so. I think I won steak knives. So I guess—does that count as payment? It’s sort of a barter system.

DAVID OWEN: The Village Voice used to have little filler things, and I wrote some of those. I think it was twenty-five dollars they paid. I was thinking, If I just do one of these a week . . .

MORRISON: They were like newsbreaks?

OWEN: They were little funny things. One of them, I remember, was called “Answers to Last Week’s Word Finder”—you know, one of those grids of jumbled letters of the alphabet—and I had drawn in lines that went around found words. The letters weren’t all in a row. Twenty-five dollars worth of junk.

PATRICIA MARX: Speaking of twenty-five dollars—it wasn’t really a job, but the most money I think I ever made, just talking about per second of work, was when I was at overnight camp and my grandfather paid me twenty-five dollars if I wrote him a letter. I had it down. “Dear Poppy, I am fine. Gotta play tennis.” Twenty-five dollars.

PAUL SIMMS: In college, I wrote a brochure for a real-estate company and I got fifty dollars, but it wasn’t funny. But then, my first week at Spy—I was brand-new to New York—I think the first thing they asked me to write was: Graydon Carter, our old boss, had a bunch of notes, and there was a gossip section, and he said, “Here, I want you write something, make it funny.” I just sort of imitated that Spy style. And that’s pretty much what I did for the rest of my time there.

OWEN: I had a job typesetting a little magazine called the Speed Times, in Colorado, which was about racing. It was put out by a man and his wife. As I would type, I did them the favor of editing it a little bit, cleaning up the grammar and changing and correcting the spelling. The guy came in furious and showed it to me. I had misspelled the word “temperature”—I had spelled it T-E-M-P-E-R-A-T-U-R-E, not T-E-M-P-I-C-H-E-R, which was how he spelled it. So I had to correct it.

MORRISON: Sometimes I feel like everybody out there is trying to get a laugh these days. All the ads on the subway are jokey pitches for car-insurance companies, or jokey ads for Scotch or Manhattan Mini Storage. We also live in a time when professionally unfunny people—people like Laura Bush—are getting up and trying their hand at standup. There’s a humor glut. Does this make it harder for people like you to do your job?

SIMMS: Yes.

MORRISON: Do you feel like you should have a license to try to be funny?

SIMMS: No, but it’s so fast with the Internet now. It’s impossible. There’s a piece I was going to write for you—I can’t remember what it was about—but I did a Google search, just to find out some technical thing, and there was the exact piece. Someone else had already written it. And that’s happened to me three times. I go, “I’ve got a great idea for a piece,” and then it takes just one Google search to find that someone, somewhere, has already written it. That’s why I haven’t written anything recently.

BOROWITZ: I think there’s a humor glut and a laughter shortage at the same time. There are more attempts at humor than ever before, but probably the amount of actual laughter has remained constant—

SIMMS: Let’s get the chalkboard out.

BOROWITZ: I’ll have to break it down. Paul worked on the Letterman show, and I think Letterman has a kind of Midwestern wise-guy sarcasm that people find very easy to imitate—without succeeding. If you’re in an elevator in an office building and you’re riding up with a couple of accountants—not to take a knock at any of the hilarious accountants in the audience today—you invariably hear them making sort of Letterman-like sarcastic quips to each other. Say, “So, that meeting at two o’clock, that’s going to be some good times. Oh, yeah.” This can go on endlessly. Also, things like top-ten lists—I’m sure every office party has “Top Ten Reasons Why Joe Schmerz Should Retire.” And then there’s the nine million “Brokeback Mountain” poster and trailer parodies. I just found one online called “Choke Snack Mountain.” I have no idea what that means, but I like the way that sounds. I think that there are many more attempts, but there are also many more swings and misses.

And Post headlines—the fact that they cannot do a single headline that’s not a retarded line. One of my favorites of all time was right after we invaded Afghanistan. We were dropping bombs on Kabul—does anyone remember that classic? That would be “kabul’s-eye,” which I thought was both clever and tasteful, you know?

OWEN: My favorite one—the great thing about it is that each word exponentially increases the impact, from word to word. It was: “mafia hunts nun’s rapist.”

MARX: And it’s good in any order! I teach, at N.Y.U., a sketch-comedy class. And everybody is pretty mediocre, at least. Everybody knows the formulas, as you were saying, and the effect it has on me is that I start thinking, Well, maybe it is funny. It should be funny, so I guess it is funny. I used to go around the room and ask, Why are you here, why are you here? And I hear, “I’m writing a novel and I wanted to interject humor into it.”

MORRISON: Looking at all of the submissions that I get every week, it’s possible to break it down into the seven most common comedy formulas. You would think that they couldn’t be funny, because you see them so many times, but occasionally—

OWEN: I want to know what the seven are. Family holiday letters, I know, are one.

SIMMS: There was that Steve Martin piece, “Studio Script Notes on ‘The Passion’ ”—it’s a hackneyed formula, but his piece was hilarious. It transcended the hackiness of it.

MORRISON: I get a lot of parodies of Zagat’s. But one of the most brilliant pieces that we’ve run in the past ten years was a great parody of Zagat’s by Noah Baumbach, in which he used a series of restaurant reviews to tell the story of an unravelling relationship. The other most common one is the Times wedding announcements. But Calvin Trillin did a famous and classic one, and so did Veronica Geng. So you can even repeat them.

We were just talking about “Brokeback Mountain,” and somebody was mentioning Dick Cheney jokes, and I was thinking that, since the last Presidential election, there’s been a huge explosion in the fake-news business: Jon Stewart, the Onion, the Borowitz Report. Increasing numbers of Americans are saying that these kinds of outlets are their chief source of news. Do you think this is going to continue? Is this a golden age of satire?

BOROWITZ: On my Web site, borowitzreport.com, I write a fake news story every day. I’m kind of like Judith Miller, I guess. In November, I did a humor panel at a university. It was a group of us. And an editor from the Onion and I were talking about the fake-news thing. I’m not entirely sold on the idea that most young people are getting their news from Jon Stewart, because Jon Stewart’s entire audience is about 1.4 million people, all in, so that can’t possibly represent as big a chunk of the youth audience as has been portrayed. However, one thing that was interesting in talking to the students at this panel was that a lot of them said, “You know, when I first started watching ‘The Daily Show,’ I didn’t get all the jokes, because I didn’t know what all the references were, and that actually made me start reading the news.”

I do think we’re in a good age for satire right now, because it’s a very target-rich environment. The past couple of weeks, the White House has been doing all the heavy lifting. Just the Dick Cheney thing—I started looking at what has gone on in the last couple of weeks and thinking, the White House has now jumped the shark. If the White House were a TV show, if it were “Scooby-Doo,” this is the fifth season, where they introduce Scrappy Doo. If you were looking at TV Guide, and it said, “This week at the White House, trouble ensues when the Vice-President shoots his friend in the face,” you’d be, like, “Aw, shit, they’re running out of ideas. This has got to be the last season. . . . What could happen next week? They’re going to give the ports to the Arabs?” So I think satire is big now because we’ve got so much to play with.

SIMMS: I think that now, with cable and so many different channels, you can pick what kind of news you want. You can watch either Fox, to get the alarmist version of the news, or NPR, for the boring news, or Jon Stewart, for the funny news. Whatever flavor you want.

MORRISON: Do you find that, doing what you do, you read the news not to take in the gravity of the world situation but just to find new material?

SIMMS: Yes. One piece of mine—and it’s terrible to admit this—was inspired by a news story about a woman who took a man’s shoe and beat him to death with it. I said, “Oooh, delicious!”

MARX: I don’t read the Dick Cheney stuff, because I figure you’re going to do the Cheney stuff, Paul’s going to do it—I can’t exploit it, so I don’t want to know.

MORRISON: There was an op-ed piece or a column in the Daily News last month saying that, for a politician, ridicule is fatal. The writer was saying that he didn’t think Cheney would survive all the media attention.

SIMMS: I think it’s Cheney’s buddy that was maybe not surviving.

OWEN: He’s the one with the pellet in his heart!

MARX: Anybody near Cheney.

MORRISON: But I was a little surprised. I disagree with this guy. We’ve had a lot of politicians with a lot of flaws to ridicule for a long time now. Do you feel that what you do can be that powerful in swaying public opinion?

BOROWITZ: I never think I have much power to change anything, but I think that there’s kind of a cumulative effect—not so much that it can bring down the Presidency, but I do think that the bad ideas of an Administration can be brought down by endless pummelling, even if some of it is comedic. Something like “Do you think it’s a good idea to let Dubai run the ports or not?”—the fact that there was so much ridicule of that, I think, has created a pause in the action. I do think that the attention does contribute to that. A very serious sort of NPR-type analysis of something like that deal probably wouldn’t have much of an effect. Or Air America, which is wonkier, and they talk at great length. A really well-crafted joke can make a lot more people question how good an idea is.

OWEN: Or maybe just give people a way to express something they feel but that’s hard for them to express.

SIMMS: Or maybe like the—who’s the head of the Democratic Party right now?

MARX: Nobody, that’s the problem!

AUDIENCE: Howard Dean.

SIMMS: —the Howard Dean thing, when he gave that crazy speech and went “Yaaaughr!” That was just automatically funny to everyone. People made tons of jokes about it, but they didn’t need to, because anyone who saw it just—

MARX: It was sad what it did to the relationship of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton. It just ended that.

MORRISON: After 9/11, there was a feeling that it was in bad taste to make any kind of jokes, about anything. Everybody was trying to figure out what a decent interval would be before you could laugh at anything, before you could publish anything that was remotely funny. At The New Yorker, we broke the dry spell with a very funny piece by Bruce McCall called “Laughter Safety Guidelines Set,” which purported to be government guidelines for what you could laugh at now and what you couldn’t. What was it like for you four during that period? Did you start thinking that maybe you better learn how to make pizzas or something?

SIMMS: There was that weird period. But I remember that, pretty quickly, people, at least on the Internet, were making jokes. But it wasn’t all about 9/11. I remember the first thing that it seemed like it was safe to make a joke about was “If we don’t go out to dinner tonight, the terrorists win.” Making fun of that phrase that everybody started using, that if we don’t do this the terrorists win. And, once they started the orange and red and green alerts, then it was about the government.

MARX: There’s always, to me, an angle to make fun of that’s not making fun of the tragedy or the sadness.

OWEN: Like what the Onion did—the piece in which the terrorists all woke up in Hell, instead of Heaven. It was funny.

It wasn’t the first thought I had that day but it was pretty near the top: Oh God, I wonder what World Trade Center stuff is going for on eBay? I went and looked. People were getting bids of hundreds of dollars on World Trade Center trinkets and posters that showed the World Trade Center still standing. It was a major economic miscomprehension, which is: it wasn’t World Trade Center souvenirs that had become scarce; it was the World Trade Center itself that had been made scarce. We can always get more little things to sell on the street. EBay shut it down, but I thought that was sort of affirming for America—that, first, we’re morons, and, second, everybody’s out to make a buck. Immediately, it was as if we were back to normal.

MORRISON: One of my favorite details—a week after 9/11, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, was quoted as saying, “It’s the end of the age of irony.” And then, later, when things had calmed down a little bit, he said to a reporter, “Only a fool would declare the end of irony. I said it was the end of ironing.”

BOROWITZ: The government did things in the aftermath of 9/11 that, again, became so easy to ridicule. I walked into a post office and the Department of Homeland Security had put up a poster about suspicious packages—what makes a package suspicious, and what to do if you get one. For instance, a package was suspicious if it had badly typed lettering, what I call the terrorist font, or if there was an obviously misspelled word, like if the word “jihad” is misspelled. But this was my favorite part, this was the actual wording: If you get one of these packages, you should neither “open, smell, touch, or taste” it. It was so helpful, because, in the past, whenever I got a suspicious package I would immediately lick it all over.

MORRISON: Christopher Buckley, one of our Shouts & Murmurs colleagues, published a novel last year called “Florence of Arabia,” which contains a comic scene of a death by stoning. I’d like to ask, is there anything you consider completely off limits, that you would never attempt to make funny?

MARX: Some jokes about myself I don’t think are in particularly good taste, really.

SIMMS: It depends. Among my closest friends? No, nothing’s off limits. For your magazine, I’m not going to write about—

BOROWITZ: Anal prolapse.

SIMMS: Yes, exactly. That’s one example.

OWEN: On the other hand, I think it’s a sign of the times, when you see all the headlines recently: “bush decries cartoon violence.” A friend of ours saw “four killed in cartoon violence,” and added, “by anvil.” It’s a serious thing, but everything’s funny at some point. Except the death of children.

BOROWITZ: It really depends on the kid.

I don’t think there’s anything that’s off limits. I tend not to make fun of—I mean, this sounds ridiculously corny—innocent victims. I think in satire you take down things that are worthy of being taken down. It’s more of a preference. I think you can get a laugh out of just about anything. I don’t think anything should be off limits.

MORRISON: What about things that are always funny? Why is Kim Jong Il always funny?

OWEN: First time he played golf, he got eleven holes in one. I think that’s the official report on his first round of golf. It’s not funny. It’s what he really did.

MARX: Robert Benchley said any word that begins with a “K” is funny.

MORRISON: Speaking of Benchley, the earliest generation of funny New Yorker writers—Benchley, S. J. Perelman, Dorothy Parker—

SIMMS: All drunks.

MORRISON: —wrote screenplays, wrote for the movies. And all of you have written for TV or the movies. Of course, I always love hearing horror stories about bad notes you get from boneheaded executives, but what I wanted to ask is, what’s the difference between writing humor for the screen and for the page?

MARX: Number of words per page. That spacing is really big. In my case, no one will ever see it if I write for TV, so it’s kind of liberating. It never gets made.

BOROWITZ: One thing that’s always said very generously about screenwriting or Hollywood is that it’s a collaborative medium. And that’s collaborative in the sense of Vichy France, I think. Collaborating with people who have the power to crush you. To me, that’s the problem. I was a producer in Hollywood for years, and I love working with talented actors and directors, but, unfortunately, you’re also spending a lot of your time dealing with studio executives, many of whom did not get into the business because of their love of the dramatic arts. We all probably have funny stories about notes we got. I think that one of my favorite experiences was the first screenplay I ever wrote, when I was around twenty-two, and Paramount had asked me to write a comedy about the first narc in the United States. They thought it was a very funny idea. They brought me in to write this, but, between offering it to me and bringing me in, John Belushi died of a drug overdose. So they were cooling a little bit on the idea of the movie. The head of Paramount at the time said to me, “We want to write this comedy about the first narc in the United States, but we’d like you to downplay the drug aspect.” But the real punch line of the story is that I, the twenty-two-year-old screenwriter, said, “No problem.”

To me, that’s the biggest difference. When we write for Shouts & Murmurs, or any kind of prose in general, the experience is kind of an up-or-down vote. You hand in something and an editor will say, “This one kind of missed,” or “We like this one,” or whatever. It’s very rare that Susan calls us up and says, “David Remnick has some great ideas about the ending, and we want to talk to you about it. We’d like to bring in a focus group, because we’re trying to bring in more young male readers, and there are just no car crashes in this piece.”

MARX: I know someone who wrote a Second World War movie set in Germany. “Could you make the Nazis nicer?”

SIMMS: One of the things Andy touched on, though, as far as writing for TV is concerned, is the fun of writing something funny and seeing a really great actor do it, in front of an audience or just on camera. That’s really fun. The other thing is that, writing these pieces, I’ll think about every tiny word; when you write for an actor, it’s broader concepts, and if you’re one of those people who fusses over every word you’re just going to end up in tears when the actor wants to change a little—

MARX: I find it’s so much more about the architecture of how you tell a story.

BOROWITZ: And it’s a visual medium. It’s fun when you can have both. It’s easy to trash Hollywood, but when it works, and something’s generally funny, it’s just great, and it’s great to see somebody knock something out of the park and make an audience laugh. But it’s not writing in the same sense that this is writing, because here you’re communicating directly with the reader and it’s all about language.

MORRISON: Paul, can you think of an example of an actor you’ve worked with who took something you wrote and made it bigger?

SIMMS: Yes. Phil Hartman. Everything we wrote for him. We got to the point where we could write straight lines for him and know that somehow it would be funny. He was sort of like, in the best way, a comedy robot, because he was so good and knew what he did so well. He would do a line, and we could say, “Can you do it twenty per cent slower and fifteen per cent louder,” and he’d go, “That’s O.K.” He was terrific that way. And, insane as he is, Andy Dick always made us laugh by surprising us. And then, on “The Larry Sanders Show,” Rip Torn just always scared the crap out of me. So, whatever he did, I laughed.

BOROWITZ: I spent a year writing for “The Facts of Life,” and I gotta say, everything Tootie did was—

MORRISON: Let’s say you’ve written something that’s definitely funny on the page. Does it come off as funny only if the actor is actually a person who understands it? Could a person with no sense of humor read your funny line and still have it work?

SIMMS: On “NewsRadio,” there was an actor who in real life is not funny at all, but on the show he’s hilarious. With some actors it’s just instinctual.

BOROWITZ: I think acting is almost more like an athletic gift. There are actors who are capable of seeming incredibly smart, and they make all these incredibly smart choices, and then you talk to them and they’re just retarded. It’s all about timing and instinct.

OWEN: I made the mistake once of listening to a book of mine on tape, read by somebody else. I could not turn the tape player off fast enough once I heard that voice reading things I had written.

SIMMS: Was it a famous person?

OWEN: No, but it was somebody who did it professionally. Recently, I was listening to a book about the Second World War, and the guy would change his voice when he was reading passages that, in the book, would be in quotation marks. And when he read things that Hitler had said, the voice was sort of—it wasn’t Elmer Fudd, quite, but—

MORRISON: Is there anything that’s universally considered hilarious—“Seinfeld,” the Three Stooges, the Farrelly brothers—that you just don’t get? The flip side of that is, what are your guilty pleasures in terms of comedy? Do you like Garfield the cat, or Joe Piscopo?

MARX: My biggest guilty pleasure is “Critique of Pure Reason,” Kant. I just can’t get enough. There’s so much I don’t get, I start to think I don’t even think things are funny. I don’t get Perelman, really. I don’t like puns, even though I know he’s a great writer. I don’t usually, but sometimes I do, like Mel Brooks. “Young Frankenstein,” I don’t really get that.

BOROWITZ: I know it’s bad form to criticize anything in The New Yorker, but I don’t think Sy Hersh is that funny. I’ve read so many of his things. They’re always about, like, Abu Ghraib—the pictures were kind of funny. But I don’t get him.

When I was a teen-ager, I remember reading all those Woody Allen collections and thinking they were hilarious. There is the danger of going back to things you liked when you were thirteen and being disappointed. But he had one joke that I still think is one of the best jokes ever. He did a piece—again, sort of a formula—on mythological creatures that he’d invented. He came up with funny names for them, and one of them—I can’t remember what the name was—he described it, and he said, “The so-and-so has the head of a lion and the body of a lion, but not the same lion.” That’s pretty good, right?

OWEN: I had a friend in college, and we both completely loved Woody Allen. We were so in love with Woody Allen, and we had both seen, independently, before we met each other, the movie “Bananas,” many, many times.

BOROWITZ: Still the funniest.

OWEN: And then we saw it many times together. And we would go to the theatre and sit in the theatre and the lights would start to go down and my friend would start going, “Ha ha ha,” and he kept it up all the way through. There are many little things in that movie. The little posters in the background when they go to make the huge lunch order, that say, in Spanish, “With God and Vargas we are safe.” Why did anyone bother to do that?

BOROWITZ: And the dictator, when he becomes drunk with power, he starts making all these new laws. He says, “All children under sixteen years old are now sixteen years old.”

OWEN: You remember those things, but my friends and I loved Firesign Theatre back in high school. I have an eighteen-year-old son who’s a funny guy, so I thought, Oh, God, he would love Fireside Theatre. My wife and I put it on, and not only did he not find it funny but, then, if you listen to it through his ears—I could never listen to it again. It was the same experience as when I showed him “Dr. No.” He was into a 007 video game. I thought, God, you would really like it, you’re in third grade—that’s the age I was when I fell in love with Sean Connery. It was so slow, he couldn’t believe it. Five seconds into it, he just couldn’t believe how boring it was. And I looked at it through his eyes, and it was really boring.

SIMMS: That’s the gift that children bring us. ♦

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