Friday, January 22, 2010

Weirdest Car on Google Street View

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Surprise in the final credits of "A Serious Man"

Monday, January 18, 2010

As Smart as Comedy Gets - The Firesign Theatre on Whidbey Island

I conjure up the Firesign Theatre at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts
Phil Proctor, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, Phil Austin
Photo by Drew Kampion

It took a walk in the rain to a bus to a train to a walk in the rain to a ferry to Whidbey Island to another bus to see the Firesign Theatre perform. Along the way, I discovered that a relaxed and certainly prerecorded "Doors Closing" has replaced "All Aboard!" as the announcement of preference before the train takes off in the year 2010. It was a beautiful trip, the Sounder train from the King Street Station in downtown Seattle hugs the coast north to the ferry terminal in Mukilteo, passing the Edgewater Inn, the entrance to Hempfest and the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park, and Myrtle Edwards Park and wham,  a train going in the other direction, blocking your view of Magnolia and the bluffs, passing the locks, crossing a salmon ladder, water, bridges, water, more bridges, the Golden Gardens, the marina, winter, dark early, hard to differentiate between sky and land, all in the rain, a whacked out watercolor of mayhem occasionally blitzed by car lights into fragments of kaleidoscopic splendor, intensifying my total bogglement that the original Firesign Theatre, the comedic masters of surrealism and anarchy, are still together after 43 years, will be performing tonight, and I'm lucky enough to get to see them.

The train allows me to plug in and log on. I Google the Firesign Theatre on a train to the Firesign Theatre and discover to my horror that a lot of people don't know the difference between the words THEATER and THEATRE, so let's get this over with. It's not just one of those British vs. American spelling differences for the same word like "favor" and "favour," the two words actually mean something different. When you enter the theater, you're going into a building. When you enter the theatre, you're going into a profession. This is important to know if you're going to see the Firesign Theatre, four performers creating a theatrical event, but thinking you're going to see the Firesign Theater, a building used to put on theatrical presentations. You can have a "theatrical" experience outside a "theater," but "theaters" would be ridiculous places if there weren't any "theatre."

Further diving into the Firesign online reveals vast universes of fandom and minutia. The troll in me wants to start a not-so-raging debate concerning whether The Firesign Theatre or Monty Python are the Beatles of comedy. Never one to lose an argument with myself, fully believing it's Firesign all the way, I am unsettled to discover there are arguments to be made both ways. Monty Python was British. So were the Beatles. There are only four members of the Firesign Theatre. There were only four Beatles. Someone less twitchy might just call it quits right there but not I.

Born out of radio, where nothing is more evil than dead space, the boys learned to just keep talking and talking and talking, each capable of a multitude of voices, getting precise and calculated and subtle and over-the-top with references meant for MENSA, their mastery of recording finally culminating in genuine theatrical events for the mind.

Released in 1970, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers is the first concept comedy album meant to be heard from the beginning of side one to the end of side two and is easily the Firesign's Sgt. Pepper. "Their next release, I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus is easily their Magical Mystery Tour," says Fred Further of Further Analogies 'R' Us, specialists in dead horse beating.

The Firesign were certainly the first to use the simple sound effect of changing channels to take you from here to somewhere else. I don't know if any of the Pythons have ever fessed up to listening to the Firesign Theatre but their surreal transitions were Firesign all the way, making one imagine an alternative history where Terry Gilliam never makes it abroad and teams up with the Firesign Theatre instead of the Pythons. (Note to self. Start a petition at demanding Terry Gilliam direct the film version of I Think We're All Bozos on this Bus.)

Before the Firesign Theatre, recordings of "theatre" were actual multi-record box sets of audio recordings of Broadway plays of which, I admit, I owned quite a few, and you can file under deep obscuradalia the fact the audio version of Luv, the Broadway play by Murray Schisgal starring Alan Arkin, was much funnier than Luv, the movie starring Jack Lemmon (but got Arkin the part of the lead in The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming anyway).

Before the Firesign Theatre, comedy albums were Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce and Allan Sherman, comedians being funny in what were essentially recorded stage shows. Firesign Theatre albums showed up just as stoners were discovering the insane pleasure of listening to Sgt. Pepper with the headphones on, picking up every nuance. For the very first time, there were COMEDY albums worth listening to with the headphones on, which means the Firesign Theatre did for comedy albums precisely what the Beatles did for rock. Listening to them for the first time was revelatory, comedy was too weak a word, comedy just one of many things the Firesign Theatre embraced. If I ran the record store, I would have filed them under Irony or Surrealism. It was mindfuck comedy, the jokes and sound effects and music and voices combining in such a way as to almost but not quite add up to a visual picture that made the slightest shred of sense. Two people listening to the same track on headphones with their eyes closed were sure to conjure up entirely different retina movies since it's all from a non-linear dream state. When everyone on the bus in Bozos goes "whoa," you're forced to picture SOMETHING that made them do it, and your picture can't be the same as mine. Deprived of visuals, the Firesign create theatre that dares you to figure out what's going on, where you have to PAY ATTENTION because missing one little thing could make it all incomprehensible.*

* Not that hearing the whole thing perfectly will make something comprehensible that wasn't meant to be so in the first place. Another section my mythical record store owner might file his Firesign records is under Symbolism, a theatre where it's possible to read everyone's thoughts and there's no turning back, wherever they take you, whether a missing Sherlock Holmes episode or an amusement park in the future, it's all a dream within a dream within a dream, a world where the mere mention of the words "Hideo Knutt's Boltadrome" sends paroxysms of pleasure through the cerebral cortex, where Burroughs' random cut-up act reigns supreme, albums full of precognition. (When the announcer in Bozos instructs everyone to let the air out of their shoes, what was completely ridiculous in 1971 would make a modern listener just think they were all wearing Air Jordans.)

In this video, Proctor and Bergman describe the LA show, which seems very much the one I saw.

So here I am, in the lobby, before the show, an hour early, typing away, wondering whether seeing them in person will completely fuck up the magic, after all, I'm used to hearing them as characters I've created in my mind over years of intense listening.

Four microphones. Four chairs. That's it.

They come out, start talking, and you realize the Firesign can stretch a joke like taffy, way past the feasibility point, a game show where contestants have to guess what disease they were just injected with or die, a disappearing high school, a confused teenager and his 70-year-old best friend Mudhead, an entire synthesized Shakespeare play with sexual innuendo the Bard himself would have stolen in a flash had he been there, the train-of-thought school of comedy brought to you by Ralph Spoilsport of Spoilsport Motors, with so many lefts and rights you need a cosmicomic GPS to keep your sense of magnetic north, impossible to laugh at what's happening when you're just catching up with what they said five seconds ago.

The show had few sound effects other than the ones coming out of their mouths, and all used strangely. One of them stretched out his arm, followed by a sound effect of a glass breaking, followed by another of them saying "he knocked over a sound effect." In one bit, a bunch of characters all had monikers that were the names of obscure streets in Hollywood, hilarious to me because I once lived in Hollywood but which must have meant diddly to the audience on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound of the Great Northwest. Another bit, I'm sorry, you won't get it unless you've read Ulysses.

It was a completely inspirational experience, only modified by the hapless schmuck sitting next to me who left during intermission. Let's eavesdrop on his brain for a second, shall we?

Let's say you'd never heard of the Firesign Theatre but you lived on an island and your wife kept insisting you needed some culture in your life so you allowed yourself to be dragged to a "Center for the Arts" to witness the reunion of four "comedians" whose albums you'd never heard. The first ten minutes of the act in front of you would have been mind-boggling incomprehensible and impossible to follow, no less mysterious than the cascades of laughter from the audience at things that not only weren't funny but made absolutely no sense at all. Finally, when it settled down into something resembling what you previously might have considered to be an actual "comedy routine," with a premise you understood and punchlines that were tied to the premise, WHOOSH, they're off again into verbal lalaland, obviously quoting from sacred text you've never read but fully understood by the sold-out crowd around you who get it all, every pun and conundrum. You're like Penny trying to keep up with the major geniuses next door, but making Sheldon and Leonard look like corncob salesmen, no dumbing it down for the prime-time crowd, give 'em Sartre with a dash of Ionesco, venturing into surreality is never casual, you could end up anywhere, your thoughts start to wander, what the fuck, you fell asleep, or did you?, are those guys still talking, geez, what the hell are they talking about, you thought it was a game show but now it seems to be the trenches in WWI, it's like you're an alien tuning in on transmissions from earth but unable to lock in on a signal for more than a minute, bopping from one reality to another, where the focus, get this, isn't on the reality of any particular scene but upon the transition.

Yeah, I couldn't blame him for leaving. More room for me.

People who don't get it don't realize that's the point, you don't get them, they get you, right where they want you, they've got your preconceptions in their crosshairs ready to blast them to smithereens because Everything You Know is Wrong, that's right, absolutely everything, which in my case I know to be completely correct, I know nothing, I just remember things, and not particularly well or in the right order, so don't let them fool you, it's you who are deceived. (Get it? No? Good, you're not supposed to, which only proves my point.)

Phil Austin says "The Firesign Theatre writes communally. Every word goes through four heads for approval. We therefore write very slowly. Our energy level is intense. Grown men leave the room when we fight with each other. Nothing is sacred."

With wordplay so fast and furious you can't possibly keep up, the Firesign Theatre are the Cirque du Intellect, the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle of comedy, four brains moving four times as fast as yours, absolutely, no contest, as smart as comedy gets.

Martian Space Party: Firesign Theatre part 2

Firesign Theatre
Upcoming Live Performances

Kirkland Jan 22 & Jan 23
(7:30 PM, festival seating, arrive early)
Tacoma Jan 24
(3:00 PM and 7:30 PM)

Continue to the Firesign Theatre website...