“All you have to do is wind us up and we’ll run until the screen runs out.”
Phil Proctor and David Ossman have been performing together for nearly 55 years, as members of the legendary comedy troupe Firesign Theater, along with the late Phil Austin and Peter Bergman. In the late 60’s and early 70’s The Firesign Theater became known for their nationally syndicated radio programs, as well as their timeless albums such as Nick Danger, I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus, and Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers, the latter of which was added to the Library of Congress in 2005.
Now, 35 years after their last vinyl record release in 1985, they have a new record coming out titled Dope Humor of the Seventies. The two disc record is a compilation of sketches from their radio program Dear Friends, spanning from 1970 to 1972. It also serves as an extremely belated follow-up to their original Dear Friends compilation that was released back in 1972.
We recently spoke with Phil Proctor and David Ossman for a freewheeling, epic Zoom call to promote their new album. About a minute into the conversation, I knew that it was going to be a unique one and all I had to do was wind them up, and they’ll take care of the rest. All I had to do was sit back, relax, be entertained, and most importantly, laugh. And that’s exactly what happened.
David: Hey Phil. This guy here, who is apparently much younger than we are, wants to talk about this album. And what I had to say about this album is I just love the idea – I haven’t got it yet- but they have a twelve inch album. And it opens up!
It’s not just digital.
David: It’s not just digital. Although of course there’s a digital download that comes with it. But the physical object, bring ‘enough back!
And that’s interesting because the last actual vinyl you guys had out was 1985. And at the time, it was the quote unquote “death of vinyl”. And here we are in 2020, vinyl is in again and there’s this wave of nostalgia. This year, there were more vinyls sold than C.D.’s. So is it weird to be around long enough to be in the resurgence now?
David: Well when everything was only CD and CD quality, the Colombia albums were released by original master recordings. And they were from the masters. And they were good CD’s. And if you want our albums on CD, you can find those. Original master recordings. Otherwise, no. A lot of the work in the studio just was digitalized out. They are really very rich when you hear them on a record.
And the wonderful thing I think about hearing them on the record is I never hear them on the record. I hear us performing it. So for Nick Danger, we’re onstage. I’m looking at Phil Austin. And when you listen to the album, there’s so much more stuff going on. I’m as amazed as any listener might have been back in the day. Because we stripped these down to do them onstage. And when you hear the beginning of Don’t Crush That Dwarf, with people banging around and slamming things all over the place, “What is going on here??”, I love that aspect of it.
As far as Dope Humor of the Seventies goes, I think we are probably the only rock band to have titled our soon to come out, 50 years from now, album. Based on a commercial that’s 50 years old.
Phil: That’s right. And you know what I think of digital? (Slowly raises his middle finger with a big smirk on his face).
David: That’s the main digit.
Phil: Thank you. Try the sacrificial lamb. (Laughs). But you know, I think it was Stand Up! Records and Taylor Jessen, our producer and archivist, who were the stimulus behind the creation of this memorable album. Is that right, Dave?
David: Yeah. It was Taylor who really wanted to get us back on LP. And he’s been our archivist, and he knows our work better than even all of us together. And this based on the Dear Friends album, which I edited back in 1970, because Firesign had just released a 38 minute album which it was unlikely that anybody was going to play on the air because it had a couple of f*ck’s in it, on top of everything else being 38 minutes long. So it seemed like “Let’s do some drop-ins. People love these 2-3 minute comedy drop-ins.” And that was the original intent of that album. Not to come out with some highly sophisticated, weird, over the edge Frank Zappa Firesign album. It was just enough that you could play on the radio.
So Taylor kind of based this on cuts that I never would’ve put on that album. There are some cuts – we did them on the radio – that I wouldn’t have put them on the Columbia record album back then. So Stand Up! has followed through on this just wonderfully with a double album, a download, and the fact that we can talk to a lot of people because we have a new album coming out. I don’t know about you, Phil. It’s just so great to say “Yeah, we have a new record.” Meaning a record.
Phil: Yeah, that’s right. A real record. And the fact is that I find so fascinating about listening to this material now is not only does it bring back the joy that we had, sitting together in a dim studio with a bunch of dim people sitting at our feet, laughing at what we were doing, but it’s the spontaneity of the whole thing. Because that’s the one thing that several people who have been interviewing us recently have talked about. How when they listen to our albums, even our long form albums, they got the sense that it was happening right then and there. There’s a certain spontaneity to it.
And I think the fact that we trusted ourselves enough to go into the studio to record our albums and improvise off of the material that we had sweated over for weeks and just let it flow, came out of the joy that we all experienced in doing live radio. And some of those cuts, as David said, I’d never put those on a record. They really exemplify, at least to me anyway, the spirit of improvisation and the spirit of the “anything goes” atmosphere.
David: It’s much crazier in that sense. It’s farther out. It’s much more dope humor. The agreement that we had in doing those radio shows were two things. One agreement was we don’t prepare. You can prepare. You can prepare anything you want to. But don’t tell me about it until we’re actually on the air.
Phil: That’s right!
David: That was the deal. So everything was a surprise. Everything was spontaneous. Part two was we used these radio shows to draft albums. We used our stage work, which we did because we were a recording group and we played just like a rock band and we had to publicize the record, we used it as drafts, developing the next album. We were working on it all the time.
And Phil said about our performance, we did. We really sweated blood over it. We would sit the four of us and argue over a line. Just a line. For hours. Hours. And Phil would be making models. And we’d be arguing about some f*cking line. And then we get in the studio and forget what line it was. Because in the studio, you bring the improvisation of character first thing. We weren’t sitting around the table like “Oh, he says this in this voice.” “And then you come back to me like that!” Those were maybe rough. But when we got into the studio, you had to find that material.
Improv. That’s the way we got it. And once you’re improvising the character, and the actor knows this unless you’re stuck with Eugene O’Neil, you have to play around with it a little.
Phil: [O’Neil] was the fifth crazy guy. And we just couldn’t tolerate the sound of his typewriter. It was so unnerving. You couldn’t think!
Well, I’ve always felt that improvisation is improvement, but it’s also impish. It’s like carefree improvement. “I can make this better. I can refine this line. And I’m gonna try it! And let’s see if it makes my partners laugh.” Which was so much the glue that held us together. Through thick and thin, through divorces and suicides and poverty was the fact that whenever we were together, we made one another laugh. And that was the love between us.
David: Yes. And that was the deal. Essentially what you wrote down out of the improv was what made us all laugh. “That’s it! That’s it!” I can’t tell you how many thousands of times one of us said “Oh! That’s it! That’s perfect!” When Phil Austin said “Well, I think we’re all bozos on this bus,” we said “That’s the title of the album. You got it. It’s there.” It was an improv’d line in the scene. Just improv. “Oh, I think we’re all bozos on this bus.”
Phil: And David, didn’t you come up with Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers based on the fact that we called Germans dwarves during the first World War? Remember that?
David: (German accent) No, I don’t think so.
Phil: (German accent) It was a piece of music that we found. It said something like “Crush the dwarf”.
David: “Crush that dwarf. Don’t crush that dwarf.” In the Second World War, we’d crush them then.
Phil: You know, the little German guy with the pointy helmet on the front.
David: He had that pointy helmet. Did they run at people with their heads?
Phil: That’s how they fought in those days.
David: Duck and run! Ha ha.
Phil: It was called the Unicorn wars! That was good fun.
David: (Normal voice again) There are two explanations for that title. Both of which are right. One of them is Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers refers to a television set that can only be changed with a pair of pliers. Click. Click. Click.
Phil: (Normal voice again) Or, in the old days when the screens were like circular and black and white, every once in a while something would go wrong and it’d be like VOOMF down to just a thin line. And you’d have to reach into the back and open it up again.
David: That was definitely crushing the dwarf. There are also people who believe that it refers to handing a joint off. “Don’t crush that. The end of that precious joint. Here’s pliers.”
Phil: And then there was still another interpretation of that was that during the war, they hired little people to go into the wings. So it’s the same thing. “Don’t throw this handicap person away. Give him a job!”
David: You know in the last scene in Casablanca, when they’re saying goodbye at the airport. All the actors by the airplane, which is three quarters sized, are little people.
Phil: And in the film Destination Moon, they did the same thing on the soundstage to show distance. Getting smaller people back there in their little space suits. And of course, that’s how the moon landing was faked with the little people. They shot that in a studio in Burbank. I’ve been on that soundstage. It’s not very big. And remember, the moon landing was before all of the CGI, all of the computer stuff had been perfected. They had to think of very clever ways to do it. So once again, little people were the answer.
David: The end of 1967 when they had just landed one of those explorers, or whatever they were calling them then, on the moon, it took 17,000 pictures of its foot. But the week that we were doing that, we were doing these shows at the Magic Mushroom and wrote it in as a Sherlock Holmes parody plot. That the moon had been stolen. And Holmes had to go and find it. It was the very week that the moon landing had happened. “They were saving it from being destroyed and being stepped on and mashed into…” That was right off the news. It’s silly, but it was right off the news.
Phil: (Holding up his phone) On the other hand, I just took 17,000 pictures of my foot. I pushed the wrong button. I’m sure that’s happened to everybody.
David: I hope it’s better now.
Phil: Andrew, do you have any questions or do you just want to continue to be entertained with everything we’re making up?
David: He’s just sitting back.
I love it so far!
David: The other thing that I’ve been saying, because Phil and I haven’t done these together necessarily, is that this is part of a psychedelic Firesign period. Which is the first five years, the first three or four Columbia albums. And we’re filling that in, and it’s not only funny, but I find as time has gone on, it’s really historically interesting. Which is probably why we’re a valuable asset to the Library of Congress. Because in that period of time, we were in and on the news, wherever the news was happening, all the time. And our satire of what was going on, right from the very beginning with The Electrician, was of the moment.
I don’t know anybody else, except maybe Frank Zappa for America Drinks and Goes Home, which I think was a great influence. But nobody was covering the moment in the same way we were in real time. And that’s what these radio shows were. Real time without any censorship because we didn’t do that to one another. And the radio stations were not doing that at the time. Nobody went on the air with an unscripted hour show. Are you kidding? Jack Benny had 7 writers.
Phil: Now I went to school at Yale with Ian Underwood, who was Frank Zappa’s pianist. And I think one of the very first times that I ever smoked dope was with Ian Underwood in 1962 maybe? Up in a dorm room at Yale University. You reminded me of that, David, when you spoke about the great Frank Zappa. A wonderful surrealist to the bone. Just the best.
But you know in French, they called news L’actualité. It was actually happening. And that’s kind of where we lived. We lived in the now because… Well it’s the same thing as the now now. The now now, God help us, is so surreal and so nutty that it’s beyond parody. All you have to do is just write down some of the things that these bozos say, and put them on FaceBook. And that’s it.
And this is true, too. When we were doing it, things were funny, but they were also scary. Because the Vietnamese War was going on. And we were really all trying in our own way to wrestle power from the hands of the rich old white men. How did that work out?
David: The Firesign Theater was, I think we would all agree, all about power. From the beginning “Waiting for the electrician” or “Turn it on” or “Unplug it”, it was always about the effect of power on people. You look at Sergeant Lieutenant Bradshaw, Nick Danger’s opponent. Nick Danger is a surrealist guy with an eye in the middle of his forehead that he wears a hat over so nobody points it out. Whereas Sergeant Lieutenant Bradshaw is a guy who wants you to do what he wants you to do. He’s one of them. He’s a power mad guy. And Peter played it so effectively that I had to ask him to stop at one point. Whew.
Phil: And in Dwarf, Peorgie and Mudhead have this little exchange of dialogue where, and I can’t remember whom said what to whom, “What are you going to do when you graduate?” “I’m going to cut the soles off my shoes, climb into a tree, and learn how to play the flute.” That was I think Mudhead. Then Peorgie said “I’m going to find a bunch of guys who dress alike.”
David: That was the alternative in 1967. Either you got drafted – you dressed like a bunch of other guys and followed them around – or you chose a career which was almost impossible to manage – taking off your shoes, sitting in a tree, and learning to play the flute. Talk about your meditation. Talk about not going to war. Talk about choosing an option. And yet what do they find – again, this is all about Dwarf – to “Where is the high school?” “The high school has disappeared. It’s been stolen. The high school is not there so you can’t graduate.” In 2020, you can’t graduate. The communists have stolen your high school. (Laughs).
Anyway, what goes around continues to comes around, which is what I like about this LP album.
Phil: Again, for people who may not be that familiar with the Firesign Theater, or for those who are who enjoy this, the school that Peorgie was going to was Morse Science High. And the school that was their rivals was Communist Martyrs School. And when you think about what’s been going on, taking the names of confederates off of the names of schools, making those schools disappear – which is considered Communistic by many. “These people fought a war and they believe what they believe and goddammit they deserve to be remember”. And Morse Science also disappeared because, in this day and age, the administration doesn’t believe in science.
I mean, so much of what the Firesign Theater did was perhaps unwittingly predictable. But I think David will agree with me when I say that many of the things that we were making comedy out of were predictions of where things would be going if we continued on this particular path.
David: Well I think like any science fiction writers… which I think the Firesign Theater collectively is. A science fiction writer. I mean we wrote some mysteries, we wrote some other things, but basically we wrote a lot of science fiction which had to do with utopias and dystopias. And finding yourself in between those two places, which I think is more common.
Phil: Which is not anywhere at all.
David: Which is not anywhere at all. That’s another album title. Things came true because… I mean, we read the news. We were on top of it. If you’re on top of it, like any reporter or newscaster or magazine editor, we were all of those things. We were reporting, we were newscasting, we were writing comedy. Which is why I say we captured the era, this psychedelic era, better than anybody. If you listen to all the work, if you watch the movies, the home movies – which now completely vanished Hollywood is in those home movies that are out.
And coming after this album of radio is a download which will be our live performances from the same period of time that are totally magical and goofy and all of that. And I think after that, the Magic Mushroom shows. And that’s another 6 hours of comedy that’s right from this same period that shows us moving right into writing Dwarf.
Phil: I don’t quite understand what you’re talking about.
David: I’m just saying this era in our work. Is what we’re focusing on rereleasing.
Phil: That’s correct. In one era and out the other.
David: There you go. I talk to Taylor more than Phil does. Phil manages the money, thank God, and I manage the [material].
Phil: I’m the treasurer still, while I can still see to sign a check. I call us the Frankenstein Theater. First of all, two of us are gone. Our beloved Phil Austin and our beloved Peter Bergman, who was really responsible for bringing us all together. They’re gone. But we have managed to resuscitate life, through electricity mind you, to these records. And the comedy is as fresh as ever and as terrifying as ever.
I love that we were able to go on this fun journey, just based off my one question.
Phil: (Laughs). It’s true. All you have to do is wind us up and we’ll run until the screen runs out. I am gonna promote one thing, because it’s related. My book Where’s My Fortune Cookie?. And it has as many stories as I can remember about what happened with the Firesign Theater. And it is profusely illustrated, because it’s the story of my career. And David wrote a wonderful book called Fighting Clowns of Hollywood, among the many books that he’s written, that tells the perspective of our work from that era from his point of view. It’s fascinating.
David: And it has half a dozen Firesign scripts, live shows that we did at that time, would have been albums. You would’ve been listening to an album called Joey’s House, about a family that lived their entire lives as if they were on television in a reality show. Does that sound like something that was happening in 1980? No. It doesn’t.
You’re predicting again.
David: Yeah. There you go. That was one of them. Fighting Clowns, which did become an album.
Phil: Fighting Clowns was a musical presentation. A musical cabaret with some skits interspersed in them. And we were all dressed in these robin’s egg blue tuxedos, that we found at the thrift store or something. And we called ourselves The Eight Shoes. And man, it was hot. We were rocking. We had a rock band behind us. It was hot. And the record that came out, Fighting Clowns, is well worth listening to. The artwork is by the late, great Phil Hartman.
David: We were really lucky with our cover artists.
Phil: Bob Grossman, who Peter Bergman had gone to Yale with. He had done the iconic Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers which denotes us as our astrological thinkers. And as David said, we’ve been very lucky that people have come forward to help us artistically.
David: People have been very good to us. Someone asked me today something about being famous. And I never thought about until recently. I suddenly saw my face on all those album covers and thought “Good God.” It’s really amazing.
Phil: You were in my dream last night, acting in a straight play. And you were great! Isn’t that amazing?
David: Well, I’m happy to be in your dreams, Phil. I’m sitting at the table where Peter [Bergman] sat for so many meals when he lived up on the island in those last days. This is 2010, 2011, 2012. Covering what was happening. Every day he went on the air with Radio Free Oz. He did an hour show. I lasted as long as I could. I couldn’t outlast Pete. He was amazing before he moved back to L.A.
I miss him. I miss him very much. He was the creator of the Firesign Theater in every way. And Phil Austin lives about maybe 100 miles from here I guess. On another island. And it’s hard to do it without them both. It is hard to do them without them both. And as I said to somebody, we’d still be working. If they were alive, we’d be working. You could count on it. Because what’s funnier than the Four Seasons parking lot?
Phil: (Laughs). Or maybe the crematorium. Or maybe the sex shop. I don’t know. It’s a toss up.
So one of you would’ve been Rudy, one of you would’ve been the owner of the Four Seasons, one of you the owner of the sex shop, and one the owner of the crematorium.
Phil: Phil Austin would’ve been the owner of the sex shop.
David: Good Ol’ Ralph would’ve been selling dildos. “Hiya friends. Come right on down. Don’t bother with this political asshole. Just come right on in. I have dildos. They’re big. They’re small.”
Phil: “I ask you, dear friends. Wouldn’t you rather be in an urn than have to earn enough money to buy a plot of land?”
David: “Is there any work for an elderly gentleman who really likes gardening? But can’t drive a truck?”
The new Firesign Theater album Dope Humor of the Seventies can be found now via Stand Up! Records.