IV: Group Interview
FIREZINE: WHAT IS THE CURRENT TAKE ON THE FIRESIGN THEATRE?
PETER BERGMAN: Firesign right now is, I think, suffering a bit of a renaissance. We've been doing some new material for Radio Today and a segment for NPR and we're out looking for a record label to make a new album on. That's kind of a hopeful sign for the FIRESIGN. It's a struggle because we haven't been around for a long time and the audience... some people know who we are and a lot of people don't, and a lot of people do. Last week in Entertainment Weekly we were named one of the 50 great comedy teams of all time but not one of the 50th funniest living people, which shows you the problem we face. Funny but not alive. So, that's always a bit of a conundrum, but we're looking, we're looking around for that to happen. If that should happen, that would be real good. We're certainly popping on all eight cylinders and we are working together. We are willing to work at a distance, kind of defying the speed of light. It's kind of like, effect, at a distance. So that's good. I think that the FIRESIGN THEATRE will just have to be patient and things will play out in a good way. But it's going to take some time.
PHIL AUSTIN: The current state of the FIRESIGN is excellent. The two small radio jobs we did over the past two months were successful I think not only for the material but the fact that we are working so smoothly. And I think that you can feel it in the material and in the performances and in those pictures taken for the Radio Today material, we look cheerful. And I say that the general state of things are cheerful at the moment.
PHIL PROCTOR: Well, you know, I've been thinking about all this and I don't have a very strong take on it, to be perfectly honest with you. And I'm not exactly sure why. I know that it's fun to be continually working with the group and it was really really satisfying to have the 30th Anniversary MT&R event, and I'm very much looking forward to the potential of working further in turning out some funny comic pieces and possibly even doing a new record. But, I'm also a realist, and until these things become actualities, I can't wax too enthusiastic about anything. I find myself in an odd position. When we're doing FIRESIGN THEATRE, there's really nothing more fun than doing it and nothing more creatively fulfilling to me I think. But I protect myself as a member of the group by not getting too involved in 'blue sky'. I want whatever we turn our attentions to, to be real.
DAVID OSSMAN: I feel very positive about everything that's going on, at the moment. I think there's every likelihood that we'll be able to do a major piece, and I know everyone is looking forward to doing that.
FZ: HOW DO YOU COMPARE THAT TO WHEN THE GROUP WAS FIRST GETTING TOGETHER?
DO: Well you know, age and experience make the residence of these bodies... I was right about the comet, by the way. The comet strikes the earth and everybody goes down the hole and disappears. I mean how right can you be? What do you need?
FZ: IT DOESN'T EVEN HAVE TO HIT ANYMORE.
DO: No, just show up. Everything was happening to us at the beginning. At the very beginning of the FIRESIGN THEATRE was in the very beginning of times for very many many people more or less like us. That's where we date the beginning from, you know? There was always that joke about "before the beginning" - Before the beginning, there was this turtle. The beginning was 1968 or 7 or 6, wherever you wanted to put it, as sort of the beginning. So we dated things from that. It was very much being part of this rushing forward wave, a feeling of unity with that forward motion. And that things were essentially going our way, as a general thing. Every day has it's ups and down but as a general thing I believe that's how we were looking at what we were doing as being quite original. Quite original and quite what was called for.
FZ: SO HOW DOES THAT FIT IN WITH TODAY, THEN?
DO: Well, I've given this plenty of thought recently. Did we ever do anything that we felt was less than good, you know? I don't think so, not really. We just kept writing up to the max of our abilities. I think that that's made us extremely confident people, now. Nobody's given up what they've started out doing and that's something to say after 30 years. There's a great deal of confidence that no one has to argue with. There's no pushing or shoving in the control room, if you get my meaning, metaphorically. Everyone works extremely well together. That's in fact how it was in the beginning.
PP: I think in the old days, I don't think that we ever did anything with the group. That's one of the ironies with the group over the 30 years we have worked together when there's been underwriting for us to create. It's very odd for a bunch of hippies, but it's a reality. When a contract came along, even when we were doing the radio show, even though we weren't paid, it was a regular event when Bergman was on the air, and it was a place for us to do our thing. And we enjoyed putting the energy and the time into it because there was a audience for it and there was an award, from, you know, our audience. And we also knew that we had something to say and it was being received by people who needed and wanted to hear it. But as we began our professional career, we kind of made a pact to ourselves that we would at least be employed writers, and employed comedians, an employed group. As a result, everything that we did we tried to get some kind of underwriting for, so that we could produce it properly, that we could put the kind of energies that were necessary into the work that good creation demands.
I think that's the hardest thing for people to understand in show business, generally: how much work goes into the creation of these seemingly spontaneous events. And how much time has to be spent in happy union in order to create something that will have a long lasting comic and dramatic effect on the industry and on people and the public.
FZ: WITH ALL THAT EXPERIENCE YOU ALL HAVE NOW...
DO: It even goes more smoothly and with even more kind of a telepathic understanding as to what's gonna work here.
FZ: THAT'S EVEN STRONGER NOW, YOU FEEL?
DO: Yes, I think so. I mean it's always been there. I think it's strong once again.
PP: Oh yeah, it's never gone away. I mean there's been disruption in the force, you know. That's what's been so hard about working as a family for 30 years. 30 odd years, I like to say, because many of them were very odd indeed. But because of the nature of the strange attraction, to use another new physics concept, the strange attraction that's between the four of us, and all of the successes that we've had together, it's meant that all of the personal things that have happened to us and all of the hard times that we've gone through, individually and as a group, have tended to strengthen our relationship ultimately because even though we would hurt one another on occasion, we feel a tremendous bond. Whenever there was anger between members of the group or alienations because of business problems, or what have you, all very common to groups of artists who work together, nothing unique or unusual about that, I think the unique and unusual aspect about the Firesign Theatre is there seems to be a great capacity for healing and forgiving and learning from our bitter experiences. Which brings again a depth of understanding and humanity to the group that I hope is expressed in our work and makes it very joyful for us when we do get together to do something, 'cause we're happy to be there again.
PA: Yeah, there's a point of which the ensemble brain works pretty well. None of us have any real control over it. I haven't really felt it really work since the last shows we were doing since the big tour in '94, where we had the kind of thing where we could walk out in front of a bunch of people and not step on each other's toes. Since the last show that we did, I guess was in '94, to the seminar at the Museum of Radio and Television, from between those two points, the Firesign Theatre hadn't really like written anything together. I hesitate to use the word, I hesitate a lot anyway, but I hesitate to even use the word written. We had not been talking to each other with a common pallet in mind, if I may be so stupid, like a common vocabulary. All of the sudden, we're dealing with things the way we seemed to always do. It's odd. It's real odd. I mean I haven't felt the FIRESIGN THEATRE do this in many many years. All of the sudden when we started to do it, it felt completely natural. We're kind of just thinking aloud. There's kind of a process that happens with us where everybody's mouth is open and our brains are hardly engaged yet. That's what's happening now. I've been getting pages of things from people over my fax, and so forth. It's really fun. So that's when I feel most confident. Who know's where this will all go, but something interesting is going to happen.
PB: I think the NPR thing and the Radio Now, if the radio service decides to pick up on more of our stuff that will give us a chance to work more together, and that's what really is a clue. If we work more together that will grease the wheels and that will be good for us.
I've got an idea about an album that takes place kind of like a Dwarf album but instead of television, we use the Internet as the inter-medium. And instead of a movie being the alter-ego of the character, it's kind of a virtual multi-user domain kind of an internet cyber-soap, is the kind of place where the internet alter-egos exist. I thought that would be pretty exciting, very modern.
DO: One aspect of it would be computer. One aspect of it would be AM radio in your car. You know, all of the various inputs that people have now, as being a media background. It's more likely that the April Fool's stuff would find its way into an album as background material. I wrote quite a long sketch about various and sundry media. I mean, I keep working on this and I just keep sending the guys stuff, proposing a media background, like the TV set was for Dwarf, but a much more complicated and intricate background.
PP: We're waiting to see if we can get a company that's willing to commit to us, and what does the commitment entail. Are they gonna gives us $10 and a glass booth, or are they gonna give us a decent budget to create our material with and throw in some free equipment or something. We're kind of at the mercy of big corporations, just like we always have been. Sorry.
PA: The whole thing is interesting enough to the point where we've begun to think among ourselves that we're working on something. And so we actually started talking to each other in terms that we're working on something and it doesn't have a title yet but we're sort of seeing how these two different projects and these other ideas that we've been faxing and e-mailing around all sort of work together. So that is way beyond what the situation was, even, three months ago. It's amazing how quickly things can move. And it's real interesting. It's interesting to see the FIRESIGN THEATRE's collective brain work on a particular medium. It sounds like the same old FIRESIGN THEATRE of course but to us, or at least to me, it's a big difference.
PP: The writing that's going on right now, the preliminary writing that's going on right now, is really an exchange of broad ideas and amusing elements that each separate member might find something that he wants to particularly contribute to the overall vision of the album. But until we know that there is an album, that's just going to be playful. And then we'll get more serious about the structure and the content, if we get a commitment.
I'm sure that our technique will never change. We will struggle over, write and contribute and struggle and come up with through, probably, a couple writing sessions together, come up with the 1st part of the album that we'll want to take into the studio. Go in and do it. I doubt that we'll have a completely completed script, but we might. Even a completely completed script is never completely completed when the Firesign is doing it. We would hope that we have the kind of studio deal that we can take some time off to do some more writing if we needed to or take a little break, you know, and spend a half an hour to punch something up and then go back and lay it down. But that's the nature of the work. It seems to be the nature of our style, anyway. And we do work very quickly on our feet and we can be very spontaneous and solve problems very swiftly under the pressure of an hourly rate in the studio. So none of that stuff particularly frightens us. We know how to do it.
DO: So we are seriously discussing an album. Peter has his contacts, and Phil has his. I've been sending a lot of stuff down to him. So there's material being generated. Proctor is generating material too, of course. Peter has been working on his record possibility contacts and Austin on his and I hope that they will get together on this, and I hope we will find out what's going on. The intent would be to do a classic form album, not a short bits album. It seems to be what everybody has in mind. We're looking for a working title. Definitely it is a concept album. I thought we pulled off some interesting albums without, you know, going back to starting and doing a concept album without any previously set material. That would be the objective, to do an album from the ground up, like Dwarf or Bozos.
PP: The new project will not have anything to do with old material, although it might have something to do with past characters. Alright? We experimented with the concept of using Porgy and Mudhead or perhaps Porgy Jr. and Mudhead the 3rd as characters in the new album. And other characters might show up, you know, we haven't closed the door to that. But we want to, if we really have the opportunity, however the opportunity manifests, whether it's a big opportunity or a small opportunity, I know that we're all most interested in dealing with not only what's happening right now but our view of future events and again our perspectives on the direction of civilization, in particular our, society. So, all of these themes, you know, it's not as though we're creating new themes, we're returning to old themes that we've dealt with, prior themes, I should say, something old about them. We want to bring fresh perspectives and fresh imagination to it because, frankly, that's what we all have, you know, in all of our conversations together.
FZ: HOW ABOUT PERFORMANCES?
PA: Performances? Who knows? There are no plans at present, however there are ideas circulating. There's conversation going on between us formally about what we would do in the ideal situation. What would be the most fun thing to do for performance. A lot of it's based on the fact that the seminar went very smoothly and very well. We all thought afterwards that it was kind of interesting. We haven't really faced an improvised audience together since big press conferences in '93. And in those situations we felt uncomfortable with each other and it just kind of... we were talking over each other and sometimes you'd feel that you were going on too long or you weren't getting in enough. You know? That kind of thing. Whereas, all of the sudden at Radio and Television, it was like we were running a kind of show. It's like we had four stage managers on stage and we didn't really walk over each other and everybody was kind of looking out for everybody else. It's fun to walk out in front of a bunch of people and improvise and not step on each other's toes. It was very interesting. It reminded all of us about what it was really like to be on radio. Peter and David have been thinking a lot about our older radio shows as a format for live performance.
DO: We're talking about the success of the Los Angeles Museum program, what we might do as a live show that would be a radio broadcast, related to the methodology of doing that particular show. I put a draft through to the boys about that. So there's a lot of discussion on-going. Album first, because that really could be done in the spring, if we could get a deal. It could be done short term in the spring and get it out by fall. That would be my hope. Obviously if it did come out, then we could have a radio... I've been calling it Dear Friends, Or The Heartbreak Of Radio which would be a radio based touring show, which would be very relaxed, incorporate a lot of new material and engaging. It would be new, but I don't mean new in the sense that having to re-conceive an entire new blah blah blah. We would do that for the album and that would presumably spin off material but my vision of the radio show, and I think everybody's really, is the ability to sit down and do a Dear Friends kind of show, at least for the first half. What I propose to everyone was to do a Dear Friends over the first hour and then for the second hour or the second act of the show to do some stand-up old-time radio pieces which would end with Nick Danger and kind of segue into a very 90's closer.
PP: The old joke that you can't get there from here, in a funny way, doesn't apply to us, because, of course, we're no where at all. And we don't know where we're going. So somehow it always seems to work and is very satisfying. And it's even true when our separate minds get together to brainstorm. When Bergman and I get hot on a topic or Phil and David turn on to an idea, or any combination of us, the notebooks and the note papers come out and they start scratching down ideas and new ideas are inspired by and that kind of energy does not come easily in creative collaboration. To wit, the long lists of writers who write television comedy and the ever changing nature of that list: it is not an easy thing to sit down in a room or in a studio and create comic magic out of four disparate sensibilities but we've managed to be able to do that from the very beginning. And because there's almost a psychic connection between all of us, that allows us to anticipate one another's thoughts and sentiments, also in a way, of course to inspire ideas and imagination in one another. It's extremely gratifying, I must say.
The reason I'm going through this kind of trepidation about talking about it is, as I say, something devoutly to be wished. I would very much like the group to become successful, again. I'd like to see records re-released, CD's enhanced as Peter so cleverly suggested. They'd be super CDs. CDs that would not only have the original material but our own archetempory commentary on them of that material. Or interviews with Ralph Spoilsport from his prison cell or something.
So trying to get the FIRESIGN back up and running in a economic climate, such as it exists today, ain't the easiest thing in the world. Because if they don't see huge returns, for their puny efforts, they're generally not interested, these days. So we have to create some kind of a buzz, and some kind of a stir, I feel, in order for us to get back into not so much the public eye, but to get in to the private eye, the eye of the people who are making decisions. They have to think we're funny. They have to at the very least want to see us go on, you know, and continue and evolve. And that's why we're looking for allies, right now, in the industry, who are fans and friends of the Firesign, who may have worked with us in the past, supported us in the past, and to see if we can't get them to back us in some new public endeavors. That's our hope.
PB: One of the clues to the FIRESIGN THEATRE, that I don't see coming out of any other individual comedian or comic group is that we really take advantage of our education. We really do. I used to say that we spilled it out, that it was turning it upside down, and all that. But really what it is that we like talking to each other on that level, and our conversation always has that underlying. It's bright. And we appreciate the fact that there's an audience to listen to what we think is bright talk.
PA: Because, in fact, to a great extent we've spent 30 years in talking to each other. And in a weird way only incidentally worrying, kind of at the last minute, if anybody was going to understand it.
PB: And you know, I think it's all kind of a gift because there's no way in the world that we could have chosen each other.