A (not so) Brief History of
The Firesign Theatre

by Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr. - February 11, 2002

(Editor's Note: Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr. is the former 'Freditor' of "Firezine - The Official Official Digital Magazine of the Firesign Theatre.")

   "Firezine has released many great Firesign Theatre-sanctioned bootlegs . . . [Firezine] . . . has some really good ones," says Richard Metzger, "especially the "Let's Eat" 5 CD box set (it's a mini-repro of the original 10 LP set syndicated to radio stations in 1974). It's excellent. You can't believe how quick these guys are; it's like the Marx Brothers doing improv."

   The name The Firesign Theatre evokes many mental images. A nostalgic warmth for the good old days that never were. Of thousands of Americans gathering around their citizen radios listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's weekly fireside chats. Zodiacal puns for the pot smoking patrons of the psychedelic sixties and seventies, trying to escape from a club swinging world gone mad with war and political upheaval. Guerrilla Theatre in the streets, humorously deprogramming a populous from the narcotic of pop culture. Fighting clowns against the powers that be. Of Shakespearean comedy in a time of Orwellian tragedy. A Theater of the Mind, built with the bricks of politics and poetry on the solid foundation of the golden age of radio. The images pile on and on, and on, with double, triple, quadruple entendres and non-sequiturs, layering a baklava of subconscious surreal and blatantly silly humor acting as a political poultice for the wounds of a sick society. The Firesign Theatre is all of things and none of these things.

   The Firesign Theatre really is a group of Media Magi on the cutting-edge of technology and satire. Four or five crazy guys with their fingers poised to push the buttons: Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Phil Proctor, with the fifth being the collective entity conjured by communal thinking. The Firesign Theatre is a comedy troupe, but not a band in the sense of musicians that practice what they preach everyday. These highly creative individuals put their personal lucrative commercial careers on hold, to occasionally come together to give testimony to the masses, in the form of concerts and recordings. Not willing to rest upon their laurels of almost thirty-five years of collective reasoning purveyed on over thirty albums of recorded comedy, generating millions in sales, sold-out nationwide concert tours, dozens of syndicated radio shows and TV appearances cast into the ether, gaggles of videos, motion picture scripts, books, plays, poetry, magazines, newsletters, newspaper columns, comic strips, photo ops, voice overs, commercials, and you name it: they have now opened the windows of the Microsoft world of computers, CD-ROM and DVDs to breathe fresh air, and revive the undying Theatre of the Absurd.

   The Firesign Theatre had its humble beginnings in the fledgling LA Pacifica radio network affiliate station KPFK during the 17 November 1966 broadcast of Peter "The Wiz" Bergman's five-nights-a-week underground hit radio show Radio Free Oz. Under the pretense of "The Oz Film Festival", the four improvised a series of imaginary movies projected and narrated by pseudo filmmakers. There was an instant unique chemistry formulated that continues to attract and combine their diverse elements to this day. The Firesign Theatre began a series of roundtable discussion writing sessions to script out the hours of open-air play, filling any vacuum or space that was offered to them. They were their own best audience with the ultimate result and the highest compliment, being to make each other laugh. From the very beginning, Firesign employed the truest sense of democracy: only material that they all agreed to incorporate became part of their compositions. The one-man veto and the filtration system of four high intellects stimulated a group built on trust and a handshake of legal anarchy.

   They threw the flotsam and jetsam of their own daily lives into the stream of consciousness, free association humor of their audio mind movies, churning out surrealised versions of classic radio. They developed a continuing theme of power, paranoia and populism, running the entire political gauntlet of American culture.

   Their rise in popularity and cohesive writing skills caused Columbia Records to sniff them out with an off handed, uncensored recording contract to book unlimited studio time, with the only stipulation that they make a profit. The initial album, Waiting For The Electrician, Or Someone Like Him (1968), was expanded from their first formally written performance piece and largely patterned after Stan Freberg's History of America Part 1 LP. It heralded the anti-culture's response to the institution and disintegration of the counter culture and straight America's manifest destiny of destruction of the land and the indigenous people. A series of short sketches satisfied Columbia's concept of a comedy album, leaving the entire second side free for the title cut's Bulgarian satire of European avant-garde plays. The 'Electrician' was power, power to drive the turntables of political activism, and power to fix the broken dreams of the burnt out circuits of idealistic youth. The theme - power and electricity, power and politics, a rondo, ever continuing with the automatic tone arms returning to the beginning of the record until the plug is finally pulled.

   But this was not the first recording released by the group. Electrician's basics were recorded in the spring of '67, but the final mixes weren't done until the fall, when Bergman returned from a sojourn to Turkey. In the meantime the rest of Firesign were used by producer Gary Usher to provide voices for Chad and Jeremy's Of Cabbages and Kings second side psychedelic pre-Sgt. Pepper's extravaganza, "The Progress Suite", and to provide gunshots and battlefield sounds for The Notorious Byrd Brothers LP cut of "Draft Morning", put out by The Byrds.

   After a rocky start, several break ups, flat record sales, threats from the Columbia top brass to drop them, and being fired from their long running radio show, the reformed Firesign Theatre apprehensively approached the new year of 1969 by recording their second album, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once, When You're Not Anywhere At All?. The side 1 title was another performance piece from the previous summer. How Can You Be . . . is a nightmare odyssey on the highway of life guided by a psychedelic Homer in the mantra of a used car salesman. It was run on writing transferred to the recorded form, using readings of James Joyce's Ulysses interspersed with dope deals, acting as the gods or fates tempting our traveler away from the rightful return route to home and family.

   Side 2 was Firesign's tribute to old time radio, and their most accessible and popular recording to date. The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, was a send-up of every cliché-riddled 1940s-style Hollywood radio detective. Originally written as a pilot for a canceled thirteen week series, it was inspired by the old "Johnny Dollar, Insurance Investigator Show" and pulp novelist Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlow. Recorded on vintage RCA mikes in the old radio studios of CBS in LA, Nick runs into Firesign's most memorable characters as he tries to solve the mystery of his own life by using flashbacks and over thirty secret Beatles references to "Cut 'em Off At The Past." Rocky Rococo (Proctor), Catherwood (Ossman), Lt. Bradshaw (Bergman), and Nick Danger (Austin) himself, became reference points for Firesign voice identification, partially due to the mug shots included in the gatefold LP jacket. A segmented version of side 2 with wrap-a-rounds was put out for radio play, as a whole album called Nick Danger, Thrid Eye, Case No. 666, and is a much sought after collectable today. A portion of side one, "Yankee Doodle Comes to Terms" was included on a 7" promo EP sampler, with the album jacket featured among others on the sleeve. By the time The Firesign Theatre looked forward to writing the next record, the magic of their spoken words began to turn tricks. Sales figures took off and soared on the strength of their second album. Mostly by word of mouth, drug-induced group therapy sessions, and minor airplay on college campus-oriented radio stations, a hardcore following of fanatic fans began to develop. These Firesigntists dissected every word and phrase, memorizing and repeating entire passages, much to the annoyance of the uninitiated. At first listening many of the un-hip didn't find anything funny about the records at all, but were fascinated by the rhythm and musicality of the words, and hypnotized by the subconscious humor. The surreal inducement of a radio comedy group using rock and roll production techniques, to do movies on television for phonograph records, played upon their minds. By the time the novice listener got to Nick Danger it was a welcome relief to rest in the pools of blatantly funny and silly hilarity, finally allowing them to laugh along with their peers, in self satisfaction. The records were designed to be played over and over again like a favorite music disc, revealing more of the secrets and layers of comedy with each spin.

   The clout of a major label secured a spot in the record bins, and a path toward their rightful and continuing place in the history recorded comedy. Firesign's rock and roll manager Jim Guercio, the genius behind such bands as The Buckinghams and later Chicago, began to steer the group in the right directions and started to receive offers for outside projects. An elusive single Station Break/Forward Into The Past was released with a picture sleeve that saw little airplay before it was withdrawn. It was the only record produced by Guercio himself, and is an extremely funny mini-album with the fake commercials and TV channel switching that became hallmarks for the group.

   The Firesign Theatre was contracted to help write a screenplay for the first psychedelic western, Zachariah (1970), produced by ABC Pictures and it was their official introduction to Hollywood, and the world of control. Originally conceived by Joe Massot, the man who directed the movie Wonderwall (1967) featuring the music of George Harrison, Zachariah was pitched as a vehicle to star Bob Dylan, Bridget Bardot and Ginger Baker, it ended up with Don Johnson, his first movie, John Rubenstein, son of world class pianist Arthur, the rock groups Country Joe and The Fish and The James Gang, jazz drummer Elvin Jones, and fiddler Doug Kershaw. For the first time Firesign were being told what to do and the project slipped out of their grasp, producing mixed results. Although 90% of the remaining dialogue is in their own words, most of the hippie concepts and the scene they wrote for themselves as Doctor Firesign's Antique Theatre of The Plains and Eclectic Buffalo Show, singing "Marching to Shibboleth" fell to the merciless power of the well known, unsuitable, veteran director George Englund. How could the establishment understand The Firesign Theatre? Austin walked, but the remaining three traveled to Mexicali, Mexico for on-location rewrites and smoke-ins. Only Proctor and Bergman actually appear with the cast in the film (Bergman as a robbed bank teller and Proctor as a priest). A soundtrack album was released with music from the groups featured in the movie, and some bits of dialogue written by Firesign as well. These inspiring experiences and the relatively big money, allowed them to concentrate on developing their third album concept that was destined to take up the entire disc.

   Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (1970) was a masterpiece in all respects, and is considered by many to be the best concept comedy album ever produced. It is the life story of a man, George Leroy Tirebiter who sells his soul to the TV set, becoming forever young and forever old on the reruns of late night movies. Tirebiter, named after the unofficial canine mascot of University of Southern California's athletic squads, is trapped in a Dantesque Hell of perpetually watching his life unfold on the electronic screen. The Firesign Theatre uses the audio effect of channel surfing, clicking from station to station, developed on previous records, to tell the story of the four ages of man, and the constant sell-out of his ideals to make it in the modern world. Some of the ideas worked up during the Zachariah writing sessions as well as the current event of the Kent State student massacre were incorporated into the script. It was released with a poster insert comprised of Polaroid snapshots of the group providing clues to the secret life of the comedians. A one sided six-minute promo single, "This Side" was edited out of the LP and sent out to radio stations in a picture sleeve with a black-and-white version of Robert Grossman's jacket design. Dwarf is undoubtedly the personal favorite album of the members of the group and the majority of fans as well.

   The record was a smash hit, spawning many spin-off comedy groups, and even college courses on Firesign material and concepts. The follow up LP was in part inspired by a 1939 World Fair souvenir booklet showing an amusement ride on the Funway. I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus (1971), was a perfectly flawless science fiction of a disgruntled employee - citizen, who was able to get into the system and destroy the masters of control and bring down the evil phoney government of Big Brother disguised as a benevolent amusement park. It was the culmination of their early years at Columbia, and the pinnacle to which none of their subsequent recordings were ever able to measure up to. Another DJ single was pulled out of the album featuring a song by the group that has remained a Firesign anthem. "The Holy Gram's Song" better known as "Back From The Shadows Again", sung by the projected programmed vegetables of Bozo land, and was backed with "Mr. President", the Nixon voiced computer mask of Dr. Memory, the true villain behind the scenes.

   While all of this was going on, The Firesign Theatre was appearing weekly on the radio in various shows at various stations including twenty-one shows of Dear Friends, which ran on KPFK from September 1970 to March 1971. The group came up with the idea of trying to syndicate some of these shows by editing together twelve-hour length LPs and offering them to subscribers. Only about two hundred copies were pressed up and self released, and contained hours of Firesign material not available anywhere else. The Dear Friends set is a highly sought item by Firesign fanatics.

   A double album was put together by Columbia, with the best routines culled from their radio series, Dear Friends (1972). It was released and whole heartily accepted by their fans for what it was, a collection of hilarious improvisations and scripted funny commercials, giving them a glimpse of what they'd been missing during all those years of live broadcasts. Two singles were released to radio stations from the album 40 Great Unclaimed Melodies, a hilarious parody mail order record advertisement recorded before a live audience, backed with "Live From The Senate Bar (If You Call That Living)" from the radio show, and "Mr. President" again from Bozos with "Live From The Senate Bar (If You Call That Living)", again as well.

   The obvious tensions and stresses of four egos, and non-stop work for seven years, burnt out Firesign's writing sessions, causing internal and personal problems that the group was not able to solve in 1972. They broke up again during the preparation of their next record Not Insane, Or Anything You Want To (1972), a mish-mash of material derived from live performances and their first short film, The Martian Space Party (1972), a low budget pseudo documentary of a special radio broadcast. Many of the group's followers were terribly disappointed with the new release after being spoiled by their former masterpieces. Listening to the record twenty-five years later, without preconceived prejudices, it's not as bad as remembered, with some terribly funny bits and pieces confusingly thrown together with dated psychedelic production qualities. It tries too hard to achieve a non-linearity that is not present in the material, and doesn't finish some of the story lines developed.

   A DJ interview album, A Firesign Chat With Papoon (1972), the group's presidential candidate for the election was released by Columbia. Papoon never shows up, and neither does the whole group, leaving Proctor and Bergman acting as campaign managers to comment on the pre-election strategies on side one and the post-election results on side two. It's very silly and shows just how good Proctor and Bergman worked together as a duo.

   Proctor and Bergman then splintered off to tour and record several team albums, TV Or Not TV (1973), What This Country Needs (1975), Give Us a Break (1978), and solo records were also produced by Ossman, How Time Flies (1973) and Austin, Roller Maidens From Outer Space (1974) individually, but with the rest of the group participating as well. Singles were released from the solo recordings, "Communist Love Song/Nasi Goring" commercially from TV Or Not TV, and for airplay "Dick Private's Mystery, an EP edited from Roller Maidens, backed with songs from the album, "Switchblade Pitch Forks" and "The Bad News."

   All was forgiven or at least put aside in 1974, as the group reformed to put out a version of the lost Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra (1974), starring Hemlock Stones, as the coke-snorting detective. The pun filled-album, with many scatological and sexual jokes, again disappointed fans looking for another high class non-linear Dwarf or Bozos, and turned their backs on the group, drifting more towards British rivals Monty Python, who were just emerging on the American scene, systematically invading ABC television, movie Theatres and record bins.

   So within the year The Firesign Theatre tried to regain them with a come back LP, the UFOlogist Erich Von Daniken inspired Everything You Know Is Wrong (1974). This lunatic fringed interpretation of American history failed to reach the sales it deserved. It harkened back to their best work without being a commercial formulation. A promo EP was released with cuts from the album and "Station Breaks" on For Your Ears Only. Columbia also bankrolled a small budget promotional filming of the album as Firesign lip-synched to the already prerecorded soundtrack. The Everything You Know Is Wrong (1975) film, shot by burgeoning cinematographer Alan Daviau, saw little release in the movie Theatres but is gaining popularity today on the video market. It's the closest the group ever got to visually attaining the comedy and pace of their recordings. Unfortunately most of their audience was lost by that time and Columbia decided not to renew their contract.

   The Firesign Theatre repeated the formula for the Dear Friends subscription set by offering a ten album package of selections from their radio show Let's Eat (1974).

   The group dissolved again and Proctor and Bergman went out on the road. Austin and Ossman teamed up, toured the West Coast and wrote most of the group album, In The Next World, You're On Your Own (1975), knowing it was to be their last under the Columbia contract and. They tried to sum-up and conclude The Firesign Theatre engagement. Proctor and Bergman returned for the recording but contributed little to the writing. Plans for a Bicentennial album, with a gatefold game board printed on the inside jacket were shelved along with the group by Columbia, who offered up the Forward Into The Past (1976), "Best Of" double-album anthology as a finality, instead. Its a satisfying album that is book ended by the "Station Breaks/Forward Into The Past" single. The break with Columbia ended an era, the Vietnam War was over and Disco was king.

   A one off LP with Butterfly, a disco label, Just Folks . . . A Firesign Chat (1977), reprised Dear Friends, with the brightest moments being the fake commercials, The Ben Bland Show, a mid-morning TV matinee movie satire, and Pass The Indian Please, the group's excellent encore performance piece. A bootleg album soon surfaced on the Dog and Cat label put out by Wizardo records of a Berkeley concert called Firesign World (1977).

   Proctor and Bergman again departed, produced more records, movie scripts, film projects, toured, and were almost shot to death in a Chinese gangland massacre at the Golden Dragon restaurant in San Francisco, after a performance.

   The Firesign Theatre took a two-year hiatus from the studios, reforming to record a projected, but unbought Nick Danger radio series pilot The Case of the Missing Shoe (1979) that did find release on Rhino Records. They were back and ready to work. Firesign produced a pilot computer adventure game parody, The Pink Hotel Burns Down (1979) that was not sold but excerpted later and remixed for a Roland Sound Sampler CD (1991). They were hired by MGM to write a self-starring screenplay for a modern version of the Odyssey. MGM was sold and the new bosses canned the project. An HBO Halloween TV special was produced starring Don Addams and The Firesign Theatre, utilizing public domain horror film clips interspersed with live action for The Madhouse of Dr. Fear (1979). They did political commentary on the 1980 election for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition", and also for NPR's "Earplay" an hour version of Shakespeare's Lost Comedie, Anythynge You Want To. The election commentaries were collected by Rhino and offered to subscribers and periodically mailed out as The Cassette Chronicles (1980). The Firesign Theatre was hired to present a one hour performance at NPR's Airlie Conference, The History of The Art of Radio, which was released as part of a fifteen volume in-house cassette package of the entire event to the participants.

   The Firesign performed several new shows for the Roxy Theater in LA, recording the last show, and later releasing it augmented by studio productions as Fighting Clowns (1980) on Rhino/Firesign Records. A half a picture disc single with the painting by comedian Phil Hartman off the Fighting Clowns cover was released with a song on each side representing the two candidates for the presidential election, "Reagan", and "Carter", with the winner's song to be placed on the album.

   A national tour was booked featuring this Brechtian musical review, drawing relatively small crowds. Fighting Clowns failed to spark most of the old fans. Sales were dismal, and not what the album deserved for it was a well thought out introduction to the 1980s with songs and dialogue pieces wonderfully put together. The Firesign Theatre referred to themselves musically as the 8 Shoes but they seemed to have lost their footing in the Reagan years.

   They appeared on the live TV comedy show Evening At The Improv, performing another Nick Danger piece Frame Me Pretty (1981). Some of the previously recorded projects were released on Rhino, Lawyer's Hospital (1982), an interesting collection of unreleased live appearances, segments from the Cassette Chronicles and real commercials for Jack Poet VWs. An edited album-length version of the NPR Shakespeare's Lost Comedy (1982) was released at the same time.

   The Firesign Theatre was producing a lot of work and nobody seemed to care. All but the most loyal fans had all but dissipated. They worked very hard at numerous projects but none seemed to pay off for all the effort. Nobody could figure out how to properly market the group or its products, a problem that continues up to this day. This started to put a financial strain on the group, particularly Ossman, who had been living in Santa Barbara, and was out of the Hollywood commercial pipeline. Reluctantly, Ossman left the West coast to take a job at NPR in Washington, DC hosting a five-hour weekly "Sunday Show" in 1982 and later to pursue a solo career producing radio programs for WGBH in Boston, and conducting workshops in radio Theatre arts across the country through the decade.

   The others formed Pyro Playhouse and opened up offices in Hollywood to do business in any media they could. The new Firesign Theatre groped through the teflon decade of the empty 1980s without one of it's major voices, and tried to compensate for this by pushing the envelope of technology. They hooked up with former Monkee, Michael Nesmith's Pacific Arts Video and a Japanese company to produce a project that was to be the first interactive video. In a sense all of Firesign's recordings were interactive because they demanded a lot of participation from the listener. The Japanese pulled out along with their financing, and the project was barely salvaged by personal funds from everyone concerned. The Case of the Missing Yolk (1983) was an interesting, classy, low budget, Nick Danger vehicle with some very funny commercial parodies, and videographical sight gags and special effects. It received some cable TV air play and is still widely available in the video rental stores, and is scheduled for re-release on DVD.

   Firesign went for another media by producing an RCA CD video-disc, using a laser activated needle, only playable in RCA machines. Hot Shorts (1984) was a vocally overdubbed collection of lightly edited Republic Movie Studio cliff hanger serials of the 1940s and 1950s, spiced up with blatantly sexual humor and dialogue. It was a project that was very similar to Proctor and Bergman's 1978 film, J-Men Forever, though not as highly edited or as cleverly written. Hot Shorts has since been transferred to video-tape and it too is widely available for rental. Next, they transformed the Nick Danger episode, Frame Me Pretty into The 3 Faces of Al (1984), their first 'new' material in years and the very first digitally recorded comedy album. It was released on Rhino on vinyl and CD and nominated for a Grammy but lost out to Weird Al Yankovic.

   In 1985 The Firesign Theatre was approached by Phillips to write two demonstration games for their new CD Interactive machines. Eat Or Be Eaten, was recorded as a 99 track demo and the accompanying graphics made but the actual finished project was never published commercially. Danger In Dreamland, a Nick Danger Hollywood studio back-lot murder mystery game, was written but not recorded. Eat Or Be Eaten (1985) was salvaged and released as the first CD with subcode graphics, and the game paths strung together to form a story with some commercial parodies, on Mercury Records. The commercials were excised and put out for radio airplay in both a 7" and 12" version called Bites From Eat Or Be Eaten. The theme was further developed into a highly successful 30 minute Cinemax special, also called Eat Or Be Eaten (1985), that too, has been released on video (1986). The remaining Firesigners also provided voices for some of Mattel's Intellivison games, including Bomb Squad and B52 Bomber.

   In the late 1980s, Pyro Playhouse ran out of work and closed their offices, officially ending The Firesign Theatre. All four individuals then concentrated solely on their own careers and families.

   Mobile Fidelity Labs purchased the rights to release the essential Columbia Firesign albums on CD, soliciting new liner notes from the former members. Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers (1987) came out with startlingly good sales figures. Old fans were delighted with the clarity of sound that was missing from their old, over-played, phonograph records. Mobile Fidelity continued its re-releases with How Can You Be In Two Places At Once, When You're Not Anywhere At All? (1988), I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus (1989), Waiting For The Electrician, Or Someone Like Him (1992), and Dear Friends (1992). Sales were respectable, prompting the men to talk of a reunion when all four gathered together, for the first time in many years, to attend Phil Proctor's third wedding in 1992.

   A promotional group came up with the money to sponsor a one-off 25th Anniversary Reunion Concert (24 April 1993), at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle. Media Moguls and die-hard fans gathered from across the country to attend the event. The four members approached the stage with apprehension and trepidation, but the audience received them with a five minute standing ovation before they could even say a word. It was a humbling and exhilarating experience, enough to give them the confidence to allow the old chemistry to work its magic again.

   A nation wide tour was booked and quickly sold out. Columbia/Sony, who had kept the first few albums in print as cassettes followed suit, helping to promote the tour with a new retrospective two CD set Shoes For Industry (1993) in their Legacy series. The tour was a nostalgic review for the audiences who recited along like a Greek chorus with the updated versions of the routines from Firesign's most famous and popular albums. Sales were brisk at the souvenir tables where patrons could purchase squeezable rubber Bozo noses and toy pickles, T-shirts, tour jackets, and Nick Danger shot glasses. After the shows, The Firesign Theatre came out for autograph sessions to greet and thank the fans by signing photos, books, record jackets, and CDs.

   They created a following of die-hards, affectionately called Fireheads who treated the band like they were the Grateful Dead, preceding them to every venue to try and catch every show. The Firesign Theatre staged endless press conferences, and interviews and appeared on many local and National Public Radio affiliates across the country promoting their comeback and cementing their base.

   Mobile Fidelity released Fighting Clowns with the "Carter" song on CD in 1993, and a double CD set of selected live performances from the 25th Anniversary Tour, Back From The Shadows in 1994. The sales figures of the CDs has caused CBS/Sony to not renew further licensing to Mobile Fidelity with the hope of doing their own reissues. In August of 1995 How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All was released on the Sony/CBS Comedy Legacy series with the original artwork.

   The Firesign Theatre also made a deal to market their own product creating More Sugar, offering mail-order sales of videos and audio cassettes, including the full-length version of Anythynge You Want To (1993), the video of Everything You Know Is Wrong (1993) and Martian Space Party (1995).

   After all the hard work and promotion re-establishing themselves, the highly creative group began to feel stifled under the umbrella of a nostalgia act. With the countless same questions and the constant rehashing of twenty year-old material, The Firesign Theatre desired more of a current take on their visage as America's Comedy Theatre, and Electric Vaudeville. In the summer of '94 they booked a series of festival dates to subscription Theatre audiences in the northwest presenting yet another resuscitation of Anythynge You Want To, as an open rehearsal of a piece dating back to the very beginnings of Firesign. For some reason the troupe seemed moderately surprised that an upscale audience, who was mostly unfamiliar with their work, enjoyed themselves, and found them funny.

   In April of 1995 The Firesign Theatre assembled in the studio together for the first time in fifteen years to record four Nick Danger radio spots for Pizza Hut's stuffed crust pizza. Also the guys were hired to provide voices for the animated series, The Tick. They then set up a Web site with a few cryptic messages. The group did an excellent job but they weren't out of the woods yet. Just when they thought things were starting to turn in their favor, they received several bad breaks.

   The group's scheduled appearance at the Interactive Media Festival where they hoped to video-tape Shakespeare's Lost Interactive Comedie, still another evolution of Anythynge You Want To, for distribution, was canceled along with the entire day's events, due to the promoters lack of funds. Then their newly acquired manager quit, and along with that hopes for a summer tour dissipated with the winds of change. Frustrations mounted within the group, personality clashes re-surfaced and it seemed to be a rerun of the early 1980s with an impossibility to produce new writing.

   With this realization they discovered that they themselves needed deprogramming if they wanted to survive as a unit in the 1990s. All of the sudden they were in their mid to late fifties with a whole new set of life experiences that had to be dealt with. But how to address these revelations in an era where the new comedy concept album is nearly non-existent, and the TV market is closed to groups of aging sycophants is quite a serious dilemma. The personal developments of the individual artists, spoiled by the freedom of calling their own shots for years, made it extremely difficult to conform to collaboration. How do you give up the survival instincts for an out of sync ideal? Was the fifth crazy guy dead or just asleep with the dreams of reason?

   Again the solution seemed to lie in advanced technology. During the 1993-1994 reunion tour various companies approached the group with proposals in the CD-ROM arena. Peter Bergman had been turning his attention toward CD-ROM and computer games for several years and was on the brink of breaking through. If he was successful he promised to forward the flag and renew the group as he did in the early days of Radio Free Oz. However, in-fighting in the group again dissolved most of those plans.

   Proctor and Bergman began writing a CD-Rom parody of the best selling game Myst. Eventually Bergman took over the reigns and assembled a team to record and produce Pyst for Palladium Interactive. The services of John Goodman along with Proctor and Ossman were used. A corresponding Web site was developed that was accessible from the disc.

   Bergman took most of this troupe to New York City in June of 1996 to appear live at the Knitting Factory as part of the Toyota Comedy Festival. Presented as The Firesign Theatre's Radio Free Oz Big Internet Broadcast it was carried live on the Internet. The routines were run of the mill comedy sketches based around eccentric characters and musical numbers delivered in a radio format.

   Phil Austin was unaware of the Firesign billing and again internal tensions mounted. The group was officially disbanded before writing on the projected Firesign album The Illusion of Unity was even begun.

   Undaunted, Bergman forged ahead with his plans of reviving Radio Free Oz and set up RFO.net on the Web featuring streaming audio performed by himself along with Proctor, Ossman, Goodman, Edie McClurg and other members of the Radio Free Oz Players.

   Firesign Theatre had been based on a continuing conversation but they were no longer speaking to each other. Firesign fans, however weren't willing to let the group dissolve. A publication, Firezine: The Official Official Magazine of The Firesign Theatre was started by Fred Wiebel and Chris Palladino to solicit articles and interviews with the various members. The plan was to feature an issue on each of the members and then the full group as the final instalment.

   Wiebel was a big time Firesign recording collector and substitute radio talk show host for WEPM in Martinsburg, WV. While the regular host was on a week's vacation, Wiebel, took advantage of the situation and scheduled long phone-in interviews of the various individual members and played Firesign album cuts throughout the week. In a sense the group was working together and the conversation continuing.

   Over the next year the fans networked together around Firezine and set up various Firesign web sites and newsgroups. The main goal being to get Firesign back together and generate enough interest to get their classic albums re-issued and numerous live and radio recordings archived.

   The group eventually made up and desired to make a return to the recording studios. They decided to record a pilot for a radio program for NPR that was broadcast (2 January 1998) as Everything You Know Is Wrong About The Future for "Weekend Edition." A thirty-year Firesign career retrospective symposium was held a month later at the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles. This led to the group producing a series of nine short fake commercials and news 'bytes' for an April Fool Broadcast on the nationally syndicated Radio Today network show "Pop Quiz."

   Firesign Theatre was back writing and recording together. Phil Austin felt that the time was right to try and land another major record deal. He worked with Wiebel and the fans to help promote the group by re-scheduling the all Firesign issue of Firezine to reflect the recent activity and upgrading their Web sites.

   A recording contract with Rhino Records was landed for two CDs including a Nick Danger release. Rhino was unsure of Firesign's marketability after a 10 year major recording hiatus and wanted an 'ace in the hole' to cover their bets. The Nick Danger routines were always the most popular and accessible Firesign. Some of the Radio Today material was used and further developed for Give Me Immortality Or Give Me Death (1998) which was a millennial meltdown using a radio format to tell the story of RadioNow and bring Firesign World up to date just in time for it to go full tilt bozo. It was full of lovable characters and lots of jokes harkening back to their best work. Rave critical reviews pumped up enough interest to warrant a Grammy nomination, moderate sales and a West Coast mini-tour.

   The dormant www.firesigntheatre.com was revamped by the Firezine Webmasters and the magazine began releasing sanctioned CDs of various live concert performances and radio broadcasts to help raise funds for publication and website maintenance for Firezine. Among the twelve related CDs eventually released were The Firesign Theatre Live At The Westbury Music Fair 1975, Questions And Answers, The Fighting Clowns Ronald Reagan Assassination Show 1981, In The Firezone Live In Seattle 1999, Let's Eat, Still Waiting For the Electrician and the WEPM Firesign Festival with the eventual goal of releasing an example from every Firesign Theatre tour available for the hardcore collectors and fans.

   More Sugar began to license, manufacture and distribute some of these and other CDs, The Pink Hotel Burns Down, a collection of rare recordings, and again, Anythygne You Want To so that Firesign could receive royalties.

   For the next Rhino CD some ideas were kicked around about Nick Danger In The 21st Century, a re-release of The 3 Faces Of Al with new wrap-a-rounds by David Ossman for a segmented version of it or a collection of various unreleased Nick Danger live recordings including Frame Me Pretty. Firesign had a much greater desire to do an all new storyline for their next CD rather than a Nick Danger episode or augmented re-release of old material. Give Me Immortality was enough of a financial and critical success to warrant this approach. The follow-up Rhino release was Boom Dot Bust (1999) which showed the dark side of the economy centered around the political machinations of mythical Billville by pushing the envelope of the latest studio techniques. Firesign had produced a Billville show at the Roxy in 1979 and some of that material re-surfaced in Boom Dot Bust. Rhino decided to use it to initiate their advanced audio, DVDA, souped up with short videos, graphics and supplemental material. Sales for Boom Dot Bust were less than spectacular. Part of the problem was that the warmth displayed by the characters in Give Me Immortality was totally missing and the CD just wasn't all that funny, though it did have its moments. The DVDA format also failed to take off in the market place so the DVDA version release was delayed for over a year.

   On 1/1/2000 Firesign rang in the new millennium by broadcasting over the Pacifica network, from the KPFK studios where they began, performing The Alternative Rose Parade. Listeners were encouraged to tune in the real television broadcast, turn down the sound and listen to Firesign do commentary. The audio was later edited and released by Firezine as The Firesign Theatre's Alternative Rose Parade.

   A Rhino DVD video project Weirdly Cool went through several directors and art directors. Thousands of photos were shot of Firesign in character in various poses that were to be animated into a story or presentation. Hours of video was shot in the recording studio of Firesign sitting around the microphones digitally re-doing their classic bits as presented in live concerts. Live footage from the 1999 tour and vintage film was solicited. No clear vision of the project came into focus with financial support so the project was shelved.

   With these disappointments and internal friction, Firesign activity dropped off for most of the year as the group members went their separate career ways. They did record some real commercials for a New Jersey Auto Insurance agency and made a brief appearance on David Ossman's centennial adaptation of the Wizard of Oz for the LA Children's Museum. Firesign played the Hammerheads for this all-star production that was broadcast over NPR and released on a four CD set by Lodestone.

   Firesign Theatre still technically owed Rhino a Nick Danger CD as a contractual obligation. With dismal sales of Boom Dot Bust Rhino called in the 'chits'. Hopes were high that the radio noir detective could find a clue to turn it all around and put the group into the mainstream. The guys got back together in the summer of 2001 to write and record The Bride of Firesign. They pulled out all of the nostalgic stops by referencing almost all of their former recordings throughout the story of their familiar characters coming together for one last romp. Not surprisingly missing were the Boom Dot Bust people.

   With that off their backs, Firesign decided that a multimedia marketing blitz was the only way to do it or die as a group, so they evolved the mail order More Sugar label into Firesign Records and worked out an in-store distribution deal with Ryko and Whirlwind Media, the DVD re-vamp of Mobil Fidelity Sound Labs to release CDs and DVDs. First up was an augmented re-release on DVD of the 1993 reunion tour MFSL CD Back From The Shadows. Developed for Firesign Records was Radio Now Live, a double CD recorded in Portland during the 1999 tour, a re-release of Fighting Clowns and Anythygne You Want To, the More Sugar version with a new cover. These were expected to do well in the comedy record bins augmenting the Rhino CDs and "Best Of" Sony collection.

   In another surprising move to control more of their product they stopped Firezine from producing and releasing any new CDs, essentially putting the printed magazine out of business. They are allowing the Web site to continue offering their product but scrapped five planned CD releases.

   Also a deal was worked out with PBS and Rhino to resuscitate Weirdly Cool as a pledge raising broadcast/DVD/video package. The viewer potential was rated in the millions: bringing more exposure than Firesign has ever had. Rather than spend a lot of time trying to piece together Weirdly Cool from the disparate elements, it was decided to book time at the CBS television studios in Hollywood in August and video Firesign in two live performances before an audience, culling out the best of each. PBS's WHYY out of Philadelphia produced the show and pre-recorded pledge pleas and testimonials and intros by famous comedian fans George Carlin, Robin Williams, Chevy Chase and John Goodman. Firesign promised to help by making live appearances during the pledge drive broadcasts in Philadelphia, New York and other cities over the Thanksgiving weekend. Rhino would manufacture the DVD/VHS premiums with plans to mass release Weirdly Cool in late spring 2002. Pre-recorded items from the former Weirdly Cool with non-broadcast and vintage video and unreleased recordings were to be incorporated. It seemed like a smart move as Rhino could cover some of their losses and all concerned probably take a substantial tax write-off for donating to Public Broadcasting.

   On the radio front, Firesign accepted a deal with the burgeoning direct satellite service XM as comedy consultants and hosting a monthly live show Fools in Space ad-libbing, performing scripted material and playing comedy and novelty records.

   All the above was planned to come together for the 2001 Christmas season and theoretically designed to secure a bright future for the group and a new wider audience. However all the plans of mice and comedians don't always work out.

   The Bride of Firesign was released just days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Even it's Grammy nomination failed to spark much attention under those circumstances.

   The XM broadcasts started in October 2001. However there was a major distribution problem with the $300 home receiving sets and the $10/month subscriptions were not pouring in as expected. The shows were very good however as Firesign was right in their proper element. Too bad the majority of their fans weren't able to tune in.

   The Philadelphia Weirdly Cool showing was on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2001 with just three Firesign members in the studio, Austin stayed home. This show was taped and used for the feed for most of the other stations. The PBS stations that picked it up opted for a one time broadcast late Saturday or Sunday night. During the breaks the guys looked old and tired from their trip, forgot to mention their website and new Firesign Record releases and spent more time talking up the Sony reissues offered as premiums only referring to The Bride of Firesign once in the broadcast. The Weirdly Cool DVD/VHS premium was prominently touted and the show itself was well performed but failed to bring in the expected pledges. Had the show been repeated as most pledge programming, the results would have been far greater.

   Unbeknownst to Firesign members, Laugh.com acquired the CD rights to the classic Columbia albums produced in the 1960s and 1970s. Re-issues of Waiting For The Electrician, How Can You Be . . ., Don't Crush That Dwarf, I Think We're All Bozos, Not Insane, The Giant Rat of Sumatra, Everything You Know Is Wrong and In The Next World You're On Your Own were released by year's end.

   Not to be outdone by any upstart comedy record companies, Sony, learning of the Weirdly Cool broadcast, rushed into production budget-line versions of Waiting For The Electrician with an extra track, How Can You Be . . ., Don't Crush That Dwarf and I Think We're All Bozos and released them (4 December 2001) right after the scheduled broadcasts.

   When Firesign fans hit the stores, most opted for the vastly available Sony re-issues of their long out-of-print favorite albums. Internet shoppers went for the laugh.com releases. The Rhino issues were hit or miss in the stores. Lost in the shuffle were the over-priced poorly distributed Firesign Records releases that most fans already had in one form or another. Firesign's biggest sales competition turned out to be themselves.

   It all seemed like the last go round for the quickly aging wild bunch of the four or five crazy guys. However, we've learned never to count the boys out. 2002 may yet be the Year of The Firesign Theatre. With all of their classic albums finally back in print, interest is bound to be generated and new fans captured. Things could change quickly if The Bride of Firesign wins the Grammy for Best Comedy album of the year but they're up against stiffer competition this time from the extremely popular veteran George Carlin.