‘Marching to Shibboleth–The Big Big Book of Plays’ (Firesign Theatre) (2013)

Starting out in the late 1960s and continuing today, as a Los Angeles comedy group whose medium is the long-playing record album—but mostly vividly in the work collected here, especially “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye” and the other-side title piece of How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All? (1969), Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (1970), and I Think We’re All Bozos on this Bus (1971)—the Firesign Theatre were the Invisible Beatles. Regardless of photos of Philip Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor that might or might not appear on album covers, there was absolutely no way to connect one or the hundreds of voices coming off the albums to a face. Drawn from 1930s and 1940s radio plays from The Shadow to The Bickersons, from Amos ’n’ Andy to The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, from World War II movies and Kate Smith recitals, from up-to-the-minute-and-twenty-years-beyond-it TV advertisements and early off-network cable programming, soap operas like The Guiding Light and Marlon Brando’s non-appearance at the 1973 Oscar telecast, and most of all the fundamental modern aesthetic experience, channel-changing, the voices were at once pitch perfect and utterly scrambled. You recognized the voices—you’d heard them, coming right at you or off to the side, all your life, from childhood to last week—but the words the voices carried tossed all the old specters into the maelstrom of the times, from which they emerged confused, angry, laughing, pleading for mercy.It was a time of the Vietnam War, which seemed, if it was not flatly an all-out war crime, insane (thus the 1972 campaign slogan of the Firesign Theatre character George Tirebiter, “NOT INSANE,” which has echoed through every presidential election since); of Richard Nixon, the 1950s Red-hunter who was elected president by a hair in 1968, re-elected in a landslide in 1972, and who resigned in disgrace in 1974; of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968; riots in black ghettos in cities across the nation, starting in Watts in Los Angeles 1965 and then lighting up and burning down parts of New York, Newark, New Jersey, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Kansas City, and more—and fresh horrors every time you turned your head. Working by instinct and guile, skill and determination—and most of all patience, the patience it took to layer one bit of dialogue over a track of an isolated sound effect, then keeping the process going, within a single minute or less than that, over the course of an entire LP, so that no matter how many times you might listen, you could never hear everything that was happening all at once, or maybe never, even after a hundred or a thousand listenings, hear everything that was happening at all—the invisible Beatles responded with a non-stop, breakneck restaging of the history that was unfolding before their eyes.Get me rewrite! Here, the South wins the Civil War, the U.S. surrenders after Pearl Harbor—as President Franklin D. Roosevelt announces on the radio while apologizing for interrupting “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger”—the Vietnam War moves by way of Pico and Alvarado (the soldiers, not the streets) to Los Angeles if not vice versa, an animatronic Richard Nixon turns the citizenry into microcephalics who burn out his wiring, and a used car salesman turns into James Joyce, with a definite vice versa. The Firesign Theatre placed a bet on absurdity: a controlled riot that, whatever its intellectual roots in Mad magazine, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Lenny Bruce, Alfred Jarry, The Front Page, or The Twilight Zone, would work as King Midas in reverse. It would reveal the insanity behind the most reasonable façade of power, the sinister inside the innocent, and all with such a Bizzaro-World straight face that you couldn’t believe you hadn’t seen the impossible scenarios they staged on TV the week before. “I’ll take the bag,” says Mrs. Presky on Hawaiian Sell-Out, a quiz show popping in and out of the High School Madness movie running under a military trial in Don’t Crush that Dwarf. “You mean,” says the host with a mile-wide grin on his face, “that you’re going to trade this four-foot cube of 18-carat Swiz bullion—and the snake knives, Mrs. Presky? All for that little bag?” “Yes!” says Mrs. Presky, beside herself with desire. “I want the bag!”  “Well, all right, then, open it up.” “Yes, yes! Uh—why—why this is a bag of shit!” “But it’s really great shit, Mrs. Presky…”—which itself pales against a student shouting “What is reality” at a high school pep rally.The scripts collected here—originally published in the long-out-of-print Straight Arrow books The Firesign Theatre’s Big Book of Plays (1972) and The Firesign Theatre’s Big Mystery Joke Book (1974)—are displacing. It’s hard to believe that an ever-repeating dream of a patient in a lunatic asylum trying to convince a team of doctors that he’s not insane—with the doctors and the patient changing places until none of them can tell who they’re supposed to be, all of them hanging onto a shred of this-is-the-way-the-world-works (isn’t-it?) rationality, like Harold Lloyd hanging onto the clock in Safety Last—could appear on the page like something resembling a first-this-then-that narrative, with each line appearing as its own line of type, the voices taking turns, one speaking waiting politely for the other to finish, or almost. But soon enough, as you read, you aren’t reading. You are losing your bearings. You’ve gotten used to people appearing without introduction in the middle of a page of something else—that’s how channel-changing works, substituting one reality for another without a second’s thought—but now you’re having trouble keeping up. Who is Bob Hind of the Golden Hind? What does he want? Where did he go? Why can’t you get his travelogue voice out of your head, when you’re not even hearing it?The bet on absurdity pays off—because it is more than anything a bet on displacement itself. In the work found here, the Firesign Theatre meant to leech the power-principle out of the reality of their times—the legitimacy principle, which says, in effect, who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes, me, with my law books and handcuffs, or those liars over there in the Firesign Theatre—but they did so with such delirious craftsmanship that, even when the times disappeared, the displacement effect did not. As you read, as you listen, now, whatever time you might flatter yourself to be able to tell will scatter in turn.

Foreword to Marching to Shibboleth—The Big Big Book of Plays” by the Firesign Theatre. (Firesign Theatre Books, 2013.)


7 thoughts on “‘Marching to Shibboleth–The Big Big Book of Plays’ (Firesign Theatre) (2013)

  1. I’ve struggled for four decades to get to the bottom of what made up the Firesign Theatre’s inexplicable brew of silliness, profundity and pathos. It’s not because they were consistent; a good three-quarters of their output was simple, coasting crap.

    So why do I cry when an aged George Tirebiter is happily listening to delusional messages from his answering service? Why do I root for Happy Harry Cox to find the secret of life in the center of the earth?

    Saying that they were the comedy Beatles seems facile, but I can’t dispute it. They distilled the comedy they grew up with — the broad, the obscure, the profane, the ridiculous — into something absolutely new.

    Their influence can be found in comedy as unaccountably bizarre and hilarious as as Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s pizza rolls commercial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lPX5b9m7ro) and in comedy as now-commonplace as the absurdly brilliant memes we see on the Internet every day.

    Safe travels Bergman and Austin, and all hail Procter and Ossman.

  2. At the last possible moment, he stopped on a dime.
    Unfortunately, the dime was in Mr. Rococo’s pocket.

  3. lock your wigs, let the air out of your shoes, and prepare yourself for a period of simulated exhilaration

  4. Does anyone know why Austin’s “Roller Maidens from Outer Space” has never, to my knowledge, shown up on Spotify? Or any other streaming service that I know of. And why, a few years ago, all the core, (first five or six) Firesign albums disappeared from Spotify?
    Without them it’s impossible to put “Railroad’s coming through… right now” into context.

  5. Carl, I don’t know all the details (Google probably will) but some time back I noticed that a bunch of the comedy albums I had on Spotify were no longer available to stream and it made no sense, so I looked into it briefly, and apparently much of the comedy world (I guess meaning the divisions of labels which oversee comedy releases?) began to boycott Spotify because their agreements yielded even less for comedy records than for recorded music (which I think means that, instead of 1 million streams yielding a songwriter 10 cents it yields a comedy writer/performer 2 cents) (that’s not real math, of course, but the general idea from how I understood it). So, yeah, I got well schooled in Firesign and other comedy acts a bunch of years ago, but almost all of it has gone ‘poof’ in recent years. But that’s all I know.

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