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Bozos on the Y2K Bus

Legendary Firesign Theatre returns with its surreal take on millennial madness.

September 05, 1998|MICHAEL GOLDMAN | SPECIAL To The Times

It's the last minutes of the last hours of the last century. The countdown for liberty has begun!

--Gen. Y2K, leader of the Secret Militia, dedicated to destroying all time-saving devices

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Welcome to Radio Now, a monolithic service offering the final radio broadcast of the 20th century: a countdown to the millennium ("a.k.a. the end of the world") in a place called Fun-Fun Town, not far from Great Satan's Village. Owned by mega-corporation U.S. Plus ("We own the idea of the idea of America"), the service routinely changes from formats like "weirdly cool, perpetrator's playground, rebel family radio" to "extreme, no-sense-of-humor, aggressive, in-your-face radio" every few minutes.

Hosted by DJ Bebop Loco ("the Suspect, the Outsider"), the broadcast airs in a surreal future in which "two sacred cows pulling the Ark of the Covenant" can cause a traffic jam, advertising icon Joe Camel reacts poorly to his fall from grace, the "death" of a doll called Princess Goddess leads to a feature film advertised as "a morbid exploitation of the freshly dead," and the alleged year 2000 computer crash poses a grave threat to the making of coffee.

Such madness can be found on "Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death," the first studio album from the legendary comedy troupe Firesign Theatre in 17 years. The new CD will be released Tuesday on the Rhino Records label.

The four original Firesign members--Peter Bergman, Phil Proctor, Dave Ossman and Phil Austin--hope that "Immortality," recorded late last year and early this year at Sunburst Studios in Culver City, will stand as an equal with the "big four" classic comedy albums they created for Columbia Records decades ago.

Those recordings--"Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him" (1968), "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)--include some of the most critically acclaimed and bizarre comedic stylings ever recorded.

The new album gives listeners the take of an older group of Firesigners on the pressing issue of their own mortality, "growing old, seeing the world change," according to Ossman, who grudgingly admits that the four are now in their late 50s and early 60s. Their chosen method will be familiar to longtime Firesign fans: the use of what Ossman calls "natural surrealism--the ability to jump from one thing to another in a seemingly irrational way," combined with a media-based format.

But this time, they scramble '90s themes into a bizarre omelet they hope will appeal to a new generation of fans. Those hearing Firesign Theatre for the first time, however, should understand that this isn't stand-up or sketch comedy.

"We always performed disciplined, sharp, radio-like plays on our albums," Bergman says. "We do jazz-like performances, filled with hidden jokes and meanings that even we do not always intend when we write the material."

Radio Now may very well hit the airwaves only once every 100 years, at the end of a century, or then again, it may not.

"We don't say the world is about to end, we don't say it isn't," Bergman says. "Ambiguity is very much a part of our trademark."

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The group chose the millennium as its theme mainly because it represents fundamental, worldwide change, even though it is "a totally artificial barrier," Austin says: "The year 2000 is an idea based on the work of a few monks a few thousand years ago."

Those "artificial barriers" are ever-present on the new album. In terms of form and content, it is closest to "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers," which told the story of George Tirebiter as he watched his entire life played out on futuristic television. Just as Tirebiter saw himself growing old on TV, the characters on "Immortality" face the end of the world as they know it, one way or another.

The form and topic make "Immortality" a work Proctor calls the perfect instrument for Firesign's studio return.

"We were always media-driven," Proctor says. "We were born on the radio [during Bergman's "Radio Free Oz" program in 1966 on L.A.'s listener-supported KPFK], and at that time, we were doing material on the more bizarre, higher-minded aspects of the social revolution that was going on."

With "Immortality's" debut, the four Firesigners talk of exploring, at long last, television and feature film possibilities, the lack of which undoubtedly kept them from achieving the same level of widespread popularity as their contemporaries of Monty Python and others. Limited to up-and-down record sales and live performances, while occasionally getting on one another's nerves, the group eventually drifted apart in the early '80s, with all four members earning livings doing commercial, film and TV voice work.

They reunited for a 25th-anniversary tour a few years ago, but they never recorded more original material until the "Immortality" concept sprang forth from a series of April Fool's Day radio spots the foursome did last year for Radio Today, a syndicated radio service.

During those and subsequent live performances, Bergman's longtime obsession with the year 2000 computer bug leaked into the material. (He recently co-authored a humor book on the subject, "The Official Millennium Survival Handbook," with David Sampson.)

That, in turn, led them to the millennium theme, and with Rhino's blessing, sent them back into the recording studio. Proctor points out that compared to when they started out, the four men "are more mature. We have kids, we're calmer and we handle differences of opinion better. The way we write our material, we each have veto power, and when we were younger, that caused conflicts. Now, we're all best friends."

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