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The Firesign Theatre returns to its Los Angeles roots

'Forward Into the Past' is the comedy icons' new show.

October 08, 2009|Richard Metzger

The Library of Congress called the Firesign Theatre "the Beatles of Comedy" when its 1970 album "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers" was selected for the National Recording Registry.

An apt comparison, considering that, along with contemporaries Monty Python in Britain, the searing and psychedelic satirical troupe helped invent a literary brand of album comedy that lodged itself in the culture of college students across the country. The group paved the way for later arrivals such as Cheech & Chong, "Saturday Night Live" and Second City.

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of one of its most popular characters, detective Nick Danger, Third Eye, the four-man troupe makes a rare local appearance next week, performing Oct. 14 to 17 at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre with a new show, "Forward Into the Past."

Although the group started in Los Angeles in 1966, this will be the first time it has performed in its hometown in more than 15 years.

"We've been together for 43 years. We've been together longer than the Stones, longer than anybody," member Peter Bergman said.

Hollywood voice-over actor (and "Big Brother" announcer) Philip Proctor arches an eyebrow and shrugs. "We started in the '60s and now we're all entering our 70s. . .," he added, whistling.

The Firesign Theatre's psychedelic "theater of the mind" took shape in the North Hollywood studios of radio station KPFK. Bergman's late-night Radio Free Oz show eventually included KPFK producers David Ossman and Philip Austin, along with Proctor, who Bergman met as a student at Yale. The group began performing as the Firesign Theatre, a reference to the fact that all four members were astrological fire signs. The group has been nominated for Grammys three times.

"We honed our craft on live radio," recalls Ossman. "When we got into the studio to record our first album, 'Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him,' we were creating something for people to listen to more than once. We made albums to sit on the shelf alongside 'Rubber Soul,' 'Highway 61' and 'Absolutely Free.' "

Austin, who plays Nick Danger, adds, "We were born here. There have always been a lot of smart people in Hollywood and we built our reputation on entertaining them."

"Forward Into the Past" will feature a selection of the Firesign Theatre's greatest hits and new material. The Nick Danger character first appeared on the group's second album, "How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All?" in 1969. In the new show's second act, inspired by Barnsdall's Shakespeare Company, the members will be presenting scenes from "Shakespeare's Lost Comedie: Anythynge You Want To." After each show, the group will sign autographs and mingle with fans, bringing to mind the old Danger quip, "Well, now the gum's on the other shoe."

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Firesign Theatre's 'Forward Into the Past'

Where: Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Oct 14 to 17

Price: $60, general; $75, premium.

Contact: (323) 644-6272; www.firesigntheatre.com

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