THE WAITRESS at the Psyche Delly in Bethesda is staring wide-eyed at the three men who seem to have escaped from lunatic fringe and descended on her table with an incessant tumble of words, distracted images and curious thoughts.
No wonder: The audio barrage is coming from Phillip Proctor, Peter Bergman and David Ossman, three-fourths of the legendary Firesign Theatre comedy crew that is now making a concerted comeback effort in its 15th year on the boards.
The fourth member, Phil Austin, is not present, presumed lost on some beltway of the mind. The remaining trio has just finished pitching verbal curve balls and psychic knucklers in the WHFS studio across the street -- where the first crew of "alternative culture" deejays was fired in 1969 for playing a Firesign tape. But that was all forgotten as Firesign spent 25 minutes proving that the '60s will play in the '80s: improvising their surreal satire on a variety of subjects, including all-wood woodstoves and a plan to spray herbicides on the back of food stamps to cut back on welfare. They also were warming up for their Cellar Door appearances Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as Tuesday afternoon appearance at Record and Tape Ltd. in Georgetown with author Gore Vidal.
Off-microphone in the Psyche Delly, they show no signs of stopping. Somewhere in the three-cornered jabber are the food orders as the waitress wears a quizzical look. "I'll take Russian dressing with my salad," says the balding Bergman. "You know, it promises you a lot but turns out to be a lair and invades your system . . ." "Tuna sub," says a dapper Procter. "Is there a lot of mayonnaise? I love mayonnaise . . . As a matter of fact, hold the tuna." The waitress walks away shaking her head; there's a reluctant smile on her lips.
The four members of Firesign are celebrating their 15th anniversary by touring the East Coast for the third time in their career. They started out in 1966 on Los Angeles radio; since then, the ensemble has changed the ear, if not the face, of comedy. "We wanted to have the same effect on people that the Beatles had on us at that time," says Proctor.
They might have: Selling a million and a half copies of a dozen albums in less than seven years, they developed a serious cult status (their highly literate work is still dissected in many college courses).
Firesign comedy was always dense and darkly shaded. The dazzling wordplay and pungent satire of extended sketches like a morbid game-show spoof called "Beat the Reaper" and the ongoing adventures of "Nick Danger, Third Eye" sometimes left little room for even uncomfortable laughs; it was a sardonically earnest humor well suited to a generation in rebellion. "We were spokespeople for a revolution in the late '60s and early '70s," Bergman said. "We were really on the firing line -- the Firesign line. Washington DC/AC -- Dominant culture, alternate culture."
But then came the last half of the '70s, and Firesign began to burn out. The style of "audio-visceral" comedy that Firesign pioneered fell victim to "marketplace thinking and counterfeit culture." But now, they're hoping to rekindle interest with a new album on Rhino Records, "Fighting Clowns."
"In the late '50s and early '60s all the options of the past were still open," says Bergman seriously. "In the '60s, the options of the future opened and in the '70s both the future and the past closed. They just stopped, so all you had was the present to deal with."
"Futureland -- closed for repairs," intones Proctor.
"Past rides -- closed for lack of interest," Ossman adds.
"Potholes on the freeway of the present," Bergman mumbles.
"Murder in tomorrowland." Like jazz musicians, the Firesign crew -- all in their early 40s now -- complete or complement each others' phrases. "We've been wearing one another's genes for soo long," Ossman says.
Describing Firesign is nearly impossible. Imagine being patched into a four-person party line with a loosely definded cast of characters -- the mystic, the surrealist, the literay sophisticate and the tripper. They are all talking at once, rapidly, synthesizing elements of television culture, cabaret and vandeville, science fantasy and est engagement. It's an impolite talk show where the host has lost control and the conversation can be absorbed on several levels.
It's a style rooted in the mechanism of possibility granted by the modern recording and radio studio. The irreverent humor is inspired by Sid Caesar, the Marx Brothers, The Goon Show, Bob and Ray and the whole golden age of radio. Firesign's branches can be traced to Monty Phython, Second City TV, Saturday Night Live and numerous regional satire groups. However, those are connections Firesign eschews ("Gesundheit!" says the scholarly Ossman).
"Television tends to pick out individuals and is not good to groups," says Ossman. "It sells product first, art second. Most groups exist to provde showcases for individuals within the group and then those individual artists spin off into their own vehicles. But there's never been anyone but the four of us. We've never lost sight of our own intensive integrity and energies, no matter wnat we've been offered."
Proctor and Bergman first connected as students at Yale in the early '60s. Among their circle of undergraduate friends there: actor Sam Waterston, actress/writer Gretchen ("I'm Getting My Act Together") Cryer, Skip Hennent (who went on to the Electric Company) and future stage and film directors Peter Hunt, John Badham and Austin Pendleton (the director of "Little Foxes" here). At Yale, "Austin wrote the book that Peter wrote the music to that I starred in," Proctor says. The show was called "Tom Jones" and did quite well until the movie of the same name came out. "But those were the golden years, that's where we first came together."
When Proctor graudated, he went right into a television soap opera, "The Edge of Night," but kept in touch with Bergman, who had ended up in Los Angeles co-hosting the first late-night, counterculture talk show on the West Coast, Radio Free Oz, with sometime Shakesperean actor Phil Austin, who -- along with poet David Ossman -- was a program director on the Los Angeles Pacifica station. A play at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum brought Proctor and Austin together, with Ossman leaving his money gig with ABC Television to close rank soon after. Along the way, they discovered their common comic facility and decided to turn it into a humor group. It was, says Bergman, "an East Coast/West Coast collision. We were all professionally secure adults already. It was a new career, but it was not our first career." The group chose its name partly because they were all fire signs astrologically, but also as a pun on the vintage radio show, "Fireside Theatre."
The first broadcast took place one November night in 1966 on KRLA's Oz show. That totally improvised show as "The Oz Film Festival, a takeoff on a film festival jury in which we 'showed' films on radio," Ossman recalls. It was followed by a variety of showcases, the Firesign Theatre Radio Hour Hour and eventually the syndicated series "Dear Friends" and "Let's Eat."
Firesign made enough of a name for itself regionally that major record companies started to take notice of it. Eventually they signed with Columbia and released a string of 12 albums, including classics like "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Plyers" and "How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All?" The four satirists became heroes of the counterculture.
Their Columbia albums sold moderately well at first, with "Dwarf" peaking at 325,000 copies. Although later album sales dipped to 30,000, they all remain in print today, along with another dozen follow-ups and non-Firesign projects on other labels. "We're have-bins," says Bergman, "which means we have bins with our names in most record stores."
But in 1975, in the midst of preparing a Bicentennial album project, Firesign was booted from Columbia, which decided that comedy was no longer practical in the marketplace and consequently dropped all its comedy acts. One Columbia executive said recently that "we felt their career had run its course," but the Firesign members" thought they were stupid. It just meant they couldn't specialize anymore and that everything had to be promoted the same way in order to try and sell 500,000 copies."
Even before the Columbia debacle, Firesign tours had been infrequent, even on the West Coast. "We were never organized like a band," says Proctor. "We just wanted to make more albums, but making the theater visual has always been an interesting and fun challenge for us. We live up to the name theater in everything that we do."
Not long after being dropped by Columbia -- despite selling a total of one and a half million records -- Firesign broke up in early 1976. Part of it had to do with a four-cornered writers block. "When you've done as many shows as we have," says Ossman, "and tried to make every one of them different, then you begin to really cast around for concepts and ideas."
Proctor and Bergman went out on the road as a team, as did Ossman and Austin; neither pairing did too well. They became involved in radio work and occasional writing jobs (in 1970, the group had written the original script for one of the strangest westerns of them all, "Zachariah" with jazz drummer, Elyin Jones as a gunslinger). In 1978, though, they came back together to do a radio pilot involving one of their enduring characters, Nick Danger, Private Eye.
"We enjoyed working together again," says Bergman. "We had made inroads in the industry so that some of the work that's coming now and some of the new energies and focuses came out of long, hard individual efforts to become respected in various other aspects of the industry."
One of those efforts was the group's participation in the 1979 Ojai Avant Garde Theater Festival in California in which they played The Clowns in a seldom performed Bertolt Brecht play "A Learning Piece." "We never do other people's pieces as a group," Bergman points out, "but Brecht we were ready for. He was also a major inspiration for us."
The work that resulted, as shown on "Fighting Clowns," was a more straightforward Brechtian political cabaret show than the audio-visceral works of the past. Says Proctor, "We had no budget to go into the studio to do what we do best, which is to create something from scratch."
Firesign stayed in the public ear last year with a year-long National Public Radio show called "Campaign Chronicles." They also did a show for Home Box Office, and began to think that cable television could possibly offer the kind of receptive home for Firesign that alternative FM radio did in the '60s. But various cable companies have so far rejected "Joey's House," a 90-minute parody of everything that television is about. It stars Joey Demographico, Male, Age 18-25, and portrays a family whose lives have been entirely taken over by television. Is television ready? Apparently not.
Proctor and Bergman, who originated the script for the counterculture satire film "Americathon" only to lose control of it to the film's producers, recently scripted a sci-fi parody called "Saucer!" and Proctor has a major role in the upcoming "National Lampoon Goes to the Movies." As a group, they've written a screenplay called "The Odyssey: An American Nightmare," but they're still looking for a proper studio and directorial connection "to make it happen. Part of our problem is that we're not just writers, but performers and we write movies for ourselves . . . and that's a difficult premise to sell."
But the members of Firesign insist that they can go on another 15 years. "Make that 50," Bergman says. "It's a shared confidence that we are capable of continuing it. We have no agreement in writing between us. It's an artists' alliance, a guild. We'll always be working together in some capacity, hopefully as Firesign Theatre."