Hall of Records

Firesign Theatre: How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All

by Michael Tatum

Released: 1969 (Columbia)

Ralph Spoilsport of Ralph Spoilsport Motors ("in the city of . . . Emphysema!") isn't your average car salesman. For one thing, he has no problem informing you that his wares are stolen, at least according to the ever-trustworthy John Birch Society blacklist. For another, judging from the sound of his commercial, he's offering one real "ware" -- if you follow his motormouth spiel carefully, you'll realize this is the only vehicle on his lot. And he only has one customer: Babe, our luckless hero, who foolishly rushes into his purchase because he "can't wait to get away from it all," thus blurring the line between TV (hey wait a minute, wasn't this a late-night advertisement?) and "real life" (actually, this is a comedy album). True to his name, he also appears to be a naïve sort who believes everything he's told, an unfortunate shortcoming which will become important later. Ralph is only too happy to oblige a sucker: "Let me welcome you to your new home," he says, and he's not joking -- designed "with your mind in mind," the car not only offers AM and FM radio, but also a "sponge-coated edible steering column," a remote-controlled "picture sized" color TV with "matching brass knobs," and "climate control," the latter of which sets into motion our hero's wild odyssey. As he pulls out of the lot -- without paying Ralph the first installment of the requisite "two thousand five hundred dollars, in easy monthly payments of twenty-five dollars, twice a week" -- Babe speeds toward the Antelope freeway (i.e. the unfinished State Route 14, which begins in Santa Clarita and winds south to the Mojave Desert), tunelessly warbling the name of this, the Firesign Theatre's 1969 comedy masterpiece ("which is already in progress!"): How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All.

The comedy troupe comprising Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor began as live performers on Los Angeles Radio in the mid-60s -- indeed, their commercials for Highland Park, California's Jack Poet Volkswagen may very well contain the seeds of the Ralph Spoilsport character, though the players contend they were spoofing Ralph Williams, a Ford dealer who would have been well-known to addicts of late night TV (though in my research I could only dig up spots featuring highly-animated Williams spokesperson Chick Lambert). In many ways, they are comedy's answer to the Beatles, beginning with the obvious fact there are four of them. Well actually, the spiritual similarities go deeper than that, even without their numerous allusions to The White Album. For one thing, both groups adored Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan's landmark radio program The Goon Show -- the irreverently surreal hi jinx of A Hard Day's Night and the Beatles' early press conferences owe much to the Goons, while the Firesign's records take the Goons' slapstick weirdness a little further, though in the latter case one could blame their affection for Borges and Joyce as much as THC. In addition, both groups thrived in the recording studio: unlike your basic comedy record, which captured a comedian in live performance at a swanky nightclub, the Firesign Theatre's records take full advantage of burgeoning multi-track technology in the Sgt. Pepper spirit. As Babe drives toward the exit for the Antelope freeway, the signs not only talk to him, but their respective voices traverse right to left in the stereo field as he motors past. In a sardonic nod to the "Paul is Dead" back masking brouhaha, when Austin, as hilariously dim "Third Eye" detective Nick Danger, repeats a line he said as another character on the other side of the record ("Why, she's no fun -- she fell over!"), in order to (ha-ha) re-orient himself, the relevant section on the first side is played in reverse ("Thank God," Nick says. "They're speaking Chinese."). And consider the fact they're parodying hard boiled '40s radio plays in the first place -- yet another non-visual medium in which elaborate sound effects, by necessity, play a key role. "John Lenin" isn't on the cover for nothing -- Karl "Groucho" Marx either.

Firesign's first record, 1968's Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, is a tentative affair. For one thing, they hadn't quite mastered the recording studio, something that I'm not prepared to blame on producer Gary Usher, who also produced the Byrds' sainted classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo -- Firesign's first three records were "produced" by Columbia's in-house staff only in theory, overseeing without providing much interference (says Philip Proctor via e-mail: "We were given the opportunity and created everything our own way, like kids with toys"). For another, most of the first side of Electrician suffers from the SNL approach to comedy: that is, they'll begin with an easily summed-up conceit (for example, a world in which hippies are the norm and straights are the put-upon counterculture) and extinguish the possibilities until it's worn out its welcome. The best track (out of three) is the most straightforward one: the spot-on "Temporarily Humboldt County," the cruel history of Anglo-Native American relations compressed to nine merciless minutes (my favorite moment: when the hick says of the hapless tribe's sacred mound "That's a beaut," which the exasperated Indian chief mis-hears as "butte" -- the French word for "mound"). Overdisc, the jumbled Kafka-esque 18-minute title piece, concerning an unnamed tourist trying to maneuver his way through a bureaucratic-and-then-some dictatorship, doesn't cohere very well, though that might have been different had they stumbled upon their great theme. Well, by their next record (you know, the one we're supposed to be discussing now) they had found it: Franklin Delano Roosevelt gravely interrupting the climax to side two's Nick Danger sketch by announcing the Americans have surrendered to Japanese -- and thus, Germany and the Fascist forces -- after having lost the battle at Pearl Harbor. "This land is filled with Mausers!" the troupe sings absurdly on the mock-patriotic pageant on side one, which we are meant to hear as "mousers" (since "pussy cats" eat them), but certainly also alludes to the German rifle (Elmer Fudd, also referred to in the song, carries a Winchester Model 70, itself modeled on the 98 Mauser). Meanwhile, to the chagrin of parents waiting for news of their son fighting overseas, the President's real name is revealed to be "Schicklgruber" -- mainly because the euphony of Hitler's paternal grandmother's surname makes for bigger laughs than, well, "Hitler" itself (Fox News please note).

But with Firesign the big picture doesn't zing the funny bone as exuberantly as the ever-unfolding details, and we're jumping way ahead of ourselves -- when we last left Babe, he was pulling out of Ralph Spoilsport's lot. As he steers toward the exit for the Antelope Freeway, he gets caught up in "Zeno's Paradox," or, as Aristotle verbosely explained it: That which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal. Thus, the signposts inform him as the car drives: Antelope Freeway 1/2 mile, Antelope Freeway 1/4 mile, Antelope Freeway 1/8 mile, Antelope Freeway 1/16 mile, and so on, to theoretical infinity, though of course you don't have to specialize in Greek philosophy to find that amusing. Babe then injudiciously uses the "climate control" button to send him to a "tropical paradise," which it does -- literally -- complete with a madcap pack of punning explorers (Q: "Hey! What are you guys doing in my car?!" A: "The foxtrot! You can have the next dance. Herbert! Throw him the fox!"). Annoyed at their inability to provide him directions to the nearest gas station, Babe transports himself via the car's settings to the "Land of the Pharaohs" -- inadvertently bringing the explorers with him (when he asks one of the explorers to read hieroglyphics, rather than translating, he literally describes what the symbols look like, in the voice of W.C. Fields). Then comes the climax of the piece: a night at the "Only Nice Motel in Town," where the smarmy desk clerk checks Babe in as "Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Smith from Anytown, USA," which in turn inaugurates a vicious lampoon of Norman Corwin's post-WWII patriotic pageant "On a Note of Triumph," celebrating such "victories" as slavery, the conquest of the Native Americans, and "the complete and total degradation of...who? [*wine bottle opened] You -- the little guy." From there, our easily-swayed protagonist -- who certainly doesn't want to be lumped in with "Mr. Smartypants Communist, Mr. College Professor, Mr. Beatnik, Mr. Hippie" -- is shuttled into the army, where he immediately takes up their inane marching song: "You ain't got no friends on the left/You ain't got no friends on the right." Later, after a splashy musical performance by Lillie Lamont ("We're Bringing the War Back Home!"), the entire sequence is revealed to be a film on TV. The channel changes, and we are returned to the garrulous Ralph Spoilsport, who's suddenly taken to hawking killer weed (" . . . including sticks and stems and seeds, wine-soaked and sugar-cured, completely clean for your smoking pleasure . . .") and reciting Molly Bloom's soliloquy from Ulysses, thus bringing the various Homeric references in this twenty-eight minute pomo epic full circle. I mean, if there's gonna be lurid sex on the boob tube, why not Joyce? Yes, yes, yes.

Comedy renders poorly secondhand, so by reading this, you're missing out on the wacky voices, corny celebrity impersonations, jokey asides, cheesy songs, and timing so flawless that the members of the troupe themselves had difficulty duplicating it live, at least in the ten minute clip of "Nick Danger" from the '00s that I saw on YouTube. Even the CD version of these pieces renders the "other side of the record" gag I related earlier an anachronism, as does their clever "Möbius vinyl" trick -- side one ends with Nick Danger's origin story ("I'm...turning in my...badge!"), while side two closes with the players preparing for the Ralph Spoilsport sketch on side one (please keep your CD player on repeat to preserve the integrity of the original record). The Firesigns' other tour de force, 1970's Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, took this gambit even further, developing an entire narrative over the course of a double-sided record: a washed up actor's waking nightmare in which he's shuttled through various stages of his pitiful showbiz life, a la Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. But though this record set a standard for '70s comedy that no one save Monty Python lived up to -- and then more so in their movies rather than on their scatter shot record albums -- the Firesign Theatre are probably even more relevant now, in this head-splitting age of information overload, when every night we come home to an picture-sized entertainment unit designed with our minds in mind. Just make sure you know what you're paying for before you drive that car off the lot.

May 30, 2014, Odyshape

We would like to express our appreciation to the great Phil Proctor, the United States Marines, the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces, the French Legumes, and the Hong Kong Fireworks Company, without whom all of this would not have been necessary. -- MT