“Just Folks…”: Open your mind to the absurdist surrealism & satire of the Firesign Theatre Live

By on March 25, 2019

On February 23, 1977, shortly after the release of their first and only album for the Butterfly Records label, Just Folks…A Fireside Chat, the Fireside Theatre comedy troupe’s irreverent, topically-relevant stage performance at the Roxy Theatre in New York City, located just off Times Square, was videotaped by a fan sitting in the club’s dark balcony.

We now have The Firesign Theatre: Just Folks…Live at the Roxy — a rare nearly-hour long live concert performance by Philip Proctor, Peter Bergman, Phil Austin and David Ossman — streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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As you can see from the screenshots here, the poorly-lit amateur camerawork means the best way to approach this primitive videotaping is to do what it says on the back of the DVD: “Sit back with your eyes wide shut and open your mind to the absurdist surrealism and satire of the Firesign Theatre, LIVE.”

Just Folks…A Firesign Chat had been recorded a few months earlier, in December 1976, and released the following month, January 1977, one month prior to this peformance, so you can expect to hear a lot of what was on their minds at the time.

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Picture this: President James Earl “Jimmy” Carter Jr. has just been sworn in as the 39th President of the United States, and the task of introducing the new president to the country has fallen to the troupe, who are performing sketches placed within the context of a TV news program airing in the fictional town of “Ducktown.”

The Just Folks‘ material, in fact, was actually built from old radio routines they’d previously recorded for their 1970 album Dear Friends and from 1971/’72’s Let’s Eat radio shows, which had aired on L.A. radio station KPFK FM, with some newly-recorded material based around Carter’s brand new presidency.

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As it says on the back of this DVD release, “Their creativity knew no bounds, their fans are legion, their irreverence unmatched; and Proctor and Ossman continue to shine bright lights on the absurd while remaining purveyors of insight into the preposterous aspects of life in the 21st Century.”

Phil Austin and Peter Bergman have both passed away, Austin in 2015 and Bergman before him, in 2012, so go here to read occasional Night Flight contributor Phil Proctor’s remembrance of Phil Austin (Part 2 is here).

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Read more about the Firesign Theatre below.

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Beginning in 1966, the Firesign Theatre’s performances on the progressive FM radio station KPFX— combined with their stage performances (usually on university campuses) and their many studio albums, along with a handful of films (they co-wrote the screenplay for the 1971 acid western Zachariah) and occasional TV show appearances — made them one of the most influential comedy groups in the country.

In the Southern California area, TV audiences were also able to see a handful of their TV commercials for local Volkswagen dealer Jack Poet — a real dude who lived in a teepee on the Farm in Burbank — which aired on KCOP, Channel 13 in the Los Angeles area (Poet’s radio ads aired on KMET FM).

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It was their first four or five full-length comedy albums, however — 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) – which placed them at the very center of the counterculture movement, providing the audience with an accurate reading of the nation’s collective temperature by performing what they called “electric theater.”

Three of their albums were Grammy-nominated for “Best Comedy Album.”

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Rolling Stone writer Greil Marcus once called the Firesign Theatre “a mutant hybrid of James Joyce, Monty Hall, Douglas MacArthur, and Flash Gordon,” while the US Library of Congress — who in 2005 added Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers to the National Recording Registry — called them “The Beatles of comedy.”

What’s important to remember is that the Firesign Theatre’s always-entertaining alternative perspective on the American political landscape — along with ephemeral pop culture references and inside-jokes that — were largely made to entertain their fans in the present day.

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Their live stage performances were typically built around material from the albums, which needed to be listened to in their entirety, recreating performances which recalled the days when radio programs, in the pre-television era, were the main form of entertainment.

Their irreverently updated content often included a lot of drug references. We’re talking about the late Sixties and early ’70s, folks. It was a different time back then, and the Firesign Theatre were speaking for a generation who wanted to be heard.

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By the mid-70s, after their recording contract with Columbia Records came to an end (they recorded fourteen albums for CBS), the members began to work on separate projects, including Proctor and Bergman collaborating on J-Men Forever, a hilarious re-edited mock-dubbing of Republic Studios movie serials from the 1930s and ’40s.

As we mentioned here, Proctor & Bergman’s hilarious mock-dubbed underground cult classic J-Men Forever — given a limited theatrical release in 1975 thanks to Night Flight’s founder/creator Stuart S. Shapiro — later gained underground cult classic status when Shapiro brought the film to “Night Flight,” which aired on Friday and Saturday nights on the USA cable network.

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The popularity of J-Men Forever led to two inspired spin-offs, a Cinemax cable TV special The Mad House of Dr. Fear, and Hot Shorts, for RCA home video, which utilized the talents of the other members of the Firesign Theatre troupe.

Watch The Firesign Theatre: Just Folks…Live at the Roxy on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.