Remembering the Firesign Theatre’s Phil Austin: regnaD kciN, gnol oS

By and on June 25, 2015

Once again we need to pause here at Night Flight to remember someone influential and important in our lives, in this case Phil Austin, the co-founder of the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe, who died last week at his home on Fox Island in Washington state, surrounded by his wife Oona, and their six beloved dogs. He was 74.

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Austin was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1941, but grew up in Fresno, Calif, attending Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine (reportedly to get as far away from Fresno as possible, but also accepting a scholarship because they wanted him on the swim team). He came back, however, and went to both Cal State Fresno and UCLA, but he never graduated (“he staunchly refused to be awarded a diploma – no matter how indifferent these institutions were to thrust one upon him” says the Firesign Theatre website). By the mid-1960s, Austin was working as an apprentice at Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group and he appeared in plays in L.A., including John Guare’s “Muzeeka” at the Mark Taper Forum. He also got hired to work as a director of drama and literature for public radio station KPFK, where he met writer/performer Peter Bergman, a writer for the L.A. Free Press, who along with another performer were already doing an underground radio show, “Radio Free Oz,” which had begun in June of 1966 after Bergman showed his particular gift for ad-libbed comedic rapport during a KPFK listener-supported fundraising marathon. When the other performer left, Phil Austin and David Ossman joined Bergman at KPFK.

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They also added Phil Proctor, who was out in L.A. in November ’66, researching a screenplay idea about what was happening on the Sunset Strip at the time, and he contacted his friend Bergman at KPFK after seeing his photo in the Freep. He’d met Bergman at Yale Dramatic Association in 1958, and was soon meeting up with Bergman, Ossman and Austin, after realizing that their gift for comedic writing and storytelling was something special, they struck up a partnership, named for the fact that all four of them were born under zodiac “fire” signs (it was the sixties, after all). “Radio Free Oz” was soon expanded from three to four hours of airtime, allowing them to build incredibly inventive programming around all kinds of things: phone calls from callers needing to vent or on bad acid trips, on-air Tarot reading, musicians, guests, and improvised comedy bits, where the group’s use of double, triple and quadruple entendres, and their clever use of non-sequiturs and dense characterization, was unlike anything else in comedy at the time. Phil Austin was dubbed by the group their “official lead guitarist.”

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Soon, in 1967, the group were signing a record deal with Columbia Records, and they began recording much of the same type of material they’d developed for their radio show, beginning with their debut, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, released in 1968. The album explored the fears of coexistence between the counterculture and the Establishment, a politically satirical and wonderfully original album.

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LP sales were minimal at first — only 6000 units sold in the first year, and the band were experiencing a lot of difficulties, particularly after KPFK dropped their radio show. They got themselves a manager, Jim Guercio, who soothed over problems within the group, and also managed to salvage their recording contract with Columbia, who let them continue making albums.

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The Firesign Theatre released their next album in 1969: How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All? The entire side two of the LP featured Firesign’s most accessible and popular character, Nick Danger, Third Eye, in, “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” which was done in the style of a 1940s radio drama (even using the same types of microphones they used in the studios back then).

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Danger was Phil Austin’s best known creation, and there were lots of memorable gags, like Danger often stated his name backwards — “Regnad Kcin” — as if he were reading it off the glass pane of his office door from behind his desk (does the headline make sense now?)

Around this same time, the Firesign Theatre were contracted to contribute in the writing of screenplay for an acid western, called Zachariah, which was released in 1970 by ABC Pictures. The movie starred Don Johnson as a young gunslinger, launching his movie career, but the real treat was the stunt casting, and seeing the members of rock bands and jazz and bluegrass musicians — like the James Gang, Country Joe and the Fish, drummer Elvin Jones, known for his tenure with saxophonist John Coltrane and Doug Kershaw — treating the story like it was a modern revisionist western, but throwing in lots of material that might appeal to the Firesign’s followers.

The project was frought with problems, and the troupe fought with the movie studio, leading to Austin to leave the project, while Bergman, Ossman and Proctor all flew to where it was being shot, in Mexicali, Mexico, to put in additional work on the script and watch scenes being shot. Both Bergman and Proctor appear in the film, Bergman as a bank teller who’s been robbed, and Proctor as a priest.

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The payday from the movie enabled the group back to doing what they did best, and that was writing and performing comedy albums, resulting with their third LP, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.

The Firesign Theatre continued to write and perform, involving themselves in all kinds of projects: filmmaking, book writing, television, radio and stage productions, resulting in twenty-plus record albums, three films, three television specials, two books and innumerable radio programs.

In 1974, Austin released an album under his own name, Roller Maidens from Outer Space, although three of the other members appeared on the album.

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Austin also did the occasional voiceover and announcer work, and was mostly heard on TV commercials, ranging from Pizza Hut to Nissan, Wachovia, Nike  to Apple.

He also worked as a development exec for Lorimar Telepictures, writing the screenplay for The Dead Sell Out (it’s also known as Brokedown Palace) for Edward Pressman films, with the actual members of the Grateful Dead serving as consultants on the project. Austin also developed television comedies for Ringo Starr and others. He had his own radio show, “Hollywood Nite Shift”, which ran for two years, and was on board as a writer and performer for Chevy Chase’s ill-fated late night TV talk show. He also contributed to Barbra Streisand’s Emmy-nominated HBO specials.

The Nick Danger character, meanwhile, resurfaced in an adventure called “Down Under Danger,” broadcast on Michigan Public Radio, with a cast of local actors for their “Pulp Radio” series, released by Sparks Media (it was also broadcast outside the U.S. by Le Bande Magnetique). We’re sharing it here with permission of Sparks Media:

Austin also published a book of short stories, Tales of the Old Detective and Other Big Fat Lies, in 1995, but it featured no mention of Danger.

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The Firesign Theatre would occasionally have reunions to do live shows, and their last appearance was at the 2012 memorial for founding member Peter Bergman.

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In this excerpt from his blog, Michael Dare remembers the early Firesign Theatre recordings and their impact in this blog post (posted with his permission, thank you, again, Michael):

The Firesign were certainly the first to use the simple sound effect of changing channels to take you from here to somewhere else. I don’t know if any of the Pythons have ever fessed up to listening to the Firesign Theatre but their surreal transitions were Firesign all the way, making one imagine an alternative history where Terry Gilliam never makes it abroad and teams up with the Firesign Theatre instead of the Pythons. (Note to self. Start a petition at petitions.com demanding Terry Gilliam direct the film version of I Think We’re All Bozos on this Bus.)

Before the Firesign Theatre, recordings of “theatre” were actual multi-record box sets of audio recordings of Broadway plays of which, I admit, I owned quite a few, and you can file under deep obscuradalia the fact the audio version of Luv, the Broadway play by Murray Schisgal starring Alan Arkin, was much funnier than Luv, the movie starring Jack Lemmon (but got Arkin the part of the lead in The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming anyway).

Before the Firesign Theatre, comedy albums were Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce and Allan Sherman, comedians being funny in what were essentially recorded stage shows. Firesign Theatre albums showed up just as stoners were discovering the insane pleasure of listening to Sgt. Pepper with the headphones on, picking up every nuance. For the very first time, there were COMEDY albums worth listening to with the headphones on, which means the Firesign Theatre did for comedy albums precisely what the Beatles did for rock. Listening to them for the first time was revelatory, comedy was too weak a word, comedy just one of many things the Firesign Theatre embraced.

If I ran the record store, I would have filed them under Irony or Surrealism. It was mindfuck comedy, the jokes and sound effects and music and voices combining in such a way as to almost but not quite add up to a visual picture that made the slightest shred of sense. Two people listening to the same track on headphones with their eyes closed were sure to conjure up entirely different retina movies since it’s all from a non-linear dream state.

Read more at the link.

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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.