Here's a little piece on Wisconsin Public Radio reminding us of the genius behind The Firesign Theatre and how much of the future their clever Marx Brothers-meets-James Joyce radio comedy got right.
The Firesign Theatre first appeared in late 1966 on KPFK in Los Angeles on a radio show called "Radio Free Oz." But when Philip Proctor and David Ossman, along with Peter Bergman and Philip Austin, first heard "Sgt. Pepper," they knew they were on the right track with their comedy.
"They were a great inspiration, there's no doubt about it, and we even incorporated some material from the Beatles into our records as an homage," Proctor said. "We had in common a love of old-time radio, and we created the long-form comedy record. The Beatles simultaneously released this incredible long-form musical album. So it was a bit of synchronicity, and a validation, if you will, of what it was we wanted to do with our comedy chops."
Give that the headline of the piece claims that it's about to describe how accurately the comedy group's brainy stoner humor predicted the future, sadly, the article does a poor job of supporting that claim.
It's eye-opening to listen to records like I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus and TV or Not TV (Proctor and Bergman) and realize how ahead of their time they were. On Bozos (1971), you had one of the first mentions of computer hacking, a computer technology fair, references to the PDP-10, computer jargon, and the ELIZA program–a world already awash in commonplace computers. And, in TV or Not TV (1973), you had TV pirates, subscription-based programming, offshore data havens, robot harassment, and simulated media hosts.
In the early aughts, I had a fascinating email exchange with Peter Bergman. I was working on a book about DIY robotics and wanted to use some Firesign quotes from their "Robots Rules of Order" ("Never push a robot off a cliff," "Never give a robot gum"). He offered up all sorts of interesting morsels about the making of Bozos, about how they were inspired by AI research, early computers, a visit to Stanford's AI Lab, and Disneyworld (IIRC). He also talked about how they had used the ELIZA program (an AI therapist created in the mid-60s by MIT's Joseph Weizenbaum to demonstrate "the superficiality of communication between humans and machines") as inspiration and as a dialog generator. He was rather talkative in the email and obviously proud of how future-forward the group had been. In Firesign Theatre's own immortal words:
The future — live it or live with it.
Image: Album art inset.