AT TIMES THEY SOUNDED LIKE THE Marx Brothers on hash. So it’s no wonder that, for the generation that inhaled, the quartet of smart-ass hippie clowns who made up Firesign Theatre set the tone for a revolution—not to mention a slew of hazy campus parties in the ’60s and ’70s. Their first 10 records sold a then-impressive 1.5 million copies, and their stream-of-consciousness storytelling—which yielded such cult classics as “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” and “How Can You Be in Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All?”—became standard fare on underground radio playlists and more than a few celebrity turntables. “It’s smart comedy,” says Roseanne’s John Goodman, 41. “You really have to be hip to get it. I always had to look references up.”
By the mid-’70s, the Firesign Theatre had attained such cult status that its irreverent social satire—full of political commentary” (a commercial parody for Napalmolive) and outrageous puns (when a character “wanders ruthlessly,” someone is bound to note, “I wonder where Ruth is?”)—was dissected in college lit courses. But the Just Say No 1980s—and some intratroupe bickering—threw cold water on the Firesign, and in 1981 they officially disbanded.
That is, until now. Along with bell-bottoms and platform shoes, Firesign’s Phil Austin, 52, Peter Bergman, 53, David Ossman, 56, and Phil Proctor, 53, are making a comeback with a new two-CD collection of their greatest bits, titled Shoes for Industry, and playing to sellout crowds on a national tour. (Goodman recently flew from Los Angeles to New York City to see the troupe and ended up joining them onstage. Says the actor: “I was scared as hell. It was like working with Brando.”) They’ve even found fans among such MTV types as Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson and Pearl Jam’s Dave Abbruzzese. “We’ve been jokingly saying that the ’90s are the ’60s turned upside down,” says Proctor. “There seems to be a reinvestigation of certain values society had during the ’60s.”
The times have definitely a-changed, though. The foursome that got its start ad-libbing routines on a counterculture radio talk show in Los Angeles back in 1966 now counts among its fans the Vice President of the United States. (“We don’t know about Hillary and Bill,” says Bergman.) And the group’s members, who chose the troupe’s name because all four of them were born under the zodiac’s fire signs, have been through some changes too. When Firesign’s popularity faded in the late 1970s, the performers’ friendship became strained. “We could make enough money for four infantile adults, but not enough for four adults with infants,” says Proctor. (All of the Firesigners except Austin have children.) “That had a major effect on us.”
After Ossman left the group to become a radio producer, the remaining members felt abandoned. “Things were not friendly with Dave for some time,” says Austin, who kicked around L.A. with Proctor and Bergman while earning money writing screenplays and producing a couple of comedy videos. Proctor kept busy with acting spots on Night Court and St. Elsewhere and lent his voice to animated films and cartoons. Bergman found work writing and producing movie trailers.
But when the foursome found themselves together again at Proctor’s 1992 wedding to actress Melinda Peterson, they rekindled their friendship—and their act. At their first return show last spring, in Seattle, the crowd, which included the Flying Karamazov Brothers and Harry Anderson of Dave’s World, went wild. “Phil turned to me at one point and asked, ‘What year is this?’ ” says Ossman. “I knew then we were okay. It seemed like it was 1971 again.”
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles