If you could transport yourself back to a late-'60s/early-'70s college dormitory, chances are good that many of the rooms would contain at least one Firesign Theatre album. With records like How Can You Be 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), David Ossman, Philip Austin, Philip Proctor, and Peter Bergman created a multi-layered "stream of comedy" approach to the comedy album that fit in well with the left-leaning youth culture of the time. After a long rest, the group is back with a new album, Give Me Immortality Or Give Me Death. A chronicle of the last day of the millennium, focusing on a constantly fluctuating radio station, Immortality is both more approachable than Firesign's classic albums and arguably funnier. Ossman and Bergman recently discussed the project with The Onion.
The Onion: Your album takes on a lot of subjects specific to the late '90s. How did you choose what you were going to address on the record?
David Ossman: We really had radio in mind from the beginning, partly because it's our basic medium; that's where we all started and met. It was out of that radio experience that we wrote the first album. Really, the first two albums were radio made a lot more complicated, because you got to listen to it more than once. So it was like a return to our roots for us to deal with radio. Also, the characters we came up with are working people, and we wanted to talk not about students. We wanted to talk about people in the world, older people. This was a nod toward our older audiences who are out there celebrating their 50th birthdays. Not that we didn't want to reach everybody, but we felt that would create a stir of recognition. Also, a lot of people we knew were in the radio business, and we hoped for some airplay. And we're getting a lot of airplay. I think that would have been impossible during the '80s. But as far as picking and choosing among the comedy subjects... The coming apocalypse is dealt with in a number of ways. I think Peter pointed out to us the Y2K computer crisis. And though we just touch on that, that was very material in our thinking; that was one aspect of the apocalypse. We mined the book of Revelation for a lot of language and symbolism that had to do with the end of the world. But we allowed the helicopter-pilot traffic commentator to comment on that because in cities like Los Angeles, the apocalypse is happening on the freeway all the time. We've always addressed the phenomenon of celebrity, and Princess Diana was quite in the news. We knew that we were going to deal with the media's love affair with celebrity. And then, when Diana was killed, it became so terrifying, the descent of the media on this material. There's a lot of media commentary, things like the changing format of the radio station. We had to pick and choose, obviously, and I'm sure in the next album we'll make another selection of contemporary things. But I think the important thing is we wanted the jokes and the commentary not to be in any way nostalgic. When we got together for our 25th anniversary and the tours that came after that, we were dealing with our classic material. And I think we all felt that we wanted to have the jokes be new, so the sound of the record would be classic and familiar in one way, but the texture of the humor and the jokes would be contemporary.
O: Has the creative process gotten less tense with you and the other members over the years?
DO: Yes. That's a simple answer. All four of us do it all. Nobody directs. Nobody writes. You might bring in a first draft of something, but you have to give up your property rights over it. It becomes everybody's material. I think it's hard for creative artists, which we all are, to do that. We had to learn to do that. And then the getting-along-with-each-other aspect has to do with business, as well as with creativity. We had to learn a lot of lessons about business, and we also had to own up to our own limitations along the line. It's always stressful starting a creative project the way we do it, because it's like, "No, I think this is what's important." We've learned to be very polite with one another. If somebody thinks of a funnier line than the one I've thought of, they win. The bottom line is, "Are we laughing?" The things that make us just fall down with laughter, those are the ones that go in. Sometimes they're really complicated kind of private jokes, but they seem to work.
The Onion: This is your first album in about 15 years. Why so long?
Peter Bergman: Well, that's a good question, and I don't know if there's a complete answer to that. The last album we did was in the beginning of the Reagan rule, and I think we kind of saw the whole country kind of giving. I think we kind of left thinking we would come back when there was more back-up. I don't know.
O: Was it giving in or giving up?
PB: We gave in more than we gave up. We kept in contact. We did some work. We did the major 25th-anniversary tour and this or that, but we didn't really feel we had the stuff in us. You only get together when you feel you have something to say, and we've never really just done it to do it. So I guess that's the answer. When we did the tour together, we saw that it worked well together on stage, and then a year ago, we did some material for a radio service called Radio Today. That was some of the material for this album. It really convinced us that we had something going. Then it was just a matter of going to Rhino and saying, "We got a record in us," and they said, "Go! Do it." They're a great label.
O: Comedy acts are notorious for not staying fresh over the years. How do you fight that?
PB: First of all, there's four of us working together and mixing our material, so nothing goes out that the four of us don't agree to. That has a tendency to layer it, and layered material is fresher because you have to keep going back to it to find out what it's all about. It's not like a linear joke. That's why I think joke albums or comedy albums don't really sell: Who wants to spend that kind of money to play it once, laugh at it, maybe play it for some friends and tell them what's coming, and that's it? Then you put it aside and don't listen to it again. With Firesign, you can go back again and again. Also, it's not just comedy; it's theater. It's like a novel, too. You can return to it and have just as much fun listening to it the 10th time as the first time.
O: David Ossman referred to it as an audio novella.
PB: I think that's true. You might also think of it as an audio symphony. You might listen to a good symphony a hundred times. I've listened to some Firesign albums a hundred times, and I'm still enjoying them, because it's theater, and it's also got this wonderful comic sense that just carries me along. I like this album best of all. I think this is the most engaging, the most compassionate, and I think it's got the most laughs.
O: Where do you see comedy going in general? Things do come in waves.
PB: I don't see a wave of comedy right now. I think we've gone through a very cynical kind of self-absorbed period, with South Park and stuff like that, where the idea is basically just to point out that everyone is shit. Everybody's an idiot. And the thing I've always found very difficult about The Simpsons, and I know it's some very funny writing, but it's still basically about idiots and underachievers. I think the new wave may be optimistic. Firesign is fundamentally optimistic. It's pro-people. We don't say that people are idiots. There are idiot types on it, but they don't lead the charge. [Those that do], they're okay. They're just dealing. They're strange, they're eccentric, but they're personable. I think we may lead a charge back toward the Will Rogers and Mark Twain side of American humor. It's a mixed message, but better a mixed message than what I consider to be uninformed, ignorant cynicism that has been dominating a lot of American comedy.
O: Are you generally optimistic?
PB: Yes, I am generally optimistic. I think this country has a very good chance. I think we may go through some difficult times, but sometimes we bring these things upon ourselves. I believe we're being watched over, too. If things do darken, it will only give us more reason to be here.
O: That's sort of the great paradox of comedy, isn't it?
PB: It really is. If everything gets too easy and things are going too well, comedy becomes cynical and self-absorbed. When things get difficult, comedy kind of leads the way. I have a feeling we're in this for a while again.