My pal Phil Austin, a member of that legendary four-man comedy team known as The Firesign Theatre, has passed today. My heart and prayers go out to his dear wife Oona (Phil nicknamed her The Big Blonde).
Phil was a great writer, performer, musician and friend. His best known Firesign character was Nick Danger, Third Eye, a hilarious parody of 1940s hard-boiled detectives. When The Firesign Theatre broke up, Phil partnered with the Firesign’s David Ossman. One of the most brilliant and funny plays I ever saw was Austin and Ossman’s Radio Laffs of 1940. Phil also created solo works of comedy and music.
I am indebted to Phil for several reasons.
I met Phil and the boys in the mid-1970s. My publisher/comic book seller pal Dave Gibson had acquired permission to collect all of The Mixville Rocket (a sort of neighborhood humor fanzine produced by the guys) issues as well as The Firesign Sun Duck and publish them in a book. Dave asked me to do the cover. The Firesign guys loved my cover and asked me to do the cover for their next LP, In The Next World, You’re On Your Own. I got to attend their recording sessions and we became friends — especially after I found out they shared my love for the works of Harvey Kurtzman. Columbia Records resisted using me (I was unknown) but Phil and the Firesign persisted and stuck by me as their choice. Columbia ended up loving my cover (covers, actually; I gave the LP two front covers so that no matter how the LP was placed in a record bin, the potential buyer was always seeing a front cover) and I began receiving regular cover work from Columbia. The Mixville Rocket cover was later re-cycled (with new dialogue) as the cover for their Rhino Records LP Lawyer’s Hospital.
Austin and Harry Shearer introduced me to the films of Preston Sturges when one night Phil and Oona invited me to their Wonderland Avenue Laurel Canyon hideaway to see a film screening (this was pre-video and VCRs) of The Great McGinty.
I collaborated with Phil on my first film, a movie version (shot to the comedy album) of Firesign’s Everything You Know Is Wrong LP (soon to be released on DVD; I recently drew the cover — see below). I built props and appeared as an extra in the movie. This was film making at its most basic and I learned a lot. Not too long after that I scored work on Buck Rogers and then Conan the Barbarian.
That’s Phil Austin hanging from the world bottom left with his fellow Firesigners.
Phil and I collaborated on several Firesign Theatre T-shirt designs for which, to my amazement, I am still getting regular royalties!
With his classic good looks and shockingly premature gray (and later, white) hair, Phil was the rock star of the group. I’ve always described The Firesign Theatre’s work as rock and roll comedy, so I was tickled to see Phil’s Wikipedia sidebar listing The Firesign Theatre as a “Music Group”. I know that music was very important to Phil; he saw to it that nearly all of his recorded collaborations had music or songs.
I got to spend time with all the Firesign guys but I think I spent the most time with Phil (and Oona). The last time I saw Phil was a couple of years ago at a Firesign performance in Barnsdall Park. We corresponded on FaceBook after that and I sent Phil and Oona some of my recent books. They had left Laurel Canyon a long time ago and had moved to an island near Seattle.
I’m already missing that guy…Peace be with you, brother….and lotsa laffs Upstairs.