TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD #1
Today I am beginning a new series of autobiographical true tales from my work in the film business. The stories will be chronological. My goal is to tell one story each day (not necessarily one film per day). Eventually, these stories will be collected, edited and added to for my forthcoming book on all of my designs for film.
FILM #1: Everything You Know Is Wrong (1975)
Written and Directed by Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, Phil Proctor, David Ossman
Starring The Firesign Theatre
The Firesign Theatre and I go way back. I was a fan, first and foremost, of their pre-Firesign radio show, Radio Free Oz. As I recall it was on L. A. rock radio station KRLA (prior to that it was on the radical lefty KPFK station, beginning in 1966). The shows had structural threads but there was also a lot of improvisation. Listening to the show made you feel as you were part of a secret hipster comedy cult.
The group consisted of founder Peter Bergman (the founder and most political of the group), plus Phil Proctor (an incredibly nice guy and the most professional actor of the group), Phil Austin (the most musical guy in the group and the Firesign Guy with the rock star looks) and David Ossman (the most radio savvy of the group and the caretaker of the Firesign archives).
Eventually (and happily), they began to write and perform comedy LPs for Columbia Records. These were different from any other comedy records being produced at the time. Their first four LPs (1968-1971; Waiting For The Electrician or Something Like Him; How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re not Anywhere at All; Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers; and I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus) were the audio equivalent of reading a Harvey Kurtzman/Will Elder MAD comic book story. Peter Bergman cited Kurtzman’s MAD as one of their influences. They were the only comedy act whose records could be listened to over and over again, each new listening revealing a comedy gem missed on previous listens. That’s because their comedy was densely layered (like Will Elder’s MAD work with all the little peripheral “eyeball kicks” as Kurtzman called them) with comic audio. Listening to their LPs is like experiencing a rich comedy movie for your head and ears. Another thing I loved about their records was their use of an elliptical structure that at the end brought back you back to where you had started.
Their following expanded rapidly with each release, until they had become in some circles the Beatles of comedy. The Firesign Theatre were America’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus — but before there was a Monty Python.
My friend and comic dealer Dave Gibson got permission to reprint a collection of the neighborhood fanzines the Firesign had published in the late 1960s entitled The Mixville Rocket. Dave asked me to draw the cover. I happily agreed.
The Firesign guys were so taken by my Mixville Rocket cover (my goal was to capture visually what they did aurally) that they asked me to draw their next LP cover for their album In The Next World, You’re On Your Own, much to the chagrin of very nervous Columbia Records art directors (“You want to use an unknown artist? Who the hell is this long-haired boy bursting with enthusiasm? Are you all nuts? He’s just a kid!”). I came through like a champ, though. I knew to place the LP title at the top so that it was readily visible when flipping through the record bin. I also gave the LP not one but two front covers so that no matter which way the LP was facing in the bin you were looking at a front cover.
This led to my being asked by Columbia’s art director, Nancy Donald, to create many more LP covers for the label (my foray out of the bootleg world and into legitimacy!) for musicians like The Beach Boys, Chicago, Dexter Gordon, The Bliss Band and Wah-Wah Watson.
I was invited to the Next World recording sessions and became friends with The Guys (as they are known to friends and fans). I spent many happy evenings at Phil and Oona Austin’s Laurel Canyon home. One of the most memorable nights occurred when I was invited to the Austin home to watch a 16 mm print of The Great McGinty. Their fellow comedy pal Harry Shearer was also in attendance. It was my first exposure to the cinematic work of the great writer-director Preston Sturges. I was blown away. Where had this guy’s work been all my life? They prompted me to track down and watch Sullivan’s Travels, which became one of my ten favorite films of all time. This was in the pre-video days, so I had to watch the L. A. revival theater schedules like a hawk for Sturges screenings.
This all led to my creating a series of Firesign Theatre T-shirts (“Drink Bear Whiz Beer – It’s in the Water, That’s Why It’s Yellow” being the most popular).
This led to work on their movie, Everything You Know Is Wrong (my first feature film work). With David Ossman as an overseer, I designed and built a lot of the props and appeared in the film as an extra.
Everything You Know Is Wrong was not made like any “normal” movie or comedy. The soundtrack was recorded first (the soundtrack being the Everything You Know Is Wrong LP). Then, we shot the visuals to match the soundtrack. We were all kids in our twenties and early thirties who felt like we had been given the keys to the candy store. Favors were called in and it was a lot of work — but we all had a blast making that very “underground” feeling movie.
One of the great perks of living in the Los Angeles area used to occur every New Year’s Day. If you watched the Tournament of Roses Parade (aka The Rose Parade) on New Year’s Day morning on the local L. A. TV channel covering it and turned down the sound, you could simultaneously listen to live commentary provided by the Firesign Theatre on a local underground FM radio station. Absolutely hilarious!
As I got more involved in The Film Biz and my movie career began to skyrocket, we drifted away from each other — but I never lost my fondness for The Guys.
I created ads for the Firesign and the advertising for Austin and Ossman’s live show Radio Laffs of 1940 and also did a few more LP covers for records they released on the Rhino label.
Most recently I created the cover for their Everything You Know Is Wrong DVD
and their Mark Time Awards designs).
There are now just two Firesign Guys left: Phil Proctor and David Ossman. My love for them still overflows and I consider the Firesign Theatre a National Treasure.
Guys — You’re the Greatest (and Oona, too!)!
Visit the official Firesign Theatre website at www.firesigntheatre.com