The Firesign Theatre is an American comedy group; its members are (left to right in the photo) Philip Proctor, the late Peter Bergman, Phil Austin, and David Ossman. Their albums parody the usual radio and comedy album tropes.
Working in radio in the 1960s, they started releasing albums in 1968, debuting with Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him and followed in successive years by 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, I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus and others. Their comedy was based around improvisation and surrealism, with a touch of social commentary buried deep below the surface. Many of their longer pieces seem to be set in a bizarre and somewhat darker Alternate Universe that still somehow manages to bear a direct relevance to our own.
They also made at least two movies, one a film version of Nick Danger: Third Eye and J-Men Forever!
You can learn more about them at their Web site.
- Alternate Universe: Many of their sketches — especially the whole of Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers — seem to take place in a world that's about six degrees closer to a twisted counterpart of 1984 than our own is.
- The Backwards R: The cover of their LP How Can You Be In Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All?, with its "All Hail Marx and Lennon" poster (which is the page image for that trope).
- Badass Longcoat: Parodied by Nick Danger, Third Eye
- Bald of Awesome: Cast member Peter Bergman
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: More like they're not aware one exists.
- Breast Expansion: Booby Chew
- Brick Joke: Scattered everywhere through their albums.
- In what must be one of the most elongated examples ever, during The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye, Nick receives a call from a guy who thinks he's called a pizza place, and says "I want a pizza to go, and no anchovies," to which Nick replies, "Sorry, you've got the wrong number. I spell my name 'Danger'," and hangs up, causing the caller to say, "Wha?" On their next album, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers, the main character, George Tirebiter, calls to order a pizza, saying, "I want a pizza to go, and no anchovies," and then, after a brief pause, he says, "Wha?"
- Bullet Dancing: In the skit "Temporarily Humboldt County", someone fires a gun (presumably) at a native American Indian's feet.
"Let's see the war dance, yeah *bang* dance dance."
- Cloudcuckoolander: All of them.
- Continuity Nod: Out there, somewhere, there is a Firesign Theatre fan who is making a life's labour of love out of laying out the Theatre's huge and intricate web of in-jokes and (self-, meta-, self-meta-)references.
- Cool, Clear Water: Parodied by the "advertisement" for "Bear Whiz Beer":
It's in the water! That's why it's yellow!
- Cryptic Background Reference: Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers is full of all kinds of apparently random throwaway details that give a bizarre dystopian Zeerust feel to the setting of its action.
- Culture Police: "Le Trente-Huit Cunegonde", on Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, describes a hippie-run future where drug use and rebellion are rigorously enforced by the Establishment. See Government Drug Enforcement below.
- Curse of the Ancients: In the episode of "Mark Time" heard on Dear Friends, Dr. Technical says "Dad ding blast it to blazes! ... If I could just get this dad blame water pump to turn over."
- Dawson Casting: Parodied on Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, when high school hero Porgie's best friend, Mudhead, admits he's 30 years old.
- Deadly Game: "Beat the Reaper", "Stab from the Past"
- Department of Redundancy Department: Trope Namer, mentioned in pasing on Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers.
- Disney Owns This Trope: Give Me Immortality... Or Give Me Death! has repeated promos from "U.S. Plus": "We own the idea... of America." Toward the end of the play they're announcing "We own the idea... of the idea of America."
- Divide by Zero: On the album Eat Or Be Eaten, a gamer tries to go to band 100 of a 99 band disk, and is sucked into the game.
Player: What the FUUUUUUUUU-
- Emergency Presidential Address: In an episode of "Nick Danger" (a parody of old private dick radio shows), the moment of climax is cut off by a special announcement from the president.
- Fake Radio Show Album: Never an entire album, but as much as one side of an LP might be presented as a radio show, such as The Further Adventures of Nick Danger. Elsewhere you might find smaller segments of simulated radio shows, including DJ/host chatter.
- Flash Back Back Back: From The Further Adventures of Nick Danger:
"No, no, no, no, no, no! You don't understand how radio works. Now, this is my flashback — all I have to do to return us to the present is fade my voice out like this and cue the organist!"
- Former Child Star: George "Porgie" Tirebiter, on Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers
- Funny Aneurysm Moment: On the 1980 album Fighting Clowns they have a song called "Reagan" which includes the line "and it's never too late to lose again". This song was later released as a single, with, as its B-side, a song called, "Carter", where they talk about Jimmy Carter winning re-election, then being followed by eight years of Mondale.
- Funny Background Event: It often pays to try and listen for what's going on in the background.
- Gag Dub: Their most successful film project, 1979's J-Men Forever!, took several '30s serials about catching spies and criminals and turned them into the adventures of a federal agency fighting for, among other things, our God-given rights to smoke dope and enjoy non-rock music.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Numerous rapidfire instances throughout their works. Just a sample, from the movie-within-an-album "High School Madness", on Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers:
Dad: Where is Porgie, anyhow?
- This opening sequence is a very direct parody of the opening of the 1940s radio/TV show The Aldrich Family.
- Genius Bonus: A typical feature of their comedic style.
"It's like in the Army, you know? The great prince issues commands, founds states, vests families with fiefs. Inferior people should not be employed."
—Nick Danger, from the album How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All? This is a hexagram from the I Ching.
- Another example would be things such as the cover art for Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers. They are done up as their respective astrological signs, which are all "Fire Signs".
- "Antelope Freeway, one mile. Antelope Freeway, one half mile. Antelope Freeway, one quarter mile."
- The Goon Show: Early Firesign was under heavy Goonish influence. The original Hemlock Stones adventure, By The Light of the Silvery, is done in perfect Goons style, right down to the voices.
- Government Drug Enforcement: "Le Trente-Huit Cunegonde", on Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, describes a hippie-run future where drug use and rebellion are rigorously enforced by the Establishment. It opens with two police officers accosting a girl because she's not wearing a mini-skirt, and when they discover she doesn't have any drugs on her, they send her in for "re-grooving".
Cop #1: Dig, Larry: aspirin.
- Gratuitous Panning: We're All Bozos On This Bus
- Hardboiled Detective: Nick Danger, Third Eye
- Hello, Insert Name Here: On I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus, the events take place in an automated amusement park. The protagonist, Clem, is taken by surprise when a recorded greeting asks him his name, and he stutters, "uh, Clem". For the rest of the trip, he keeps running into park animatrons who say things like, "I sure am happy to see you, [uh Clem], please walk this way." To make the cut-and-paste even more obvious, the bulk of the sentence is delivered in a "professional actor" voice, while the "[uh Clem]" part is a tinny low-fidelity soundclip of Clem's original response, playing at lower volume than the canned line.
- Hollywood Apocrypha: "Toad Away". And lo, there came unto them Philip, called Punter...
- Honest John's Dealership: How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All? opens with a character buying a car from "Ralph Spoilsport", who definitely fits the trope.
- Hostile Show Takeover: Briefly attempted by Young Guy's Battle Butler, Rotonoto, in "Young Guy Motor Detective Radio Prison".
- Attempted by Sergeant (err, Lieutenant) Bradshaw when he thinks he's got the goods on Nick Danger.
- Hurricane of Puns: Most notably in Anythynge You Want To and Nick Danger skits: "There was something fishy about the butler. I think he was a Pisces, probably working for scale."
- Their Sherlock Holmes burlesque "The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra" is a veritable thick, English industrial fog of puns, often four or five (crazee) levels deep:
Hemlock Stones: No no no, Crouton, old man — you might as well ask who's behind the Giant Rat of Sumatra.
Rocky Rococco: Worthless? Hahaha! *cough* *hack* Not to Melanie Haber!
- Incredibly Lame Pun: Their albums are just chock-full of them.
- From Nick Danger, Third Eye
Announcer: ...he crosses Macarthur Park and walks into a great sandstone building!
- Injun Country: "Temporarily Humboldt County"
- Inner Monologue: Frequently parodied, particularly with Nick Danger: "How do I make my voice do this?"
- Inventing the Wheel: On Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers, the host of a "this day in history" TV show claims that the wheel was invented by Mr. George Antrobus on the 38th of Cunegonde, 1938 BC. ("And just in time!" chirps his female co-host.)
- Klatchian Coffee/Uncoffee: "Ersatz Bros. Coffee" from Don't Touch That Dwarf, which contains Brazilian soya beans, Syrian chicory nuts, and Spanish flies.
- Larynx Dissonance: Being all men, they do male and female characters. Some of the female ones, especially those voiced by Phil Austin, are downright eerie.
- Least-Common Pizza Topping: "No anchovies? You've got the wrong man. I spell my name...Danger!"
- Left the Background Music On: In "Nick Danger", a character demonstrates that all they have to do to time-travel is "to fade out the sound and cue the organist!"
- Listeners Are Geniuses: A core value of their comedy.
- Long Title: Most of their albums, although most notably How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All?
- Mad Libs Dialogue: On I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus, the robot president (who sounds oddly similar to Richard Nixon) uses voice clips of the guests saying their own name to refer to them, that is, until the protagonist, Uhclem, breaks him.
- Mathematician's Answer: "Where're you from?" "Nairobi, ma'am. Isn't everybody?"
- Medicine Show: On Everything You Know Is Wrong.
- Mighty Whitey: Lampshaded in the movie-within-an-album "High School Madness" on Don't Touch That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers. After the school disappears, a bunch of Latino students arrive out of nowhere and ask Porgie for advice because he's a white man and will know exactly what to do, leaving his buddy, Mudhead, to wonder "where did all these Mexicans come from?"
- Mushroom Samba: In W.C. Fields Forever, listeners are guided through a utopian hippie commune. Pretty much everyone can be assumed to be on drugs here, but the only one overtly taking them is Tiny Dr. Tim, Keeper of the Sacred Tablets (here, have a tablet). When a horse enters the scene he exclaims "Whoah! Nice paisley horsie! Give the nice paisley horsie some sugar cubes!" The horse runs off trumpeting like an elephant.
- N-Word Privileges: On How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All?, there is this song "What makes America Great?":
It's candied apples and ponies with dapples
- Noodle Incident: Everywhere, as little throwaway "background" details.
- Not Big Enough for the Two of Us: In Nick Danger, when time travel leads to a woman's past and future selves fighting, they both exclaim, "There ain't room enough in this dress for both of us!"
- One Steve Limit: Parodied on their album Boom Dot Bust, which takes place in a town called Billville, where everybody's name is Bill.
- Opening Narration: Parodied, along with the entirety of dramatic radio, to devastating effect with their classic "Nick Danger" routine on the album How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All?:
Narrator: Los Angeles: He walks again by night! Relentlessly...Ruthlessly...
- Painting the Fourth Wall: How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All? has Nick Danger listen to the other side of the record.
- They painted, remodeled, knocked out windows, and added aluminum siding to the fourth wall.
- Actually, most of the Theatre's work was recorded in the specially constructed Fourth Wall Annex, which was M.C. Escher's only known foray into architectural design.
- The audio Nick hears is a clip from the other side played backwards. "It's OK: they're speaking Chinese."
- Parody: Practically the defining value of their work.
- The Further Adventures of Nick Danger is an extended parody of Film Noir.
- Parody Commercial: Given their origins in radio, it's not surprising that their albums are frequently structured like broadcast media, with interruptions for mock commercials. Most notable in this regard is Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers, which comes across as mostly eavesdropping on someone watching TV in a twisted alternate version of Earth. The story, such as it is, is punctuated by commercials for products like Ersatz Brothers Coffee and Bear Whiz Beer, and political ads for candidates whose ideology is... difficult to understand.
- Police State: From "Forward Into The Past":
- Private Detective/Hardboiled Detective: Nick Danger is a classic, and often surrealistic, parody of the genre and character type.
- Private Eye Monologue: Nick Danger engages in these constantly. And how does he make his voice do that?
- Psycho Electro: "The Electrician", most prominently featured in "Hemlock Stones and the Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra".
- The Electrician notably fails to appear in their first album, Waiting For The Electrician Or Someone Like Him.
- "I'm The Electrician, and the world is my oyster! Except for the months with an "R" in them!"
- Reading the Stage Directions Out Loud
- Sdrawkcab Name: At one point Nick Danger reads the name on his office door as "Regnad Kcin".
- Sherlock Holmes: Parodied by "Hemlock Stones".
- Shout-Out: Numerous, often buried in parody. For instance, the quote under Getting Crap Past the Radar is a reference to movie/radio character Henry Aldrich; Once an Episode his mother would call him — "Henry, Henry Aldrich!" — and in a voice cracking with adolescence he'd respond, "Coming, Mother!"
- Show Within a Show: Nearly half of Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers is the soundtrack of "High School Madness", a mythical teen movie made during an equally mythical version of the 1940s and/or 1950s. Another quarter is the soundtrack of the mythical Korean War and/or Vietnam War movie "Babes In Khaki"/"Parallel Hell!". Much of the rest is snippets of various TV shows "overheard" while a character is channel-surfing.
- Smithical Marriage/Mr. Smith: Subverted in one of their radio plays, where a single person signs in at a hotel as "Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Smith":
"Surely you can't believe I'm Mr. and Mrs. John Q Smith of Anytown, USA?"
- He goes by "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith" for the rest of the album.
- Southern Belle: In Everything You Know Is Wrong, the wire recording of the Medicine Show features one of these. Celebrating that the South won the Civil War:
Beulah Belle: Think of those balls you'll have!
- Take That: A sly one to The Residents in Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death with the "Guys in Eyeball Hats", described as "Mumbling, Millenial Morons".
- Theme Tune Cameo: In "Nick Danger, Third Eye", the title character whistles his theme tune as he walks the streets by night.
- This Is Reality: Firesign uses this trope extensively in almost their entire body of audio comedy work. The layers of trope-play become extremely confusing and interesting. See the quotes page for one example.
- Token Minority: Lampshaded with the Mexican students in "High School Madness". See Mighty Whitey above.
- Tomato in the Mirror [context?]
- Turn in Your Badge: This exchange from How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All?:
Nick: I'll tell you guys what I'm gonna do! I'll tell you what! I'm gonna get even with every rotten cop in this city!
- What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?: Captain Equinox: his powers are unspecified, but true to his name, he is only Captain Equinox twice a year.
- Which Me?: "Nick Danger" features a flashback told by Catherwood the butler — twenty years earlier he surprises his bride Nancy with a time machine, intending to honeymoon in ancient Greece. He tries it on himself first and when he returns minutes later he's a shaky-voiced 1,000 year old codger, to her horror. Present-day Nick bursts in unexpectedly and uses the time machine to travel forward 20 years back to the present, taking the couple and shady character Rocky Rococo with him. Back in the present they're shocked at finding there's two of all of them — they fight with their other selves, except the two Catherwoods who enjoy having someone their own age to talk with.
- Who Writes This Crap?: It's a running gag in recent releases: "Boy, those Canadians can really write!"
- Word Salad Title: Most of their albums and tracks have these.
- "Young Guy Motor Detective Radio Prison" parodies the supposed Japanese penchant for such titles. Like many of the Japanese examples, there's a fairly straightforward explanation ("Radio Prison" is the episode title) that it's more entertaining to ignore.
- Yellow Snow: See Cool, Clear Water.