Phil Austin of the Firesign Theatre (1941-2015): An Appreciation

Philip_Austin Firesign Theatre

Phil Austin of the Firesign Theatre passed away on Thursday, June 18, 2015. He was 74. Phil reportedly died of cardiac arrest after battling cancer for some time.

I learned this news on the following Saturday morning. I hadn’t been online much the day before, when the news was announced. I did briefly look at my Facebook notifications, where I saw included a link from FB friend (and FT member) David Ossman, but I was at work at the time and a task prevented me from getting to it.

When I read it I went numb. I was a huge fan of the Firesign Theatre, more intensely so back in when they released a set of albums on Columbia Records throughout the 1970s. They rarely performed and I now feel fortunate to have attended many of their shows, including at least one appearance at the long-gone Ash Grove in Hollywood in 1970.

(For more info on the history of with the Firesign Theatre — including my fleeting involvement with it — check out my article “Everything They Knew was Wrong: Firesign Theatre and the Mitchell Brothers.” As a side note, while it is customary to refer to a subject by his last name I felt it somehow inappropriate for this article, so all references are to Phil, not Austin.)

Each of their first four albums featured one of the members as a lead character, and Phil was the first on the title track for “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him.” (The Firesign Theatre must have been the bane of the Columbia Records marketing department’s existence as the albums generally defied a coherent description, and the title often wasn’t any help). The Wikipedia page for the this first LP comes pretty close to explaining it best: “[It] begins as what appears to be a Turkish language instruction record and quickly becomes a Kafkaesque fantasy of paranoia in which an unnamed innocent (played by Phil Austin) is manipulated by mysterious strangers and authority figures into situations beyond his control. (In the written script, the character is called simply “P.” for Phil, a reference to Kafka’s use of “K.” in The Castle.)”

But if K. was Phil’s “designated” lead role he would follow that with another character that’s largely responsible for exposing The Firesign Theatre to a wider audience. While side one of their second release “How Can You Be at Two Places at Once when you’re Not Anywhere at All” featured the late Peter Bergman as Babe in the title track, it was side two that was instrumental in bringing the troupe to the masses: “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” a sharp skewering of the conventions of a weekly 1940s radio program. (It is AKA “Nick Danger, Third Eye” as that was the title announced in the “show.”)

Due to its straightforward narrative “Nick Danger” could be immediately grasped as it deviated from the freeform “cinema of the mind” works that preceded and followed it. Phil portrayed the hard-boiled detective in the mold of Sam Spade. The straightforward format and supporting archetypes of the characters were underscored by modern references (including lyrics from songs by the Beatles, and drug terms from that era) and the off-kilter jokes and puns, the type that would be emulated by the likes of Airplane! and Raising Hope (examples from “Danger” follow this tribute). While anything produced by the Firesign Theatre was a collaboration between Phil, Peter, David, and Philip Proctor, Danger was Phil Austin’s conception; in a sense he provided the gateway drug that would hook the fans on the harder stuff.

Brimming with material each of the members produced solo works in the mid-1970s. These were essentially FT albums, each written by the featured member and included the voice talents of the others. Phil had previously demonstrated his musical talents, singing and playing guitar on “I Think We’re All Bozos on this Bus” on the tune “Back to the Shadows Again. For “Roller Maidens from Outer Space,” Phil incorporated a series of songs from Red Greenback and the Blueboys that relates directly to the storyline with Phil portraying a TV detective on a TV show Dick Private, Private Dick. While it initially appears to be a send up of TV conventions (notably cop shows and sitcoms) Phil throws in religious and political themes, where TV characters jump between channels and a character named Jesus battles Satan (or is it Tricky Dick?).

As with the overall output from the Firesign Theatre the humor (nor the plot) is never obvious, and the laughter is still evoked without the proceedings being dumbed down. While their recordings dwindled down throughout the years TFT performed more frequently, and Phil would resurrect Nick Danger throughout the years. As Phil and David both lived in Washington State TFT would perform at the Kirkland Performance Center, and being a resident in the Seattle area I was fortunate to have attended these shows. After one of these I asked Phil if he would consent to clarifying some points in the aforementioned Something Else! article that I was in the midst of writing, and he graciously agreed. I was, and am, grateful for the chance to speak to Phil about a time where it was he who I approached decades ago that set the stage for the adventure outlined in my article. I was grateful and honored for his taking the time to provide the facts that I very much needed.

Did I say grateful? In their live performances the Firesign Theatre wouldn’t simply recite lines when they recreated their recorded works — being true comedians they would improvise when inspiration hit. In this way they were a lot like the Grateful Dead in the way they would “jam,” using words instead of music. In that context, it was fitting that in the late 1980s Phil was commissioned to write a screenplay for the Grateful Dead. He briefly described this uncompleted project (including his interaction with members of the Dead, and an excerpt from the script) in the winter 1997-98 issue of Firezine.

Phil said Jerry Garcia had “insisted” it be called The Dead Sell Out. (The plot involved a firm trying to get songs from the Dead to use in their TV commercials.) This project had some high-powered talent attached to it, professionals behind the likes of The Color Purple and Wall Street, as well as star John Candy — who apparently was a huge Deadhead, though he later dropped out of the project. The issue of Firezine where this appeared was subtitled “Phil Austin: the Man Under the Hat” as most of the issue centers on Phil (“Hell, he wrote most of it anyway”). There are some tasty tidbits there for anyone wanting to know more about Phil.

The final appearance — and the last time I would see Phil Austin — was again at the KPC, but this time there was no performance. It was a gathering to remember and celebrate the life of Peter Bergman, who had passed away on March 9, 2012 from complications stemming from leukemia. In 2014, Chromium Switch, a fanzine devoted to the Firesign Theatre, asked Phil if the three surviving members would continue. “Very unlikely,” Phil said. “Our last show was in Seattle for Pete’s memorial and that seems fitting. Live performance was never the biggest part of our lives together.”

Those of us who saw Phil perform with the Firesign Theatre have our memories, occasionally jostled by videos featuring Phil on YouTube. And we are fortunate that we can revisit — and reinterpret — his recorded works, both as part of the group and in his one brilliant solo album. In conceiving this remembrance it hit me like a hot kiss at the end of a wet fist: those of us who immersed ourselves in the works of TFT were greatly influenced by their comedy, where we still find ourselves using many of the phrases and wonky wordplay throughout our own daily lives. The initiated (uninformed?) may not get a particular verbal reference. But when it’s spoken to someone who immediately recognizes the reference then it’s akin to being our version of a secret handshake for a very special and exclusive club.

But it’s a club that is never too late to join. No anchovies? You’ve got the wrong man. I spell my name Danger.

What?

The surviving members of the Firesign Theatre pay tribute to the late Peter Bergman: the "Big Brouhaha," April 21, 2012 in Kirkland, Wash. Left to right: Philip Austin, David Ossman, Philip Proctor. Photo by Joe Mabel.

The surviving members of the Firesign Theatre pay tribute to the late Peter Bergman: the “Big Brouhaha,” April 21, 2012 in Kirkland, Wash. Left to right: Philip Austin, David Ossman, Philip Proctor. Photo by Joe Mabel.

What, indeed. Rest in peace, Phil Austin (or raise hell with Groucho and Mama Cass). Thank you for enriching my life with all you have given me, along with all the other bozos on this bus.

Fans can offer their own memories and condolences at the Phil Austin Memorial Guestbook at firesigntheatre.com.

©2015 Mike Tiano. All Rights Reserved.

The following are just a few of the twisting of words and skewering of conventions (in this case 1940s radio plays) exhibited in “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” including wordplay later emulated in movies such as Airplane! (“Don’t call me Shirley”). Books containing their scripts can be purchased at the Firesign Theatre’s web site.

The following is ©1969 Espeseth Music Music Music:

ANNOUNCER: Relentlessly… ruthlessly…
NICK: I wonder where Ruth is?

***

ROCKY: Do you know what (rustle of bag) this is?
NICK: (thinking) I had to think for a minute. What cool game was he playing? (speaking) Uh, that’s a brown paper bag.

***

YOUNG NANCY: Oh Nicky, I, well, how can I ever repay you?
YOUNG NICK: Well, gee whiz, Nancy… How about five hundred down and a 36 month contract?

***

NICK: Four hours later I parked my car in the carriage house and (cornstarch footsteps) walked up a grey gravel driveway between a line of dwarf maples towards the pillared entrance of the Same Mansion. It had been snowing in Santa Barbara ever since the top of the page and I had to shake the cornstarch off my mukluks as I lifted the heavy obsidian doorknocker. Hey in there… open up. Your doorknocker fell off.
CATHERWOOD: (door open) What’s all this brouhaha?
NICK: Brouhaha? Ha ha ha…
CATHERWOOD: Ha ha ha ha ha….(door close)
NICK: Wait…Wait a minute. Don’t you want this doorknocker?
CATHERWOOD: (away) I already have one.
NICK: But this is yours….
CATHERWOOD: You see? I told you. We use to have another one but he vanished mysteriously. (door open) All right, come in out of the cornstarch and dry your mukluks by the fire. (cellophane/door close) Let me introduce myself. I am Nick Danger.
NICK: No, let me introduce myself. I am Nick Danger.
CATHERWOOD: If you’re so smart, why don’t you pick up your cues faster?
NICK: Are those my cues?
CATHERWOOD: Yes, and they must be dry by now. Why don’t you pull them up out of the cellophane before they scorch? (stop cellophane) Heh. All right, sir, may I take your hat and goat? (baa)

***

CATHERWOOD: Now, I assume you’ve come to see my mistress, Mr. Danger.
NICK: I don’t care about your private life or what his name is.

***

NANCY: Oh! Catherwood, you startled me! … What are you doing there on all fours?
CATHERWOOD: I’m looking for my script. Why don’t you just go on without me.
NICK: Listen, Nancy, I smell a rat…
CATHERWOOD: So do I. I think he’s got my script.

***

NICK: What’s the scoop?
NANCY: Chocolate, butterscotch, or Rocky Rococo…(gasp)… Road!
NICK: (thinking) That reminded me… how had she gotten herself involved with that slimy weasel Rococo and…how do I make my voice do this?

***

NICK: All right, Nancy. Go on with your story. Start with your dreadful secret.
NANCY: Oh, Nick. I can’t, I can’t. I’m so confused.
NICK: Why don’t you just hold your thumb next to your lines, see like this. Look, (page turn) this way I don’t get confused and I never lose my place.

***

CATHERWOOD: Rococo! You slimy blackmailer. How did you get in here? You don’t have a key!
ROCKY: No, only half a key…I had to split it with the sound effects man.
SOUND GUY: (away) Thanks, Rocky!

***

CATHERWOOD: Yes, and at the last possible moment, he stopped on a dime!
LT BRADSHAW: I see…
CATHERWOOD: Unfortunately, the dime was in Mr. Rococo’s pocket.

***

YOUNG CATHERWOOD: Don’t you see, Nancy? I’ve built the perfect time machine!
NANCY: Oh, it sounds dangerous!
YOUNG CATHERWOOD: Yes, that’s why I’m going to try it out first. Now, when I get into this grandfather clock, you hit me over the head with this bottle of Champagne, right here, set the dial for a thousand, and put in three dimes. I’ll be gone for a thousand years.
NANCY: A thousand! That’s longer than anyone’s ever been gone before!
YOUNG CATHERWOOD: But to you it will seem only like a minute! Very well, my love. Now, forward into the paaaaaaast! (breaking glass/Tardis)
NANCY: Gee, I hope he gets back before all this dry ice melts!

***

[At end of Catherwood’s flashback]
ROCKY: I’m Rocky Rococo, at your cervix.
NICK : All right, all right! Catherwood, I’ve heard just enough!
NANCY/ROCKY/CATHERWOOD: Wha? Huh? Hey! (various interjections)
CATHERWOOD: Listen, I’m telling this story, young man. What are you doing in my flashback?
NICK: Flashback? What are you ta…flashba… all right, all of you! You stay right where you are! Put your thumbs on your place in your script while I figure this out!

***

ROCKY: Stop it! Stop it! Stop singing, you fools! Can’t you see someone has been crushed here under this car?! Oh, oh my god, it’s me! I don’t look at all well! I’m dead! I’ve been killed! Oh!!! This hasn’t happened to me since “M”!

***

[At the play’s conclusion there are the sounds of a record player going through the gyrations of closing, followed by the Firesign Theatre gleefully making sounds indicating the listener has been fooled.]

Mike Tiano

Mike Tiano

Best known for his work with the Yes-related fan page Notes From the Edge, Tiano launched the official website YesWorld and has written liner notes for several of the group's reissues. The Seattle resident is recording tracks for his upcoming album 'Creetisvan,' and is an expert on movies, TV, prog rock, and the Beatles. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mike Tiano
  • Ah_Clem

    Firesign is my favorite! So sorry about Phil.

  • chapdrum

    R.I.P. Phil. The FT were utterly brilliant. If only Papoon had more money, now (as then) we’d have candidates that are “Not Insane” (though Bernie appears an exception).