The comedy quartet of Phil Proctor, Peter Bergman, Phil Austin and David Ossman perfected the genre of aural comic theater in the late 1960s, spinning off from a syndicated radio program to make such enduring classics as "Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him," "I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus" and "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers."
The group's witty wordplay makes Dennis Miller look plainspoken by comparison, as references shift with blinding speed from Shakespeare to Raymond Chandler, from Joyce to the series of 20th century archetypes that populated their detailed descriptions of television-watching with the viewer as part of the action (decades before the concept of interactive TV).
If comedy is meant to help us laugh off our troubles, Firesign Theater always has been more predictive than reactive. Though the new album, "The Bride of Firesign," is the last of a millennial trilogy that began with "Give Me Immortality Or Give Me Death," it was the second leg -- "Boom Dot Bust" -- that seems to be about what we're going through right now.
Recorded at the height of the bull market in 1999, that disc portrays a post-apocalypse American landscape where the mayor is doomed, the wells are poisoned and the remake hit movie, "Kane!" references biological warfare.
When the Elmers of Billville settle down for their "para-religious civic announcement" they are told: "Hold onto your fingers and bury your car keys and we'll all come out of this in the end!" God knows we could all use one of those DevilMaster Exorcisers now, even if they are $666.
I can report with a sigh of relief that the quartet is not forecasting any more imminent disaster on the new disc, which longtime fans will find reassuringly self-referential. There's plenty of 2001 parody, right down to "The Graverobber's Roadshow" and those "Wassuup" (Don't talk old, talk new!) beer commercials, along with such Firesign staples as Nick Danger, Ralph Sportsport, and, of course, Nancy.
The evil Rocky Rococco and police chief Al Bradshaw are both running for mayor of Fun Fun Town. We find out about Get Trucked industry's Human Resources series, which offers such health advice as: "Lesson Five -- 'Daily Wank,' a program to combat prostate cancer."
Porgy and Mudhead, the heroes of "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers," are now Internet "cyber truckers" who drive streams of info over the information highway, while "mom" enforces traffic infractions and administers random drug tests.
"It's a dangerous and untidy land," intones Bradshaw in his law and order stump speech.
How does it all end? With a classic film reference, naturally.
"We seek immortality, celebrity, fame and fortune," says the group. "Yet all we really want is to attain personal freedom and the finality of death. If you like dicks and dream monsters and dogs named 'Relent,' you've come to the right place.
"If you're looking for a way to discover what the Firesign Theater is all about, this should be the album to get you started. It's a comedy record packed with hilarious jokes from four guys who've seen it all and can't wait to see what's coming next."
In celebration of the troupe's 35th anniversary, Firesign Theater has also recorded a PBS special, "Weirdly Cool," to be broadcast in December and released in 2002 on Rhino Home Video in both VHS and DVD formats.
"Weirdly Cool," co-produced for public television by WHYY, the great Philadelphia region's leading broadcast station, and Rhino entertainment, marks the first-ever televised performance of the comedy team's greatest hits. The foursome included excepts from such classic Firesign albums as "How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All?" and "Pliers."
The show also includes archival footage, including a video produced by Michael Nesmith, footage from their 25th anniversary tour, and testimonials from such devoted Firesign fans as George Carlin, Chevy Chase and John Goodman.