One of the dangers of growing old is that your networks tend to be created less through happenstance and more through past contact. As a result it’s easy to find oneself continually in a state of loss. Though minor in a larger context, a significant loss to me happened last Thursday, June 18, with the death of Phil Austin of the seminal comedy group Firesign Theatre, whose name the New York Times is unable to spell correctly even a single time throughout a rather extensive article on Austin and the group. I suppose consistently spelling it the same wrong way at least proves the text was copy-edited, but apparently no one even noticed that the group’s website to which the Times article links spells it “Theatre”, not “Theater”, in the very URL they used in the link. This is neither an infrequent nor an obscure spelling, and the Times shows a certain disrespect for Mr. Austin by printing his obituary but misspelling the name of his most familiar accomplishment. So thanks, Times, for some classy coverage.
Firesign Theatre was not readily described. Their comedy was very social and media-savvy in the environment of the late 60s and early 70s, yet in the midst of the war on Vietnam and the Nixon presidency the Theatre skits were not overtly political. They loved to skewer the ridiculous aspects of life wherever they found them. Check out the pitch from Ralph Spoilsport at Ralph Spoilsport Motors (Austin is in the lower middle in the picture):
These four guys from Berkeley (all as it happened astrologically fire signs) in the midst of political and social turmoil imagined both the current world and possible future ones from what was then a radical point of view, one in which the government and the powerful could not be trusted in the manner to which Americans had been accustomed during World War II and its aftermath. Without mentioning Nixon or the war the Theatre could explicitly and occasionally viciously eviscerate the viewpoints and behavioral tendencies of the supporters of both, and this at a time when everyone was forced to side one way or the other; no one was neutral about the American presence in Vietnam. Yet the name of that country never came up in their work as far as I know, though I admit to not being familiar with all of their work from the most recent few years.
Still, somehow they told us truths that helped guide us through murky and dangerous times. How can you be in two places at once, they quite legitimately wondered, when you’re not anywhere at all? Physicists are still working on that one. Everything you know is wrong! Quite right, and it’s proven every day. We’re all bozos on this bus? Look at the results.
This is why it took me a while to warm up to Monty Python, whose comedy at the time avoided any social commentary whatsoever and focused entirely on individuals and their silly situations and actions. Hilarious, certainly, but not as deep, I thought; but that idea too evolved, as Python developed over the years.
Anyway, Regnad Kcin, also known as Nick Danger when the name is read from the front of the door rather than behind, was a noir-style detective in LA whose antics Theatre fans lapped up. Austin voiced Nick, so I’ll sign this off with that signature performance. But seriously, check out the Youtube videos for the group, they remain pretty damn funny.
RIP, Phil, you gave us a lot of laughs and insight to boot. You were the real deal.