My wife and I have been trying very hard to enjoy Grace and Frankie, the new Netflix (I guess you call it a) series about two older men who leave their wives for each other. It’s an interesting premise with a good cast, and it raises many interesting issues about sexual orientation and marriage. The two gay men bickering and the two abandoned wives (presumably they’re straight) are funny…once. After that, it’s just acting and I don’t believe a word of it anymore. If the the script were dangling in front of them, it couldn’t be more obvious that these are not four characters facing a crisis—they’re four actors playing four characters facing a crisis. Comedy requires truth, and if you maintain that this not a comedy but an observation of modern life, then that requires truth also.
I mention this now because Philip Austin died a few days ago. You may not know the name, but to those of us who latched on to the Firesign Theater in the 70’s and never let go, we know Phil Austin. He was a comic genius in a troupe of four of them, producing memorable characters on phonograph records(!) in performances that mimicked everything from old radio broadcasts to on-the-spot news coverage.
Everyone has a different story about “discovering Firesign.” For me it came in 1970. I had just begun teaching high school English—I wasn’t that much older than my students and therefore very hip. One day a student asked me if I listened to Firesign Theater. I was suddenly unhip—I had no idea what he was talking about. He brought in the record and let me take it home where I heard a game show called “Beat the Reaper” and a history of America called “Temporarily Humboldt County” in which Native Americans come out on the short end of the stick and end up as extras in a Hollywood movie providing “Indian” sound effects. Everything was rapid-fire—there was no time for them to revel in their own jokes: another one was right there waiting.
This morning I read the tributes to Mr. Austin on the Firesign website
and laughed almost as hard at them as I did at many of those wondrous skits—Nick Danger,: Third Eye, Ralph Spoilsport Motors, Porgie and Mudhead at More Science High. I first heard the word clone on a Firesign Album and listened intently as daredevil Rebus Knebus (whose last name resembled the popular smoking product in the 70’s) tried to jump his motorcycle into the center of the earth. Firesign poked fun at education, at jingoism, at Madison Avenue, at television, and of course themselves.
In that tribute list are many listeners in their twenties, in a sense a third generation of fans already planning to share Firesign with their own offspring. As for me, forty-five years past that vinyl on my turntable,I have one friend who understands any of my references, but knowing there is such a legion of them makes me feel better. As one of the tributes reads: “We are like members of a secret society without the evil intentions or onerous dues.” When I tell this friend that the Antelope Freeway is only 1/128 mile from here, he actually knows what I’m talking about. As Nick Danger would say, odd but strange.
So rest in peace Phil Austin, and thanks for creating such memorable characters, so many quotable lines, and mostly for the truth you gave us. You and your three partners were, in fact, four guys with scripts in front of you, but we listeners never thought of you that way. To us you were Uh, Clem, and Rocky Rococo, and Audrey Farber (though everyone knew her as Nancy). This afternoon I’ll hoist a Bear Whiz Beer in your honor. It’s the least I can do.
Besides, it’s in the water.