On the night that the four members of what would become the Firesign Theater comedy group first appeared on the air together on KPFK, Pacifica Radio’s Los Angeles station, they pretended to be panelists at a fictional film festival. When the faux panel convinced listeners that a porn film titled The Nun and Blondie Pays the Rent made by the faux director Jack Love could not be screened at the festival, KPFK listeners flooded the station’s switchboard with calls to protest what they deemed to be censorship.
“That’s when we knew that we were really onto something, that we could take people on a ride as far out as we wanted to and they would go along with us,” Phil Proctor, one of the two surviving members of Firesign, told Current.
“If we were convincing enough or silly enough or crazy enough, people would believe it,” remarked David Ossman, the other surviving Fireside member. “It was the power of radio.”
Now, 56 years after Firesign’s radio debut, Proctor is returning to KPFK to co-host a live weekly radio show, joined by Ted Bonnitt, another Pacifica veteran. Their hourlong Phil & Ted’s Sexy Boomer Show will air Tuesday afternoons.
“Remember when FM radio was unpredictable, when you’d tune in because you’d never know what they were going to play, what they were going to say?” asked Bonnitt, who produced close to 30 episodes of Sexy Boomer Show as a podcast during the pandemic. “We want to revive that energy of ‘anything goes’ radio.”
The Sexy Boomer podcast caught the ear of Donna Walker, the host of KPFK’s Pacifica Performance Showcase program and an assistant in the station’s membership department. She lobbied three successive station managers to put Bonnitt and Proctor on the air and said all three were keen on the idea but left the station before they had a chance to do it.
“It’s much-needed humor that we need on our airwaves, but everybody’s so woke that you can’t be funny anymore,” said Walker. “I think it’s going to be really challenging for people like Phil and Ted, who are so off the cuff.”
Walker was on the air Tuesday with Bonnitt and Proctor offering a thumb drive with more than 60 hours of Firesign’s KPFK radio shows from the 1960s and 70s as a premium to subscribers to the listener-sponsored station. Bonnitt and Proctor also offered a taste of what their new show will sound like.
“What I always loved about Pacifica was that it is truly free speech,” Bonnitt said during the broadcast. “It’s not encumbered by any corporate money, which is a major factor.”
“In its demise,” Proctor piped in.
Later in the show, the two were unapologetic about being baby boomers, although at 82, Proctor is too old to actually belong to the generation.
“We’re talking to people in our age group, which is the boomers,” noted Bonnitt.
“Those that can hear,” said Proctor, without missing a beat.
‘The Beatles of comedy’
During their debut as a live show, the duo played some of Firesign’s phony commercials, including the troupe’s famous “Bear Whiz Beer” spot, and Bonnitt demonstrated the rich recorded comedy they’ll rely on in addition to live improvisation by airing a highly produced comedy piece he created with Firesign co-founder Peter Bergman in 1994 for KUSC in Los Angeles. The skit, written by former Saturday Night Live writer David Sheffield, was a faux documentary on catch-and-release whalers.
Listeners can also look forward to hearing showbiz guests, many of them longtime Firesign fans, from the Rolodex of Proctor, who is still a working actor.
“We certainly have a huge bank of talent in Hollywood to call on that’ll come in and play with us,” said Bonnitt.
That talent bank certainly came through for the Sexy Boomer podcast, which was produced during the pandemic “bunker to bunker” with few in-person interviews. Guests included “Weird Al” Yankovic, Harry Shearer, Devo’s Gerald Casale, former SNL cast member Laraine Newman and Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson.
Among those who have made a commitment to contributing to the show are Ossman, who lives in Washington state; Phil Hendrie, who had a huge following on commercial Los Angeles station KFI-AM and has done voices for King of the Hill and Futurama; and actor John Goodman, who was part of Citizen Kafka, an outrageous radio comedy group at the New York Pacifica station WBAI,before he hit the big time on Roseanne. Goodman cites Firesign as a major comedic influence.
Around the same time that Goodman was part of Citizen Kafka, Bonnitt was also doing a comedy show on WBAI. From 1984 to 1993, he played the title character on The Bernie Fleshkin Show, joined by a stable of New York actors. He referred to it as a “radio cartoon.” The voice of Bernard T. Fleshkin, according to a New York Daily News review, sounded like “a cross between Cookie Monster and your basic fast-talking Hollywood agent.”
Bonnitt’s connection to Firesign dates back to the 1976 presidential campaign. Ossman appeared as his Firesign character George Tirebiter every week on the commercial station where Bonnitt served as news director, a job he held at the age of 19. In 1990 Bonnitt commissioned Proctor and Bergman to produce a weekly soap opera for the public radio show Heat with John Hockenberry. In their series Power, Proctor and Bergman played a Hollywood agent and lawyer. Bonnitt relocated to Los Angeles in 1993, where he partnered with Bergman in a business producing radio commercials.
For Bonnitt, it has clearly been a treat to work with the quartet the Library of Congress dubbed “the Beatles of comedy” when it added their 1970 album Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers to the National Recording Registry in 2005. At the time the record was released, it wasn’t uncommon for FM stations to play an entire side of the album. Legions of Firesign fans memorized the album’s best lines.
Long-standing ties to public radio
Firesign may have found their groove at KPFK, but the ensemble and its members have had a long collaboration with NPR and another Pacifica station as well, beginning in 1959 when Ossman worked as an announcer and board operator at WBAI. Before transferring to KPFK in 1961, he created two poetry programs at the New York station. In Los Angeles Ossman covered the news, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and became director of KPFK’s drama and literature department.
When he resigned in 1966, Ossman was placed by Phil Austin, who joined Firesign later that year. Ossman’s career has included a stint in 1982 producing NPR’s five-hour arts magazine The Sunday Show and in 1988 collaborating with his wife Judith Walcutt on a 50th-anniversary production of the famed 1938 radio drama War of the Worlds, which was presented by WGBH Radio. The hourlong production was nominated for a Grammy.
As a group, Firesign began doing comedy commentaries for NPR in 1979 and proceeded to produce bits on the presidential campaign in 1980. For a period of six months in 2002 the group produced skits for All Things Considered.
Before the comedy group went national, it bounced around on public and commercial radio in Los Angeles. This included stints at KPCC before it became a news powerhouse and at commercial station KRLA, where Firesign’s show was followed by another comedy program featuring The Credibility Gap, a comedy group whose members included Harry Shearer and Michael McKean of Spinal Tap fame. But Firesign returned to KPFK in 1970 to do their Dear Friends series and again in 1971 to do a show titled Let’s Eat.
“We knew that we could only do what we were doing on KPFK,” Ossman told Current. “What we were rewarded with was that we got to take the tapes home, and that more than paid us.”