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The Beatles of Comedy - Firesign Theatre

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

In the mid-1960s, four Americans who came across the Goons in the late 1950s, decided to assemble their own comedy troupe. Firesign Theatre, as they became known, consisted of Peter Bergman, Phillip Proctor, Phil Austin, and David Ossman.

Firesign Theater in action in 1967

All four were big fans of the Goons, with three having heard them on the US radio in the late 1950s. In this article from a fan website, Ossman recalls that his early work was “very imitative” of the Goon Show.

The quartet was particularly active during the late 1960s and early 1970s, having several successful US radio series. They were a popular live act too.

After splitting up in the mid-1970s, they reunited pretty much once a decade until their last performance, a tribute to Peter Bergman after he died in 2012.

Listening to an example of their comedy (see below), I can hear Goonish influences but it strikes me as being far more similar to I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, a British radio comedy from the 1960s that set bridged the gap between the Goons and shows like I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, The Goodies, Monty Python's Flying Circus and others.

As Bergman – who discovered the Goons through the others – recalls: “When I was in England in 1965… I went to see Spike Milligan who was performing in a play called ‘Oh Blow Off’ [I believe he means Oblomov]. He was improvising it so that basically it became his one-man show. I went backstage to say hello. I had no idea who the Goons were, I just thought Spike Milligan was marvelous.”

Bergman and Milligan hit it off and decided to write together, although it’s not clear how much they actually wrote or where it appeared.

Phil Austin is arguably the biggest fan, though, judging by the same interview. He says he has heard all the Goon Show episodes that were available through the US radio station where he worked “hundreds of times” and could imitate all the voices – much to the annoyance of other people.

We are so in debt to the Goons, all of us, that I years ago just resigned myself to the fact that Milligan is my master and I'm really just following behind him. Perhaps I'm walking backwards for Christmas, across the Irish Sea, but that's Spike up ahead of me and I'll never catch him.

(Phil Austin, Firesign Theater)

The quartet were also big fans of The Beatles and enjoyed littering their scripts with references to obscure Beatles album tracks. Listen carefully for a lyric from ‘Rocky Raccoon’ inside the first four minutes of The Further Adventures of Nick Danger – Third Eye.

Image sourced from Wikipedia.

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