Everything You Know is Wrong, Firesign Theater, Columbia (Sony) records 1974
Humor doesn’t usually age very well. Films that were a laugh riot when I first saw them are likely to be an embarassment when I rent them twenty years later. I’ve had favorite comedy albums over the years, but most of them seem boring and silly when I hear them now.
Some efforts are inspired enough and lucky enough to avoid this curse. Every time I see Monty Python and the Holy Grail I laugh harder, and am more amazed than ever that something so nearly perfect could have come together with such a hodge-podge history and a miniscule budget. But this is a rare thing.
The Firesign Theater were a hippie comedy troupe that did most of their work in the late 60s and early 70s. Much of their stuff is either trite, incomprehensible, or both, and so you have to approach their catalog carefully. But there were specific points at which they transcended their limitations (which were many) and created some work that was very close to inspired. Really, there are only two and one-half albums you should consider listening to: the Nick Danger side of How Can You Be in Two Places at Once?, and the two albums Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers and Everything You Know is Wrong.
One of the significant innovations in comedy that happened in the late 60s was the recognition that a parody becomes one hundred times funnier if it also accurately mimics the thing being parodied. I first ran across this while reading National Lampoon, a satirical magazine that may still be around. When it started, the humor was first-rate, but the overall production of the magazine was amateurish. Then somehow they managed to hire a real art director, Michael Gross, who understood this deep truth about parodies. Suddenly things changed, and the Playboy parody looked like a real issue of Playboy, and the Mad parody looked like a real issue of Mad; details were mimicked down to the smallest detail, and it all became much, much funnier. Saturday Night Live carried this tradition into television (although SCTV ultimately did it much better), and now you are likely to cringe if a parody is done without such attention to detail.
The Firesign Theater understood this truth, and while the rest of hippie humor was venturing off into Cheech and Chong stoner routines, they were working hard to recreate the sound and feel of old movies, old radio shows, television commercials, man-in-the-street interviews, and more. What made it all especially funny was their stoned ironic detachment from what they were doing; they would get as much pleasure from twisting words around, or putting on a weird accent, or tossing in an obscure reference, as they would from getting to the punchline. The result was a swirling surrealistic atmosphere, where you came to take a deep and admiring enjoyment from the execution of the routine, much less than from the routine itself.
I probably hadn’t heard Dwarf or Everything in about twenty-five years, and so I was a little nervous about popping them into the CD player. Would I just feel embarassed and stupid about ever having liked this stuff? Well, it doesn’t approach the heights of Holy Grail humor, and there are a few clunky spots, but for the most part I’m laughing as much as I ever did. I can’t recommend them wholeheartedly—this was an acquired taste even back in its heyday—but it’s solid and well-done and not as time-bound as I expected.
Dwarf is the more surreal of the two albums. It centers around a movie, High School Madness, a sort of Archie and Jughead parody, which is being played on late-night television. The television aspect gives them the opportunity to do routines about TV evangelists, game shows, nostalgia shows, travelogues, war movies, and all kinds of commercials. And everything sounds like the real thing—a pep rally, a late-night TV announcer who is having technical difficulties, a telephone call where the caller has a TV evangelist running in the background. I think much of the surrealism was aimed at making some deep and meaningful point, one that isn’t worth digging out, but it makes for a fun ride.
Everything You Know is Wrong is probably their best album, because it takes all the other elements and adds accessibility. The storyline is more coherent, and it parodies a number of things that were front and center in public consciousness at the time—the New Age movement, Evel Knievel’s jump across the Snake River Canyon, the comet Kohoutek, Uri Geller, and alien encounters. Here’s how the record begins:
(strains of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustrua’, aka the theme music from the movie 2001)
I don’t know how you came by this record, but you are now embarked upon a journey that must certainly lead you to change your life forever. If you were never a special person, you are a special person now! Hello, seeker! Now, don’t feel alone here in the New Age, because there’s a seeker born every minute.
Yes, I’m Dr. ‘Happy’ Harry Cox, and call me happy because I am! Because you are listening to another in a series of my mind-breaking records, Men Never Lived on Earth, which started off with I Came From Outer Space, followed by Strangers at our Door, which includes the ultra-high-speed recording of real gas music from Jupiter! If you haven’t got ’em, buy ’em now! I was right about the comet! Get ’em and see why! Write me here in my award-winning communications trailer, Space 9, Blue Mouse Trailer Resort, Hellmouth, California, 90666.
(echoing voiceover) Dogs flew spaceships! The Aztecs Invented the vacation! Men and women are the same sex! Our forefathers took drugs! Your brain is not the boss! Yes, that’s right! Everything you know is wrong! (end voiceover)
Hello, seekers! Here we go again! And hello to the skeptic inside you who might still believe that pigs live in trees, and that faithful Rover is nothing but a pet sleeping by the doggie door. Well, doggone it, he’s smarter than you’ll ever be! Yes, I’ve got proof here that his ancestors came from the Dog Star milllions of years ago to rule the earth! He’s been there—and you probably don’t even know where you are. Don’t believe it? Well, listen to this.
And it goes on. All of this sounds exactly like the cheesy recording a conspiracy nut would have put together in his trailer outside Area 51 in the high desert of California. At some point it morphs into the actual story of Dr. Cox’s encounter with aliens, which doesn’t turn out exactly the way he expected.
Stay away from the rest. I don’t know why such a talented group would end up making exactly two and one-half funny albums, but there it is, and these are them.