The Firesign Theatre: "I Think We're All Bozos
On This Bus" by Ted White
This review is from the March 1972 Amazing Science Fiction Stories (cover price 60¢).
COLUMBIA RECORDS, C30737, 1971. LP ALBUM, $4.98.
"The five lifestyles of the man of the future are, starting from top to bottom, though it's circular: First, the Berserker. Clue to a Berserker: Anybody who's got a gun. Anybody in a lime-green car with eight foot tires, called Demon or Barracuda. Any Army officer, anybody in uniform...There's a Berserker aspect to all of us. You can play softball with a Berserker. A Berserker doesn't always have to kill, but in the back of his mind it's not a bad idea.
"Under the Berserkers are the Zips. The archetypal Zip is the 1930's guy with the thin moustache. Zips have always been concerned with hair...There's a Zip in everyone's kip, is the World War One English expression. Zips love new products...
"Bozo is the Brotherhood of Zips and Others. Bozos are people who band together for fun and profit. They have no jobs. Anybody who goes on a tour is a Bozo. Why does a Bozo cross the street? Because there's a Bozo on the other side. It comes from the phrase vos otros
, meaning others.
"They're the huge, fat, middle waist. The archetype is an Irish drunk clown with red hair and nose and pale skin. Fields, William Bendix. Everybody tends to drift toward Bozoness...They mean well. They're straight looking except they've got inflatable shoes. They like their comforts. The Bozos have learned to enjoy their free time, which is all the time.
"Now the Boogies...They take it easy. They don't zip. They're not Bozos because they don't clone. They boogie around rather than hang around one another. The Boogie.
"The other class is the Beaners..."
--Firesign Theatre members in Rolling Stone interview
Like the story-lines in their albums, the above description of "the five lifestyles of man in the future" exists as much between the lines as in them. Take those Bozos for instance: unlike the Boogies, they "clone." How is that word intended? As a literal description--all Bozos fathered by the same cell? Metaphorically, because Bozos look alike, act alike, and tend to stick together? Or as a pun on "clown," which they so closely resemble? Or--more likely--a hazily defined combination of all three?
In the same interview they state, "The thing that delights us most is finding a metaphor which people can read in as many different ways as possible...We retreat from things that are too specific and think, "How can this be implied, generalized?" And in the implication we can get a newer reality."
A newer reality
This is the intersection between the Firesign Theatre and sf: The search for a metaphor which leads to the recasting of the metaphor as a newer reality in and of itself.
In four phonograph albums, released over a period of four years, The Firesign Theatre has been creating a new artform. Ostensibly "hip" comedy records, these albums are more surreal than comedic, although they are laced with humor. "We have more in common with surrealists than satirists," one of the members of the group says. Building on the base of radio drama--voices, sound-effects, a cast of four with the talent to create as many different and diverse voices as are needed--the Firesign Theatre are creating something new, in a unique new medium. "People have difficulty believing that [what we do] is art. We feel we're involved in the development of a completely new artform for the spoken word."
It is by no accident that this artform has developed on the phonograph record. The Firesign Theatre began as an improvisational radio group on one of the hipper west coast FM stations, but their work is far too dense to be completely appreciated on a single hearing; had they remained solely radio players they would have been stunted by the inability of their audience to rehear and go more deeply into their work. But a modern lp record not only gives them enough time to develop a theme (up to an hour; more often forty minutes), but can be replayed as often as one likes.
Comedy records are notoriously short-lived in their impact; who today still listens to his copy of The First Family
--that smash hit of 1962? Who, indeed, listened to it more than twice? The Firesign Theatre's records, on the other hand, reward repeated listening--indeed, they demand it.
It is impossible to adequately describe one of their records to someone who has never heard them, and I shan't try. But I can attempt to describe why I think their records demand your attention, as science fiction readers, and why I believe Bozos
deserves the strongest consideration for a Hugo this year. (Last year their previous record, Don't Crush That Dwarf...
, was nominated; the award in that category--Drama--went to No Award, unfortunately.)
The sf author who comes closest to what the Firesign Theatre are doing--and he by no means duplicates their efforts--is Philip K. Dick, most especially in his The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
. In that novel you'll recall, reality becomes so plastic that, after the first third of the book, it is impossible to tell whether objective reality in any way matches up with the subjective reality experienced by the protagonists, each of whom has entered and cannot escape from the fantasy world of Palmer Eldritch. Indeed, the line between objective and subjective reality has disappeared, due to Eldritch.
starts deceptively simply, with the arrival of a tour bus at the local street corner (what local street corner? where? when?). It advertises itself as a tour bus to the future, and the apparent viewpoint character, Clem, decides impulsively to board it. What follows seems at first a straight-forward satirical tour of an Expo of the future, cyberneticized, hologramized, and neatly extrapolated from Disneyland and the marvels of recent World's Fairs. But in a Firesign Theatre story-line nothing is simple; nothing is straightforward. At first one admires the little details, like inflatable shoes, and laughs at the pun-filled explanation of our planet's origins (as purveyed by the tour). But gradually it becomes obvious that Clem is not who he seems to be--that he is at once the author of this future and its victim.
His seat companion on the bus, Barney, appears at first a simple, laughable Bozo ("Go on--squeeze the wheeze; everybody loves to!") whose observation, "I think we're all Bozos on this bus," is taken for the album's title. (Clem: "My mother was a Bozoette...") But this future is Barney's future--it was created for him, as a grim warning of what a mindless place a Bozo's future might really be (and there's a hint that it has already begun with the election of our present President).
Repeated listenings will bring out many of the background details--conversations overlap, just as in "real life"--which offer subtle supportive evidence that indeed this future is as insanely hallucinatory as was Palmer Eldritch's, and as the story begins to draw to a close we penetrate layer upon layer of reality, each making us aware of a new perspective, adding a newer, larger "frame" to the story itself, until finally we become aware that Clem is his own nemesis, the cybernetic "Doctor Memory," that he is in fact a fake gypsy fortune-teller, giving a reading to Barney in a wagon somewhere (where? when?)--the entire record only (after all) a transient fantasy which will be replaced by yet another for the next paying customer, whose fantasy begins as the album ends.
Heavy stuff, this, for a "comedy record." Particularly strong is the second side of the album, in which Clem first begins ripping at the fabric of the future fantasy he has created in his attempt to find his way out. His conversations with the various hologramatic linkages to Doctor Memory have a frightening reality of their own as the cybernetic "Doctor" begins breaking down in an attempt to avoid the confrontation that will end the fantasy. "The Doctor is happy/unhappy," a fragmented voice intones, and one is trapped within the Doctor's dilemma.
But is this science fiction?
"We've tried to write a science fiction piece, but never considered that we'd succeeded," Firesign Theatre claims. The question is still open. Decide for yourself.