How Firesign Theater’s surreal comic TV ads got an L.A. dealer franchise pulled
Recently, a Minnesota car dealer took up comedian John Oliver’s challenge regarding silly local car dealer ads, gaining that store national exposure and millions of views on social media. A half century ago, a local Volkswagen dealer in Los Angeles challenged some comedians that he’d sponsored on the radio to come up with some original ads that he could run on late night television. What they created have not only endured as some of the funniest, and weirdest, car commercials ever, they were so strange that the dealer lost his franchise, or at least that’s how the story goes.
With the Beatles at the forefront, the 1960s saw a sea change in the music industry. Individual stars singing covers of songs written by professional songwriters gave way to musical groups performing their own material. At the same time, recording technology had advanced so those groups had access to multi-track tape machines, allowing them to overdub and create sound collages, essentially turning the studio into another instrument.
Comedy also underwent revolutionary changes with mother-in-law jokes giving way to social commentary about often taboo subjects like sex and race. By the late 1960s, perhaps inspired by rock groups, a number of comedy groups achieved some success using those same recording techniques to create audio skits and movies of the mind. The most famous of those groups was the duo of Cheech & Chong, whose lowbrow stoner humor sold millions of records and filled arenas, but they were but one of a number of successful comedy teams doing countercultural humor in the late ’60s.
Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy shop spawned the Conception Corporation, which released two moderately successful albums. The Congress of Wonders came out of the Bay area and opened for rock acts at the Avalon and Winterland ballrooms. Members of the Credibility Gap group went on to star on the LaVerne & Shirley TV series and in Spinal Tap. None of those groups, however, achieved the level of commercial success and cultural influence as the Firesign Theater.* The Library of Congress, which has acquired much of Firesign Theater’s original material, called them “the Beatles of comedy.” Never as popular as the actual Beatles (of course), or even Cheech & Chong, Firesign—as the group is known to fans (who continue to buy their original albums, newer compilations, and DVD releases)—had a more cerebral appeal, with cultural references ranging from Shakespeare to the Beatles to the Bhagavad Gita.
The references were so plentiful and so damned funny that Firesign’s best material stands up to repeated listenings, with new laughs possible even a half century after the material was originally released. If Cheech & Chong was stoner comedy for high school kids fooling around with Qualudes, Firesign Theater was stoner comedy for college kids taking LSD. That could explain why the Grateful Dead’s 1972 European tour obliquely referenced Firesign’s fourth album, I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus. To be honest, they’re just as funny when you’re sober and it’s easier to catch more of the references.
Frankly, Firesign was probably too smart and too weird to ever reach a huge general audience the way Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin did, but the group still had plenty of success.
The nucleus was formed when Peter Bergman, a Carnegie Fellow and Woodrow Wilson Scholar at Yale—who later worked with playwrite Tom Stoppard (author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Shakespeare In Love)—met fellow student Phil Proctor, who had worked in musical theater as a youth and on Broadway as a young adult. Bergman gravitated to Los Angeles, where he started a show called Radio Free Oz on the listener-supported Pacifica Foundation station KPFK, and what became the Firesign Theater (so named because three of the four members were born under astrological “fire signs”) coalesced around the show. According to Bergman, “I started July 24th, 1966 on KPFK … I had some very interesting people around me, which those folks became the Firesign Theater: David Ossman was connected with the station, Phil Austin was connected with the station, and Phil Proctor came out to do a show and we connected in L.A., and that was really the genesis of that whole happening.”
In 1967, the year of San Francisco’s “Summer of Love,” Los Angeles had its own scene of hippies and self-professed weirdos like Bergman. He’s attributed with coining the phrase “Love-In,” and that summer he promoted the first Los Angeles Love-In, held in L.A.’s Elysian Park, attended by 40,000 people, on his radio show. Firesign was on the bill and gained enough attention to be offered a five-year recording contract with Columbia Records, while Bergman was able to move the Radio Free Oz show to KRLA 1110 AM, giving him and Firesign a much wider regional audience. In January 1968, Firesign Theater released its first album, titled Waiting for the Electrician, Or Somebody Like Him, which initially had modest sales, about 12,000 copies that year.
Enter Jack Poet, who owned Jack Poet Volkswagen on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles. Jack was a bit of a nonconformist. He and Peter Bergman had both lived in the same “artistic community” (i.e. hippie commune) called The Farm outside of L.A. in the 1960s. Poet lived in a teepee there. According to Bergman, Poet considered himself to be a “connoisseur” of fine cannabis (which explains why Poet’s obituary mentions his support of California’s Prop 15, which legalized medical marijuana), and he was eager to share with his friends and associates, including the comedy group. By 1968, Bergman had moved Radio Free Oz to “free form underground” FM station KMET in ’68. That station format, in which it was common to be playing extended album versions of songs and sometimes even entire albums, was amenable to Firesign’s movies of the mind concept, based in part on 1930s-era radio shows. While Firesign’s record sales were modest, the group started getting airplay on FM stations across the country. Jack Poet Volkswagen began to sponsor Radio Free Oz. Originally, Bergman wrote a series of radio ads himself, performed by him impersonating Poet, accompanied by David Ossman. Then the full group wrote and produced another series of radio ads.
At the time it was right between the recording of Firesign’s first and second albums. In an interview, Proctor told me that Columbia Records didn’t quite know what to do with them and was going to drop the group. According to Proctor, at a meeting of Columbia execs, the head of the label’s Masterworks Spoken Word division stood up and said that that they were reinventing comedy, and if the main label dropped them, he’d sign them to his division. According the Bergman and Austin, James William Guercio, who had successfully produced the Buckinghams and would go on to produce Blood Sweat & Tears’ hits and Chicago’s most successful records, gave Firesign his support, and famed producer and talent scout John Hammond also vouched for the group. That backing resulted in Firesign getting pretty much unlimited recording time at Columbia’s studios whenever the studios were otherwise not booked. That raised their game, as they were able to record, play it back for review, and then edit and overdub, honing their comedy to a sharp edge.
Their second album, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All, introduced radio detective Nick Danger and Third Eye, probably the group’s most popular character, along with characters with Beatles references Rocky Roccoco and Betty Jo Bialowsky (“Everyone knew her as Nancy”), and caught on with FM rock stations. In time, their first four albums on Columbia went gold, and two others went platinum. Proctor said that Columbia treated them like a rock band. In some ways Firesign Theater got treated better than many rock bands, since Columbia never billed them for their studio time.
Members of the group were all friends with Poet, and according to both the group and Poet’s employees they hung around the dealership a lot. According to Proctor, the radio ads were successful enough that in June 1969 Jack decided to produce some TV ads. The guys in Firesign ended up writing and performed in eight TV commercials: six one-minute spots and two longer form two-minute ads. The commercials aired on L.A.’s Channel 13—briefly, as it turned out. In the early days of television, most sets could only receive the VHF channels 2 through 13. Major American cities usually had three VHF television stations affiliated with the three national broadcast networks. In many major cities, CBS stations were typically on Channel 2, NBC affliates on Channel 4, and ABC affiliates on Channel 7. Independent stations were often assigned to VHF channel 13. Those independent stations typically ran syndicated shows, reruns, and, late at night, old movies. The movie shows often had C-list celebrity hosts and sometimes contests and giveaways. Car dealers like Poet would often sponsor the movie shows.
Not only were Firesign’s ads for Jack Poet VW full of surreal comedy, with characters like “Christian Cyborg, General Manager of Jack Poet VW” and “Bob Chicken, Custom Head of Jack Poet Volkswagen,” the fact that they parodied local dealer TV ads that ran on late night TV, and were themselves local dealer TV ads running on late night TV, added to the surrealism. Firesign was meta before meta was meta.
Bergman and Phil Austin were both car guys. According to Proctor, Bergman “loved cars,” and in later years Austin and his wife traveled the country to follow the NASCAR circuit. Proctor, though, never had a car until he moved to Los Angeles and was confronted by L.A.’s car-centric culture. The combination of insider knowledge and outside observer led to some very clever comedy regarding that culture. Much of Firesign’s satire was pointed at the way people were manipulated into buying things, often parodying radio and TV commercial. Proctor said they were trying to subvert mindless consumerism. That meant cars and car dealers were a natural foil for their comedy.
It should be pointed out that capitalist excess was not Firesign’s only target. Bergman had studied economics and labor history, and although he played the fool he was nobody’s fool. They may have been trying to subvert mindless consumerism, but they were creating product for the biggest record company in America. They also mocked communism. The album cover for How Can You Be In Two Places At Once features members of Firesign on a Politburo-looking review stand below the slogan “ДLL HДIL MДЯЖ LЗИИФИ,” with photos of Groucho and John. The album’s credits mention “The All-People’s Fecal Chorus.” Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers, the group’s third album, features a high school rivalry with “Communist Martyrs High School.” They also made as much fun of hippies (“W.C. Fields Forever,” “Return for Regrooving”) as they did so-called straights (George Tirebiter).
As a writer, I try not to use cliches like “legendary” and “ironic,” but irony surrounds the Firesign Theater. Many Firesign fans can recite verbatim the group’s fictional ads on their albums for “Ralph Spoilsport Motors” without ever realizing that those “ads” were poking fun at Ralph Williams, a real L.A. car dealer who originated a lot of local car dealer tropes and memes. Proctor played the character of Ralph.
“Hiya, friends! Ralph Spoilsport … Ralph Spoilsport Motors—the world’s largest new used and used new car automobile dealership—Ralph Spoilsport Motors—right here in the city of EMPHYSEMA! Let’s just look at the extras on this fabulous car! Wire-wheel spoke fenders and two-way sneeze wind vents, star-studded mud guard, sponge-coated edible steering column, chrome fender dents, and factory air-conditioned air from our fully factory-equipped air-conditioned factory! It’s a beautiful car, friends, with doors to match! Birch’s Blacklist says this car was stolen, but for you, friends, a complete price: only two-ninety-five hundred dollars in easy monthly payments of twenty dollars a week, twice a week, and never on Sunday!”
Yes, my Honda Fit has a Ralph Spoilsport Motors license plate frame: “Head in any direction on the freeway of your choice.”
The Firesign Theater Jack Poet VW commercials also made a nod to ads from another legendary (yeah, I know, but it fits) California car dealer Cal Worthington, whose ads typically opened with the announcement, “Here’s Cal Worthington and his dog Spot!” Although Spot was always some kind of animal, like a hippo, or a tiger, it was never a dog. The Firesign Theater Jack Poet ads featured Bergman’s own actual dog, Nurgi.
The members of Firesign Theater considered the Jack Poet VW ads to be some of their best work. To use an automotive metaphor, they were running on all four cylinders, an appropriate metaphor as one of their commercials for Jack Poet had the four of them singing the jingle We Are The Spark Plugs of Your Car. When writing, the four of them would sometimes mind meld into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts—a fifth member of the group if you will, hence the name of their publishing company, Four or Five Crazy Guys.
They were young and eager, and Poet gave them complete freedom—perhaps too much, as we will find out. He believed so much in their work that he even took out ads in L.A.’s alternative newspaper, advertising when the ads would run.
Today they might get cancelled for cultural appropriation, or worse, because of ethnic characters like “Tony Gomez for my amigos Latinos,” but those ads were quite possibly the first local dealer ads that specifically tried to sell cars to the Latino community of L.A.
Firesign’s Jack Poet ads have had an evergreen life online, perhaps because the comedy doesn’t come across as dated. Their original run on late night Los Angeles television over 50 years ago, though, was very short.
According to a 1970 interview with Bergman, “The TV commercials played on Channel 13 and only played for a week and a half before Volkswagen said, ‘Get those m***********s off the air; I don’t care what you have to do.'”
Doyle Dane Bernbach was Volkswagen of America’s advertising agency. DDB’s award-winning print ads for the Beetle, bus, and Karmann Ghia were essential in establishing the success of the Volkswagen brand and company in the United States and were intimately linked to the automaker’s image.
In Bergman’s version of the story, when the ad men at DDB saw the Firesign’s Poet ads they went ballistic. They figured Jack Poet had bypassed them and hired some hip new ad agency, and they complained to VW corporate, which pulled Poet’s franchise. While it would be difficult to verify that story, the fact is that dealer franchise agreements give automakers substantial power when it comes to dealers meeting standards for advertising and the brand’s public image.
The story is also believeable because Volkswagen and DDB were very sensitive about that public image. How sensitive were they? Sensitive enough that VW sued National Lampoon for $30 million for defamation and copyright infringement over a 1972 parody ad that aped the look of DDB’s print ads for VW while mocking Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick incident with an image of a Beetle floating on water. Because the parody actually included a VW logo, Volkswagen’s lawyers were able to force a settlement that involved recalling over 100,000 copies of the magazine, destroying the printing plates, and NatLamp issuing an apology.
In a recording made in 2009 for a DVD release, the group discussed their relationship with Jack Poet, how the ads came about, and how VW pulled the franchise, in part due to those TV ads. That recording, along with the eight TV ads, was released in the 2016 DVD compilation of previously unreleased Firesign material, Everything You Know Is Wrong.
Firesign didn’t receive any cash (or cannabis) for doing the ads. Instead Poet had given the Beatles of comedy free leases on four VW Beetles, which were each custom painted with different psychedelic paint jobs. You can see some of them, along with Austin’s own personal, rather beatup Beetle, in the ads. Come to think of it, VW might not have liked the fact that in promoting the dealer’s service department with Austin’s beatup personal VW they joked that it needed daily repairs. They were completely irreverent, routinely misidentified cars, calling one VW a “Nash Rambler.” When Volkswagen of America terminated Poet’s franchise agreement, they also terminated the leases on the custom painted Bugs.
Ossman tells the story how after VW closed Poet’s dealership he was driving down Laurel Canyon Boulevard in his free Bug when he got pulled over by a recovery company, which proceeded to repossess the car, making him walk home.
DDB might have had a clue about Firesign possibly being a hip, new ad agency as the group went on to do radio ads for Carnation Instant Breakfast, International House of Pancakes, and Pizza Hut.
If Jack Poet Volkswagen is remembered by history, the ads that Firesign Theater produced for the dealership will likely be a factor in that remembrance, even though those ads may have caused the dealership’s demise. That’s genuinely funny, the very definition of irony, and, considering the involvement of those four or five crazy guys, suitably weird.
Peter Bergman passed away in 2012, and Phil Austin died in 2015. Phil Proctor, at 81, is still a first-call voice actor for leading video game producers and major television and film studios. You may not recognize his name, but I’m sure you’ve heard his voice. His website is planetproctor.com. David Ossman, 84, lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife.
Jack Poet went on to own a Toyota dealership, one of five car dealerships in which he was the principal. He died in 2012, the same year as his longtime friend, Peter Bergman.
I’d like to thank Phil Proctor and Firesign’s archivist Taylor Jessen for graciously providing me with their time and access to the Firesign Theater archives.
*Firesign Theater’s Jack Poet VW television ads were recorded on the relatively low resolution portable color video equipment in use in 1969. When displayed with our website’s default video settings, they can get pretty pixelated (though that’s kind of appropriate, considering how weird they are). If you’d like to watch them on a smaller screen that’s a little easier on the eyes, as well as listen to Firesign’s radio ads for Jack Poet, you can find them on Firesign Theater’s website.