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    Beyond the Firesign Theatre: Other Comedy Troupes of the 1970s

    Issue 147

    (WARNING: You may be exposed to adult content and humor of questionable taste.)

    The late 1960s through the mid-1970s was a fertile time for recorded comedy, both stand-up and ensemble. There was even room for folk music comedy, as personified by The Limelighters and The Smothers Brothers. Comics such as Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, and Steve Martin had best-selling albums. Improv groups, of which The Committee was one, also proliferated.

    The title of this article is not intended to imply that the outfits mentioned below are better or more “out there” than the Firesign Theatre. No comedic team that I know of ever surpassed the sophistication and cleverness of members Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Phil Proctor. There were, though, a number of other contemporaneous groups creating recordings that involved comedy outside the realm of stand-up. Everyone knows Cheech & Chong from that era, but I’m going to introduce you to three groups that, coincidentally, also start with the letter “C.”

    The Conception Corporation featured Ira Miller and Murphy Dunne, two members of the famed Second City improv group. The Conception Corporation began in Chicago in 1969 when they added Howard R. Cohen and Jeff Begun. They released two satirical albums on the Cotillion label (a subsidiary of Atlantic Records) in the early 1970s. The first was called A Pause in the Disaster. A lot of the material is edgy and wouldn’t fly in these times of political correctness, but it was funny. Take, for instance, a game show concept where stereotypically white people had to answer questions about Blacks in an effort to win being “Black for a Day.” In a reflection of the times, there was also a healthy (?) dollop of drug humor, as evidenced in a short bit called “Acid Rescue Service” and the soap opera parody “Love of Grass” (a subsequent episode of which was included on their second, more ambitious album Conceptionland and Other States of Mind). “Sunday, Sunday” is a spoof of the old high-energy radio ads for drag races.

      

    Conceptionland’s opening bit, “Rock and Roll Classroom,” is a rapid-fire run poking fun at many elements of school life. It ends with an impressive tongue twister about tie-dyeing a tie performed by “Nancy Fancy with Home Economics” (accompanied by jazz hi-hat percussion). “An Open Letter to the Youth of America” is delivered by a Walter Brennan sound-alike over patriotic music, complaining as codgers do (and I could be one) about the things young people do. The title track is a 25-minute Firesign Theatre-style journey through an imaginary amusement park. It’s hit-and-miss, but “Welcome to Bummerland/The Downer” is pretty funny, taking you on a coaster ride where you are bombarded with a number of life’s unpleasantries, such as slow diner service, insurance sales pitches, draft notices, bad haircuts, and so on. The inside flap of the gatefold cover is devoted to a Conceptionland Café menu with some pretty unusual entries. For example, “Egg Drop Soup” is followed by “Pants Drop Soup (with tail)” or “Planter’s Punch” followed by “Rabbit Punch.” (It was funnier at the time.)

    The complete album is presented here, but you can easily find the individual cuts within.

     

    The Congress of Wonders was a performing and recording duo out of the San Francisco Bay Area. They even opened at music venues for rock bands of the time, like Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Howard Kerr (whose alias was “Karl Truckload”) and Richard Rollins (aka “Winslow Thrill”) released two albums on the Fantasy Label, also in the early 1970s. The first, Revolting, was a pretty solid effort, with standout tracks such as the Star Trek parody “Star Trip” (“These are the voyages of the Starship Intercourse, thrusting its way through space on another penetrating mission”) and “Pigeon Park,” where they envision Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh as old men reminiscing on a park bench in a future where all drugs are legal.

     

    Their second album, cleverly (and appropriately) titled Sophomoric, did not hit my funny bone in the same way that Revolting did. It opens with the soap opera “Sylvia Davenport.” The longest track on the first side is “Cedro Willy,” the un-PC tale of an emotionally challenged orphan who rises to the presidency. The title is a play on the name of a Washington state community, Sedro-Woolley. “Health Man” is presented in three parts wherein the title character is trying to convince a wimpy guy to eat organic food. Side Two is largely consumed by the concept piece “Opheelthis Unchained,” which was recorded live in the studio with an audience. The Greek chorus parts are impressive in their rapid-fire unison delivery.

     

    The Credibility Gap – Although no one from either of the two prior outfits went on to mainstream success, I’m guessing you’ll recognize three of the four members of the second incarnation of this ensemble: Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, David L. Lander, and Richard Beebe. Shearer is responsible for many of the voices on The Simpsons. Shearer and McKean are well known for movies like This Is Spinal Tap and other Christopher Guest parodies (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, etc.). McKean and Lander became TV’s Lenny and Squiggy from the sitcom Laverne & Shirley. The pair released a comedy/music album as Lenny and the Squigtones.

    Los Angeles radio station KRLA was the birthplace of the group originally known as Lew Irwin & the Credibility Gap, with an almost entirely different cast. Irwin, John Gilliland, Thom Beck, Beebe, and folk singer Len Chandler did satirical spots on the station and released one album compiling those spots, 1968’s An Album of Political Pornography. Soon after, most of the members left the group. Irwin was replaced by Lander, Shearer replaced Beck, and the name was shortened to The Credibility Gap. In 1971, Shearer, Lander, and Beebe recorded the Capitol Records album Woodshtick and More (with an assist from McKean). One side is devoted to a sketch about a Woodstock-style festival for Catskill comedians, including musical bits. Side two is entitled “Earwitness News,” and features mock interviews, commercial parodies, and more.

     

    McKean became a full-fledged member for their next album, 1973’s A Great Gift Idea, on the Warner Brothers/Reprise label. Interestingly, like Conceptionland, the inside cover is food-themed, describing the four members as though they were composed of the ingredients of deli sandwiches. Once again, some of the humor wouldn’t make it past the PC crowd, but the album is worth it just for the nearly 15-minute track, “Where’s Johnny.“ (In an obvious misprint, the LP label lists the track as clocking in at 4:45.) It’s a fully produced imagining of a The Tonight Show episode that got out of control. The impersonations are so good that it’s truly believable. Why the YouTube clip of this bit features the album cover artwork for the album Amazon Beach by the Kings is anybody’s guess.

     

    On the so-so musical number “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Hair,” it’s noteworthy that the backing band features the talents of Little Feat’s Lowell George, Kenny Gradney, and Richie Hayward, along with jazz percussionists Harvey Mason and Milt Holland.

    Their next album, 1977’s The Bronze Age of Radio, is a collection of bits originally done for Los Angeles radio. It was released on a smaller label, Waterhouse Records. Here, the standout track is a re-working of the old Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on First?” Shearer is a concert promoter trying to place a newspaper ad, much to the consternation of an ad rep played by Lander. There is a live video of this on YouTube, but, in my opinion, the audio-only version is tighter (the same can be said for Monty Python’s brilliant “Argument Clinic” routine).

     

    All of these albums were staples of my comedy collection in the 1970s, and in revisiting them I noticed a number of ideas that were echoed on other albums. For example, The Credibility Gap’s “Earwitness News” contains an ad for a medication called “Dammitol,” as does a bit on The Congress of Wonders album Revolting. The latter is dated 1970 and the former is listed as 1971. They are not identical, but, chicken or egg? You be the judge.

    Header image: The Credibility Gap, A Great Gift Idea album cover.

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