In 1988, I journeyed to the wilds of Atlanta’s Emory University as a member of Armstrong State College’s (now Armstrong State University) college bowl team; while there, my fellow team members and I lunched at a now-defunct restaurant (Anybody’s Pizza) and on our way back to Emory stopped by a record store to spend the remaining minutes of our meal break time browsing. The store had a sale in progress, and while I don’t recall the total tally for the albums I eventually purchased I do remember the titles, which included two Tom Lehrer LPs: An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, and That Was the Week That Was.
The third bit of vinyl I snapped up was Waiting for The Electrician or Someone Like Him—the debut album of the Firesign Theatre. As a kid, I’d often see their albums in the “Comedy” rack of the National Record Mart store I frequented at the Grand Central Mall in Parkersburg, WV, and later in life, a sales guy who worked with me at a long-departed Savannah, GA radio station in the mid-1980s was always suggesting that I check FST out, believing that I would connect with their surrealistic, sounded-stoned-but-wasn’t style of humor. It only took one listen to Electrician to make me a confirmed “Firehead”; I began acquiring their backlog of titles (at a time when many of them had not been reissued on CD) while seeking out additional outlets featuring the Four or Five Crazy Guys.
If you’re a member-in-good-standing of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful, you may have detected the occasional Firesign reference in some of my scribblings…so it was a no-brainer when my Facebook compadre Jeff Abraham (of Jonas Public Relations) e-mailed to ask if I would be interested in reviewing Phil Proctor’s autobiography, Where’s My Fortune Cookie? My Psychic, Psurrealistic Pstory—published by Parallel Universe and released on September 28th of this year.
The odd title of the book? Well, like all things Firesign, there’s an interesting tale in the explanation. In 1977, Phil and “comedy brother” Peter Bergman (with whom he enjoyed a lifelong partnership in both FST and outside venues) nearly learned how it might be possible to be in two places at once and yet not anywhere at all when gunfire broke out at a San Francisco Chinatown restaurant where they were dining (a skirmish between two Asian gangs). (Phil, a dedicated believer in psychic phenomena, later reveals that this mind-blowing event was predicted by a psychic friend of Proctor’s, several months before it took place.) Despite this harrowing experience, both comedians returned to the stage the following evening for a scheduled performance and squeezed a little levity out of their ordeal. “But luckily I ordered duck!” Phil joked, while Peter complained: “I never got my fortune cookie!”
The story of how Philip Proctor became a founding member of the groundbreaking comedic quartet once dubbed “the Beatles of comedy” is a most engaging one as Phil (ably assisted by his pal Brad Schreiber) details the highlights and lowlights of his life from his childhood days to his voluminous Broadway, film and TV career. Cookie concentrates heavily, of course, on the revolutionary comedy group that was comprised of himself, Bergman, David Ossman, and Phil Austin, but there’s also a wealth of show business anecdotes within these pages—here’s a favorite about one of his big stage successes, The Amorous Flea:
On opening night of the show, I got startled in a delightful way. I got to meet science fiction master Ray Bradbury and his wife, who were friends of the producers, at a party afterwards.
“Did you like the show?” I asked him.
“Oh, I loved the show. My wife did, too.” Bradbury went on to say he never walked out of a play as an audience member. “Even if we hadn’t liked your show, we would have stayed until the end.”
“Well, that’s good of you,” I offered.
“We made that decision,” he went on, “because the one time we decided to walk out of a show, my wife fell down in the aisle and broke her leg.”
There are fascinating stories about Pat O’Brien and TDOY fave John Randolph, and Proctor even dishes a bit of dirt about Bob Cummings, whom he describes as someone who “could overact more than anyone I ever met. He would start at 100 percent and go to 200 percent by the end of the first act. We all thought, well, that’s it. He can’t go any further. But by the end of the play, his energy reached 300 percent.”
However, that’s not the juicy part:
Unfortunately, though I did not know it, Bob was also addicted to methamphetamine, beginning in the 1950s, which at first was injected by a Dr. Feelgood named Max Jacobsen. Believe it or not, when asked, Jacobsen insisted that his injections contained only “vitamins, sheep sperm and monkey gonads.” I’m not sure whether admitting to that or methamphetamines is worse.
The anecdote that really floored me was learning that the late Steve Jobs was a Firehead, and if you say to Siri on your iPhone “This is Worker speaking—hello” Siri will respond: “Hello, Uh-Clem—what function can I perform for you?” (A reference, of course, to the Firesign Theatre’s fourth Columbia album, I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus. If you ask Siri “Why does the porridge bird lay its eggs in the air?” she comes right back with “You can’t shut me down that easily.”)
I’m probably more familiar with Phil Proctor as Rocky Rococo (“…at your cervix!”) or Ralph Spoilsport, which does the man’s talent a tremendous disservice in that he has an infinite list of show business credits ranging from film (1971’s A Safe Place, 1997’s Dr. Doolittle—voicing the drunk French monkey) to television (Phil’s done a ton of voice work for cartoons, notably “Howard DeVille” on Nickelodeon’s Rugrats). Turning the pages of Where’s My Fortune Cookie?, you’ll start to wonder out loud: “Is there anyone he hasn’t met?” The sentimentalist that I have little very success concealing was tearing up at his anecdotes about his late FST colleagues, Bergman and Austin; in the interest of full disclosure, I was fortunate to be friends on Facebook with all three, deliciously savoring devastatingly witty posts from my comedy heroes.
“Half of what I remember never happened,” Mark Twain once observed…and that’s why Phil Proctor decided to write Where’s My Fortune Cookie?—he was coerced by Schreiber one morning during breakfast “to begin the challenging task of telling my story before I could no longer remember it.” I highly recommend this book to my fellow Fireheads, of course…but it’s also a tome that’s equally enjoyable to anyone who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of sitting down with Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers or Everything You Know is Wrong. It’s of great interest to people who’d like to know more about an incredible comic performer.
And remember…in the next world, you’re on your own.