Film Review: ‘Firesign Theatre—Just Folks…Live at the Roxy’

Firesign Theatre Live at the Roxy

On albums like How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All and Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, the Firesign Theatre proved to be one of the most innovative and fascinating comedy acts of all time. The quartet’s multilayered stream-of-consciousness recordings are like an LSD-spiked version of old-time radio. You can listen to the same stuff over and over and hear something new, weird, and/or hysterical each time.

If, like me, you did just that when the group was in its prime in the late 60s and early 70s, you’ll be excited to learn that a newly reissued DVD called Just Folks…Live at the Roxy lets you see what you’ve been merely hearing all these years. You’ll be less thrilled when you actually view the disc, however. A mice-type disclaimer on the jacket indicates that the Roxy performance, from 1977, “has been remastered from the only known source recording, a Umatic videotape.” That’s an embryonic analog videocassette format and, says the disclaimer, “picture quality is proportionate [sic]” to its limits. Those limits are apparently severe because the 57-minute Roxy show exhibits the worst picture quality I can recall ever seeing on a commercially released disc. The jacket advises listeners to “sit back with your eyes wide shut and open your mind,” which is good advice; but if you do that, you might as well be listening to the group’s records.

On two talk shows, the Firesign Theatre’s members sound about as likably silly as they do on record. On David Susskind’s program, they actually appear in clown costumes.

The video quality isn’t much better on an eight-minute bonus clip from a 15th anniversary 1981 show, but two other bonus features—appearances on the talk shows of David Susskind in 1974 and Bill Boggs in 1981—are more watchable. On these programs, the group makes some serious and interesting comments about their work; mostly, though, they sound about as likably silly as they do on record. On the Susskind program, they actually appear in clown costumes.

I enjoyed these interviews—which together run about as long as the Roxy performance—and I suspect that serious fans might consider them sufficient to justify this DVD’s price. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that even the most devoted Firesign follower would want to sit through the disc’s grainy main event more than once—if at all.

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