Played by a brass band augmented by accordion, fiddle and assorted percussion, the overture for “Let’s Eat!,” Hal Wilner’s tribute to the Firesign Theater, sounded like something one might hear at an addled fairground. It’s just the right note to hit when you’re dealing with the Los Angeles-based quartet’s humor, where puns, obscure references, musical parodies, mimicry and politics strike in dizzying, layered salvos.
In a two-hour program drawn from the four classic albums Firesign wrote and recorded in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the “Let’s Eat!” skits, re-created by a troupe of actors and musicians including John Goodman, Stan Ridgway and Todd Rundgren, were occasionally dated in their references. But the world they limned felt amazingly, if uneasily, contemporary. B-movies run on TV all day alongside vapid talkshow banter (Him: “It’s been a year since the world ended.” Her: “At least as we know it.”); ranting evangelists; sado-masochistic gameshows (“Beat the Reaper,” where contestants win if they correctly guess what disease they have contracted); and anchormen who deliver “the rumors behind the news.” The counterculture has become the culture and imposes its idea of correctness with an iron fist, as police officers arrest citizens who aren’t “groovy.”
Prescient in their distrust of media saturation (this from an era in which even the biggest cities had maybe five TV channels) and pre-postmodern in the way their characters question their fictional state, the skits are a kind of lysergic updating of old radio comics such as Bob and Ray and Stan Freberg whipped up to a hilarious froth with Orwellian dread and Joycean wordplay.
“Let’s Eat!” stays true to the spirit of the albums by returning to their roots: radio plays. Seated on Royce Hall’s stage with scripts in hands, the cast members stepped up to the microphones, occasionally using the podium or pulpit on stage for effect. Highlights included Bob Odenkirk as the existential, Cal Worthington-styled used car salesman Ralph Spoilsport; Mark McKinney as Porgie Tirebiter, the star of Paranoid Picture’s “High School Madness!”; and David Thomas, who added a craggy madness to the various preachers and hucksters that populate the Firesign world. Rundgren’s rendition of the faux-hymn “O Blinding Light” and Wainwright doing his best Gene Autry on “Back in the Saddle” honored Firesign’s talent as pasticheurs.
Production wasn’t without hitches — cues were missed, lines fluffed and, at one point, Goodman lost his place in the script. But the troupe, enjoying itself immensely, overcame the rough spots with humor and panache.
Not everyone got the joke; after intermission, about one-third of the initially sold-out Royce Hall was empty. But Firesign fans, those who spent hours memorizing the albums (and the Firesign Theater’s four members, who took the stage for a bow) appreciated the respect given the material. As the albums remind us, “Abraham Lincoln did not die in vain; he died in Washington, D.C.”