Firesign Theatre — Fighting Clowns

1980: Firesign Theatre brings its incisive political humor to modern politics. It’s hard to explain, but in 1980, the ’60s seemed decades away. The early Firesign material from the late ’60s had always had a veiled political message, and sometimes played with some spoofing of characters like Nixon. 1977’s “Just Folks” was a gentle introduction to President Carter, but wasn’t political per se. They didn’t really take on politics directly, until “Fighting Clowns.” But oh boy did they.

Fighting Clowns – cover by Phil Hartman. Yes, that Phil Hartman.

Very uncharacteristically, this is really a musical — in some cases it’s even set up like an old-time musical movie, where the dialogue is clearly leading into song. It focuses on the concern at the time that we might get involved in Afghanistan — oh, how silly were we to worry about that? For those who don’t remember, the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was hugely controversial, and Jimmy Carter signed a proclamation re-establishing the Selective Service registration requirement — the draft. That cost him my vote (no, I didn’t vote for Reagan, ya knob. I voted for John Anderson). The reinstatement of draft registration required all men born in 1960 to register at a post office during the week of July 21, 1980. Those born in 1961 registered the following week; those born in 1962 registered at the beginning of 1981; after that, males were required to register within 30 days after their 18th birthday. This led to numerous protests, organization around resistance, and a very difficult decision for many of us. I was absolutely opposed to Carter’s empty show of strength, and would not be used for sabre-rattling. I’m still opposed to requiring registration when there is no draft, but especially then, still in the shadow of Vietnam, I could not participate in military theater. Of course, by the time it was under way, Carter was no longer president, and Reagan was, and the likelihood of going to war seemed even higher. I wasn’t a conscientious objector (which didn’t exempt one from registration anyway) — I simply objected to this pointless show of strength. Draft us or don’t.

I knew someone who went to prison over it, a guy named Andy Mager. He was very public about his resistance, and as a result was one of the handful of men who were ever prosecuted. He was sentenced to 6 months, released after 4-1/2 months. But that didn’t mean that failure to register was unnoticed, and I know that I received many reminders that I needed to register. I don’t believe I did until the time that Andy was being prosecuted, when I had to make a decision: did this mean so much to me that I was willing to go to prison for it? If it didn’t, what was my point in continuing to refuse to register? Civil disobedience only works if you accept the consequences. By that time, it was clear there was not going to be a draft for Afghanistan, and while our peace-loving nation is always at war, it seemed unlikely at the time that there would be a draft for anything in the near future. When I was originally required to register, I was a rising college junior (and a drunken fuckup at that), with some strong ideals and little likelihood of being called on them. When the time came to make a decision, to either stand up or stand down, I was married, newly sober, developing something like a career, and had responsibilities. Going to prison to make a point wasn’t the point I wanted to make. So, I registered, and that was that.

But that was still just a little bit in the future when I began listening, obsessively, to “Fighting Clowns.” This is both uncharacteristically political, at least in the sense of in-the-moment politics (because how long could Afghanistan be a hot button issue, right?) and uncharacteristically musical. It takes the form of a musical review, interspersed with audience bits, a visit to a coke-fueled ’70s hot tub party (“gross out, man”), scenes from Afghanistan and more. Despite the topicality, there are quite a lot of lines from this seared into my brain, and none more than the interactions of Fudds, a punk rock band that slides the cry of “Are we hostages?!” into “Are we sausages?!” into the chant “Who are we? We are sausages! We are sausages with eyes!” and just like that, the band has two songs. When one member threatens to quit the band, another mumbles that he guesses he’ll go rejoin The Doobie Brothers, while another pleads, “You can’t quit the band! Your amp’s in my van!”

Fighting Clowns back cover

I’ll give the boys credit: from their jabs about his stupidity and age, it seemed like they didn’t think Reagan could win. They seemed to have more faith in the country than that. But Jimmy Carter was a realist, a pragmatic, administrative president, and boy do Americans hate a president who does anything tell them how great this country is. And they really hate a president who, when he makes a mistake, admits it. Taking responsibility for a failed rescue attempt in the Iran hostage crisis meant he was toast. By the time this was out, it seemed pretty clear that Carter couldn’t win. The hostage crisis showed our enemies how easy it is to manipulate us politically, which helped lead to the situation we’re in today.

In addition to the album, I have the 7” single picture disc from Fighting Clowns as well, featuring the cover artwork. You know how the kids say “I was today years old when I learned” something? Well, despite being someone who reads album credits pretty carefully; despite knowing that among his many talents, designing album covers was a small sideline; despite having had this album for 40 years now, I was yesterday years old when I learned that this cover was created by Phil Hartman. Yes, that Phil Hartman, later to become one of Saturday Night Live’s most important utility players ever, Around the time he designed this, he must have been working to create the original Pee-Wee Herman stage show, still some years before he would become an incredible star. (He also created numerous album covers for Poco and America).

Fighting Clowns promo sleeve
Fighting Clowns promo sleeve
Fighting Clowns promo sleeve
Fighting Clowns promo sleeve

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