at the Elbo Room

When I was in high school, Firesign Theatre was all the rage. Everyone I knew had just about memorized “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” and some could even spout obscure phrases from the stranger albums. Lines like “If you have kids, like I know I do,” “Designed with your mind in mind,” and “We’re all bozos on this bus” were more than jokes. They were a way of establishing kinship among Firesign fans, of confirming whether or not you were part of the group.

I still admire Firesign’s gift for calling up complicated, imaginary worlds through words and sound effects alone. No one has ever equalled them. Joe Frank’s self-indulgent, self- consciously experimental radio show “Work in Progress” (broadcast on WBEZ on Sunday nights) comes close. But his work doesn’t so much stretch the medium of radio as simply translate to the box populi elements of performance art: minimalism, postmodern irony, and story telling.

Locally, Waveland Radio Playhouse, which performs live comedy revues disguised as live radio broadcasts, tries to follow in Firesign Theatre’s footsteps. This trio of talented comedians–Jim Garner, Dan Shea, and P.J. Byrnes–have the makings of a good act, an act that would probably be better if they didn’t follow quite so closely in Firesign’s footsteps.

Many of their routines are obviously derivative of Firesign. Their surreal radio serial “Smitty, Wolfboy of the Yukon”–“Canadian by birth, wolf by adoption”–owes much to Nick Danger. Many of the strange voices Byrnes and Garner come up with sound like they were lifted straight from Firesign Theatre’s albums, especially Byrnes’s falsetto woman’s voice. Their parodies of radio ads (for products like Radium Toothpaste and Sudsy Soap, “the clean soap in the handy paste”) sound so much like Firesign bits they could pass for plagiarism (though to the best of my knowledge they are not). (It’s beyond me why anyone would even try to do radio-ad parodies after Garrison Keillor has done the genre to death.)

Which is not to say that Waveland’s derivations are not entertaining. They are. But Waveland Radio Playhouse has a long way to go before it comes close to approximating either Firesign’s stoned surrealism or its artful anarchism. Where Firesign was determined to ridicule everything the mainstream world takes most seriously (rational discourse, linear plot lines, the comforts of technology), Waveland Radio Playhouse seems determined only to lovingly poke fun at the anachronism of radio.

And that’s OK. Waveland Radio Playhouse shouldn’t go out of its way to lift another group’s 20-year-old style. Instead, Garner (who writes most of the material), Shea, and Byrnes should work harder at creating their own comic voice. Without a doubt the best moments in the show –the rapid-fire puns, the throwaway place names (Heck City, the Lazy Brother-in-Law Ranch, Doctor’s Hospital of Medicine)–are also the most original. And when Waveland Radio Playhouse outgrows its slavish devotion to Firesign Theatre, there will no longer be something hollow at the center of all their yucks.