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A Cranky Journal of Themed Design and Development

"Mundus Vult Decipi . . ."

The Firesign Theater's
"I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus"
as Preemptive Satire of Themed Design
and Development (Among Other Things)

By E "Eddy" Edwards

#14 // June, 2005
In 1971, the Firesign Theatre released their third big 12-inch, long-playing, stereo-HiFi record album I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus. Bozos was a satire on the uncomfortable closeness of the conservative/revisionist social "vision" of history and society that so much of Disneyland represented, especially as presented by that refugee from the 1964 New York World's Fair, the nascent human A-A figure of Abe Lincoln in Great moments With Mr. Lincoln.

Bozos, in addition to aiming its barbed audio darts at Disneyland (still then the only Disney park), also did so at science, and history museums and the "we've got nothing to fear, but fear itself" and "jobs is on the way" techno-jingo/optimism and David Gelernter-defined faiths in the basic social, civic, and technologic systems of the United States in the 20th century engendered by so many of them.

Some 34 years after its first release, I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus is to us still a powerful satire of badly conceived and executed popular entertainment and education, presidential politics, and the co-opting of science education, especially the pretensions and easy clichés that have found their ways into oh, so much of the themed design and development in the last 30 years. Think, especially the first 15 years or so of Epcot and its pre-thrill ride, "by God, you're going to learn a good lesson here, buddy-boy, and don't think you're not. Now, sing along with the crooning vegetables, punk! Oh, and have a good time!" attitude of showmanship days.

Ladies, gentlemen, Bozos
The Firesign Theater was and still is the alphabetically-ordered Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Phil Proctor. In the late 1960s and through the first half of the 1970s (they've broken up as a group up and rejoined again off and on through the years), The Firesign Theater where not just creating distinctive surrealist social and political humor, they were also reintroducing and reinventing what used to be known as "old-time" radio theater to the counter-cultural FM-tuned A'GoGo listening audiences of Southern California and, thanks to their creation of a series of LPs, to the world.

All Are Up Against the Wall of Science!
For those of you who haven't committed to memory the whole of I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus (because you can't give too much of your hard-earned dough), or for that matter, for you who have never even heard of it before, here is this:

Bozos seems to take place in the near future, a time we are told, when "fighting is out of style." This pronouncement comes from holographic "walkaround" characters / mouthpieces / happy faces for what we will come to recognize as an autocratic, government-controlled media-fed America (sound strangely familiar?). Fighting out of style? Perhaps a post-war (on terrorism) world that finds America at the top of the global heap? Governmental confidence reigns supreme in Bozos, at least within the government itself. That could be a good thing, except that there also seems to be a huge amount of unemployment in these days of modern Bozos times.

The solution: keep the people dazzled by government-inflicted edutainment as presented through all manner of high-tech hi-jinx! Fill their abundant free time with the wonders of "government as science and science as government" by loading them onto party (line) buses and drag `em off to The Future Fair: "Fair to all and no fare to anyone! That's right! It's free!"

The story begins as a Future Fair bus is about to leave its last stop before the Fair. Onto it leaps our hero, Clem. Onboard he meets up with Barney, a Bozo among Bozos: perpetually happy dudes -- women are, in this retro era, Bozo-Ettes -- who seem to just like to get together and, well, be bozos. After a period of "technical stimulation," all are left at the main gate, at the business end of the Funway, the central avenue of The Future Fair. "The future is fun! The future is fair! You may already have won! You may already be there! Welcome to the future!"

From the Funway, Clem makes his way to the Wall of Science, an omnificent-mover dark ride through a history of the transformation of the mythological nonsense believed by pre-scientific savages into the good, solid, approved science of this, our modern day. From here, Clem is ushered into the presence of "our President," a H(W)all of Presidents-like attraction featuring the only President who pretends to take questions from the audience to which he replies with a canned non-answer (again, sound familiar?).

In the presence of the President, Clem seems less a loner and more of a guy from the inside (Clem refers to the President by what seems to be insider slang as "Spring Head."). It's clear that Clem has information on how the President works and, using the speech recognition system that runs the Fair (and mistakenly hears his name as "Uh, Clem"), he stops the attraction and is assumed to be a maintenance worker. Unable to get past the gatekeeper software of the President (or is it just a case of bad programming?), he causes the President to crash / shut down / go 101 ("the ride is closed? But I waited 20 minutes from here. Hey, Paolo! He broke the


Back out on the Funway, in an attempt to escape the authorities (we start hearing announcements for "Mr. Uh, Clem, please report to the hospitality shelter"), Clem joins up again with Barney as an assortment of free-moving midway attractions come sailing by, all touting different "low" attractions (Hideo Bolt's Bolt-A-Drone! and Mark Time's Haunted Space Station!) that all seem to be dedicated to allowing the disenfranchised Fair attendees to work off some of their literal and psychic angst brought on by their pre-post-modern technically stimulated life.

Finally, the system catches up to Clem in the form of one of the holographic walkaround characters. Barney is amazed when Clem reveals that this character is just a technical simulation/stimulation. Worker Clem clones himself ("Hi! I'm Uh, Clem!") as a hologram and sends his clone "back to the shadows," that is, inside the mind of Dr. Memory, the Übber-computer for the whole of the Future Fair, perhaps the whole of the country.

Inside, the Uh, Clem-Clone is again assailed by a series of gatekeepers before he actually meets Dr. Memory. The Uh, Clem-Clone asks Dr. Memory if he remembers the past: response: yes. He asks if Dr. Memory remembers the future, a question that is not odd if you are a Steven Hawkings-level theoretical philosopher / physicist or an "um, cool, the walls are melting" stoner, both not inconsiderable parts of the Firesign audience. Response: again, yes. "Well," says the Uh, Clem-Clone, "forget it!" Chaos reigns as Dr. Memory begins to simultaneously erase the past and the projected future. The Uh, Clem-Clone, Dr. Memory, the Fair, everything, goes up in a barrage of the Future Fair Nite-Time Firework Spectacular.

In the end it is revealed that all this was just a dream, or rather a fantasy told by Clem, now seen as a gypsy fortuneteller, in terms heard during the ride through the Wall of Science as related to a rube, our Bozo pal Barney. The future (and the escape there from) is nothing more than concepts pitched by a charlatan to a willing clientele in the on-going effort to make a fast buck and meet the needs of the marketplace (well, hell, yes! Sound like any design group/creative think tank of your experience?).

It is worth noting that "Clem" and "Barney" are both carny slang for fights, especially between carnys and locals, and both names are often used in general parlance to refer to "just some generic guy." It is also pretty doubtful that "Clem" or "Uh, Clem" are the hero's real name; startled when suddenly asked his name buy an animatronic character, he stammers "uh, Clem." For the remainder of the story, when his name is played back, we either hear his own voice saying, "Uh, Clem" or hear others say "Uh, Clem."

Clem is definitely an insider, knowing the backstage secrets of how this place is run, and uses his knowledge to wreak havoc with attractions, avoid security after he has done so, and finally, literally, getting into the mind of the Fair causing the destruction of the system, both computerized and political, or so it seems. He is identified as "Worker" by the system when he uses the language that causes the show to pause and opens it up to repair. What sort of worker is Clem? Variations on Bozos in the Firesign Theater live stage show have Clem, played by Phil Proctor, introducing himself as "laid-off nerd who programmed all of this." So, "Uh, Clem" is, perhaps, himself a Reimagineer who's been purged from the system, but hasn't had the system purged from himself?

The The Breaking of the President
There does not seem to be in the English language a word to describe "pre-emptive satire, yet they do exist. While still in college (well, USC, but there's nothing wrong with that), Dan O'Bannon wrote the script for, and acted in, a student film later expanded into the feature Dark Star (1974). The story of a small crew of astronauts blowing up unstable planets across the length and breadth of the galaxy, in their travels they take onboard their spaceship an alien creature who started out small and manageable, but rapidly became a sizable and dangerous pain in the ass ("When I brought you on this ship, I thought you were cute."). Five years later, screenwriter O'Bannon co-wrote Alien, the quintessential space-gothic "killer alien brought aboard a spaceship" movie. The preemptive satire of Dark Star can be seem in the alien-running-amuck scenes that are the sorts of offhanded satires that would be found filmic quoting a block-buster like Alien in a silly, low-budget science fiction flick like Dark Star, even if they hadn't both been written by the same guy.

Another example, naturally, are the pre-emptive satires enacted in Bozos, satires that go above and beyond the immediate references to c. 1971 Nixonian politics and Disneyland. Looking back, it is easy now to also see satires of so much of the design and development thinking in the museum and theme park rackets in the years since the release of Bozos.

A listing of the latter-day satires in Bozos include:

The The Bus
Where Clem meets Barney and receives (along with the listeners) an eye/earful of "government inflicted simulation:" a drop from the rim to the bottom of the Grand Canyon followed by a high-speed nature film of the sun racing across the sky. "Was that real?" asks Barney. "Who knows?" replies Clem, in a classic moment of "I know, but it is all a part of the creative omerta to play dumb with the rubes." Also, a preemptive satiric nod at the simulator craze of the mid-1980s. Is the bus a combination of Temple of the Forbidden Eye simulator on wheels? Or is it more, a complete 4-D theater with a diesel engine?

The The Wall of Science
The name taken from a combination of The Hall of Science of the 1933 Century of Progress in Chicago and the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows slam-danced up with the popular saying, "Up against the Wall," so very popular with Leroi Jones, the SDS, and members of secret police hit squads -- financed with your black-ops tax dollars -- around the world.

The ascendancy of the dark ride as an interpretive tool
I love dark rides, even the worst of them is worth the while, if you are in the right state of mind. Imagine then how happy I am that the museum-y folks, especially those in Europe, for some as-yet unknown reason, are finally adopting this medium as an interpretive tool. Of course, educational rides have been with us for quite a while, starting probably with the Futurama look at the world 21 years in the future that was a central part of the 1939 New York World's Fair. 31 years in our past, of course, was The Wall of Science in Bozos. The audio trip that we take through this attraction (works best in stereo so that you can hear the sounds passing by) takes us through the Dawn of Man, through the myths of by those silly savages of the pre-enlightened Future Fair times and then through presentations, seemingly live, that hips us to the real dope about from whence existence really sprang. It's well to note that the "incorrect" myths are entertainingly presented by a stentorian-voiced narrator, very proper and impressive, where as the "scientifically accurate" pieces are awkwardly presented and told in a definitely indefinite manner (which, considering the flack that real science has been taking of late, may be the real preemptive satire of this piece): "We know for certain for instance that for some reason for sometime in the beginning . . ."

"Personalized" attraction / exhibit content
Could also be known as "The Uh, Clem Syndrome," especially when it doesn't work very well. Remember ET at the end of the ET Adventure and Pointless Snooze-Fest attraction? "Goooooood-byyyyyye, Eeeee-Eeeeeedee-Ed-oop." I guess that was supposed to be me. Sure, personalized attraction and exhibit content is something that many designers have been promoting for years, and it has made it's way into any number of museum-y venues, though usually n the form of a smartcard system and the ability to take a personalized presence through your entire experience. Or so it is always pitched, but seldom put into action for a variety of financial, technical, and "gee, I dunno. Seems like it might be a lot of fun. Let's not do it" reasons.

The "Disneylandification" of museums
As has been mocked (cruelly, or so it was my intention) in these digital pages in the past, an all-too common whine of the museum crowd during "creative" sessions is, "well (smirk, sneer), what we don't want here is Disneyland, fer crying out loud!" This is usually said when too much attention is being paid to such touchy-feely matters as guest experience and repeatability, engaging storytelling, and queuing techniques that don't make people yearn for the efficiency and charming themeing of, say, gridlock on the San Bernardino Freeway on a smoggy August afternoon. Well, OK, that said, Bozos does offer up just that sort of scenario feared by these dull chumps. It's by setting it in the "baffle `em with techno-bullshit" world of the Future Fair that we see what happens when "other agendas," in this case keeping the people in line by disdainful dismissals of human-scale mythologies while offering up an equally mythical presentation of an official science story.

In these days of Creationism and Intelligent Design and other pseudo-pseudo-sciences replacing real science in venues both scholastic and "edutational," it might seem that the Firesign lads had missed the boat. Indeed, it's tough to work on museum projects these days that have anything at all to do with dinosaurs and nature and, well, things of that nature. Just how many times can you type "life in the Age of the Dinosaurs" and thereby not offend a major contributor who has faith that "them damn dinos you're talking about can't be more than 4004 years old and didn't die when a comet hit the Earth. It was the flood, you heathens . . ." But, agendas will be agendas, and in 1971 there were different ways of controlling unruly thinking, just as there are ways now . . .

Revealing, finally, that highly creative themed design and development professionals are akin to cheap gypsy fortunetellers and rip-off artists.

Damn right! Or at least, we all kinda wish . . . "Hey! Where's my crystal ball? The rubes, uh, clients are almost here!"

In these early years, the Firesigners plied their trade across So-Cal, so the occasional beneath the berm of the beloved Disneyland can be assumed. The Firesigners possessed no small amount of additional themed history cred as well. David Ossman has written that the construction of Bozos

". . . [W]as shaped as a series of dioramic, holographic, disneylandish carnival rides . . . On the album, the main ride had been drawn from images suggested by Norman Bel Geddes' 1939 Futurama, an audio trip through the idyllic, plexiglassed, Art Deco City of the (1960) Future . . ."

While ostensibly yet another Disneyland-slam, albeit it the most perceptive, Bozos was also a damning of US national politics and of the use of popular media and of the high-mindedness of science to keep the people cowed and complacent. Using and abusing the optimistic/opportunistic remembrances of the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition and the 1939 New York World's Fair, Bozos takes a dystopian "bread and technological circuses" look at a Nixonian-inspired near-future America: simulated exhilarations, empty talk from our leaders, and the use of media and edutainment venues to mollify the tax-paying rubes.

Revealing the shocking truth and doing in an engaging manner. What a novel concept . . .