“I’m too young to have been around when these were current,” reads one YouTube comment posted to a piece of Firesign Theatre material, “but as soon as I heard their first four albums or so, my dad’s jokes suddenly made sense.” Responding to another clip, someone else recalls, “My father quoted bits of their show throughout my entire childhood, and as we got older we asked where they came from.” A third commenter appears below yet another artifact from a Firesign record: “My dad has been listening to this since it came out in 1969, and I myself have been listening to it since he showed me it when I was seven in 1989… and we’re STILL finding new things about it.” I count myself in this parade of late-twenties-early-thirties listeners who embrace enthusiasm for the Firesign Theatre as their patrocliny. Having never known a world without all four of these guys whom Robert Christgau was calling “the grand old men of head comedy” even in 1977, we find ourselves not just dismayed but startled by the passing of founding member Peter Bergman last Friday.
For a refresher course — or even a first course — in the inimitable Firesign sensibility, look no further than the quartet’s 1970 album Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, available in four parts on YouTube. Enthusiasts of studio-recorded comedy consider it the Ulysses of the form (or even its Finnegans Wake), though you won’t have to perform quite so much scholarship before you’re allowed to laugh at the jokes.
In the late sixties and early seventies, Bergman and his co-surrealists Phil Austin, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor realized they could use then-modern recording studio technology not just as a facility for capturing comedy, but for creating comedy — a new kind of comedy nobody had ever heard before. Layering speech upon noise upon sonic abstraction, the Firesign Theatre did with the traditions of radio comedy what Steely Dan did with those of jazz and rock, crafting a dense satirical polyphony of jab, wordplay, allusion, and controlled inarticulacy that yields different laughs on different levels depending on where, when, and who you are. This proved the ideal way to tell the story of Don’t Crush That Dwarf’s protagonist George Leroy Tirebiter, former teen actor and current wee-hour channel-flipper in a dystopian future Los Angeles clouded with evangelism, hucksterism, and creeping paranoia.
Bergman himself said they made their records to be heard about eighty times. If we in this newest wave of adult Firesign Theatre fandom believe the college stories our fathers tell, Don’t Crush That Dwarf could play eighty times during the course of a single party. (Before the invention of the internet, I suppose you took your intellectual stimulation where you found it.) Unlike them, we didn’t come upon the album by way of an insistent friend sitting us down with a pair of headphones and a joint; we’ve been hearing Dad play the thing since we were in diapers. I find it impossible to imagine a childhood — indeed, an existence — without constant references to hot-buttered groat clusters, Morse Science High School, Ersatz Brothers Coffee, or the Department of Redundancy Department. I haven’t quite heard the Firesign Theatre’s masterpiece eighty times yet, but whenever I put on their interpretation of Hesiod’s five ages of man by way of the five ages of Tirebiter’s life, I listen with the confidence that it will last me through five of my own.