RIP Peter Bergman; Hear the Firesign Theatre’s 1970 Masterpiece

“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.

Links to each part of Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pli­ers: one, two, three, four

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (8)
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  • Tamaresque says:

    I was a teen when these came out and I found them hilar­i­ous and dis­turb­ing at the same time. I remem­ber anoth­er 2 albums called “We’re all bozos on this bus” and “Wait­ing for the elec­tri­cian or some­one like him”. Won­der­ful stuff.

  • Ed Muller says:

    I met Peter & Phil,when they were on tour as a com­e­dy duo, Proc­tor & Bergman,after the show I intro­duced myself,and offered to get them baked on some real­ly good herb,and being who they were,they took my wife& I back to their motel room. They were going to a local col­lege FM sta­tion tdo a liye interview,so we did­n’t have a whole lot­ta time to hang out & get acquainted„I rolled a quick fat­tie or two for them to take with em,Peter was wear­ing a Bear Whiz Beer T‑shirtat tha time,and I remarked on how cool it was,and he whipped it off,ran into tha bathroom,sprayed tha pits with Right Guard and gave it to me! What a guy! Later,at home ‚we tuned in to hear them,and we heard them alright,coughing & choking,from tha gold bud Colom­bian J’s we had giv­en them,and laf­fin’ it off and turn­ing it into a bit of impro­vised insanity,we so loved a d admired.….and that was only two of them…what coul­da’ happened,if it had been all four of tha boys.…???

  • Mike says:

    I don’t remem­ber who turned me on to Fire­sign but wish they had­n’t. I find myself repeat­ing lines from their albums in nor­mal every­day sit­u­a­tions. It’s almost as if my life has become a Porgey and Mud­head movie. Where am I? Can’t get there from here. Wait, was­n’t that line on the oth­er side of the album?

  • Alastair says:

    Are these videos avail­able any­where else? They are list­ed as pri­vate on YouTube

  • james says:

    These are pri­vate as the per­son on top of me said. now 1 year lat­er i spec that this is not going tobe fixed.

  • Ron Jakobs says:

    Where is the skit of Caligu­la argu­ing with him­self?

  • Steven Strauss says:

    A sketch is not a skit. Thank you from com­e­dy writ­ers every­where.

  • Chris says:

    Ahhh yass squeeze the wheeze!

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