Desperate times call for desperate responses in popular culture. But while the controversy, protests, paranoia, and confusion sown by the first few weeks of the Trump administration is of historic proportions, it’s a little early in the curve for the creative community to have answered back in full. Until that time — and it may be weeks — one tempting choice is to go forward into the past.
Thankfully, I have the ticket. What would you say to a forgotten satirical masterpiece that takes place in a parallel America, one where we lost World War II (we were fighting Fascism, remember?), where television has replaced reality as the organizing principle of people’s lives, and where resistance isn’t even possible as long as you’re hooked up to the 24-seven entertainment machine?
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers,” a 1970 LP by the four-man comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre. Elected into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2006, the record is 47 years old and plays like it was recorded yesterday.
Most of you remember the Firesigns, if you remember them at all, as that hippie comedy act your best friend’s acidhead older brother was into in the late ’60s. This has not been to the benefit of the group’s reputation. Based in Los Angeles and made up of David Ossman, Philip Proctor, Peter Bergman, and Phil Austin — the last two now sadly deceased — The Firesign Theatre specialized in conceptual narrative comedy that interwove goofball surrealism with diamond-hard social criticism. They’re perhaps best known for “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger” (1969), a dandy but relatively straightforward private-eye parody off their second album, and also for “I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus” (1971), which only predicted virtual reality, computer hacking, and the surveillance state.
“Don’t Crush That Dwarf” is their pinnacle, though, and it’s less a comedy album than a brilliant 46-minute Cinerama movie for your ears. The correct comparison, actually, is not to film or sketch comedy or even radio plays but to literature: This is the aural equivalent of a classic Thomas Pynchon novel or something by Kurt Vonnegut — like Billy Pilgrim of “Slaughterhouse-5,” “Dwarf” hero George Tirebiter is “unstuck in time,” only he’s stuck living his life through an endless loop of TV shows.
(I got lucky; I was turned on to the Firesign Theatre when I was a kid and went to a summer camp in Maine where most of the counselors had been hired from a military academy in the Midwest. That meant they were either jarheads in the making or, more likely, rebellious screw-ups who’d been sent to the school in a failed last-ditch attempt to straighten them out. They were smart, fearless, distrustful of authority, and they worshipped the Firesigns to the extent of retooling huge chunks of “Don’t Crush That Dwarf” as campfire skits. They warped me forever, and I only regret I never got around to thanking them.)
The album is available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon — the usual suspects. An upfront warning: The group does itself no favors by starting “Don’t Crush That Dwarf” with eight long minutes of noise and nonsense set backstage at a televangelist show, cracked hymns and all. Only after that chaotic stumble does the sound fade into the tinny squawk of a TV speaker and we hear George Tirebiter wake up. It’s the middle of the night — well past an unspecified government curfew — he has the munchies, and no one will deliver to his sector up in the hills. But there’s this weird religious show on TV and suddenly they’re offering him food; you can hear the hot buttered groat clusters slither out of the speakers into his hands.
It’s a Faustian bargain. As soon as Tirebiter partakes of this unholy communion, he’s sucked like Lewis Carroll’s Alice into his TV set and lives from youth to old age ping-ponging between random channels and shows, each given the Firesign treatment. Game shows, chat shows, kiddie shows, demented news broadcasts (“Big light in sky slated to appear in East, sonic boom scares minority groups in sector B, and there’s hamburger all over the highway in Mystic, Conn.”), and ads, ads, ads. Ads for gun shops, ads for unnecessary Ronco-style kitchen devices, ads for Napalmolive laundry detergent, ads for vacation properties (“Here’s a line of Indians leaving Rancho Malario for you. Here’s the beautiful Trail of Tears golf course. . .”). It’s a vision of American pop culture and the forces that control it that is brutal, hilarious, and terrifying in equal measure.
There are bad puns, there is high doubletalk (“the Department of Redundancy Department”), and there are certain running themes. Taking off one’s shoes, for one thing, is a sign of rebellious freedom, and nonconformity; this being the Firesigns, there’s a lot of conformity to the nonconformists. Some of the jokes are funny ha-ha. Most are funny burrow-into-your-brain-and-make-you-bust-out-laughing-inexplicably-a-week-later. This is why Firesign cultists recognize each other in the wild through random catchphrases that only they seem to find insanely funny. The album is many-layered, multi-tracked, and gorgeously produced; I’ve been listening to it on and off for almost 50 years and I’m still hearing new things in it.
The high buffoonery on “Dwarf” eventually coalesces around two long-form movie parodies, both “starring” the unlucky Tirebiter. The first, “High School Madness,” is a vintage Andy Hardy/Archie Andrews mash-up in which “Peorgie” Tirebiter and his shiftless pal Mudhead try to save their alma mater, More Science High, from being stolen, apparently by their rivals at Communist Martyrs High School (which may or may not be a government-built false front). The second is a 1950s-style war film, “Parallel Hell,” in which Lt. George Tirebiter balks at killing unarmed “gooks” — Vietnam and the My Lai massacre were very much on the comedians’ minds, but any application to more recent American adventures abroad stands.
Both “movies” climax with trial scenes that at a certain point fuse breathlessly into one, Tirebiter struggling to escape his pre-programmed fate amid some of the finest Dada courtroom dialogue you’ll ever hear. (“Do you promise to covet property, propriety, plurality, surety, security, and not hurt the state? Say ‘what’.” “What?” “Take the stand.”)
It’s all a sham, of course, a fake; Peorgie Tirebiter has sold his soul for nothing. “They lied to me,” he says to Mudhead as the album seems to break down around his ears toward the end, just before the TV set, uh, excretes him back out into reality.
“Who’s ‘they?’,” responds Mudhead, to which Peorgie says, “You know — them.” The paranoia is all-encompassing, worthy of Beckett, Kafka, and other great pessimists, and it reaches to the highest places in the land. As the politician says in the campaign ad that whizzes past your ears at one point, “I’m always right . . . and I never lie.” Sound familiar? “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” was relevant in 1970, and you’d better believe it’ll be relevant tomorrow. Give it a listen. But maybe take off your shoes first.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.