Porgie Tirebiter, he’s a spy and a girl delighter
Porgie, firefighter, he’s a student like you.
If you grew up in the U.S. in the 1930s or 1940s, you probably got to experience radio theatre as a mind-expanding and, when done well, mind-infesting form of entertainment that tapped into the imagination in a way that television usually lacks. It has something to do with allowing our brains to do the extra work of creating the visual world – which is closer to dreams, in composition, than to the concrete reality depicted in TV shows and movies.
If like me you are too young to have experienced the age of radio, the very next best thing, which was as good and probably superior, was the Firesign Theatre of the 1960s and 1970s. The selection included here was my first introduction and I can remember it like it was yesterday.
The year was 1973 and Weasel was still on the midnight shift at WHFS FM (102.3 in Bethesda, MD). If you were in junior high school and prone to lying in bed awake way too late, Weasel was one of your best friends.
Anyway, one night Weasel played the entire first side of Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers. As usual, the selection came on without any introduction (he’d detail each playlist after the half hour or so). I’d never heard of Firesign Theatre and could not tell what I was listening to, whether it was a show or separate things or bunch of commercials or what – but because of the format, and the late hour, I was drawn in. My first introduction to “theater of the mind.”
The Hour of the Wolf News came on, with the talking head noting “Adam, one threes and sebien negritude will come as a pleasant surprise to his honorary aquarium parents Ralph Bunch and Ida Lipino,” then the food was coming through the television, then Porgie and Mudhead, and though a voice in my head was saying “What the hell IS this?” they had me mesmerized.
The jokes were good enough, but it was the parallel reality that made the program so enrapturing. You often can’t tell what the joke is until your mind figures out the context …. and then you realize the context itself is part of the joke – riffing on tropes and expectations that leave you skimming along the edge between the separate reality and this one. I had never experience anything like it.
Unfortunately, I did not get to hear Weasel’s recap of what the hell that was, which meant although I tried to explain it to my friends, I couldn’t. If you were growing up in the American suburbs in 1973 reality had a fluid aspect to it anyway, so for many months afterwards all I was left with was the vague memory of another world.
Another DC station at the time used to play The National Lampoon Radio Hour every Sunday night before The King Biscuit Flower Hour. That very short-lived National Lampoon program was amazing – a couple years later sending several alumni to start Saturday Night Live – but even though I listened and listened I never heard anything like a reprise of that very weird late night episode.
Then, one night in 1974, again on WHFS, they played a selection from “I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus” and I managed to hear the recap. And within a couple years I probably had bought every album the Firesign Theatre produced. I can still say, even after this many years, there has never been anything like them.
When you get a chance, and have 20 minutes or so of uninterrupted time, put on the headphones, close your eyes, and check out Don’t Crush That Dwarf. If you are in Colorado, you can probably even get the full 1973 experience.