As a seasoned fan and purveyor of broadcast audio, it is very easy to come to the conclusion that you’ve heard it all before. A quick scanning of the dial reveals very few things that veer away from the mundane and into the realm of the worthwhile, or even manages to be compelling enough to stick with for more than a few minutes. More often than not, you’ll be much more entertained by merely tuning the knob for an hour. Or, at least, you won’t notice much of a difference between stations if you do.
Listening to recordings of The Firesign Theater has almost nothing to do with that kind of experience. Equal parts Dada, performance art, verbal psychedelia for the sake of psychedelia, and pitch-perfect satire, this radio ensemble manages to consistently perform incredible feats of radio-tastic tomfoolery in a way that no other American (with the possible exception of Don Joyce) has been able to do. In many ways they are the Monty Python of broadcast radio, except that The Goon Show already managed to fill that roll, and more to the point, there is a sort of Marx Brothers style anarchic mania to Firesign that seems far too rooted in North American style and culture.
And that is, of course, the point. Sounding more like a drugged out, stream of consciousness, border radio, theater of the mind version of NPR anyway, Firesign occupies that very special place in media were they are simultaneously satire and statement, comedy and commentary, absurd and art, all at once. Nonsensical parodies and impersonations transition to insightful observations about modern junk culture, filtered entirely through late ’60’s cynicism and the medium of broadcast radio. In a lot of ways, it is far too much to take in all at once. Cursory listeners might be shocked to hear an audio veneer that is far too similar to your average talk radio station. Dig a little deeper, and you’re shocked to realize that there’s well thought out, scripted, carefully observed satire at play, that is more and more rewarding with each repeated listen. (Just parsing all the cultural references, many buried in double and triple enendres, can be a full time job.)
I’ve only just discovered Firesign, which is fortunate for me because there are hours and hours (and hours) of their recordings, both released and fan traded, for future digestion. In a world where it is increasingly more and more difficult to distinguish the difference reality from representation, Firesign effectively blurs, points out, mangles, and comments upon the line that separates the two in one of the most unique ways I’ve every had the pleasure of hearing.
Plus: it’s perfect to cook dinner to.