Firesign Theatre founder Peter Bergman dies at 72

Another great light of the 1960s counterculture has gone out. Peter Bergman, founder of the psychedelic-era comedy troupe Firesign Theatre, died March 9 at 72, leaving behind a legacy of densely layered, intricate, and sly political, cultural, and musical humor.

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Firesign, which Bergman created when he invited three friends and colleagues to a radio program he was hosting in California in 1966, became a cult obsession of the stoned set, which felt its knowing yet outsider perspective matched their own alienated sensibilities. In a series of wildly creative recordings from the late 1960s to the early 1970s Firesign displayed a reckless creativity that never reached mainstream status, yet remains innovative, fresh, and clever even 40 years down the road.

Among many, many appreciations of Bergman that sprouted up in the days since his death, the Eulogizer feels that blogger Jeremiah Horrigan captured the essence of Firesign’s appeal – for those to whom the group appealed – as well as anyone:

Firesign…devised a comedy form based on old-time radio tropes that they then bent to their own wickedly comedic designs in recordings that satirized the hip and the straight, the stoned and the sober and everything in-between. They found and skillfully mined gold in everything from quiz shows to TV evangelists to high school principals to B-movies starlets. You’ll find everyone from James Joyce to Allen Ginsburg to Raymond Chandler lurking somewhere in the shadows of their multi-layered audio scenarios. They brought the art of the nonsequitur to new heights; the cry “Shoes for Industry!” still reverberates in the brain pans of their adoring fans.

Firesign epitomized hip humor before anyone knew hip humor was even possible – before Monty Python, SNL or Second City. You didn’t have to be stoned to appreciate their surrealistic sojourns, but it helped enormously if you were. And even if you weren’t toked up or tripping your brain cells into jelly, a five-minute exposure to any of their dizzy, dazzling first five albums could convince you that you actually were stoned. Everything they said in albums like "Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him" or "Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand me the Pliers," made perfect sense. Then it made perfect sense the 17th time you heard it, but in a different way.

A Daily Kos blogger lamented the fact that Firesign never broke out of its cult, college-aged audience and that the rest of the entertainment industry ignored the group’s cutting-edge work:

I thought an entire industry would come out of what they were doing, in the same way the Beatles produced the British Invasion. Instead, we got lame stoner dreck from Cheech and Chong….and then Saturday Night Live. SNL had 1/10th of the audacity of the FST, none of the smartness, none of the jazziness…. And by the late 1970′s it’s as if the FST(‘s)…comedy as a surreal theater of the mind — had never happened. The industry reverted back to their "Funny Guy Live On Stage" default.

Yet for the group’s fans, the Eulogizer among them, Firesign’s work is unforgettable. I saw the group perform during its early-70s heyday, and they brought their recordings’ multilayered, tape-looped, many-voiced skits to life in an indelible fashion.

Bergman was host of an all-night radio call-in show on alt-radio station, KPFK, in Los Angeles a program he titled, “Radio Free Oz,” which brought the group’s four members together.

“We started out as four friends, up all night, taking calls from people on bad acid trips and having the time of our lives,” Austin told the New York Times. “And that’s what we always were: four friends talking.”

Their first album, “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him,” came in 1968, followed by “How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All?,” which introduced their most widely known character, Nick Danger, “Third Eye,” a Surrealistic private eye whose adventures were an homage to everything from film noir to the avant-garde. The third Firesign album, 1972′s “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers,” was described by the Times upon its release as “a mind-boggling sound drama” and a “work of almost Joycean complexity.” The group worked together, on and off, for three decades, while all of its members, including Bergman worked solo. He wrote and produced several one-man shows, “Pyst, a CD-ROM parody of the video game MIST, and the film, “Americathon.”  He revived Radio Free Oz as a podcast in recent years, and his final words were broadcast three days before his death from leukemia:

“Take heart, dear friends. We are passing through the darkening of the light. We’re gonna make it and we’re going to make it together. Don’t get ground down by cynicism. Don’t let depression darken the glass through which you look. This is a garden we live in. A garden seeded with unconditional love. And the tears of the oppressed, and the tears of the frustrated, and the tears of the good will spring those seeds. The flag has been waived. It says occupy. Occupy Wall Street. Occupy the banks. Occupy the nursing homes. Occupy Congress. Occupy the big law offices. Occupy the lobbyists. Occupy…yourself. Because that’s were it all comes together. I pledge to you, from this moment on, whatever it means, I’m going to occupy myself. I love you. See ya tomorrow.”

Bergman was born in Cleveland. His parents hosted the Cleveland radio show, “Breakfast With the Bergmans,” and his father also was a reporter for The Plain Dealer. Bergman graduated from Yale and taught economics there as a Carnegie Fellow. In a note he wrote for the Firesign website, he said: “In 1957, as an incoming freshman, I was traded by Harvard to Yale. harvard got a guy who could row, and Yale got a Jewish boy with good SATs. He later attended the Yale School of Drama as a Eugene O’Neill playwriting fellow. He moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s .

Firesign’s website is bursting with commentary from fans who lamented Bergman’s death. while numerous websites posted links to Firesign programs.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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