Peter Bergman: Remembering The 'Firesign' Satirist
Peter Bergman, one of the founding members of the four-man surrealist comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre, died Friday of complications from leukemia. He was 72.
Bergman, along with collaborators David Ossman, Phil Proctor and Phil Austin, created satire out of the political and civil upsets of the 1960s and 1970s, blending surrealism, absurdities, non sequiturs, paranoia, parodies of the Establishment, sound effects, in-jokes about hippies and knowing allusions to literature and trash culture.
The group got its start in radio, then began to create intricately layered multi-track comedy records. The late 1960s brought Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, followed by How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All; Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers and I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus.
In 1993, Bergman, Ossman and Proctor joined Fresh Air host Terry Gross for a conversation about their many years of collaboration. Bergman explained that the four got together shortly after he arrived in California to work on a show called Radio Free Oz.
"I went out to California and started this radio show and was playing Indian music and Andy Warhol and Buffalo Springfield and all this pop culture and astrology, and it was a crazy late-night show, and people were going mad by it," he says. "And just before we went on the show that night, Nov. 17, 1966 — I was an astrologer at the time — 'I said, 'We're all fire signs. We're the Oz Firesigns."
The Firesigns' album Don't Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers was placed in the National Recording Registry in 2005. The album, reviewed in The New York Times in 1972, was called "a mind-boggling sound drama" and a "work of almost Joycean complexity."
Bergman is survived by his daughter, Lily Oscar Bergman, and his sister, Wendy Kleckner.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
In the late '60s and in the '70s, one of the hippest comedy groups was the Firesign Theatre. Their sketches were famous for their surrealism, absurdities, non sequiturs, crazy paranoia, parodies of the Establishment, in-jokes about hippies, and knowing allusions to literature and trash culture.
One of the founders of the group, Peter Bergman, died Friday at the age of 72 from complications of leukemia. Firesign made intricately layered, multi-track comedy records such as "Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him," and "Don't Crush The Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers." They all loved old-time radio and often parodied it. From the 1969 album "How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All," here's Peter Bergman doing a radio commercial in the middle of the old time radio sketch "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger."
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ALBUM)
PETER BERGMAN: All right, hold it right where you are. I'm Lieutenant Bradshaw with a piece of advice for you. Now, here in the studio it's all knuckles and know-how, but when that red light goes off, I'm just plain Harry Ames - citizen, weekend father. Now, take a tip from a cop who does: Radio work can be just as dirty and exciting as hunting down public enemy number one. So when I get home, my old lady knows what I need and how - a warm, heaping bowl full of Loosener's Castor Oil Flakes with real glycerin Vibrafome.
It doesn't just wash your mouth out. It cleans the whole system right on down the line. So come on, you little rookies, tell your mom to get on it and do it every day. Just remember what the guys down at the precinct house sing...
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Oh, it ain't no use if you ain't got the boost, the boost you get from Loosener's. Loosener's...
BERGMAN: The all weather breakfast.
GROSS: I spoke with three members of the Firesign Theatre in 1993 after the release of a best-of Firesign anthology. Here's a short excerpt of what Peter Bergman had to say. I asked him to do one or two of the voices he was known for.
BERGMAN: Well, I'm Peter Bergman. And in "Dwarf," well, I play Mudhead. You know, gee, Porg. I didn't know you masturbated. Golly.
PHIL PROCTOR: That's my line.
BERGMAN: And on the other hand, in Nick Danger I'm the tough Lieutenant Bradshaw. Shut up, Danger. That's how you'll recognize me.
GROSS: Let's do a little bit of Firesign history here. You guys got together when you had a radio show called...
BERGMAN: I had a show.
GROSS: What was the show called?
PROCTOR: "Radio Free Oz."
GROSS: "Radio Free Oz." This was on the Pacifica station and Los Angeles.
PROCTOR: Listener supported.
GROSS: So what kind of stuff for you doing then?
BERGMAN: Well, this started in the summer of 1966 and FM then basically was dedicated to classical music and was not a big entertainment, pop entertainment medium at all. And I'd heard Bob Fass's show on BAI just before I came out to California...
GROSS: That's the New York Pacifica station.
BERGMAN: And he was doing mixes of sound and all kind of - and I was very much involved in...
PROCTOR: Fast track.
BERGMAN: ...what was then the avant-garde pop culture. I'd been tangentially with the Living Theatre. I'd been over in Europe. I was in a playwriting seminar with a young guy named Tom Stoppard, a young guy named Piers Paul Read, and a young guy named Derek Marlowe, and me. There were these four 24-year-olds writing...
PROCTOR: In Berlin.
BERGMAN: In Berlin. In Berlin. Yeah. And that's where Stoppard wrote "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern," was in this little house where we all worked. So I came back all full of the avant-garde, went out to California, started this radio show, and I was playing Indian music and Andy Warhol was on, and the Buffalo Springfield, and all this pop culture and astrology and tarot. And it was a crazy late night show. And people were going mad behind it.
And in walks Phil Proctor that I worked with in drama from Yale. And he was the leading man in the musicals that I had worked with. David Ossman had just left the stage and it's PD and gone to put a suit on with ABC, which was not making him very happy. And Phil Austin was engineering and kind of co-producing the show.
Well, all of a sudden, out nowhere, really out of nowhere, the four of us got together. I'd been doing comedy on Radio Free Oz already. We decided to do this thing called The Oz.
PHIL PROCTOR: Film festival.
BERGMAN: Film Festival Jury. And just before we went on the show that night, November 17, 1966, I was an astrologer at the time, OK. I said: Well, you're all fire signs. We're all fire signs. We're the fire sign - we're the Oz Firesign Theater.
GROSS: That was Peter Bergman of the Firesign Theater recorded in 1993. He died Friday at the age of 72. Here's Bergman as Lieutenant Bradshaw in the old time radio detective parody "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye" from a 1969 album.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) And now we return you to act three of Nick Danger: Third Eye.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) When the crazy escalator ride ended and I fought my way back up to the land of the living, I came to, slumped over in the front seat of my own car lying in a pool of cheap rotgut. I had a head full of ideas that were driving me insane and a mouth full of cotton candy.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) You want some more cotton candy, Danger? It might sober you up.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) Oh, my head. Bradshaw, baby.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) Yeah. I never thought I'd be happy to see your ugly mug.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) Save the wisecracks for the warden, Danger. I got you this time and I got you good.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) What are you talking about?
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) Get out of that car.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) Hey, come on.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) If you can stand up. And keep your hands high. I got you covered.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) Hey, what's this all about, Bradshaw? You know I never carry a rod. Hey.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) Yeah, but it's murder what some people can do with a car and I got witnesses to prove it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Nancy) There's the man. Keep me away from him. He did it. Oh, my god.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) I don't know why you're doing this, Nancy, but it doesn't change my feelings about you.
(As Nancy) Oh, Nick, you're such a tool. He did it.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) All right. All right, take it easy, little lady. All right. Now let's get these facts straight. Take this down, Henderson. OK, professor, how did it happen?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Professor) Well, Sergeant...
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) I'm lieutenant.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Professor) Yes. Mitch's father and I were sitting right here in the living room engaged in a friendly round of spin the pickle, yeah. Yes, with our good (unintelligible).
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) Mm-hmm.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Nancy) He did it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Professor) Ah, yes. And then suddenly the door flew open and this drunken madman right here drove in, barking wildly and headed straight for us.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) He's lying, Bradshaw.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) Can it. Can it, Danger.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Professor) At the last possible moment, he stopped on a dime.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) I see.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Professor) Unfortunately, the dime was in Mr. Roccoco's pocket.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) I'm going to break your neck, Candlewood.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) All right, all right.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) Let me at him.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) Hold it, Danger. I've heard enough. We'll get the rest of the story down at the stationhouse from you. I've been waiting for this for years.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) Wise up, Bradshaw.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) Week in and week out, Danger.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) I didn't do it.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) Playing second fiddle while you got all the girls.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) Come on.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) Well, I'm tired of being Mr. Nice Guy. See, there's going to be some changes made. Next week this show is going to be called...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Sergeant Bradshaw...
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) I'm a lieutenant.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ...district attorney.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) I'm going to have my own theme music and it's all going to take place in Washington, D.C. No plots, just girls and guys doing nice simple things up against Nazis and Fifth Columnists and no Jewish writers, either...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) I saw my chance and I took it.
BERGMAN: (As Lt. Bradshaw) ...with my name in the papers...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Nick Danger) Bradshaw would never listen to my story now. It would have more holes in it than Albert Hole. My only way out was like this.
GROSS: That was the Firesign Theater with Peter Bergman as Lt. Bradshaw. Bergman died Friday at the age of 72. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a couple of Dave Brubeck reissues.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.