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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Maybe I'll see you on the funway....
Posted by Jill | 9:37 AM

Peter Bergman 1939-2012

The Firesign Theatre, Live at the Improv, 1981

It's impossible to underestimate the impact that The Firesign Theatre had on my life. I first encountered them during a period when WBAI used to run old-time radio shows on weekend evenings, except one night they were playing something that SOUNDED like an old-time serial, but there was something different about it -- something deliriously, profoundly WEIRD. It was "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger", and it was the funniest thing I had ever heard.

Comedy in the late 1960's and early 1970's was starting to undergo a transformation from the Borscht-belt suit-and-a-cigarette model that had dominated for the last decade. Weird sketch comedy was nothing new; Ernie Kovacs had pioneered it in the 1950s. But Kovacs was a visual comic, whereas the long-form sketch comedy of the Firesign Theatre was something uniquely of its age, with its weird multiple layers and hallucinogenic undertones. You didn't have to take hallucinogens to appreciate it, but you did have to be weird, and appreciation for "Firesign" became a checkbox on the cred list for membership in the Weird Boomer Adolescent society. Because Firesign kids back then weren't all druggies, but we did all have a sense that we were put here by mistake, and the kind of multiple realities that the troupe dealt with so well gave us our own sense of cool. Because you have to be able to see the world differently to appreciate something as profoundly strange and subliminally disturbing as Everything You Know Is Wrong, with its Illuminati references and conspiracymongering that pre-dates Alex Jones by decades.

The Firesign theatre not only looked backwards for inspiration, but their future visions were often so cogent that to listen to them now it's as if they were foreseeing the future. Go listen to I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus, which envisioned a computer age where people still can't find a job, and tell me that this stuff wasn't prescient.

Along with its somewhat less strange British counterpart, the Monty Python guys, The Firesign Theatre begat Saturday Night Live which begat any number of sketch comedy shows that we see today. Firesign begat the Church of the Subgenius (which no less a personage than Rachel Maddow has referenced on her show) and was so influential on the comedy of the late, great Air America radio show Morning Sedition that the show had its own version of Nick Danger called "Morning Sedition Radio Theatre". But nothing since has achieved the kind of highly disciplined and at the same time chaotic verbal viruosity that we saw from these twin pillars of literate sketch comedy.

I introduced Elayne to Firesign in the early 1980's, and with her customary focus, she want on to create a Firesign 'zine and become a kind of unofficial historian and keeper of the Firesign flame. Mr. Brilliant and I had Firesign in common when we met in 1983, and it was a sign that we both lived in the same strange kind of mindspace of what are now called Quirky Kids. And many years later, I ran across Melina, whose own grandfather was behind many of the radio serials that inspired Firesign's work. So there we are.

And this morning I found out that Peter Bergman, the voice of Lt. Bradshaw, Mudhead, and many other characters has left us from complications of leukemia at the age of 72. His final signoff from his solo venture, Radio Free Oz is in the video at the top of this post.

And another cultural icon of my childhood bites the dust. I guess I'd better get used to this.

UPDATE: Here's a lovely tribute from Richard Metzger, who quotes his friend Mike explaining what I think all Firesign freaks share:
I phrase things the way I do because of the Firesign Theatre. I look at the world the way I do because of them. There might not be anything that had a bigger formative influence on who I am today when I really think about it!”

If your automatic reflexive response to someone who asks you what you're doing is "The foxtrot. You can have the next dance", you know what he means. (And don't miss the video of actual car dealership ads the guys did in 1969 while you're there.)

More tributes from:

Jesse Walker, at Reason, of all places
Mitchell J. Freedman
wruckusgroink at DKos
Andy Parx
Gordonskene at C&L
Tom Dupree

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Blogger D. said...
I also found Firesign by listening to WBAI, although I think by then Steve Post was the weekend midnight-to-whatever person. I used to leave the radio on low so I could sleep (New York kid), and sometimes I would wake up in the middle of Waiting for the Electrician.


Blogger Elayne said...
You have no idea how grateful I am that you introduced me to the world of Firesign, which led not only to the newsletter I did for them but to actually meeting them. Peter was slow to praise and quick to critique so I'm not sure we ever "got" each other, but I feel his passing keenly and I feel bereft and robbed of, as you say, yet another cultural icon of my youth. And yes, this does seem to be the decade for steeling ourselves.

Thanks for a lovely write-up about Peter. You are very encouraged to leave any other thoughts you might have on Peter's tribute page up on the Firesign website.

Blogger Distributorcap said...
not knowing much about Firesign i thank you for the introduction

Blogger Bob said...
Firesign introduced me to an idea that I found intriguing, never forgot, & which over time seemed more & more true. It was that the United States of America lost World World War II. Meaning the American People lost, just as the Germans, Japanese, Russians & British lost. Who won? Eisenhower introduced us to them as he left office: The military-Industrial Complex. The multi-national corporate, armament industry, military alliance that controls every major government in the world now, & instigates wars solely for profit that last a decade or more. The most expendable, least valuable "commodities" in these wars are human beings, soldiers & civilians. Firesign was on to this all along.

Blogger double nickel said...
I wonder where Ruth is tonight?

Blogger David in NYC said...
In an interview with Rolling Stone sometime in the early 70s, one of the Signers (I think it was Bergman) said two things that I have never forgotten:

1. America put on a uniform in 1941, and never took it off.

2. America really lost WWII (and that was the basis for much of their comic fantasies).*

*As Bob correctly surmised in the previous comment.

Another great one bites the dust.