R.I.P., Peter Bergman

Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers

"Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers" — in the original vinyl.

Sad news: Peter Bergman of The Firesign Theatre died today of leukemia.

The Firesigns weren’t for everyone, but they sure worked for me. I was a devout acolyte of their intelligent, absurd comedy years before I ever heard of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

“Waiting for the Electrician Or Someone Like Him,” “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,” “I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus,” “The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra,” “Everything You Know Is Wrong” — I have all of them and more, in vinyl and/or CD.

Some of my oldest friends originally coalesced around an impromptu recital of “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye” in a Greeley living room one night in the early 1970s. A bunch of us saw the Firesigns perform in Denver some years later, and as quickly as they delivered a line the audience fired it back at them. I don’t know whether that would be gratifying or exasperating.

The Firesigns — Bergman, Philip Proctor, Philip Austin and David Ossman — had their roots in Bergman’s Radio Free Oz, a nightly radio show on Pacifica’s KPFK. It seems safe to say that without Bergman, there would have been no Firesign Theatre — no Bozos, no Nick Danger, no Porgie Tirebiter, and a damn’ sight less laughter in the world, a commodity that is always in short supply.

• Late update: an extended obituary from The Los Angeles Times and another from The New York Times.

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32 Responses to “R.I.P., Peter Bergman”

  1. Chris Says:

    A sad day indeed. Certainly the flags are at half staff in Yucaipa.
    As I recall, that Denver show was at Ebbets Field and the gathering in Greeley included a keg. But the, what gathering in Greeley didn’t?

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      My brother Bozo, you are correct — the show was at Ebbets Field, and the gathering in Greeley included a keg. All gatherings of any value in Greeley included a keg in reaction to the town’s long history as a “dry” locale, a dismal tale Ed Quillen recounts on Facebook.

      And now the place may permit open containers downtown. I think we would have spent more time downtown had this policy prevailed in the Seventies.

  2. Boz Says:

    Just yesterday I made an obscure FST reference that I had to explain to the crew I work with. None had a clue…


    • JohnB Says:

      Sooner or later we all work with people too young to remember the stuff that makes our cultural references meaningful (to us). It happens to me regularly now. And somehow, its just not that funny when it has to be explained. Some don’t even know Bozo…so how do you go from that to explaining why there would be a bus full of them? Welcome to the Future…

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Welcome to my world, gents. I’m 58 this month and grew up on a diet of Three Stooges, Burns & Allen, Marx Brothers, Warner Bros. cartoons, film noir and The Firesign Theatre. Nobody knows what the hell I’m talking about most of the time, including me. Shoes for Industry!

      • Larry T. Says:

        I’m only two trips around the sun behind you O’G so have to be careful with some of my ancient references too. The plus side is some of the stuff is new to the younger generation so they sometimes laugh instead of just rolling their eyes.

      • BenS Says:

        More Sugar!

      • Khal Spencer Says:

        That’s right, its March. Happy Birthday, whenever it is, Patrick. Welcome to #58. Now, where did I leave my eyeglasses and warm milk?? Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk…

      • Downhill Bill Says:

        Shoes for industry to you too, comrades!

        And pass the groatcakes, heavy on the 30 weight!

  3. Flahute Says:

    I saw them perform once in the Stevenson College dining hall at UC Santa Cruz in 1986 or 1987 … thought they will brilliant.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      They were, and are, brilliant — the Firesigns have been at it for decades, and while like the rest of us they’ve had their highs and lows, they’ve scaled more peaks than the average Joe Beets.

  4. Khal Spencer Says:

    My older cousin Scooter (after Phil Rizzuto; my cousin Ralph was an excellent baseball player) and his housemates Bernell, Louis, and Barbara at Buff State introduced me to Firesign at the same time they introduced me to Espanola Ditch Weed. That was the summer of my graduation from high school. All of the above were very formative parts of my movement into adulthood, but especially the intelligent comedy of FST. I have to say it was especially good with a twist of THC.

    This is a sad day indeed for all us bozos on this unfortunate bus called 2012.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      K, the ditch weed definitely greased the skids toward understanding. Well, for me, anyway.

      I forget who dragged me down the Firesign path. Could’ve been Bruce Gibson, swimmer for rival Wasson High School (he was a backstroker, I did distance free).

      We both had an interest in radio, comedy and old music, and damme if I wasn’t about this close to going into radio before I found out that it paid worse than newspapering and ate up more of your free time.

  5. Don Gale Says:

    “Don’t use your hands son! Use your entrenchment tool.”

    Sad day for all Firesign fans.

  6. Khal Spencer Says:

    Is this the road up to Alamosa from NM?

  7. David R Says:

    Oh my – I’m stunned and saddened; I had no idea he was ill. FST was such a huge part of me. They still are. I was 20 years old in ’70 and those boys were talkin’ my language. They were literally a part of my fabric.

    Boys, the comments above are right on target, and very touching.

    “Ya gotta stick it out if you wanna get ahead.”

  8. Derek Says:

    Less laughter is indeed a sad thing. Blessings be.
    Some of us youngsters get the references because we pay attention and search them out. At only 42 turns on the wheel I have learned more by finding out what someone meant with a snide comment, which was always funny once I got the reference than in any of the philosophy classes. True comedy is truthful commentary.

  9. john Says:

    Oh, how sad. I have always loved Firesign.

    I remember reading a review of “Don’t Crush That Dwarf” in some intellectual mag my dad took — Saturday Review? — and the reviewer speculated that they were positively, like, Joycean, but of course (harumph!) they were post-literate and wouldn’t have, uh, actually read Joyce. Must be a coincidence!

    If the reviewer had actually done his homework, he would have found that their previous album ended with an extended quotation from Ulysses (“.. and the sea, crimson, sometimes like fire … “).

    They were better than many of their fans even knew.

    In that respect, they remind me of the late Mr. Zappa. He wasn’t just an oddball with funny lyrics. He was a deeply serious, highly accomplished musician. Not to mention, a genius.

    One last note — Firesign’s 1974 “Everything You Know is Wrong!” is one of their greatest works, but it’s less well-know than their first three albums. Any of you old fa …. uh, fans … out there who haven’t heard it, might really enjoy it, even at this very late date.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      “Everything You Know Is Wrong” remains a favorite. I only have it in vinyl, alas, which means I need to buy a USB turntable to preserve it for future generations.

      I often quote Nino the Mind-boggler, wrapping up his dissertation on holes: “Next time I’ll think to you about gravity and its opposite, comedy.”

      That line is right up there with the best of them.

  10. Bruce Paulson Says:

    When I was in elementary school in the early ’70s, my brother (10 years older) came home from college with a copy of “How Can You Be In Two Places At Once…”. Probably the closest we’ve ever been, given the age difference, was reciting “Nick Danger” word for word, trading off the parts. “Sorry, you’ve got the wrong man. I spell my name Danger!” I think Prairie Home Companion’s Guy Noir owes a huge debt to that album.

    • David R Says:

      Bruce, give a listen to one their latest, Give Me Immortality Or Give Me Death. They only got better with age…

  11. BenS Says:

    In HS I had a gig on the carrier wave station a couple of times a week. FST filled my time slot nicely.

    The cool kids didn’t care for it, but it was the beginning of a long career making the cool people unhappy. Aah the days when my nick name was Tirebiter, George Tirebiter.

    Time to make some room on the ol’ iPhone for a retrospective and reconnect with the bozos of my youth.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Ben, I had forgotten this, but after getting interested in Firesign and radio in high school — and having a friend who was a DJ at a local station — I took a radio-production class in college, just for the hell of it.

      The final involved creating a half-hour radio show, with music, PSAs, ads, commentary and news. Mine was all Firesign, lifted shamelessly from my extensive vinyl collection. I considered it more homage than copyright violation, but then everyone’s morality was a bit more flexible back then.

      Wish I’d saved the tape. That’s hindsight for you.

  12. David R Says:

    Oh, and if you ever run across a tape of David Ossman doing his pirate, simulcast commentary for the Pasadena Rose parade on Jan. 1, which he called the Tournament of Noses, on KMET (LA) radio in ’76, you’ve hit gold. I taped it at the time and for years afterward it never ceased to amaze me. Somewhere I still have it…

    • Larry T. Says:

      “A little bit of heaven, ninety-four-point-seven, KMET” I can hear it now. I still remember what they played right after the news of Tricky Dick Nixon’s resignation….from the Wizard of OZ, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead!” Those were the days.

  13. Brian Says:

    My wife introduced me to Firesign in college. There is hope for the younger generations, my 15 yr old LOVES the Pythons. I may have to introduce her to Firesign soon. Or maybe she weird enough as it is……NAH.

  14. swell Says:

    I too am still smitten with Firesign fever. Have all the vinyls, and quite an extensive collection of digital stuff including live radio shows. Would be glad to share. Waiting For The Electrician side two is my favorite.
    You really are a problem Sir!

    • David R Says:

      I’d be more than interested in your “share” offer swell, particularly the recorded radio shows. How can we make such a thing work?

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