I’m still trying to get over the death of Andrew Breitbart. Andrew was one of the people who encouraged me to write about cars. Now, sadly, another person I consider an influence has died. This morning while perusing Instapundit, I found out that Peter Bergman, of the great, seminal comedy team, Firesign Theater, has passed away of leukemia at the age of 72. Firesign Theater (a pun on the Firestone Theater radio show) were the Marx Brothers to Cheech & Chong’s Three Stooges. Cerebral, full of puns, literary and cultural references and, with four very creative contributors, densely layered comedy that stood up to repeated listenings. Even today, when I listen to one of their classic albums like Don’t Crush That Dwarf or a routine like Nick Danger, I smile at jokes I missed before. Based in southern California, with its freeways and driving intense lifestyles, Firesign did a fair amount of automotive related humor. Phil Proctor’s Ralph Spoilsport Motors parodies are still relevant to today’s car dealers. Actually, in addition to their parodies, Firesign Theater did real car commercials. The video above is a 1969 ad for Los Angeles’ Jack Poet Volkswagen featuring Bergman.
Peter Bergman’s biography after the break.
From the Firesign Theater website:
Peter Bergman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the day after Russia invaded Finland and the day before Winston Churchill (Peter’s hero) turned 65. Peter’s comic career began in the sixth grade, writing comic poems with his mother for library class – a penchant that developed into co-authoring the ninth grade humor column “The High Hatters,” and his own creation “Look and See With Peter B.” for his high school newspaper.
Peter’s audio career was launched in high school as an announcer oh the school radio system, from which he was banished after his unauthorized announcement that the Chinese communists had taken over the school and that a “mandatory voluntary assembly was to take place immediately.” Russell Rupp, the school primciple, promptly relieved Peter of his announcing gig. Rupp was the inspiration for the Principle Poop character on “Don’t Crush That Dwarf”.
While attending high school, Peter formed his first recording group called “The Four Candidates,” turning out a comedy cut-up single titled “Attention Convention,” parodying the 1956 democratic convention. Released on Buddy records, it received air play in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
At college, Peter was managing editor of the Yale comedy magazine. He wrote the lyrics for two musical collaborations with Austin Pendleton, both of which starred Phil Proctor. He graduated as a scholar of the house in economics, and played point guard for the liberal basketball league whose members have since lost their dribble but not their politics.
Peter spent two graduate years at Yale as a Carnegie teaching fellow in economics, and as the Eugene O’Neill playwriting fellow at the drama school. After a six-month stint as a grunt in the U.S. Army’s 349th general hospital unit, he went to Berlin on a Ford foundation fellowship where he joined Tom Stoppard, Derek Marlow and Piers Paul Read at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin. There he wrote and directed his first film, “Flowers,” and connected with the Living Theatre – a major influence on his art.
Peter worked briefly in London with Spike Milligan and the BBC before returning to America in 1966. Back in the U.S., he secured a nightly radio show on Pacifica’s KPFK in Los Angeles: “Radio Free Oz,” around which the Firesign Theatre coalesced and gestated.
Peter coined the term “Love-In” in 1967, and threw the first such event in April of that same year in Los Angeles. That event ultimately drew a crowd of some 65,000 people, blocking freeways for miles. This so impressed Gary Usher, a Columbia Records staff producer, that he offered the Firesign Theatre their first record contract.
In the 1970’s, Peter diversified his comic career as the president of a film equipment company. He also helped produce a machine for viewing angio cardiograms and measuring the blockage of the arteries of the heart.
In the 80’s Peter turned to film and tape, producing the comic feature “J-Men Forever” with Phil Proctor, as well as producing television shows that featured various members of Firesign.
Starting in 1995, Peter began touring the country as a “high tech comedian”, delivering lectures and keynote speeches to computer oriented companies and conventions. He worked on publishing the web site for one of the candidates for Mayor of Los Angeles.
His latest venture, in association with David Ossman, started in the summer of 2010: the podcast revival of Radio Free OZ.