Peter Bergman, a founding member of the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe, whose zany pun-loaded skits and absurdist political satire entertained millions of college kids during the 1960s and ‘70s, died Friday at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 72.
He had complications from leukemia said David Ossman, who, along with Phil Austin, Phil Proctor and Bergman made up the foursome that was Firesign Theatre.
At a time in America when protests against the war in Vietnam had reached a violent peak on college campuses around the country, the surrealist humor of the Firesign Theatre provided the disillusioned throngs with something to laugh about. What it was, precisely, that made them so funny, was somewhat difficult to define.
The group made vinyl records that stylistically called to mind the dense emerald foliage of a South American marijuana farm.
As a whole, the records were satirical “ear plays” that were thick with countercultural references to illicit drugs and explored such heady topics as corporate influence on American politics.
Comedian Robin Williams once referred to their work as the “audio equivalent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.”
“It was creative anarchy right from the start,” Bergman told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2001. “This may sound high-falutin’, but the Firesign Theatre is like four jazz stars playing together as a group, only we do word jazz instead of music. But we’re not snobs. I mean, everything from body jokes to puns are grist for the mill. We’ll do anything.”
One typical sketch was a fake commercial for the Giant Toad Supermarket in which Bergman would tell listeners: “Don’t worry about the flies — we won’t weigh ‘em!”
Beginning with the 1968 album “Waiting for the Electrician, or Someone Like Him,” the recordings of the Firesign Theatre became turntable staples in dorm rooms and radio booths where a certain purple haze usually lingered in the air.
“We were spokespeople for a revolution in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.” Bergman told The Post in 1981.
The group had such a devoted following that fans would listen to their albums hundreds of times, attempting to deconstruct the layers of jokes, sound effects and puns.
In an interview, Firesign Theatre member Ossman said that fans could recite the lines of their recordings word-for-word.
The Firesign Theatre recorded dozens of albums, the most popular of which included “How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All?” (1969) “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers,” (1970) and “I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus” (1971).
Bergman was best known for his recurring role as the grizzly police Lieutenant Bradshaw of the chronicles of private investigator Nick Danger, Third Eye. (“When two aren’t enough.”)
Bergman’s outbursts of “Shad up!” and “Don’t go trackin’ mud across my nice, clean kitchen floor!” as Lt. Bradshaw are considered classic Firesign Theatre lines.
Peter Paul Bergman was born Nov. 29, 1939 in Cleveland, where his father was the men’s fashion editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Bergman got his start in radio as an announcer for his high school’s radio station. He lost his job, however, after saying over the air that “Chinese Communists had taken over the school and that a mandatory voluntary assembly was to take place immediately.”
Russell Rupp, the school principal who fired him, was the inspiration for the Firesign Theatre character Principal Poop.
Bergman was a 1961 economics graduate of Yale University, where he met his future collaborator Proctor.
After graduating he taught economics classes at Yale and also studied playwriting. In the mid-1960s, Bergman hosted a radio show in Los Angeles which he called “Radio Free Oz.”
One day in November of 1966, he invited two of the radio station’s employees, Austin and Ossman, and his Yale friend Proctor to join him on the air.
Bergman proposed that he would host a “film festival” on the radio while the other three came on as guest moviemakers.
In an interview, Proctor recalled that one of the films Bergman showed was an X-rated feature called “Blondie Goes to the Dentist.”
“We started getting phone calls from people who were offended we were showing a dirty movie on the radio,” Proctor said. “That’s when we said, ‘I think we’re on to something.’ “
Through music industry connections the group was introduced to Columbia Records executives who arranged a recording deal and the Firesign Theatre was born. The group’s name came from Bergman’s fascination with astrology and that the four members were all born in “fire signs.” The name was also a play on the NBC television show from the 1950s, “Fireside Theatre.”
Bergman’s marriage to actress Maryedith Burrell ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter; and a sister.
The Firesign Theatre’s “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers,” was added to the Library of Congress’ prestigious 2005 National Recording Registry.