LOS ANGELES — Peter Bergman, a founder of Firesign Theatre, the comic quartet that channeled the absurdist sensibility and chaotic impulses of the countercultural 1960s and ’70s into a popular radio show and a series of cult-classic albums, has died at 72.
A longtime Los Angeles resident, Bergman died of complications of leukemia Friday at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, according to his former wife, Maryedith Burrell.
Bergman was hosting an alternative, late-night talk show on the Los Angeles Pacifica radio station KPFK-FM in 1966 when he started Firesign Theatre with Phillip Proctor, David Ossman and Phil Austin. Their stream-of-consciousness comedy, a blend of the daffy and the surreal, spoke to a generation in rebellion.
It also caught the attention of executives at Columbia Records, which released four albums between 1968 and 1972: “Waiting for the Electrician Or Someone Like Him,” “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers,” “How Can You Be in Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All” and “I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.” Fans of the albums began to call themselves “Fireheads” and could recite long passages from memory.
“Everyone who was hip in 1971 had a copy of ‘Waiting for the Electrician’ in their dorm room in college,” Ossman said Friday. “They said to us, ‘You guys saved my life.’ So I know that, through Peter, Firesign Theatre had the ability to literally change people’s lives and expressed to them our signal purpose, which was to say everything you know is wrong.”
Among their fans was actor and comic John Goodman, who was a college student in St. Louis in the early 1970s when he first heard Bergman and his cohorts.
“I used to listen to radio drama when I was a kid, but this was twisted beyond anything I ever heard. It pulled me out of my late-teenage gloom and taught me a new way to look at the world,” said Goodman, who later became friends with Bergman and considered him an important influence.
“Pete really taught me how to listen to the obvious things and make them absurd and surreal,” he said.
The Washington Post once described the Firesign experience as “an impolite talk show where the host has lost control,” with recurring characters with names like Nick Danger and Mudhead riffing off one another.
Bergman acknowledged the seemingly random nature of the group’s shows, which, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1998, were “jazz-like performances, filled with hidden jokes and meanings that even we do not always intend when we write the material.”
Bergman was born in Cleveland on Nov. 29, 1939, and by sixth grade was writing comic poems with his mother.
In high school, he was an announcer on the campus radio system, but was dismissed when he joked that Communists had taken over the school. The principal, Russell Rupp, who issued the discipline was the inspiration for the Firesign character Principal Poop.
At Yale, Bergman became managing editor of the campus comedy magazine and met one of his future Firesign collaborators, Proctor, an acting student.
After earning a degree in economics, Bergman remained at Yale for two years to pursue fellowships in teaching and playwriting. After a short stint in the Army, he went to Berlin on a Ford Foundation grant.
He returned to the U.S. in 1966 and became co-host of a show on KPFK called “Radio Free Oz,” which started at midnight and featured four hours of music, comedy and phone-ins. It developed a following among hipsters, hippies and other night owls.
Bergman “talked to people who dropped acid and needed to talk to somebody. He did tarot card readings on air, read books and talked to people. He made people like me turn off the road and listen to the rest of broadcast,” Ossman recalled.
Ossman, Austin and Proctor all found themselves in the studio with Bergman one night at the end of 1966 and improvised a show that spoofed film festivals. Thus was born Firesign Theatre, a name conceived by Bergman as a send-up of the vintage radio program Fireside Theatre and a nod to the fact that he and his comic comrades all had astrological signs associated with fire.
They were not only children of the ’60s, but instigators of the era’s free-flowing spirit. In April 1967, a few months after San Francisco’s Human Be-in — the countercultural festival where guru Timothy Leary made his famous call for America’s youth to “turn on, tune in, drop out” — Bergman organized L.A.’s first “love-in.” What he envisioned as a picnic in Elysian Park for a few hundred fans turned into what The Times described as an “Easter Sunday freak-out” for 4,000.
” ‘Love-in’ was his expression,” said Ossman, who was there.
Firesign’s members split up and reunited several times over the ensuing decades, along the way producing shows on National Public Radio and HBO, as well as more than a dozen albums, including “Anythynge You Want To: Shakespeare’s Lost Comedie,” a parody of the great bard’s language and characters that was written in iambic pentameter.
In 2010, Bergman revived the Firesign Theatre show online as a daily podcast available to subscribers.
He is survived by a daughter, Lily Oscar Bergman of Los Angeles.