Peter P. Bergman


Died November 29, 1939 – March 9, 2012,Santa Monica, CA

College: Berkeley
Major: Politics & Economics

Widow: .
673 Windmill Drive
Freeland, WA 98249-9626
Children: Lily, 1989

Peter Bergman, Satirist With Firesign, Dies at 72

Published: March 9, 2012

Peter Bergman, a founding member of the surrealist comedy troupe Firesign Theater, whose albums became cult favorites among college students in the late 1960s and ’70s for a brand of sly, multilayered satire so dense it seemed riddled with non sequiturs until the second, third or 30th listening, died on Friday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 72.

The cause was complications of leukemia, said Jeff Abraham, a spokesman for the group.

Mr. Bergman hosted an all-night radio call-in show on KPFK in Los Angeles beginning in 1966, “Radio Free Oz,” which served as the testing ground for the high-spirited Firesign sensibility. Phil Austin and David Ossman, two other founders of the four-man group, were the producer and director of the show; the fourth founder, Phil Proctor, was a frequent guest.

“We started out as four friends, up all night, taking calls from people on bad acid trips and having the time of our lives,” Mr. Austin said in a phone interview Friday. “And that’s what we always were: four friends talking.”

Mr. Bergman and his friends recorded their first album, “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him,” in 1968, followed the next year by “How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All?”

By 1970, their mordant humor and their mastery of stereophonic recording techniques had made them to their generation of 20-somethings what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are to today’s (if Mr. Colbert and Mr. Stewart had a weakness for literary wordplay, psychedelic references and jokes about the Counter-Reformation).

Their records employed sound effects in ways considered pioneering in audio comedy at the time. More generally, they were considered important forerunners of comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live.”

Ed Ward, writing in The New York Times in 1972, described the third Firesign album, “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers,” as “a mind-boggling sound drama” and a “work of almost Joycean complexity.”

“It’s almost impossible to summarize any Firesign album,” Mr. Ward wrote, because most of their albums were so filled with “intricate wordplay, stunning engineering and use of sound effects, breakneck pacing and, of course, a terribly complex story line.”

When the Library of Congress placed “Don’t Crush That Dwarf” in its National Recording Registry in 2005, The Los Angeles Times described Firesign Theater as “the Beatles of comedy.”

Mr. Bergman told people the ensemble’s albums, unlike most comedy records, were never made to be listened to just once or twice. “He said our records were made to be heard about 80 times,” Mr. Austin said.

While the ensemble continued making albums for three decades, Mr. Bergman also wrote and produced several one-man shows, including “Help Me Out of This Head,” a 1986 monologue-memoir that drew on his childhood in Cleveland. He also wrote interactive games, including a CD-ROM parody of the popular adventure video game MIST.

Mr. Bergman was born on Nov. 29, 1939, in Cleveland, one of two children of Oscar and Rita Bergman. His parents hosted a radio show in Cleveland when he was growing up, “Breakfast With the Bergmans.” His father also worked as a reporter for The Plain Dealer.

Mr. Bergman graduated from Yale and taught economics there as a Carnegie Fellow. He later attended the Yale School of Drama as a Eugene O’Neill playwriting fellow. He moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to pursue a writing career.

He is survived by a daughter, Lily Oscar Bergman, and his sister, Wendy Kleckner.

Mr. Bergman got a taste of radio work when he was in high school, according to a biography on Firesign Theater’s official Web site. But he lost his job as an announcer on the school radio system, it said, “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 principal, promptly relieved Peter of his announcing gig. Rupp was the inspiration for the Principal Poop character on ‘Don’t Crush That Dwarf.’ ”


Peter Bergman, Woodrow Wilson Scholar, Carnegie Fellow, Eugene O’Neill Playwriting Fellow, and master of the art of turning the obvious into the surreal, died on March 9, 2012. Peter performed at a number of our reunions and was a founder of The Firesign Theater, a precursor to Saturday Night Live and likened to today’s Jon Stewart/Steve Colbert combination. Firesign Theater albums are still popular and also available.

To us Peter was our classmate who generously shared his talents at three of our last four reunions. Many knew him as a friend and enjoyed his success as a writer and performer. But the extent of acknowledgment in newspapers, on TV and on radio of his passing suggests that to the world he was more. Was it the rebellious tone he expressed during the Vietnam era? Was it the spirit of a “love-in” which was his idea? Was it his recurring themes that what appears significant today may have little significance tomorrow, that humor can be found in anything, and that nothing is as it appears? Whatever it was he hit a chord that resonated deeply over the years. The outpouring of media comment and the widespread availability of his recorded works suggests that he and his work are still relevant and appreciated. The comments of several classmates say much about Peter as a person.

Andy Block: “I was totally stunned and saddened this morning when I read about Peter who always answered my call to participate in our reunions where he never failed to humor us. We will all miss him.”

Robert Kimball: “I’ll miss Peter’s participation in our reunion entertainment events, which is where our paths would cross. His mind always seemed to free associate on those occasions, and you could count on him to be unpredictable, irrepressible, and entertaining.”

Austin Pendleton: “I’m stunned by Peter’s death. Sometimes somebody dies and you realize that, without knowing it, you’ve always assumed that they were never going to die. What makes that happen? Perhaps some sense you had of them that they never seemed to lose their curiosity. That they never seemed to lose their feeling that something very exciting was always around the very next corner. That they never lost their appetite, for friendship, for discovery, for life. Here’s a specific thing in my experience with Peter: we wrote two musicals together when we were at Yale. I wrote the scripts and Peter wrote, in the first show, half of the lyrics and in the second show all of the lyrics. It has been said, in show business, that the world of that business is divided between people who you’d want to have around when you were trying out a new musical and people you would definitely not want to have around you, no matter how qualified they might be. Peter was gorgeously qualified to write for a musical, and he was also perhaps the person I’ve ever worked with who I was happiest to be with in the turbulent process of creating a musical. He never lost his sense of humor. He never lost his sense of purpose. He never compromised his talent. He never compromised his sense of the excitement of what creating a musical should be. He was never less that a whole big lot of fun, a thing that is usually impossible to sustain in the midst of creating a musical. We had a number of experiences in our lives together. I could go on. But perhaps to say of somebody that you actually treasured every moment you had with them during the creation of a musical is as extraordinary a thing as you could possibly say. Bless you, Peter. You have left, through your work, through your blazing beliefs, and through your person, many, many happy people behind you.”