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Farewell Peter Bergman

We lost one of the great ones this week – Peter Bergman, the greatest comic most of you have never heard of. Peter was a member of Firesign Theatre, a four man troupe that created some of the funniest, strangest, and best comedy of the late sixties and early seventies. Although they’ve continued to release new material sporadically they’re best known for their earlier albums, including, “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him”, “How Can You Be Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All,” “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” and “I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.”

Good comedy makes you laugh. There’s lots of it out there and it’s easy to find. Great comedy is rarer. It makes you laugh, and think, then, sometimes, change what you think. Phenomenal comedy, the rarest kind, makes you laugh and then, sometimes, changes the way you think. Firesign Theatre had that effect on a lot of us. As Richard Metzger puts it:

“I don’t think there is ANYTHING that defines who I was in high school more than being that kid listening to Firesign Theatre on headphones stoned out of my gourd. I think the way I think because of the Firesign Theatre. I phrase things the way I do because of the Firesign Theatre.  I look at the world the way I do because of them.”

Some of the humor was so subtle and obscure just getting it made you feel smart. It took dozens of listens to catch everything. For instance, it wasn’t until my 12th or 15th listening of “Nick Danger, Third Eye” that I got the joke: “They’d never believe me now. My story had more holes in it than Albert Hall.” I felt triumphant for figuring it out and simultaneously stupid that it took me so long. (Note to younger generations – you have to listen to The Beatles to get it. In fact, you’ve got to listen to The Beatles to get a lot of the references in Nick Danger.)

They paid attention to the tiny details, even the fact we were listening to them on flat vinyl records. On side one of “How Can You Be Two Places at Once…” they say, “She’s no fun, she fell right over.” On side two:

NANCY: The whole world is spinning!

NICK: That’s lucky for us! If it were flat, all the Chinese would fall off!

(We hear the sound of Nancy falling to the floor.)

NICK: She’s no fun, she fell right over. Wait a minute…didn’t I say that on the other side of the record. Where am I? I better check…

(We hear a snippet from side one, played backwards.)

NICK: Oh, it’s OK, they’re speaking Chinese..

First, we laugh at the joke. Then we realize we’re listing to a flat record. Then it strikes us that it’s spinning. But there is yet another layer. One day, on the umpteenth listen, I wondered… I checked the position of the tone arm at that moment. I flipped the record and moved the tone arm in the same position. Sure enough, the part they’d played backwards on side two exactly matched its position on side one.

“How Can You Be Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All” is not only one of my favorite albums of all time, it features one of my favorite album covers:

 

It’s been ripped off dozens of times, by dozens of people. Shortly after the fall of the USSR Abkhaz, a tiny disputed territory no one cared about, tried to raise money by printing worthless sheets of “collectable” stamps. For only $12.95 you could be the proud owner of a sheet of these:

Evidently the artist was in a hurry and no one checked his work. That peace symbol behind Lennon’s head? Yeah, it’s really a Mercedes Benz logo.

They peddled their stamps via full page ads, including one in the TV Guide. Their ad was on the right hand page. There was a story on the facing page about the series Red Dwarf being canceled. The headline was “Don’t Crush That Dwarf.” It was a beautiful jab at the rip-off – something few people would notice – a perfect Firesign style joke.

If you’re from my generation (commonly known Generation Old Farts) you probably know and love Firesign. The rest of you are in for the treat of discovering them for the first time. You can find most of their albums on GrooveShark. I’d recommend starting with Nick Danger, Third Eye.  Listen to it once to enjoy the obvious jokes, the ones you get right away. Then listen to it again and again to get what you missed. The more you listen, the better it gets.

More Info

Their Website

Richard Metzger’s Tribute to Bergman  At the end of the article there’s a great compilation of commercials they did for a local Volkswagen dealer. And yes, they were real commercials.

L.A. Times Obituary

If you like Firesign, you’ll like Teknikal Diffikulties, a podcast that captures the spirit and style of Firesign Theatre.

 

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