Peter Bergman, member of the Firesign Theatre,died last Friday.
To most people on the site, this won't mean a hecukuva lot. To people of a certain age -- I'm 60, born in 1951 -- this is...well...profoundly sad. The Firesign Theatre changed my life. The were as brash as the Beatles, funnier than Monty Python, smarter than Thomas Pynchon, jazzier than Miles Davis...
A remembrance just below...
From 1968 to 1971 -- arguably the most tumultuous years of modern American culture -- the Firesign Theatre released four record albums. With the first -- "Waiting for the Electrician Or Someone Like Him," they invented a new style of comedy. The FST created a surreal, stream-of-consciousness, word-jazz style of brain-candy that didn't care if you understood it or not. These were four wised-up hipsters trying to make each other laugh, and we got to listen in.
They came out of radio -- a show called "Radio Free Oz" -- at that amazing moment when program directors could try anything, because nobody knew what this new thing called "FM" was. Their radio shows were pure joy — I just never knew people could be so hip and so funny and so irreverent and get on the radio and get away with it! I'd turn on the TV and see Gomer Pyle (this was during Vietnam) and lame ho-ho b.s. on Laugh-In (Richard Nixon saying "Sock It To Me"). Okay, there was the Smothers Brothers 3rd season, but they got shut down for putting Pete Seeger on! (!!!!!!!!) But on the radio….
Were they the Beatles of comedy? To me they were. I'd line up at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard first day of release to get their records, and then I'd rip off the plastic and play that sucker till I had it memorized. Like the Beatles, I felt like the FST were cultural heralds, showing me the way forward. They were fearless, going places the audience hadn't been and didn't even know about And these records were being put out by COLUMBIA! The MAINSTREAM was embracing this trend! What's next?!?
I thought an entire industry would come out of what they were doing, in the same way the Beatles produced the British Invasion. Instead, we got lame stoner dreck from Cheech and Chong….and then Saturday Night Live. SNL had 1/10th of the audacity of the FST, none of the smartness, none of the jazziness.... Bleeh. And by the late 1970's it's as if the FST had never done those records, and what they'd done — not the jokes but the TECHNIQUE — comedy as a surreal theater of the mind — had never happened. The industry reverted back to their "Funny Guy Live On Stage" default.
One of the biggest disappointments of my life is that the Firesign Theatre didn't change the landscape of comedy. I've tried to describe the impact of the FST to younger people who have never heard of them and don't care. Can't be done. I thought they'd change comedy the way Elvis changed music, the way the Beatles changed music, the way Hendrix changed music — that every single one coming after would have to acknowledge them and build on their innovations.
But those early records — the Fab four — Electrician, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All, Don't Kill That Dwarf Hand Me the Pliers, and We're All Bozos On This Bus…and their late miracle "Abbey Road' album, "Everything You Know is Wrong" -- were perfect little miracles.
Didn't turn out like I thought. But DANG! How many artists ring the bell 5 times?