Monday, March 12, 2012
Peter Bergman (1939-2012), alumnus of Yale University, the Yale School of Drama, and (most famously) The Firesign Theatre. Requiescat in pace.
Many years ago, on a particularly pleasant evening, a few of my friends and I climbed the stairs to the roof of our vintage-1915 dormitory, a building that had been constructed in the sort of Collegiate Gothic style popular in the early twentieth century. As we looked down upon the wooded campus from one of the crenellated parapets, a voice floated up from below. It was one of the representatives of the Student Hoagie Agency (or was it the Student Pizza Agency?) hawking his wares... but he drew attention to himself by calling out:
“They came from little towns with strange names...”
And of course I was prepared with the proper response:
“Smegma! Spasmodic! Frog! And the far-flung Isles of Langerhans!”
The hoagie vendor may have been surprised to hear me shouting from the rooftop, but he hardly could have been surprised at my answer, for it was precisely what he had been expecting - a snatch of dialogue from The Firesign Theatre’s comic epic “How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All?”
Back then, it was hard - at least, in a certain subset of the undergraduate population - to find someone who was not deeply familiar with the works of The Firesign Theatre. Unlike the TV sketch-driven humor of Monty Python, Firesign’s material originated in radio, where their lengthy, stream-of-consciousness narratives could play out over a half-hour timespan. It was heady stuff, packed with pop cultural references, trivia, surrealism, allusion, absurdity, and parody.
Consisting of Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Philip Proctor, The Firesign Theatre continued to perform up until 2011, a career spanning roughly 45 years. Their prime material, however, had run its course by sometime in the mid-1970’s, and I suspect a revival is not in the immediate offing. Brilliant as Firesign was (and still is), it’s hard to imagine people sitting still for a 28-minute audio experience in this day of YouTube videos, Facebook, and monstrously short attention spans.
Alas, a Firesign revival is now impossible for another reason: the death of Peter Bergman last Friday from complications of leukemia. He was 72 years old.
Levity is rarely an appropriate response when someone passes on to The Next World, but I have a perverse image in my head of a funeral service in which the following exchange takes place...
BEREAVED RELATIVE NUMBER ONE: The grave is opening!
BEREAVED RELATIVE NUMBER TWO: Which one?
BEREAVED RELATIVE NUMBER ONE: The one with the ever-widening hole in it!
Somehow, I think Peter would look down and laugh.
Ave atque vale, Mr. Bergman! May you entertain the heavenly hosts as you entertained us.