Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.
Arts & Entertainment

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: 'I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus' by the Firesign Theatre

Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

Listen to

Download this 1MB

This is a comedy album, but it's a sad occasion by which I choose it. Peter Bergman was a sometime colleague of mine, a man whom I felt privileged to have known. He died March 9th in Santa Monica. Peter was instrumental in bringing about the singular phenomenon known as The Firesign Theatre. The four performers, Phil Proctor, David Ossman, Phil Austin, and Peter Bergman, brought radio theater to undreamt of surrealist heights.
I first met Peter at I'll Never Get Out of this Head Alive, a double-one-man show where he and fellow iconoclast Paul Krassner each performed brilliant solo comedy.

Later, as a crowd scene extra, I provided "walla" (background room conversation) for Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death (1998). This allowed me to watch the four in mid-recording process, with team-critiqued characterizations (Phil Austin's Bebop Loco in particular) and the intimate way they worked with the brilliant recording engineer, Bob Wayne.  

I treasure in particular a memory from 1999's prophetically-titled Boom Dot Bust. I was a guest in the studio at an early stage, and remember Peter Bergman eagerly typing away as David Ossman related a dream he had recently had. In full surrealist fashion, they were putting the dream into the material. I appreciated how nobody thought it the slightest bit strange to work this way. If I have the details wrong, it's because the whole experience was dreamlike for me, too. In similar serendipity, the four commissioned me to create a central sound for the release, the Congaroo tornado, a singular honor for this star-struck sound designer.

They returned the favor by performing a short vignette I had written for Little City in Space, the signal program my colleagues in The Post-Void Radio Theater and I had dreamt up in 1978, all of us heavily influenced by Firesign Theatre. The 20th anniversary of the show occasioned the ultra-rare Firesign audio embedded above the Grooveshark segment. Peter Bergman is in full-flower here.

You can read about Firesign Theatre's history and Peter's obituary elsewhere. I want to share what I found in this man's head. In 1993, I interviewed Peter for a magazine article. Here are a few excerpts.

On how dire life on Earth can be:

"There seems to be a lot of inexplicable misery and misunderstanding [on Earth]. I grew up of course as part of the 'silent generation,' as part of the junior high set that was waiting for the hydrogen bomb to go off. I mean these were very, very, difficult, scary times. So I think I used my sense of humor to try to make things more palatable. I think my sense of humor kept me from going crazy; maybe helped a few other people from entering the tunnel of madness. And I still think it does. I still think my sense of humor is my single most important tool for getting through this experience."

On a sense of morality in Firesign Theatre's humor:

"I think that our work is very much in a sense involved with [the] moral; it's a leitmotif. We hide it, because we hide most of the significance of what we have to say in our work. It also gets layered because there's four different minds working on the stuff, simultaneously, although I don't think that all four writers have exactly the same moral compass. I think it's close enough that there is a common moral thread through the work. And I think it's one of the things that makes it rather interesting, and gives a kind of universalness to it and allows it to go on. I think one of the reasons that the material is as fresh as it is in 1993, although some of the stuff was written as early as 1968, was that the problems we're dealing with are problems of the spirit, problems of man's moral dilemmas, and those things don't go away. We layer it with an understanding of technology, sociology, politics, ecology, you know, all of that's there because we're all pretty well-educated guys. But, the real issues, really have to do with human beings, and their relationship to the world they live in, and to each other."

On nihilism in 90s humor:

"Yeah, there's a lot of nihilism. I think it basically comes more out of ignorance than it comes out of anything else. If you don't apply yourself to try and find some greater understanding of why things are the way they are, one can become cynical and nihilistic quite easily. The French Revolution is when revealed religion and man's close, intimate, relationship to the divine was pretty well shattered, under serious attack for very good reasons. The Church really represented this impossible intermediary for that needed relationship. And I think we're living in a period that's still strongly reacting to the idea of revealed religion, hierarchy, divinity, position, you know, all of that has been turned pretty much upside down and I think that a lot of the humor today represents that kind of rejection. I can understand it, but I don't join it."

On situation comedies and television versus radio:

"I've been reading a book recently called The End of Comedy, which is a study of the development and rise of the sitcom, and it says that the sitcom represents the first time in the history of comedy where comedy has been used as means of supporting the status quo rather than questioning and attacking it. And we live in that age now. So the Firesign Theatre stands out against that field even more brilliantly than we would. If the Firesign Theatre were performing its material in the 30s, just as an example, we wouldn't appear in such strong contrast, because even the simplest vaudeville comedians were still in some way attacking the system. They were making fun of authority figures [and] all of that, whereas the sitcom, which is now our accepted form of American humor, besides stand-up, basically does support the system. It supports hierarchy, it supports authority without question. It doesn't question.

"It presents a solution and the solution is, no matter how bad things are, within 22 minutes you can solve it and go to commercials. It doesn't matter how bad the situation is, somebody's going to come in the door and say, 'No, that's my hat,' or, 'Here are the car keys,' or, 'You don't have cancer. It's just a boo-boo,' and the laugh track will be turned up and we'll go to commercial.

"Certainly there's been a lot of comedians in America--I'm only talking American comedy now--who have been completely neutral on the issues, who've just been goofballs, but only the sitcom has decided to become system-supportive, and that's because it's a backbone of commercial television, and commercial television is here basically to support the system. It doesn't matter whether it's funny or not; if you just keep laughing, or just keep listening to the laugh track, we can keep pushing the pablum at you. 

"The Firesign Theatre has never accepted that. I can't speak for all four of us, of course, but, I know that we're all concerned with and I, particularly, am concerned with, the effect of television on the American consciousness. I consider it to be a form of sorcery. Video itself is a form of sorcery because of the way that it affects the consciousness, and commercial television is directed sorcery, and one of my messages has always been, 'Talk back to your TV. Don't believe it. Learn; do not let it cast its spell upon you.' The radio does require your imagination and therefore it really isn't anywhere near as dangerous.  In fact, I think it's basically a positive medium, not that everything on it is great, but, it's just the medium itself still requires you to make pictures in your mind, and all you get is the audio. I think it's really important: it encourages imagination rather than taking it away [as] video does.

"But don't get me wrong. I'm not against video, per se. It's a perfectly neutral tool. It has many uses, but I don't think six to seven hours of commercial television a day is one of its uses. I see that what it's basically doing is that it is taking people's imaginations away and taking away their vigilance as individuals. That's one of the reasons the system has become more and more oppressive. That's why we're allowing ourselves to slip into this extraordinary national decline. It's amazing! I've been reading the latest results of this work that was done by this committee that was dealing with the literacy rate amongst people including college graduates. And they found that vast numbers of college graduates--college graduates!--couldn't tell you what change would be if you gave them three dollars and you bought something for a dollar ninety-five, and fifty cents." 

Thank you and good night, Peter.