Peter Bergman, one of the founding geniuses of the comedy group The Firesign Theatre, died on March 9, 2012, at the age of 72. Bergman, Phil Austin, David Ossman, and Phil Proctor formed Firesign in the mid-1960s. As recounted on the troupe’s website,
Peter's audio career was launched in high school as an announcer on the school radio system, from which he was banished 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". [With some trepidation, I corrected several typos in this excerpt.]There hadn’t been anything quite like Firesign before its creation and the release of its first album in 1968, and there still hasn’t. The troupe’s relentless, biting, and complex commentary on the human condition remains unique.
Paul Vitello in the obituary for Bergman in the New York Times (Peter Bergman, Satirist With the Firesign Theater, Dies at 72, March 9, 2012) wrote that the group was known for “a brand of sly, multilayered satire so dense it seemed riddled with non sequiturs until the second, third or 30th listening . . . .” And when that 31st listening occurs four decades later, my most striking realization is that Firesign’s observations are as fresh and meaningful (though in perhaps different ways) as they were when first heard in some obscure college dormitory room.
In the obituary, Vitello struggled to find the place where the group fits (and it does fit) in the grand pavilion of artistic icons. The weakest effort was his own when he wrote that “they were considered important forerunners of comedy shows like ‘Saturday Night Live.’” Better was a quote he included from a 1972 New York Times article invoking James Joyce, and almost as good was the Los Angeles Times description, when one of the group’s albums was placed in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Register, that Firesign Theatre was “the Beatles of comedy.”
To get a sense of the company Firesign keeps, consider that when the Library of Congress added Firesign’s Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (1970) to the National Recording Registry in 2005, among the other recordings entering in that same year were Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony’s Adagio for Strings, (1938), William Faulkner’s 1962 address at West Point, and Jimi Hendrix’s album Are You Experienced? And in a what seems like a delightful Firesign twist on things, also entering in 2005 was a 1930 recording of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Op. 84, as performed by the Modesto (California) High School Band. (See the full listing of titles in the NRR here.)
Though I was, and am, wonderfully entertained by the group’s political and historical commentary, its send-ups of science are exquisite. If I hadn’t known better, I would have been certain there was a paleontologist in the troupe, or perhaps a geologist, well, at least, a biologist. Only someone deeply immersed in the nuanced language of those sciences could have fashioned the “scientific” account of the creation of the earth and the evolution of life that appears in the group’s 1971 album I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.
In the midst of an account of the evolution of life, delivered in the Path of Science exhibit at the Future Fair (an out-of-control Disneyland-like place), appears the following:
Animals without backbones hid from each other or fell down. Clamasaurs and Oysterettes appeared as appetizers. Then came the sponges which sucked up about ten percent of all life. Hundreds of years later, in the Late Devouring Period, fish became obnoxious. Trailerbites, chiggerbites, and mosquitoes collided aimlessly in the dense gas. Finally, tiny edible plants sprang up in rows giving birth to generations of insecticides and other small dying creatures.So perfect – “in the Late Devouring Period, fish became obnoxious.”
As the “story” develops in this album, our main character Clem is riding on the bus to the Future Fair when he is told by Barney, who is seated next to him,
You know, I think we’re all bozos on this bus.(This can be heard in a brief clip from the album on the Firesign website). Listening to this Firesign production for the 31st time was actually the first time that I considered whether Barney’s statement was true. The large noses (“squeeze the wheeze”), wigs, and inflated shoes are dead giveaways for some of the riders, including Barney, but, at least regarding Clem, it’s unclear. Yes, he admits to Barney, “My mother was a bozoette at school.” And when Barney advises him to inflate his shoes before leaving the bus, he responds, “Oh, I don’t wear them anymore, I gave them up years ago.” So, is he a bozo or not?
This is quintessentially the kind of taxonomic question I’ve been asking of fossils all the time. I have species on the brain.
What is this fossil?
What’s its genus, its species?
Is there something that truly distinguishes one from the other?
Or, are they all bozos?