Peter Bergman, a founding member of the surrealist comedy troupe Firesign Theater, whose albums became cult favorites among college students in the late 1960s and ’70s for a brand of sly, multilayered satire so dense it seemed riddled with non sequiturs until the second, third or 30th listening, died on Friday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 72.
The cause was complications of leukemia, said Jeff Abraham, a spokesman for the group.
Mr. Bergman hosted an all-night radio call-in show on KPFK in Los Angeles beginning in 1966, “Radio Free Oz,” which served as the testing ground for the high-spirited Firesign sensibility. Phil Austin and David Ossman, two other founders of the four-man group, were the producer and director of the show; the fourth founder, Phil Proctor, was a frequent guest.
“We started out as four friends, up all night, taking calls from people on bad acid trips and having the time of our lives,” Mr. Austin said in a phone interview Friday. “And that’s what we always were: four friends talking.”
Mr. Bergman and his friends recorded their first album, “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him,” in 1968, followed the next year by “How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All?”
By 1970, their mordant humor and their mastery of stereophonic recording techniques had made them to their generation of 20-somethings what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are to today’s (if Mr. Colbert and Mr. Stewart had a weakness for literary wordplay, psychedelic references and jokes about the Counter-Reformation).
Their records employed sound effects in ways considered pioneering in audio comedy at the time. More generally, they were considered important forerunners of comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live.”
Ed Ward, writing in The New York Times in 1972, described the third Firesign album, “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers,” as “a mind-boggling sound drama” and a “work of almost Joycean complexity.”
“It’s almost impossible to summarize any Firesign album,” Mr. Ward wrote, because most of their albums were so filled with “intricate wordplay, stunning engineering and use of sound effects, breakneck pacing and, of course, a terribly complex story line.”
When the Library of Congress placed “Don’t Crush That Dwarf” in its National Recording Registry in 2005, The Los Angeles Times described Firesign Theater as “the Beatles of comedy.”
Mr. Bergman told people the ensemble’s albums, unlike most comedy records, were never made to be listened to just once or twice. “He said our records were made to be heard about 80 times,” Mr. Austin said.
While the ensemble continued making albums for three decades, Mr. Bergman also wrote and produced several one-man shows, including “Help Me Out of This Head,” a 1986 monologue-memoir that drew on his childhood in Cleveland. He also wrote interactive games, including a CD-ROM parody of the popular adventure video game MIST.
Mr. Bergman was born on Nov. 29, 1939, in Cleveland, one of two children of Oscar and Rita Bergman. His parents hosted a radio show in Cleveland when he was growing up, “Breakfast With the Bergmans.” His father also worked as a reporter for The Plain Dealer.
Mr. Bergman graduated from Yale and taught economics there as a Carnegie Fellow. He later attended the Yale School of Drama as a Eugene O’Neill playwriting fellow. He moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to pursue a writing career.
He is survived by a daughter, Lily Oscar Bergman, and his sister, Wendy Kleckner.
Mr. Bergman got a taste of radio work when he was in high school, according to a biography on Firesign Theater’s official Web site. But he lost his job as an announcer on the school radio system, it said, “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.’ ”