Tom Lehrer is the greatest comic songwriter of the last century. Okay. Maybe that’s too much. But he’s definitely the most hilarious of the last 89 years. (His 89th birthday is upon us.)
At age ten, I was introduced to Tom Lehrer by one of parents’ best friends, Mr. Tully. The Tullys were the best-educated, the most bookish, the most sophisticated (in a good way) of my parents’ friends. And Mr. Tully was a laugh riot. He always treated me as if I were five years older than my actual age, which was a great boost to my on-the-brink-of-adolescence ego. But sometimes Mr. Tully’s generosity got me into a little trouble. That afternoon with Mr. Tully and his new Tom Lehrer LP was one of those occasions. Among the songs I heard was a ragtime “hymn” entitled “The Vatican Rag.” Lehrer suggested that by broadening its music at Mass, the Catholic Church could reposition itself as an up-to-date, forward-thinking denomination. So I went home and sang for my mother:
Make a cross on your abdomen,
When in Rome, do like a Roman.
Gee, it’s good to see ya!
Mom was not amused. But Mr. Tully was. And I became an avid fan of Tom Lehrer, even if I didn’t quite get all the lyrics to all the songs. “Be Prepared,” his salute to the Boy Scouts and safe sex, mystified me, but I pretended that I understood it.
Lehrer was a math prodigy who entered Harvard at age 15. He was also a musical prodigy. While at Harvard, he composed and recorded several songs, and asked a record manufacturer to print 400 copies — all on Lehrer’s own dime. He sold all 400 after a single performance. The most memorable song on his debut album was “Fight Fiercely Harvard,” a parody of college fight songs which Lehrer, a nice Jewish boy from New York, sang in the affected intonation of a Boston Brahmin.
Come on, chaps, fight for Harvard’s glorious name,
Won’t it be peachy if we win the game?
Let’s try not to injure them, but
Fight, fight, fight!
According to a BuzzFeed story on Lehrer, written by Ben Smith and Anita Badejo, Lehrer’s album became his personal cottage industry, selling 370,000 copies in six years. His warehouse was an empty room in the boarding house where he lived near the Harvard campus, and his order fulfillment and mailing department employees were cash-starved Harvard freshmen.
Lehrer’s heyday was the 1960s, when he composed sidesplitting songs often inspired by issues of the day: National Brotherhood Week (“Step up and shake the hand / Of someone you can’t stand. / You can tolerate him if you try.”); pollution (“Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, / But they don’t last long if they try”); the employment of Third Reich scientists in the space program (“Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown. / ‘Nazi schmazi,’ says Werner von Braun”), and even nuclear proliferation (“Luxembourg is next to go, / And (who knows?) maybe Monaco. / We’ll try to stay serene and calm / When Alabama gets the bomb”).
He even skewered his own field in a number called “New Math,” probably the only song ever written about an arithmetic problem, 342 minus 173.
You can’t take three from two,
Two is less than three,
So you look at the four in the tens place.
Now that’s really four tens,
So you make it three tens,
Regroup, and you change a ten to ten ones,
And you add them to the two and get twelve,
And you take away three, that’s nine.
Is that clear?
Lehrer was the darling of the nightclub circuit and even theaters. During an overseas tour, he packed the Palace in London. Among his other accolades, he was a guest on The Tonight Show — twice — and he was denounced by Time magazine. In a 1959 critique that lumped Lehrer together with Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, the editors characterized the humor of these “sickniks” as “partly social criticism liberally laced with cyanide, partly a Charles Addams kind of jolly ghoulishness, and partly a personal and highly disturbing hostility toward all the world.”
If Time’s editorial board expected their tut-tutting to derail Lehrer’s career, they were in for a disappointment. He found a huge audience in the 1960s, especially among those drawn to the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Adlai Stevenson wing of the Democratic Party. Still, Lehrer did not hold back from lampooning his own; his “The Folk Song Army,” is a parody of earnest, humorless, self-righteous, guitar-strumming professional denizens of coffee houses.
Remember the war against Franco?
That’s the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.
In 1972 Lehrer sang at a fundraiser for George McGovern. And then he stopped. Unknown to his audience, maybe even unknown to Lehrer, it would be his last public performance.
Over the years, Lehrer has explained to interviewers that in the 1960s it was easy to write a comic anthem about the threat of a nuclear holocaust, because what fool would be in favor of it? But in the decades since he stopped accepting gigs, the issues of the day have become so splintered and bitter that he can’t find anything funny in them. He told one interviewer that social polarization does not lend itself to comedy. Do you support affirmative action or race-based quotas? As Lehrer said, you can’t write a successful comic lyric that includes the phrase “on the other hand.” Speaking with a reporter from People magazine about the stream of appeals he receives to start writing again, Lehrer said, “I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.”
So Lehrer went back to academia, to the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he taught math and musical theater. Aside from his students and his colleagues and a handful of friends, he’s kept a very low profile. So much so, that the rumor that he had died reached the status of one of those things “everybody knows.” When an interviewer from the Harvard Crimson asked him why he hadn’t done anything to dispel the notion that he was dead, Lehrer replied, “I was hoping the rumors would cut down on the junk mail.”
Of course, he’s not dead yet. And neither are his songs. Lehrer may be indifferent to the future of his comedy, but I’d like to see them passed along to another generation, even if we have to supply liner notes that explain who was Franco.