The Unsung Brilliance of Tom Lehrer

One of the sharpest wits of the 1950s and ‘60s was Tom Lehrer, the mathematician-turned-satirist who sang and performed blackly comic songs lampooning social norms, musical genres and the headlines of the day. In his foreword to the CD collection The Remains of Tom Lehrer, Dr. Demento calls Lehrer “the most brilliant song satirist ever recorded,” and “Weird Al” Yankovic has referred to him as “the J.D. Salinger of demented music.” Yet for all this, Lehrer remains little-known to many contemporary comedy aficionados. This is unfortunate, because though his catalog is relatively limited — a few dozen songs — each is a gem, brimming with biting humor and genuine musical talent.

Thomas Andrew Lehrer was born to a Jewish family in Manhattan in 1928. He began taking piano lessons at age seven. After attending Horace Mann, he enrolled at Harvard and graduated at the age of 19. It was during his time there that he began writing some of the songs that we would become famous for, including the mock fight song, “Fight Fiercely, Harvard.” After graduating, and with mounting popularity, he began touring, and in the ‘60s became the resident songwriter for the satirical TV show That Was The Week That Was. He has taught mathematics, musical theatre and political science at Harvard, MIT, Wellesley and University of California Santa Cruz. He is also notable for having gone to summer camp with Stephen Sondheim, and for allegedly inventing the Jello shot. For more biographical information, why not hear it from the man himself?

Despite having been recorded over fifty years ago, Lehrer’s music is largely timeless. Admittedly, a few numbers remain mired in their time — “Whatever Became of Hubert?” and “George Murphy” may hold little appeal to modern audiences beyond a few clever rhymes and wince-inducing puns (“As someone once remarked to Schubert, ‘take me to your lieder,’”) but even many of his topical songs have stayed relevant, such as the nuclear proliferation song, “Who’s Next?” Lehrer explained his prescience with typical modesty, saying, “always predict the worst and you’ll be hailed as a prophet.”

Lehrer’s best work is characterized by an aggressive blitheness — singing about something ghastly with a joyeux de vivre about the horrors being perpetrated – as in “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park.” Perhaps his most popular song, “Poisoning Pigeons” also has the trademark Lehrer string of rhymes. Note too the spot-on, tra-la-la melody, invoking the carefree jubilance of springtime.

Tom Lehrer retired from show business in 1967 and since then has performed publicly only a handful of times. By his own estimation, he performed 109 shows over twenty years. Yet he was a formative influence for many of today’s comedians. Matt Groening wanted to get Lehrer into an episode of The Simpsons, and Ken Keeler wrote a Lehrer-esque song for “Two Bad Neighbors” (eventually cut). Greg Proops counts Lehrer as a huge influence. Randy Newman referred to him as “one of the great American songwriters without a doubt.” Even Daniel Radcliffe is a fan, having performed an acapella version of Lehrer’s song “The Elements” on British TV.

Tom Lehrer turned 85 this April and though his legacy has been far-reaching, it may be starting to wane. So, basically, go and listen to all of his songs. They’re super good.

Matt Crowley is a comic and writer living in Brooklyn. Why not follow him on Twitter here?

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