Happy 90th Birthday, Tom Lehrer

Happy 90th birthday to one of the few people to have been both a show biz genius and an actual genius, Tom Lehrer (b. 1928). Lehrer is the only American I can think of who became famous as an artist/entertainer, while never precisely quitting his day job (mathematics/academia). The combination of a darkly satirical comic mind and immersion in high level math makes comparisons with Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodson) inevitable.

We also happen to be somewhere around the 40th anniversary of my first exposure to Lehrer’s songs, at the hands of my friend’s mom. At that stage Lehrer was younger than I am now and had only been retired from performing for about five years. I was a tween when first exposed to his work; it would be hard to exaggerate his influence on me. In 1978, Lehrer’s life’s work (in both careers) struck one as relics of the Cold War, especially the Kennedy Era, a time when the “sick humor” of artists as diverse as Nichols and May, Charles Addams, Stanley Kubrick, Jules Feiffer and Lenny Bruce entertained a minority of sophisticated Americans. Raised in a cocoon of bumpkinism, I had never been exposed to anything that dark, subversive, or (frankly) smart. Lehrer made satirical comedy out of such things as murder, masochism, necrophilia, nuclear annihilation, commercialism, and prejudice, as well as hypocrisy in such cherished institutions as the Boy Scouts, the church, and small town America. All this, performed in a cheerfully insane manner that seemed a commentary of the optimism of America itself. This is a nation that gave the world Coca Cola at the same time as it was dropping napalm in Vietnam. We in America are the happy-face bringers of death. This all came as a revelation to me — it expanded and forever changed my brain, knowing that this stuff was fair game. To me, Lehrer comes close to being America’s foremost satirist. He is the standard I tend to measure people by.

It’s interesting to contemplate Lehrer’s art in contrast to his fellow Harvard alums, the guys who founded The National Lampoon, whom we wrote about here. It’s hard for me not to want to punish those guys for not being Lehrer. Their comedy was dark as well, but possessed far less focus, aim, or craft. Essentially, the Lampoon guys had the benefit of a Harvard education, only to emerge as heirs to Abbott and Costello. Lehrer, on the other hand, seems to have stayed awake during his classes. He’s perhaps our finest comic lyricist since the days of his hero Cole Porter (ironically a Yale man!) Furthermore Lehrer did this all in a pastiche style imbued with echoes of beloved pop musical genres: tin pan alley, musical theatre, the opera of Gilbert and Sullivan, etc. His stomping grounds were cabarets, colleges, and concert halls. Lehrer characterized his age. When I think of how smart, clever, talented and polished he was, I have something like despair for the state of the world today. This is an age of sloppiness, of widespread rejection of, and rebellion against, intellect. Is there anybody around today as on the ball as Lehrer was, in any department? The fact that he clearly worked so hard at what he did, and did us all proud as an example by producing art so excellent, keeps me from having for him the same class scorn I have for the Lampoon guys. This is a guy whose privilege was not squandered. He gave back. Ironic to contemplate since he was such a slayer of institutions, but Lehrer was a solid citizen.

Born on New York’s Upper East Side, Lehrer attended the tony Horace Mann and Loomis Chaffee schools, and had private music tutors, prior to entering Harvard at the very young age of 15. He got his baccalaureate and a masters’ there, and worked on his Ph.D. for 15 years. He taught math at MIT, Harvard and Wellesley.

Much like Porter had decades earlier, he began writing songs to entertain friends in college. In 1953 he self-produced his first album, Songs by Tom Lehrer. This record contains many or most of what might be considered the “first batch” of Lehrer songs, among them “The Old Dope Peddler”, “Be Prepared”, “I Hold Your Hand in Mine”, “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie”, “The Irish Ballad”, and “My Home Town.”

In 1955 Lehrer was drafted into the army, serving in the NSA for two years. That somebody that liberal and that much of an anti-war and anti-nuke activist worked for two years as a Cold Warrior, is an irony for the ages, but no doubt it helped fuel his art. Mathematics was never out of the picture, however. In 1957 and 1958 he co-authored scholarly papers on math topics. In 1957 it was also announced that Princess Margaret of Great Britain was a fan, and that gave his music career a boost. There were new record albums based around his first batch of songs in 1959, 1960, and 1966.

In 1962, Lehrer began teaching political science at MIT. In 1964 and 1965, he wrote a new batch of satirical songs for the tv comedy show That Was the Week That Was, resulting in the record album That Was the Year That Was, which came out in 1965. This batch includes such gems as “So Long, Mom”, “National Brotherhood Week”, and “Werner Von Braun”.

Somewhere in here he worked with Joe Raposo (writer of the theme music for Sesame Street and Three’s Company) on a pre-Sondheim musical version of Sweeney Todd, to star Jerry Colonna. Work on the show was abandoned before it was completed, and by this time (late 60s/early 70s) Colonna was deteriorating in any event.

Lehrer’s third batch of songs was a number of funny educational numbers cooked up for The Electric Company in the late 1960s and ’70s, an unsurprising development from a man who once set the periodic table of the elements to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”.

In 1972, Lehrer closed out his musical career with a fundraising tour in support of U.S. Presidential candidate George McGovern. That year he accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he remained for nearly three decades.  In 1980 Cameron Mackintosh produced a revue of Lehrer’s songs called Tomfoolery on the West End; it opened at the Village Gate in New York in 1981.

It seems a loss that no original musical theatre work from Lehrer’s pen ever made it to the stage. I often find myself hoping that, like Lehrer’s contemporary J.D. Salinger, he’s been secretly composing during retirement and has amassed a whole backlog of songs. If that doesn’t turn out to be the case though, as I learned from re-listening to his songs last night after many years, the ones he wrote in the ’50s and ’60s remain sadly topical, in fact seem more relevant than ever. Lynching, nuclear terror, church hypocrisy — what’s old is new again. On the bright side, we haven’t burned down the world yet. On the other hand, as Lehrer himself has pointed out, satirical songs didn’t prevent the rise of Hitler.