My memory of the moment is quite vivid, if inevitably inexact. It happened 41 years ago, in the early afternoon, in Mrs. Winkler’s seventh grade science class at Amity Junior High School, as we were doing a “unit” on Ecology. In order to brighten our study of the physical environment, Mrs. Winkler announced one day at the start of class that she wanted to play us a song, and proceeded to put a black vinyl disc on the industrial weight turntable, the cover of which doubled as a speaker. The song she played was a savagely funny cri de coeur about how America’s cities and resources had been ruined by the scourge of pollution, from the perspective of a someone warning a foreign visitor about coming to America.
That was the day I first heard, and heard of, Tom Lehrer.
Not long thereafter, at a garage sale, I would discover a 10 inch, 33 rpm record, “Songs by Tom Lehrer” (on Lehrer Records), which I immediately seized and paid, I imagine, 25 cents to possess. Lehrer joined Allan Sherman and Stan Freberg among the small coterie of singing comedians to whom I became devoted, committing their songs to memory and happily singing them acapella for friends who had no earthly idea where I’d found these strange but funny tunes. After all, Sherman died in 1973, Freberg had shifted from comedy into advertising, and Lehrer’s U.S. fame had peaked on That Was The Week That Was, a short-lived TV precursor to The Daily Show back in 1964 (where he once took on the decimal system on the original British version of the show).
While Lehrer was a genuinely formative influence, who is rarely far from my mind, I think of him specially today because April 9, 2016 marks his 88th birthday. With Sherman gone for than 40 years and Freberg having passed just a couple of years ago, Lehrer is the last surviving member of my own sung comedy superteam, and while it’s quite clear that there is nothing Lehrer would like less than to be celebrated for work he largely stopped doing 50 years ago (this BuzzFeed piece from two years ago explains), and even further back, it’s hard to restrain oneself.
This, of course, is the challenge of being a Tom Lehrer fan. While much of the work is evergreen, the majority of it was written in the 1950s and first half of the 60s, and Lehrer largely stopped performing by the time 1970s rolled around. Some have written that Lehrer’s withdrawal from performance was because he is – as a mathematician by training and primary trade – a perfectionist, and that he took no pleasure from concerts because he was determined to reproduce his recordings. Others have suggested that what was daring and ribald in the 50s ran smack against the counterculture of the late 60s, which Lehrer didn’t care for.
In any event, to the dismay of fans of funny, topical songs, Lehrer refocused himself on teaching. The result for comedy geeks was that he became, almost, our J.D. Salinger. Although he hid in plain sight, his students knew better than to discuss his performing fame; though almost no new work appeared, it was clear that he had not shunned his piano and verbal repartee, as the occasional song slipped out, or the odd public appearance. He gave a rare interview to National Public Radio in 1979; he spoke with The New York Times in 2000. Perhaps his last burst of general public fame came when the producer Cameron Mackintosh brought the musical revue Tomfoolery, comprised of Lehrer’s songs, to the stage in London and later New York. But that was in the early 1980s, almost two generations ago now, so Lehrer fans can even be nostalgic for that moment of nostalgia.
Not all of Lehrer’s material still plays today: in this era when space exploration has been minimized, a song about early rocket scientist Werner von Braun is hardly a source of laughter; post-Cold War, a cowboy crooning about the Atomic Energy Commission is perhaps too obscure. But a jazzy pop tune about Oedipus Rex can still crack up the college crowd, and anyone old enough to know of masochism is sure to find humor in a tango celebrating sexual gratification through pain. On the first day of spring each year, the idea of ridding our cities of the overpopulation of pigeons can still resonate. The NRA probably still doesn’t care for a hunting song about an inept marksman. Sexually transmitted diseases, sad to say, are perennial. And while National Brotherhood Week may be gone, a song about that effort to heal cultural rifts still stings.
It may be the very last thing he wants, but today I’ll place a candle in a cupcake and wish for the continued health of Tom Lehrer, hoping, as a I do every day, that he might one day be revealed to have been writing songs all this time, and shares them with us, even if not in performance, then at least as sheet music, the better to celebrate him with. Even if he doesn’t want us to do so.
P.S. Did I mention that Lehrer went to summer camp with Stephen Sondheim? Just wanted to toss that in. The verbal dexterity on the swim team that summer must have been quite something.
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Whether you’re a Lehrer devotee or newly curious, I recommend watching this mid-60s live show from Copenhagen, in which he performs many of his best known songs for a relatively reserved college crowd.
While the Copenhagen concert has yielded an array of YouTube clips, much lesser seen is a short performance Lehrer gave for one of his teaching colleagues, stocked with an array of unrecorded songs, heavy on mathematics humor.
Strictly for the fans, here’s a decidedly odd industrial clip of Lehrer singing the praises of a new Dodge car.
If you’d like to introduce younger kids to Lehrer, paving the way for them to discover his more transgressive work when they get older, here’s a bit of educational material from TV’s The Electric Company.
While “cover” versions of Tom Lehrer tunes are rare, here’s the late British comic Marty Feldman having his way with “The Vatican Rag.”
Of course, there’s also Daniel Radcliffe singing “The Element Song.”
I’ll wrap this up with what may be one of Lehrer’s last released songs to date, which is simply the best Hannukah song ever written.