From the earliest age, I heard my parents play records by Tom Lehrer, a mathematician who could sing, play the piano, and write devastating verses about current events and ideas. He stopped performing in public in the US after 1960, so few people younger than baby boomers know about him.
He began by writing songs that poked fun at vulnerable elements of culture, such as his first song, composed when he was 17 and an undergraduate at Harvard, which satirized college football fight songs. Those songs were fun to hear and sing along with: “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” about a program in Boston to control pigeons with strychnine-infused corn kernels; “The Elements” listing all 102 elements known as of 1959; and “Be Prepared”, a salacious version of the Boy Scout creed. Lehrer earned his living as a university professor, and liked to make fun of academics, as in what I think is his greatest song, “Lobachevsky”, about the Russian mathematician Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky, who supposedly taught him the secret of success – plagiarize.
In the early 1960s, Lehrer stopped performing, but continued to write songs that were much more political. His songs were performed by others on the satirical TV program “That Was The Week That Was” between 1963 and 1965. TW3 broke the broadcasting conventions about political neutrality, and paved the way for later political television, such as “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”, which launched the careers of Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, and other comics.
Lehrer poked fun at serious subjects, such as racism, fascism, pollution and nuclear war. Listening to him skewer racist hypocrites, imagine World War III, and exaggerate the effects of poisons in our air and water certainly contributed to the development of my political views. I wonder if he influenced the burst of anti-establishment protest in the later 1960s among the small segment of record-purchasers and TV viewers who heard his exuberant songs.
It’s comforting to think that listening to some satirical political songs could reduce the polarization in our current politics. But Lehrer himself did not have high hopes for the political effects of his songs. In an interview in 1995, he said about his work, “I don’t think that it would change anybody’s mind. I don’t think humor does that. I think it moves people a little, and softens them up for the hard pitch. By its very nature, as I say, you have to exaggerate, you can’t really make a strong point.” He stopped writing and performing when it was no longer easy to be funny about politics in the mid-1960s. He felt out of touch with the harsher protest politics of the Black Power movement and Vietnam War. He even made fun of political folk songs in “The Folk Song Army”: “If you feel dissatisfaction, Strum your frustrations away. Some people may prefer action, But give me a folk song any old day.”
Some of Lehrer’s subjects are no longer familiar. One of his funniest songs, “Vatican Rag” mocks the Second Vatican Council, the reforms of Catholic practice in the early 1960s: “So get down upon your knees, Fiddle with your rosaries, Bow your head with great respect, And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!”
Politics today are angrier than in Tom Lehrer’s song-writing heyday, exemplified by our angry President, who seeks conflict wherever he can find it. It is harder to find political humor that doesn’t seem partisan. Johnny Carson has become Stephen Colbert, as each side watches its own form of news and laughs at its own jokes.
The guilty pleasures of Tom Lehrer’s often gross humor seem antiquated in today’s world, where presidential candidates compare the size of their penises and everybody drops F-bombs. His performances in tie and jacket as he plays musical theater piano are quaint. But his intellectual jabs at American culture, political or not, still retain their sharpness. On the liner notes of a 1997 re-release of some of this songs, Lehrer said of his musical career, “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”
One thing remains the same – the inverted relationship between politics and humor. As Will Rogers once said: “Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 28, 2017