Music / Tom Lehrer

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"Come back tomorrow night, we're gonna do… fractions."

"I find that if you take the various popular song forms to their logical extremes, you can arrive at almost anything from the ridiculous to the obscene—or, as they say in New York, sophisticated."
Tom Lehrer, Tom Lehrer Revisited

Thomas Andrew Lehrer (born April 9, 1928) is an American satirist who managed to achieve remarkable popularity and impact on popular culture, despite having produced only three albums' worth of material in the 1950s and '60s before retiring to a life in academia as a mathematician. Lehrer's pieces often take the form of witty parodies of various popular song forms. Other common themes in his work are disapproval of nuclear war, Cold War politics, and folk singing. Of course, he undercuts that last by putting forth as perfect a rendition of such songs as can be done with only a piano ("imagine that I am playing an 88-string guitar", as he said in his intro to "The Folk Song Army," on his 1965 album That Was the Year That Was) as accompaniment.

He also wrote 10 songs for the children's educational series The Electric Company (1971).

Lehrer is still alive, and occasionally performing. At the 80th birthday party of a fellow mathematician and friend Irving "Kaps" Kaplansky, he dusted off a handful of mathematics songs to an appreciative crowd of students and fellow mathematicians.

"Weird Al" Yankovic cites Tom Lehrer as one of his inspirations, while Dr. Demento has described him as "the greatest musical satirist of the 20th Century." Lehrer's own inspirations notably include Gilbert and Sullivan, Danny Kaye and Cole Porter. He also claimed to have invented the Jell-O shot as a way of circumventing military base regulations, though the idea goes at least as far back as the 1862 book, How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion.

The website Tom Lehrer Song Lyrics (With Annotations) features a collection of, well, his annotated lyrics.

Trope Namer for The Masochism Tango.

Discography


Albums with their own trope pages:

Non-album songs display examples of:

  • Acting Unnatural: In one of Tom Lehrer's compositions for The Electric Company (1971), "L-Y", this trope comes into play in the second verse. Enhanced by the animation for the song, in which the "secret agent man" leans against the safe he is trying to open while playing with a yo-yo and smiling ear to ear.
    You're a secret agent man
    Who's after the secret plan
    How do you act so they don't know you're a spy?
    Ah-normally (Not-So-Innocent Whistle) Normally (whistles again)
    Normal... L-Y!
  • Anti-Love Song: Numerous examples.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Inverted with the the review-quotes he included on at least one of his album covers:
    "More desperate than amusing" — New York Herald Tribune
    "He seldom has any point to make except obvious ones" — The Christian Science Monitor
    "Mr. Lehrer's muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste." — New York Times
    "Obvious, jejune, and remarkably unsophisticated." — London Evening Standard
    "Plays the piano acceptably" — The Oakland Tribune
  • Bestiality Is Depraved: From "I Got It from Agnes":
    She then gave it to Daniel, whose spaniel has it now.
  • Black Comedy: Lots and lots of examples, but "I Got It from Agnes" has this doozy: "Max got it from Edith, who gets it every spring/ She got it from her daddy, who just gives her everything..."
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Aside from being a quirky satirist, he's a Harvard-educated mathematician and a very accomplished pianist.
  • Eating Contest: The setting of the "Eagerly" verse of "L-Y".
  • Educational Song: Wrote several for The Electric Company, including "L-Y", "N'T", and "Silent E".
  • Epunymous Title: The stage revue Tomfoolery.
  • Filk Song: Virtually everything he wrote has been adopted as "Found Filk," notwithstanding—or perhaps in spite of—Lehrer's feelings about folk music. There have even been full Tom Lehrer Sing-Alongs.
  • Gallows Humor: His nuclear war songs.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar:
    • "I Got It from Agnes." What "it" is is never specified, but we can guess.
      I love my friends, and they love me
      We're just as close as we can be
      And just because we really care
      Whatever we get, we share.
    • Sadly, Lehrer did not originally get this past the radar, as his recording of it was not released until 1997 as a bonus track on Songs & More Songs by Tom Lehrer, a compilation rerelease of two albums from the 1950s. The first released recording of it was from the Tom Foolery soundtrack in 1980. However, as it turns out, Lehrer himself was responsible for the song being unreleased at the time, as he felt it was too racy. He was known to perform it in nightclubs going back to the 1950s, though.
  • The Great Politics Mess-Up: A lot of the Gallows Humor in his songs is predicated on the fact that nuclear war with the USSR and the subsequent The End of the World as We Know It was considered inevitable at the time.
  • Hanging Our Clothes to Dry: In the "Patiently" verse of "L-Y".
  • Hates the Job, Loves the Limelight: Inverted. Lehrer loved both music and comedy, but was almost aggressively indifferent to his status as a celebrity. For example, Lehrer used to plan his tours by which cities he wanted to visit, and saw touring as a way of getting his agent to pay for an extended vacation overseas. He also famously kept the master recordings of his studio output in a shoebox in his attic. Said shoebox was later given to a fan who asked if he had ever done a recording of a certain song with the words "If I have, it's in there somewhere".
  • Insult Backfire:
    • His songs are well-liked among the more humorous folk and Filk singers.
    • For himself, Lehrer was very fond of a review he'd once received, and loved to quote it: "Mr. Lehrer's muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste."
  • Jukebox Musical: Tom Foolery.
  • Knows a Guy Who Knows a Guy: "I Got It from Agnes" in the sense of carnal knowledge.
  • Least Rhymable Word: Multiple examples. Lehrer loves working around this.
  • List Song: "I Got It from Agnes": who got it from whom.
  • Love Dodecahedron: "I Got It from Agnes", assuming one obvious interpretation of what "it" is. Tom, Agnes, Jim, Louise, Harry, and Marie appear in the first verse alone.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "I Got It from Agnes" is a cheerful ditty about the spread of VD through vectors including parental incest, zoophilia, and a homosexual threesome (Aha! Lucky Pierre!).
  • Meaningful Name: "Lehrer" is German for "teacher".
  • The Mel Brooks Number: Arguably could be called the Tom Lehrer number. Classical arrangement, orchestral backing (in at least two cases), plenty of Genius Bonus, and content that ranges from Black Comedy, Gallows Humor, ribald, or just caustic - but it's always hilarious.
  • Midword Rhyme: Done constantly, and always for the Rule of Funny. In an interview he once used this as a workaround for the infamous lack of rhymes with "orange": "Eating an orange/While making love/Makes for a bizarre enj-/oyment thereof."
  • Money Song: "Selling Out"
  • Our Product Sucks:
    • One album was named An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer; another's cover quoted several unflattering reviews of his work, including one from the New York Times saying "Mr. Lehrer's muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste."
    • He really liked that, and used to quote it often.
    • The liner notes for his albums would say, "If you did not enjoy this album, you will most definitely not enjoy (names of his other albums)."
    • He released a songbook titled Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer.
  • Overly Long Gag: In the song "When You Are Old and Grey," he uses so much "-ility" rhymes that he (intentionally) gets worn-out about three-quarters of the way through. This is taken to Patter Song extremes in Tomfoolery.
    • Namely, the original song only has the following: debility, utility, mobility, possibility, probability, virility, fertility, desirability, liability, sterility, hostility, futility, agility, facility, senility, and ability. Tomfoolery adds: compatibility, fragility, advisability, durability, inflexibility, volatility, inconceivability, humility, nobility, puerility, indispensability, versatility, irresponsibility, juvenility, adorability, and imbecility.
  • Painful Rhyme: Sometimes spectacularly so, and entirely deliberate. There are some truly rough ones in "(I'm Spending) Hannukah in Santa Monica":
    Those Eastern winters, I can't endure 'em
    So every year I pack my gear and come out here till Purim
    Rosh Hashanah, I spend in Ari-zah-na
    And Yom Kippur, way down in Mississippur...
  • Parental Incest: Played for laughs in "I Got It from Agnes" (which is probably about venereal disease) with the lines:
    Max got it from Edith, who gets it every spring
    She got it from her daddy, who gives her everything
  • Poe's Law: Lehrer responded to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger by commenting that "satire is obsolete". (Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, that's not why he quit performing. He had already quit because he was tired of touring and redoing the same songs over and over.)
  • Refuge in Audacity: Some of his lyrics can still turn heads, and as noted he first released most of his songs in the 1950s.
  • Scary Musician, Harmless Music: Inverted. Lehrer looks like the math professor he is, and his tunes are all happy, upbeat piano pieces, but egad, the lyrics!
  • Serial Escalation: Each verse of "I Got It from Agnes" endeavours to be more controversial than the last, gradually implying Depraved Bisexual tendencies, a gay threesome, Parental Incest, a man who bred with his dog and finally that their dentist raped one of them while they were under anaesthetic.
  • "Sesame Street" Cred:
    • If you've only heard one song of Lehrer's, it's probably "Silent E" from The Electric Company (1971). Beware: Ear Worm. Or "L-Y" from the same show.
    • Or maybe your Chemistry teacher introduced you to "The Elements".
      • "The Elements" has even been used in science documentaries.
      • And now The Big Bang Theory.
      • And on the NCIS episode "Ex-File."
      • And frequently, Daniel Radcliffe will dust off the song from memory when he's a guest on daytime, evening, and late-night talk-shows, so does that mean Lehrer also has Diagon Alley cred to his name?
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Professor Lehrer would frequently utilize very elongated words and sophisticated language.
  • Shout-Out: Various recorded versions of "Lobachevsky" credit Brigitte Bardot, Ingrid Bergman, Doris Day, and Marilyn Monroe as playing the hypotenuse in the film version of The Eternal Triangle.
  • Suspiciously Similar Song: "That's Mathematics" was originally written to the tune of "That's Entertainment", but he couldn't get the rights so he had to write a new tune (which is still similar because it had to fit the existing lyrics).
  • Teen Genius: He earned a bachelor's degree in Mathematics from Harvard. At 19. Yeah.
  • That Mysterious Thing: "I Got It from Agnes" never actually says what "it" is, although the song's humor is based on there being an obvious assumption that can be made.
  • To the Tune of...: "O-U (The Hound Song)", written for The Electric Company, uses "Caro nome" from Rigoletto.
  • The Unfettered: According a review by the New York Times which he proudly quotes: "Mr Lehrer's muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste".
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: The historical stuff nowadays, thanks to the topical aspect (see The Great Politics Mess-Up, Parental Bonus). His scientific songs, though, definitely qualify; in fact, before Lehrer even recorded an album, he performed the "Physical Revue" to a group of Harvard physics students.
  • With Catlike Tread: "O-U (The Hound Song)" from The Electric Company (1971), where a hound sings loudly about how he dare not make a sound.

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