"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."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.
- Songs By Tom Lehrer (1953)
- More of Tom Lehrer (1959)
- An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer (1959)note
- Revisited (1960)note
- That Was the Year That Was (1965)
Mr. Lehrer's works 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)
- The Aggressive Drug Dealer: "The Old Dope Peddler"
- Alma Mater Song:
- "Bright College Days".
- "Fight Fiercely, Harvard". It is actually a parody of a Football Fight Song, but Harvard is Tom Lehrer's alma mater.
- Anti Christmas Carol: "A Christmas Carol".
- Anti-Love Song: Numerous examples.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The final verse of "The Irish Ballad":And when at last the police came by
Her little pranks she did not deny
For to do so she would have had to lie...
And lyin' she knew was a sin.
- 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
- Inverted with the the review-quotes he included on at least one of his album covers:
- Beastly Bloodsports: "In Old Mexico"
- Bestiality Is Depraved:
- From the introduction to "In Old Mexico":He majored in animal husbandry until they... caught him at it one day.
- From "I Got It from Agnes":She then gave it to Daniel, whose spaniel has it now.
- From the introduction to "In Old Mexico":
- Bilingual Bonus: In the recorded version of "Lobachevsky", the reviews from Pravda and Izvestia are, respectively: "There once was a king who had a pet flea," the first line of Mussorgsky's "Song of the Flea", and "I must go where the Tsar himself goes on foot," a Russian idiom meaning "I have to go to the bathroom". Lehrer usually substituted nonsense when he performed before an audience whose members were likely to include Russian speakers.
- 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..."
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: The commingling of the ordinary with the squick is a staple of his work.
- "My Home Town" begins with idyllic reminiscences of his home town and quickly slides into recalling "the guy who took a knife/and monogrammed his wife".
- "Be Prepared" exhorts Boy Scouts to be prepared for all situations...such as smoking dope and pimping out their own sisters.
- "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" sounds romantic, up to the lyrics "My joy would be complete, dear/If only you were here/But still I keep your hand/As a precious souvenir." And: "I hold your hand in mine, dear/I press it to my lips/I take a healthy bite from your dainty fingertips".
- His song "The Old Dope Peddler" sings admiringly of the cornerstone of any neighborhood, the Heroin Dealer. In more recent interviews, he's admitted that in retrospect he finds that particular song "chilling".
- "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie" does this as well. It's mostly an almost sweet, happy song about wanting to go back home...but it's after he includes the line "Ol' times there are not forgotten/Whuppin' slaves and selling cotton" that it gets dark.
- "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" starts off like a lovely ode to springtime and young love, but when he suddenly starts the chorus, the song takes a major left turn into this trope, along with some Lyrical Dissonance because of the song still being sung the same way, despite the lyrics. He actually tries to justify this:We've gained notoriety
And caused much anxiety
In the Audubon Society with our games.
They call it impiety
And lack of propriety
And quite a variety of unpleasant names.
But it's not against any religion
To want to dispose of a pigeon!
- Most of Tom Lehrer's songs, and their humor, stem from this trope.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Aside from being a quirky satirist, he's a Harvard-educated mathematician and a very accomplished pianist.
- Cheap Heat: Since That Was the Year That Was was recorded in San Francisco, he sings "the breakfast garbage that you throw into the bay, they drink at lunch in San Jose" in "Pollution" and gets an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd. The songbook Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer suggests that anyone singing the song should similarly localize that line.
- Competition Coupon Madness: Parodied in "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier".
- Convenience Store Gift Shopping: He mocks the practice in his Christmas Carol:Relations sparing no expense'll
Send some useless old utensil
Or a matching pen and pencil.
"Just the thing I need. How nice."
It doesn't matter how sincere it
Is, nor how heartfelt the spirit.
Sentiment will not endear it.
What's important is the price.
- Crapsack World: "My Home Town," although it could perhaps be "Crapsaccharine" given how fondly the narrator remembers it…
- Creepy Souvenir: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine"
- Deadpan Snarker: "MLF"Once all the Germans were warlike, and mean, but that couldn't happen again,We taught them a lesson in 1918, and they've hardly bothered us since then!
- Pretty much the entirety of "Dr. Wernher Von Braun" is this, including such gems as "'once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down, that's not my department' says Wernher Von Braun."
- 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.
- The Film of the Book: Parodied at least twice.
"With Ingrid Bergman [or Bridget Bardot] playing the part of Hypotenuse."
- "Lobachevsky" describes a film version of a mathematics textbook...
- "Oedipus Rex", meanwhile, was a modest proposal for a title tune "which the people could hum" for the film of the eponymous play.
- Filth: The subject matter of "Smut".
- Friend to Psychos: In "My Home Town":
- I remember Sam; he was the village idiot
And though it seems a pity, it
He liked to burn down houses just to watch the glow
And nothing could be done
Because he was the mayor's son
- 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, Lehrer himself was responsible for the song's being unreleased at the time because he felt it was too racy, although he would perform it in nightclubs going back to the 1950s.
- "I Got It from Agnes." What "it" is is never specified, but we can guess.
- 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.
- Grow Old with Me: Satirized in "When You Are Old and Gray".
- 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".
- Having a Heart: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" and "The Masochism Tango".
- Hollywood New England: "The Elements":These are the only ones of which the news has come to Hahvard,
And there may be many others but they haven't been discahvard.
- Human Head on the Wall: "The Hunting Song":And there's ten stuffed heads in my trophy room right now,Two game wardens, seven hunters, and a pure-bred guernsey cow.
- I'm a Humanitarian:
- "The Irish Ballad":One day when she had nothing to do
She cut her baby brother in two
And served him up as an Irish stew
And invited the neighbours in
- "My Home Town":I remember Dan, the druggist on the corner; he
Was never mean or ornery; he was swell
He killed his mother-in-law and ground her up real well
And sprinkled just a bit over each banana split
- "The Irish Ballad":
- In the Style of...: 'Clementine'
- Insult Backfire:
- His songs are well-liked among the more humorous folk and Filk singers.
- The Harvard University Band regularly performs his fight-song parody "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" at football games.
- 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."
- I Will Find You: Given a suitably dark twist in "So Long Mom (I'm Off To Drop The Bomb)":I'll look for you when the war is over
An hour and a half from now!
- Jukebox Musical: Tom Foolery.
- Knows a Guy Who Knows a Guy:
- An exaggeratedly long example in "Lobachevsky". See List Song below.
- "I Got It from Agnes" in the sense of carnal knowledge.
- Least Rhymable Word: Multiple examples. Lehrer loves working around this.
- Lethal Chef: Referenced in "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier":Our old mess sergeant's taste buds had been shot off in the war.
But his savory collations add to our esprit de corps.
To think of all the marvelous ways
They're using plastics nowadays.
It makes a fella proud to be a soldier!
- List Song:
- "The Elements" is Exactly What It Says on the Tin; all of the chemical elements known at the time, set to "a possibly recognizable tune": "The Major-General's Song" from The Pirates of Penzance.
- "Lobachevsky" also includes a verse that's largely a list of towns in the Soviet Union. "I have a friend in Minsk, who has a friend in Pinsk, whose friend in Omsk has friend in Tomsk with a friend in Akmolinsk!" That's not the complete list, by the way. And the return journey somehow manages to squeeze in two more cities that weren't mentioned the first time.
- "I Got It from Agnes": who got it from whom.
- Literal Metaphor: "The Masochism Tango":At your command
Before you here, I stand
My heart is in my hand... (Yecch!)
- A Love to Dismember: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" and "The Masochism Tango".
- Lyrical Dissonance:
- "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" is a bright, happy, song about guess what.
- Special mention has to go to "We Will All Go Together When We Go," a cheery, toe-tapping number about the complete extinction of the human race. And how that's a good thing because it means there'll be nobody left alive to feel sad about it afterward.We will all go directly to our respective Valhallas
Go directly, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dolla's ...
- "So Long Mom" is also a song about nuclear war set to a cheerful tune. The narrator is a pilot in World War III adressing his mother:While we're attacking frontally,
Watch Brinkley and Huntley
The cities we have lost.
No need for you to miss a minute
Of the agonizing holocaust. (Yeah!)
- His nuclear-war and nuclear-testing songs in general.
- Oedipus Rex:There was a man though, who, it seems
Once carried this ideal to extremes,
He loved his mother and she loved him
And yet his story is rather grim...
- Major General Song: Lehrer describes "The Elements" as "the names of the chemical elements set to a possibly recognisable tune".
- The Masochism Tango: The Trope Namer. Ironically, however, the song itself isn't an example. It's more about a really kinky couple.
- 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"
- Motor Mouth: "New Math", "The Elements", and his research assignment in "Lobachevsky".
- Mummies at the Dinner Table: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine".
- Murder Ballad: "The Irish Ballad".
- Noodle Incident: In the song "My Home Town," Tom Lehrer always omits a line while announcing something to the effect of, "We're recording tonight, so I'll have to leave this line out." (He subsequently admitted that he never found a satisfactory line, and found the implication that he wanted to say something so unspeakably racy that it had to be censored much funnier.)
- Oedipus Complex: Has a song about the Trope Namer. Lehrer probably deserves an award for rhyming "Rex" with "Complex".
- The Oldest Profession:
Don't solicit for your sister; that's not niceUnless you get a good percentage of her price
- "Now there's a charge for what she used to give for free in my home town".
- From "Be Prepared":
- 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.
- Taken to Patter Song extremes in The Musical production 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. For instance, these lines from "We Will All Go Together When We Go":When you attend a funeral
It is sad to think that sooner or l...
...ater those you love will do the same for you
And you may have found it tragic
Not to mention other adjec...
...tives to think of all the weeping they will do
Your heart is hard as stone or mahogany.
- Also, during "The Masochism Tango":
That's why I'm in such exquisite ah-gony.
Those Eastern winters, I can't endure 'em
- Also the section from "A Christmas Carol" from the Convenience Store Gift Shopping part mentioned above.
- There are some truly rough ones in "(I'm Spending) Hannukah in Santa Monica":
So every year I pack my gear and come out here till PurimRosh Hashanah, I spend in Ari-zah-na
And Yom Kippur, way down in Mississippur...
- Parental Bonus:
- While most of his songs are still funny, there are lines he says that are rather topical to the 1960s. An example would be when he mentions that Massachusetts is the only state with three senators, it's because Robert Kennedy (from Massachusetts) happened to be a New York senator at the time.
- "New Math" was supposed to make fun of the new (at the time) substraction method, by using Motor Mouth to make it look as incomprehensible as possible. While New Math was mostly abandoned, the subtraction method he demonstrates in the song actually stuck around, and nowadays, kids are taught using that "new" method. Kids will now understand perfectly the incomprehensible "new" method, but struggle trying to understand the normal "old" method because Lehrer didn't bother explaining it too much (since he assumed people would be familiar with the method) and, as Lehrer himself points out, the "old" method wasn't actually meant to be understood.
- The lead-in to "In Old Mexico" includes the line "... Where he majored in animal husbandry, until they ... caught him at it one day..." which kids probably won't get, but to adults is racy even by today's standards.
- 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.)
- Polluted Wasteland: The whole topic of "Pollution", which is a reversal of how Americans going overseas would be warned not to drink the water there, and how foreigners coming to America should prepare for it. Example:If you visit American city,
You will find it very pretty.
Just two things of which you must beware:
Don't drink the water and don't breathe the air!
They've got smog and sewage and mud.
Turn on your tap
And get hot and cold running crud!
- Protest Song: Parodied in "The Folk Song Army". Lehrer believed that protest songs were utterly useless and was fond of reminding people of how effective the satirical cabaret shows of Weimar Germany were against the Nazis. He did several songs satirizing political issues of the day, such as nuclear proliferation, and senator and former Hollywood star George R. Murphy's racist remarks during an interview and other such things, but these were more Gallows Humor than protests.Remember the war against Franco,that's the kind where each of us belongs.Though he may have won all the battles,we had all the good songs.
- Pyromaniac: From "My Home Town":I remember Sam!He was the village idiotAnd though it seems a pity, it was soHe liked to burn down houses just to watch the glowAnd nothing could be doneBecause he was the mayor's son
- Reckless Gun Usage: "The Hunting Song" talks about accidents usual for an opening of the hunting season. With a "recipe":People ask me how I do itAnd I say, "There's nothing to it!You just stand there looking cute,And when something moves … you shoot!"
- Sanity Slippage Song: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine"
- Self-Deprecation: 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)."
- There's also the fact that he teaches at and went to Harvard and wrote "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" essentially saying how wussy he thinks Harvard is. Harvard itself plays the song at their games.
- 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: In some cases. For example, "Smut" has Shout Outs to two classic works of erotic literature, Fanny Hill and Lady Chatterley's Lover. Lehrer also joked that he'd always wanted to write a mathematics textbook because he had a title he knew would sell a million copies: Tropic of Calculus.
- Southern-Fried Private: "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier"
- Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: "The Folk Song Army" and "My Home Town" being the two best examples.
- Take Me to Your Leader: Spoofed in "Whatever Became of Hubert?":"We must protest this treatment, Hubert"Says each newspaper readerAs someone once remarked to Schubert(sorry about that)
- Take That!: A lot of his songs are attacks on someone or something, but as already noted folk-singers have been a repeated target, and his "ode" to Wernher von Braun also stands out.
- Take That, Audience!: At the end of "Oedipus Rex", his response to the audience applauding is "The outpatients are out in force tonight, I see".
- Teen Genius: He earned a bachelor's degree in Mathematics from Harvard. At 19. Yeah.
- Those Wacky Nazis: As mentioned above, he references Wernher von Braun's Nazi past:Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown..."Heh, Nazi Schmazi," says Wernher von Braun!
- Three Chords and the Truth: He has a dig at this trope in the spoken intro to "Folk Song Army":"I have a song here which I realize should be accompanied on a folk instrument, in which category the piano does not, alas, qualify. So imagine, if you will, that I am playing an 88-string guitar."
The tune don't have to be clever,And it don't matter if you put a couple extra syllables into a line.It sounds more ethnic if it ain't good English,And it don't even gotta rhyme—excuse me—rhyne.
- Then he does it again in the song itself, where he also pokes fun at the lyrical version:
- To the Tune of...: "The Elements" takes its melody from Gilbert and Sullivan's "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General".
- Trading Bars for Stripes: Referenced in "It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier":When Pete was only in the seventh grade, he stabbed a cop.
He's real R.A. material and he was glad to swap
His switchblade and his old zip gun
For a bayonet and a new M-1.
- Trophy Husband: "Alma", a ballad dedicated to socialite Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, whom he praises for managing to marry three of the greatest minds of the day and having the raciest obituary he had ever had the pleasure of reading.The first one she married was Mahler,Whose buddies all knew him as Gustav.And each time he saw her he'd holler:"Ach, das ist the fräulein I moost have!"
- 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".
- Verbal Backspace: "New Math" gets a gag out of a subtraction error:And so you've got thirteen tensAnd you take away seven,And that leaves five...Well, six actually...But the idea is the important thing!
- 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.
- Visual Pun: After singing the line "To thee we sing with our glasses raised on high" in "Bright College Days", Lehrer would take off his glasses and raise them.
- Wacky Fratboy Hijinks: "Bright College Days"
- With Catlike Tread: "O-U (The Hound Song)" from The Electric Company (1971).
- World War III: "So Long Mom (I'm Off To Drop The Bomb)", or "We Will All Go Together When We Go" ("a rousing, uplifting song that's sure to cheer you up.")
- You Make Me Sic: In "Be Prepared", Lehrer admonishes young Boy Scouts, "Don't write naughty words on walls if you can't spell".