"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."
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 1996 album That Was The Year That Was.) as accompaniment.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. Lehrer's own inspirations notably include Gilbert and Sullivan and Cole Porter. Allegedly, he invented the Jell-O shot.Trope Namer for The Masochism Tango.Quotes from Mr. Lehrer's works are used at the top of the following pages:
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 may include Russian speakers.
My Home Town begins with idyllic reminiscences of his home town and quickly slides into recalling "the man 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 admirably of the cornerstone of any neighborhood, the Heroin Dealer.
"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 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 Soundtrack Dissonance because of the song still being sung the same way, despite the lyrics.
Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Aside from being a quirky satirist, he's a Harvard-educated mathematician and a very accomplished pianist.
Creator Breakdown: The reason he stopped doing political satire was apparently because the politicians became too corrupt. He abandoned his singing career before Richard Nixon was even President, and things haven't gotten better...
Lehrer: "I don't want to satirize George [W.] Bush and his puppeteers. I want to vaporize them."
That's part of the reason, but not the entire reason. There's also the fact that the political issues of later eras became much more complex, and it's hard to get good laughs out of a song that presents both sides of the issue. Here's a piece that has a lot more elaboration from Lehrer. That said, the devolution of politics certainly has not made Lehrer any more enthusiastic about the idea of writing music.
According to the preface of one of his songbooks, "Well-wishers...are constantly suggesting hilarious subject matter, such as the Vietnam War, the gradual destruction of the environment, our recent presidents, etc. so that I have often felt like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava."
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.
Also, "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:
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.)
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
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.
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.)
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.
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."
"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."
Then he does it again in the song itself, where he also pokes fun at the lyrical version:
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.
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.