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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, if you will, 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.

In October 2020, at the age of 92, he announced that he was releasing all of his lyrics and sheet music to the public domain, and set up his own website for downloading them, which will remain online until 2024. In November 2022, he formally surrendered the copyright and performing/recording rights on his songs, making all the lyrics and music he had composed free for anyone to use.

Trope Namer for The Masochism Tango.


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 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.
    • Also suggested in the opening monologue to "In Old Mexico".
      ... Where he majored in animal husbandry until they...caught him at it one day.
  • 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.
  • City Shout Outs: The fourth verse of "Pollution" has local variants for New York City ("The breakfast garbage they throw out in Troy/They drink at lunch in Perth Amboy") and San Francisco ("The breakfast garbage that you throw in the Bay/They drink at lunch in San José").
  • Cruel Twist Ending: "In Old Mexico" sees Tom watching a bullfight in Mexico. At last, the matador "did what we wanted him to" by raising his sword and killing the bull with a well-aimed strike. However, "in that moment of truth", Tom realizes that someone stole his wallet.
  • 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.
  • Failed Future Forecast: 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.
  • Gallows Humor: His nuclear war songs. A non-nuclear example is in his 1965 version of "National Brotherhood Week", which debuted during the titular week itself, which was infamous for being the same week in which Malcolm X was murdered. Lehrer references X's murder as "an idea of how effective the whole thing is."
  • 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."
  • In the Style of: He performed "My Darling Clementine" in the styles of Gilbert and Sullivan, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Cole Porter and bebop jazz.
  • Knows a Guy Who Knows a Guy:
    • "I Got It from Agnes" in the sense of carnal knowledge.
    • "Lubachevsky": "I have a friend in Minsk, who has a friend in Pinsk, who's friend in Omsk has friend in Tomsk has friend in Akvolinsk..."
  • Least Rhymable Word: Multiple examples, although Lehrer loves working around this. He once rhymed "orange" with "more enj-oyment".
  • List Song: "I Got It from Agnes": who got it from whom.
    • "The Elements": is probably the most literal example of this trope there will ever be. It's literally just a list of all the elements known at the time to the tune of The Major General's Song from The Pirates of Penzance, the only other lyrics being a note that there may be more as-yet undiscovered elements that aren't in the list.
  • 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!).
    • A substantial fraction of Lehrer's output, given that he has songs covering topics like animal abuse (Poisoning Pigeons In the Park), World War III (So Long Mom, I'm Off To Drop the Bomb), national/racial/religious hatred (National Brotherhood Week), serial killing and cannibalism (The Irish Ballad) and literal tragedies (Oedipus Rex), all of which are quite jaunty.
  • 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, nubility, 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) Hanukkah 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...
    • Also, "Smut".
      A dirty novel I can't shut / If it's uncut / And unsubt...tle.
      I thrill / To any book like Fanny Hill / And I suppose I always will / If it is swill / And really fil...thy.
  • 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
    • Very obviously in Oedipus Rex, given the subject of the song is infamous for that act.
      There once lived a man named Oedipus Rex
      You may have heard about his odd complex
      His name appears in Freud's index
      'Cause he LOVED his mother
  • 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.
  • Rousing Lullaby: The MLF  Lullaby, which is about giving Germany access to the Nuclear Button scant years after they lost World War 2 and may still hold a grudge.
  • 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" endeavors 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 anesthetic.
  • "Sesame Street" Cred:
    • If you've only heard one song of Lehrer's, it's probably either "L-Y" or "Silent E" from The Electric Company (1971).
    • 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: 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.
  • 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 to 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. 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.
  • Would Rather Suffer: The last lines of "Oedipus Rex":
    You may end up like Oedipus,
    I'd rather marry a duck-billed platypus
    Than end up like old Oedipus Rex!