The trouble with cutting-edge humor is that it doesn’t take long for the edge to dull. Comedic plays and films and television shows once thought to be the ultimate in risk-taking often seem quaint when you revisit them years later. But not all comedy ages. You may not think it as funny as I do, but one can’t deny that the humor of Monty Python, from the convention-shattering Monty Python’s Flying Circus to the heretical poke in the eye that is their 1979 film Life of Brian, is still peculiar—a term I use with affection. Their seminal creations are now between 30 and 45 years old, but they still surprise with their inventiveness and daring. They are, in the best sense of the word, strange.
The same is true of the comic songs of Tom Lehrer. I am aware as I type this that the term “comic song” is enough to send some people’s thoughts toward any other subject. But in the hands of a skilled creator, the comic song can be as insightful as the most solemn psychological drama. And a lot more fun.
By his own choosing, Tom Lehrer had a short career as a composer and performer of satirical songs. His heyday was during the 1950s and early 1960s. Songs by Tom Lehrer, an album he paid to produce, became popular through airplay on college radio stations and through his performances. When in 1971 he retired from giving concerts to focus his efforts on being a professor of mathematics, he had written a small but influential group of songs that satirized everything from ineffectual attempts at understanding among races and creeds to religion, nuclear annihilation, and various forms of debauchery. The wonder of these smart songs is that, with few exceptions, their humor is as devastating and relevant today as it was more than fifty years ago.
Lehrer’s humor is often mordant, his range remarkable. When he heard that the Vatican wanted to make the Catholic mass more modern and appealing, he decided to help out and wrote “The Vatican Rag”:
In 1957, the Supreme Court decided in the obscenity case Roth vs. United States that Congress could ban any artistic work that it felt lacked “redeeming social importance.” Lehrer’s response was a song that fans of Fifty Shades of Gray might appreciate. The song was called “Smut”:
His most famous tune is arguably “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” an ode that is hilarious in its ridiculousness and, like most of Lehrer’s tunes, a masterpiece of wordplay and rhyme. In it, the singer croons of the simple pleasure of sitting with his sweetheart on a beautiful spring day and sharing their mutual love of avian murder:
There are so many more: “National Brotherhood Week” (“Lena Horne and Sheriff Clark are dancing cheek to cheek”); “Be Prepared” (warped advice to America’s Boy Scouts); “The Masochism Tango”, a good candidate for the theme music to a film version of Fifty Shades of Gray (“I ache for the touch of your lips, dear/But much more for the touch of your whips, dear”), and several dozen others. My favorites include his take-offs on science and mathematics, including “New Math”; “Lobachevsky”, about a formerly obscure Russian mathematician and featuring the classic lyric, “Plagiarize…/ Remember why the good Lord made your eyes”; and “The Elements,” in which every element in the periodic table is sung to the tune of the Major–General Song from The Pirates of Penzance.
Lehrer’s music pulls off the difficult trick of being pointed and risqué even by today’s standards without ever condescending to vulgarity. In “I Got It from Agnes,” for example, his ditty about venereal disease, he satirizes just about every sexual combination known to humankind (and the animal kingdom) without ever uttering a naughty word. The wit and restraint of even his boldest songs makes them not only stunning satires but also timeless. They’re great fun.
I was delighted to learn not long ago that Daniel Radcliffe is a huge fan of Lehrer’s work. He performed “The Elements” on the UK’s Graham Norton Show in 2010. In his introduction to the song, Radcliffe said that he considers Lehrer “the cleverest and funniest man of the 20th Century.” If you listen to these songs, I think you’ll see what he means. And you’ll see why even folks of Daniel Radcliffe’s generation are discovering and enjoying Tom Lehrer’s brilliant music.
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