Who Cares About Tom Lehrer?

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I recently read this piece in BuzzFeed about Tom Lehrer. It’s worth reading, not just because it’s astounding to see something from BuzzFeed that isn’t numbered and contains more than a paragraph of text, but because it’ll tell you something about someone whose work was pretty great and, I think, necessary. Lehrer was a composer of satirical songs in the 1950s and 60s. I grew up listening to his albums (mixed in with Monty Python, George Carlin, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, among others) and I learned quite a bit about the world from them, if in sort of a warped way. Some of my favorite ditties of his were about such hilarious subjects as the Catholic Church (“The Vatican Rag”), subtraction (“New Math”), the American South (“I Wanna Go Back to Dixie”), nuclear proliferation (“Who’s Next?”), and destruction of the environment (“Pollution”). My parents, as I’ve mentioned before, were politically active, but instead of trying to get their kids interested in politics by talking to them about them, they sneakily just exposed us to Tom Lehrer. He also wrote about topics that weren’t so pertinent but just displayed his sick sense of humor and quick lyrical wit, which of course, as a kid, I loved, in songs like “I Hold Your Hand in Mine” (about murder and dismemberment) and “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” (self-explanatory).

I found out from the article that Lehrer is still alive, although he basically drifted out of music decades ago. He started performing while he was a student at Harvard (which he entered at age 15, receiving his BA in 1946) and the success of some of his early performances encouraged him to make some recordings — which sold well, although they weren’t played on the radio at the time due to their “distasteful” subject matter. He performed in nightclubs and at concerts around the U.S. until he gave that up in the early 1960s, only doing a couple of international tours in the late 60s. He did write music for the satirical TV show That Was the Week that Was in the 1960s, including many of his most political songs, and for PBS’s The Electric Company in the 1970s (including “Silent E,” for you Electric Company fans). His last public performance was in 1972 on a fundraising tour for the George McGovern, but there are videos of him performing for classes at UC Santa Cruz, where he eventually went to teach musical theater in the history department, as well as math, while still maintaining a house in Cambridge (he finally gave up on finishing his Harvard dissertation in 1965).

Why he left music, and why he eventually stopped doing interviews, isn’t entirely clear. People speculated that it was in protest of Henry Kissinger’s having been given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 (which Lehrer commented made political satire obsolete), or because he was forced to relinquish his royalties to Nazi-turned-American rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun after being sued by him for libel (the lyrics to the 1965 song Lehrer wrote about him include, “‘Once rockets are up, who cares where they come down/That’s not my department’ says Wernher von Braun”). But Lehrer said both of these rumors were untrue. It sounds like it was more a combination of his discomfort with fame, his dislike of touring and his distaste for the New Left and the 1960s counterculture that eclipsed his brand of political liberalism. I can understand that, I suppose, but what makes me sad is how often Lehrer is quoted as saying that his work doesn’t matter. In 2011, he gave away his master tapes to someone he hardly knew — albeit a fan and archivist — saying, “I don’t care! They’re not worth anything to me.” I think any artist can relate to that sentiment: refusing to care because it’s safer not to, then you won’t be disappointed or hurt when people reject your work, devalue it or attack it, or forget it. It’s part of the thick skin you try to develop to protect the sensitivity that goes along with putting something creative and personal out into the world.

So I understand it, but that doesn’t meant I’m going to let it slide, because Lehrer’s work was worth something; in fact, it was important. People talk about Weird Al Yankovic and Tim Minchin as successors because they are also musicians, but Second City, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, David Letterman, Stephen Colbert, and perhaps all of late night television spring from the Tom Lehrer well of biting and irreverent humor. Not to mention that many people of my generation who were interested in comedy, which now includes the writers from many of these shows and much of what else is on television, were influenced by him. Moreover, in this day and age, satire is perhaps more necessary than ever. Now, I value sensitivity — I’m not a “First Amendment at all cost” type who thinks everything is fair game for humor. I’m used to having guys say to me, “Oh don’t get your panties in a twist” about yet another dumb blond or Jewish American Princess joke (which I actually don’t really bother to take on because they’re just your basic, stereotype-perpetuating insult, and people who like this kind of humor are generally too unsophisticated to see what’s wrong with that) or unnecessary, “chuckle-inducing” rape reference (which I do get irritated about, because someone needs to make the men who make rape jokes think about, hmm, how exactly is getting overcharged or criticized or beaten at a video game just like getting raped? Yeah, NOT SO MUCH), or fill-in-the-blank-with-your-own-most-hated-form-of-white-bro-“yo-dude-it’s-just-a-joke”-joke-here. But the job of satire is to use dark humor to point out the dark truth, to take on the wrongs of the world by exposing and then laughing at them. Sometimes, it’s really the only way to deal with subjects that are just so upsetting that there’s nothing you can do but laugh so that you don’t cry. When I was a kid, I would lie awake at night worrying about nuclear annihilation, but Tom Lehrer was still able to make me think and laugh about it in “So Long, Mom” (“So long, Mom/I’m off to drop the bomb/So don’t wait up for me/But though I may roam/I’ll come back to my home/Although it may be/A pile of debris”). In an era when media and entertainment and politics are continually trying to get you to turn off your brain, we need humor that does the opposite more than ever.

And that’s why I don’t want us to let his work fade into obscurity. I worry about the loss of Stephen Colbert to late night network television, where he’ll no longer be playing the Colbert Report version of himself who satirizes the right and the media with such laser-like accuracy.  And I worry that important voices will be cowed by campaigns like #CancelColbert, which I think do more to quash serious discussion of the topics they say are important than encourage them — whereas satire generally seeks to inspire debate. I like Jimmy Fallon (and especially that his house band is the Roots), but humor that seeks only to be likable is not very challenging.

Smart satire matters.  And so does Tom Lehrer.  (Sorry, Mr. Lehrer).

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