Thursday, October 3, 2013

The satirical music of Tom Lehrer

There would be no Weird Al Yankovic, Garfunkel and Oats, or South Park musical numbers without Tom Lehrer. Surprisingly most of you reading this have never heard of him. For my money he was the greatest musical satirist of the 20th century. At first glance, Tom Lehrer would seem an unlikely candidate for this mantle. His Harvard mathematics degrees, faculty position at MIT, or the stint at the NSA aren't normally found on the resumes of most comics. If you think about it, he's the perfect candidate. It takes a logical mind to see the hypocrisy, the ridiculousness, and all the humorous faults of the human condition. As if all these accomplishments weren't enough, Lehrer claims to have invented the "Jell-O shot" while in the Army. 

Few subjects were off limits for him. He tackled race in "National Brotherhood Week", religion in "Vatican Rag", nuclear proliferation in "Who's Next", and American militarism in "Send The Marines". He didn't always choose political subjects, some of his songs were just meant to be fun. "The Elements" is a Walter White periodic table lyric on Gilbert and Sullivan's "Major General's Song". "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" is a dark comedic waltz. "The Masochism Tango" is an ode to S&M (yes kinky sex did exist in the 50's kids). In the quite clever "I Got it from Agnes", he sings about the "carnal flu" without ever mentioning any STD. When you take a step back and ponder what was culturally taboo at this time, his work is even more amazing. In many ways he was an Ivy league musical version of Lenny Bruce without the profanity. In the later era of his career he wrote some fantastic songs for PBS's The Electric Company including "L-Y" and "Silent E". If you were of that age in the 70's, you will be transported back in front of your old console TV while wearing your PJ's as soon as you hear them. 

Then like a song and dance Salinger, he completely disappeared as a musical entity. It appears he just got bored, wanted to focus on teaching mathematics and musical theater. He is still alive at age 85 and I imagine still making some lucky folks laugh. The rest of us will have to be content with the brilliant collection of work he has graced us with. 

Although most of his material is eligible for an AARP card, it still has teeth as a commentary on our society. Now I can't guarantee his material still offends, but I wouldn't blast this playlist in the office.

"You can't be satirical and not be offensive to somebody" ~ Tom Lehrer