"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 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 1950's and 60's 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 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.
Quotes from Mr. Lehrer's works are used at the top of the following pages:
- Alma Mater Song
- Anti-Christmas Song
- Arab-Israeli Conflict
- Beat Still My Heart
- Competition Coupon Madness
- Deep South
- Eating Contest
- Ensign Newbie
- Ethnic Menial Labor
- Football Fight Song
- Funeral Tropes
- Gilbert and Sullivan
- Lensman Arms Race
- Mummies At the Dinner Table
- Mystery Meat
- Protest Song
- Oedipus the King
- Short-Lived, Big Impact
- Something About a Rose
- South Africans With Surface to Air Missiles
- Southern-Fried Private
- South of the Border
- The Dragon's Teeth
- Teen Genius: He earned a bachelor's degree in Mathematics from Harvard. At 19. Yeah.
- The Masochism Tango
- The Rest of the Nuclear Club
- The Ultimate Resistance
- Wacky Fratboy Hijinx
- We Are Not the Wehrmacht
- This very page, oddly enough
And for the picture captions of the following pages:
(Note: These lists may not be complete. As you can see, he's quite popular on this wiki).
- The Aggressive Drug Dealer: "The Old Dope Peddler"
- Alma Mater Song: "Bright College Days".
- "Fight Fiercely Harvard", it is actually a parody of a Football Fight Song but Harvard is Tom Lehrer's Alma Mater.
- Anti Christmas Carol: "A Christmas Carol".
- Anti-Love Song: Numerous examples.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The final verse of "The Irish Ballad":
And when at last the police came by
Her little prank she did not deny
For to do so she would have had to lie...
And lyin' she knew was a sin...
- Beastly Bloodsports: "In Old Mexico"
- 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.
- Bunny Ears Lawyer: Aside from being a quirky satirist, he's a Harvard-educated mathematician and a very accomplished pianist.
- Competition Coupon Madness: Parodied in "It Makes a Fellow Proud To Be a Soldier".
- Convenience Store Gift Shopping: He mocks the practice in his Christmas Carol.
- Crapsack World: "My Home Town," although it could perhaps be "Crapsaccharine" given how fondly the narrator remembers it...
- Creator Backlash: One of the reasons he retired was that he grew to despise touring to perform his songs.
- 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...I want to vaporize him."
- 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.
- Creepy Souvenir: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine"
- December-December Romance: Satirized in "When You Are Old and Gray".
- Do Not Pass Go: "We Will All Go Together When We Go" (singing about the global nuclear holocaust) has:
You will all go to your respective Valhallas.
Go directly, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollas.
- Filk Song: Virtually everything he wrote has been adopted as "Found Filk," notwithstanding--or perhaps in spite of--Lehrer's feelings about folk music. There have even been full Tom Lehrer Sing-Alongs.
- Filth: The subject matter of "Smut".
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: "I Got It From Agnes." What "it" is is never specified, but we can guess.
I love my friends, and they love me
We're just as close as we can be
And just because we really care
Whatever we get, we share.
- 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.
- The Great Politics Mess-Up: 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.
- Having a Heart: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" and "The Masochism Tango".
- Hollywood New England: "The Elements":
These are the only ones of which the news has come to Hahvard,
And there may be many others but they haven't been discahvard.
- In the Style Of: 'Clementine'
- Insult Backfire: Well-liked among the more humourous folk and Filk singers.
- Jukebox Musical: Tom Foolery.
- Knows a Guy Who Knows a Guy: An exaggeratedly long example in "Lobachevsky". See List Song below.
- Least Rhymable Word: Multiple examples. Lehrer loves working around this.
- List Song: "The Elements" is Exactly What It Says on the Tin; all of the chemical elements known at the time, set to "a possibly recognizable tune": "The Major-General's Song" from The Pirates of Penzance.
- "Lobachevsky" also includes a verse that's largely a list of towns in the Soviet Union.
- I have a friend in Minsk, who has a friend in Pinsk, whose friend in Omsk has friend in Tomsk with a friend in Akmolinsk!
- That's not the complete list, by the way. And the return journey somehow manages to squeeze in two more cities that weren't mentioned the first time.
- "Lobachevsky" also includes a verse that's largely a list of towns in the Soviet Union.
- A Love to Dismember: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" "Masochism Tango".
- Lyrical Dissonance: Particularly his nuclear war songs.
- 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:
While we're attacking frontally,
Watch Brinkley and Huntley,
The cities we have lost.
No need for you to miss a minute
Of the agonizing holocaust. (Yeah!)
There was a man though, who, it seems
Once carried this ideal to extremes,
He loved his mother and she loved him
And yet his story is rather grim...
- Meaningful Name: "Lehrer" is German for "teacher".
- Midword Rhyme: Done constantly, and always for the Rule of Funny.
- Money Song: "Selling Out"
- Motor Mouth: "New Math", "The Elements"
- Mummies At the Dinner Table: "I Hold Your Hand In Mine".
- Murder Ballad: "The Irish Ballad".
- 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 rhyme, and found the implication that he wanted to say something so unspeakably racy that it had to be censored much funnier.)
- Oedipus Complex: Has a song about the Trope Namer.
- 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.
- Painful Rhyme: Sometimes spectacularly so, and entirely deliberate. For instance, these lines from "We Will All Go Together When We Go":
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
- Parent Child Incest: Right out there in front of you in "Oedipus Rex", of course, but then there's the relatively more subtle example in "I Got It From Agnes":
Max got it from Edith
Who gets it every spring
She got it from her Daddy
Who just gives her everything
- 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.
- 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.
- Reclusive Artist: And how!
- Reckless Gun Usage: "The Hunting Song" talks about accidents usual for an opening of the hunting season. With a "recipe":
People ask me how I do it
And I say, "There's nothing to it!
You just stand there looking cute...
And when something moves, you shoot!"
- Refuge in Audacity: His 1953 debut album included a tune singing the praises of the neighborhood dope peddler. Lehrer felt he would unable to perform "The Abortionist", and "The Old Dope Peddler" was his second choice.
- Sanity Slippage Song: "I Hold Your Hand In Mine"
- 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."
- There's also the fact that he teaches at and went to Harvard and wrote "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" essentially saying how wussy he thinks Harvard is.
- Sesame Street Cred: If you've only heard one song of Lehrer's, it's probably "Silent E" from The Electric Company.
- Or "L-Y" from the same show.
- Or maybe your Chemistry teacher introduced you to "The Elements".
- Southern-Fried Private: "It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier"
- Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: "The Folk Song Army" and "My Home Town" being the two best examples.
- Take That: As noted, folk-singers, but his "ode" to Wernher von Braun also stands out. Also the MLF Lullaby.
- Take Me to Your Leader: Spoofed in "Whatever Became of Hubert?":
"We must protest this treatment, Hubert"
Says each newspaper reader
As someone once remarked to Schubert
Take us to your Lieder
(sorry about that)
- Those Wacky Nazis: As mentioned above, he references Wernher von Braun's Nazi past:
Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown...
"Heh heh. Nazi Schmazi," says Wernher von Braun!
- Three Chords and the Truth: He has a dig at this trope in the spoken intro to "Folk Song Army":
"I have a song here which I realise 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 coupla 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.
The first one she married was Mahler,
Whose buddies all knew him as Gustav.
And each time he saw her he'd holler:
"Ach, that is the fräulein I moost have!"
- Viewers Are Geniuses: The historical stuff nowadays, thanks to the topical aspect (see The Great Politics Mess-Up, Parental Bonus). 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.
- Wacky Fratboy Hijinks: "Bright College Days"
- With Catlike Tread: "O-U (The Hound Song)" from The Electric Company.
- World War III: "So Long Mom (I'm Off To Drop The Bomb)", or "We Will All Go Together When We Go" ("a rousing, uplifting song that's sure to cheer you up.")