A Subversive Songster

In a lengthy retrospective, Ben Smith and Anita Badejo explore Tom Lehrer’s brief career, larger-than-life legacy, and resolute resistance to stardom:

Lehrer had been a sensation in the late 1950s, the era’s musical nerd god: a wryly confident Harvard-educated math prodigy who turned his bone-dry wit to satirical musical comedy. His sound looked further back, to Broadway of the ‘20s and ‘30s — a man and a piano, crisp and clever — but his lyrics were funny and sharp to the point of drawing blood, and sometimes appalling. One famous ditty celebrates an afternoon spent “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” Another cheerful number, “So Long Mom,” dwells on the details of nuclear holocaust. “I Got It from Agnes” is an extended joke about sexually transmitted disease. …

[W]hile his work was widely enjoyed at the time, it was also something of a scandal — the clever songs about math and language were for everyone, but Lehrer’s clear-eyed contemplation of nuclear apocalypse was straightforwardly disturbing. And amid the clever songs about math and language, and confrontational politics, a distinct lack of prudishness:

There’s BDSM, promiscuity, gay Boy Scouts. “If you’re out behind the woodshed doing what you’d like to do, just be sure that your companion is a Boy Scout too,” Lehrer advised in “Be Prepared.” … Lehrer’s father, whose New York circle included figures like the lyricist Irving Caesar, had connected him with every prominent record producer in town. But though he drew their interest, he had too much edge. “They were all afraid of the sick humor,” [Lehrer’s friend David] Robinson said.

Smith goes on to suggest that Lehrer’s “sick comedy was, in retrospect, a sign of artistic life in a conformist era”:

“Done right, social criticism set to a catchy tune always makes politics easier to digest,” said Lizz Winstead, creator of The Daily Show and a women’s rights activist. “You add a layer of humor and you can break down two barriers: One, singing a song over and over leads to repetition of a message, and two, humor creates likability. The more polarizing the issue, no matter what you say, you will have people who do not think you should use humor. He went for the jugular when it was desperately needed [yet] was always hilarious and poignant.”

(Video: Lehrer performs “The Vatican Rag” in 1967)