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From A Distance

From a 2 Chainz track to “The Elements Song,” the legacy of Tom A. Lehrer '46

Courtesy of Lewis M. Branscomb

Lehrer and company performing in front of Richard Lippold's "World Tree" statue.

Forget going platinum or snagging a Grammy nomination—the gold standard of musical success in today’s world is appearing on a 2 Chainz track. The list of individuals whose voices have been heard alongside 2 Chainz is a heavyweight lineup: Kanye West, Drake, John Legend, Kendrick Lamar, and, of course, famed musical satirist Thomas A. Lehrer ’46.

Perhaps some explaining is in order. Last year, 2 Chainz’s record company sent a letter to the octogenarian Lehrer in Santa Cruz, Calif., asking permission to sample Lehrer’s song “The Old Dope Peddler” (a drugged-up parody of “The Old Lamplighter”) on 2 Chainz’s track “Dope Peddler.” Lehrer sent back a letter giving his consent, and then, as if to casually prove he hadn’t lost his sense of humor, tacked the following note onto the end: “My regards go out to Mr. Chainz. And may I call him 2?”

Lehrer’s been happily retired from teaching math at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for several years now, but he’s been out of musical comedy for almost 40. It’s rare, almost unheard of, for a comedian’s material to remain relevant and resurface this long after he’s stopped producing new material. Comedy, especially satire, doesn’t usually have the shelf life of other genres—it often relies on referencing culture and contemporary events that become less and less relatable to newer generations. Is Lehrer’s star as bright as it was decades ago? Has his work stood the test of time? Sixty years after the release of his first record, what makes Lehrer relevant today?

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Looking beyond the locally revered “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” and Jell-O shots (which Lehrer allegedly invented while in the Army), the short answer is that Lehrer’s tongue-in-cheek style of illuminating absurdities—whether in politics or popular culture, whether through parody or satire—hasn’t been replicated since his retirement. Though that’s due partially to his irreverent, sometimes morbid approach, Lehrer’s attitude towards the production of his material was equally unique. Unlike many artists, Lehrer recognized that he was at his best when writing and performing songs was genuinely fun for him. As a result, he remained a purposeful outsider to the world of comedy, selectively employing his observational wit and eye for irony to construct a small but inimitable catalog of thought-provoking music.

PEER REVUE

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The only “dissertation” Lehrer ever finished was a poem he wrote at 15 (he never completed one on statistics started as a graduate student in Harvard’s math department). Entitled “Dissertation on Education,” the poem exhaustively enumerated Lehrer’s academic disinterests—Roman history, trigonometry, and poetry, among other topics—or “the things one must know to have ‘culture,’” the young Lehrer termed them. However, in the type of ironic twist that would later become one of his musical trademarks, Lehrer submitted the seemingly anti-education poem as his application essay to Harvard, ending it in a boldfaced appeal: “And I’ll work like a slave / And always behave / And maybe I’ll get into Harvard.” The quasi-reverse psychological ploy worked; Lehrer matriculated in 1944.“

[Tom] had a way of looking at the world…from a distance. He would see things that people didn’t see,” recalls Lehrer’s classmate, musical collaborator, and lifelong friend David Z. Robinson ’46. During graduate school, Robinson says, Lehrer’s unique, witty viewpoint made him stand out even among extraordinarily smart people. “A group of 8 to 10 [of us] would eat every meal [together]. That included people like [Philip W. Anderson ’43], who later won a Nobel Prize,” Robinson says. “Tom was the intellectual center of this group.”

After entering Harvard’s doctoral math program, Lehrer started to channel his wry sense of humor into more focused artistic output. In 1951, Lehrer wrote “The Physical Revue,” a comedic musical review session for the freshman-level physics class his friend Lewis M. Branscomb was teaching. For the “Revue,” Lehrer wrote almost 20 songs about what seemed to be irredeemably mundane topics (physics, math, and chemistry), setting many of those songs to show tunes and popular melodies. Take a stanza from “There’s a Delta For Every Epsilon”: “If an epsilon is a hero / Just because it is greater than zero / It must be mighty discouragin’ / To lie to the left of the origin.”

Lehrer and the “Tom Lehrer Quartet” (which featured Robinson and Branscomb) then performed the “Revue” for Branscomb’s class. According to Branscomb, the show was a smash with both the students and the faculty at whom the show poked good-natured fun. “There was loud enough laughter and applause that the faculty in the building could hear it.... They insisted that we re-perform ‘The Physical Revue’ the next day,” Branscomb says.

Following a later performance of the “Revue” in front of an audience of 500 at Allston Burr Hall, The Crimson published an enthusiastic review, deeming Lehrer “the most original funnyman in this—or almost any other—vicinity.” The success of the “Revue” encouraged Lehrer to start writing more original material, which would become the basis for his first studio album.

HOUSEHOLD FAME

That resulting album, “Songs By Tom Lehrer,” featured early examples of Lehrer’s satire, including “I Wanna Go Back To Dixie” (“I wanna talk with southern gentlemen / And put my white sheet on again / I ain’t seen one good lynchin’ in years”), and his morbid humor, as on “I Hold Your Hand In Mine” (hint: the hand isn’t attached to her arm). Lehrer personally bought 400 copies, hoping to sell 250 to friends, family, and classmates in order to break even. The 24-minute album sold 10,000 copies in its first year and would go on to sell 370,000 copies in the 1950s alone.

Jeffrey B. Morris, an archivist for the radio program “The Dr. Demento Show” who has interviewed Lehrer multiple times as research for an informal biography, says that the record’s success is all the more impressive given Lehrer’s nonexistent advertising and constrained distribution. “He was not signed to a major record label…he wasn’t on any major TV and didn’t get any major airplay in the ’50s. It was all basically word-of-mouth—to sell 370,000 records that way is just astounding,” Morris says.

Even as “Songs By Tom Lehrer” was beginning to sell steadily, Robinson and Branscomb both say that at the time, Lehrer still had no desire to embark on a long-term, professional musical career. “The music and the performance were a sideline,” Robinson says. Branscomb agrees, emphasizing that Lehrer was mostly in it for the fun of the thing. “Tom never particularly wanted to be a celebrity.”

FREEDOM OF CHOICE

Even if he wasn’t seeking it, celebrity found Tom Lehrer. After two years in the Army, Lehrer started to perform full-time and eventually gained an international following. “He was a cult hero in England,” Robinson says. “He came in on a plane, and all of the reporters were waiting for him.” Lehrer also released an album of new material, “More Songs By Tom Lehrer.” The album included the darkly comedic song “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” a bouncy satire of cheesy springtime tunes featuring some truly inspired rhymes: “My pulse will be quickenin’ / With each drop of strychnine / We feed to a pigeon / It just takes a smidgen!” Barret E. Hansen—better known as Dr. Demento, the prominent radio host largely responsible for introducing recent generations to Lehrer—named “Pigeons” the most-requested Lehrer song on his program over the years.

And then, at the peak of his popularity up to that point, Lehrer decided to quit, returning to his graduate studies and teaching at Harvard. According to Robinson, performing had lost the novelty that made comedy so appealing for Lehrer—as audiences became more and more familiar with his catalog, Lehrer began to lose the sense of personal fulfillment he gained from surprising and intriguing people with his humor. Furthermore, as an outsider to the world of entertainment, Lehrer never felt controlled by the contracts and companies that keep many artists on the stage and in the studio when they have nothing compelling left to offer. When Lehrer stopped having fun playing music, he was able to stop performing without repercussions or regrets, Robinson said.

Lehrer’s reappearance in musical comedy would be his own decision. After returning to Harvard, Lehrer continued to work on his dissertation while teaching math and statistics at MIT, Harvard Business School, and Wellesley—but by the time he became a sixteenth-year graduate student, he left Harvard without finishing his Ph.D.

No longer an official scholar, Lehrer would find himself free to enter a new phase of his life—one that brought him back to the performing arts. In 1964, the American version of the satirical television news show “That Was The Week That Was” began to air. Without a Ph.D. to pursue, Lehrer found himself following the show, which would ultimately inspire another collection of comedic songs. According to Robinson, Lehrer realized that he was funnier than the show’s writers and began sending in his music, which quickly found its way onto the air.

RELIABLE NARRATOR

To many comedians and lovers of comedy, the unique satirical style of the songs written for “That Was The Week That Was” is Lehrer’s greatest legacy. The songs deal with the hot-button news stories of the time, ranging from Wernher Von Braun (“A man whose allegiance / Is ruled by expedience”) to pollution (“Just go out for a breath of air / And you’ll be ready for Medicare”) to censorship of “smut” (“Who needs a hobby like tennis or philately? / I’ve got a hobby: rereading ‘Lady Chatterley’”).

“Tom’s songs have a way of cutting straight to the essential absurdity of the subject, and revealing it directly, without over-explanation,” says Roy Zimmerman, a modern musical satirist whom Lehrer praised in the ’90s.

Hansen agrees with this characterization of Lehrer’s music. “He doesn’t hit you over the head with a baseball bat; he cuts with a scalpel. A lot of people do [satire] different ways,” Hansen says. “For Tom, it’s a way of assuming the narrator’s voice in a very believable way…he makes you believe that the voice of the narrator you hear in the song is true.” This, then might be the defining characteristic of Lehrer’s music. “Nobody since Tom has really been able to do what he’s done. There are no real successors to him.”

Even as a liberal, Lehrer deliberately avoided using his satire to push a political agenda, another choice that distinguishes him from modern-day satirists from Zimmerman to Stephen Colbert. Lehrer’s true agenda was to point out what he believed was hypocrisy and poor rhetoric regardless of the source—he suggests that the United States over-relies on the military in “Send The Marines,” but also pokes fun at what he calls a predominantly liberal crusade of political correctness in “National Brotherhood Week.” Hansen attributes this willingness to attack all ends of the spectrum partly to the fact that Lehrer worked in a time of significantly less political polarization than today: “Now, it’s almost impossible for somebody to carry on a career as a satirist and even attempt to provide a neutral point of view, which I think Tom was always trying to do.”

However, Hansen doesn’t see lack of neutrality as a reason to stop producing satire altogether. “Preaching to the choir is an often-heard word for what satirists do, but I think it’s valuable—reinforcing people’s commitment to the way they feel, and perhaps giving them a little more ammunition when they’re trying to convince other people.” Nevertheless, Lehrer’s type of satire allowed him to “preach” to both sides of the church, a capability rarely seen today.

DOUBLE IRONY

Lehrer stopped producing new political satire after the American version of “That Was The Week That Was” was canceled following its first season. The lack of any real successors to Lehrer’s style since his exit may, in fact, have as much to do with a fundamental shift in source material as gap in ability. Lehrer is fond of quipping that political satire became obsolete after the Nobel Peace Prize went to Henry Kissinger—in short, a suggestion that it’s impossible to apply Lehrer’s subtle brand of satire to events that themselves are already ironic. “Today, the line between satire and the original event is often invisible,” says Mark Russell, a musical satirist best known for his political specials on PBS.

Even when that line was more defined, though, Lehrer never bought into the idea that his songs could affect people’s politics. “As opposed to Pete Seeger, who believed that his songs could change views, Tom never really believed that his songs could change views,” Robinson, Lehrer’s friend and former classmate, says. “He believed that the people who liked your songs were the people who agreed with them. He just put together songs that he thought were funny.” It was that simple humor Lehrer found in crafting his songs that he truly hoped to share with his audience. His work sought common ground and a common sense of fun with his audience rather than mocked or discredited them. That process may have been easier since Lehrer never felt defined by his work as a musical comedian, choosing instead to remain an outsider and allowing himself to adopt a wide variety of narrative voices. Perhaps that was part of his broad appeal half a century ago, and what keeps him just as entertaining, intriguing, and provocative today.

—Staff writer Will Holub-Moorman can be reached at holubmoorman@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Feb. 11

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the radio host better known as Dr. Demento. In fact, his real name is Barret E. Hansen, not Eugene B. Hansen.

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