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Columns

Tom Lehrer and His Descendants

By Aurash Z. Vatan, Contributing Opinion Writer
Aurash Z. Vatan ’23 is a resident of Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

Tom Lehrer is no longer a household name, but he was one of the most important political satirists of the 20th century. A musical comedian, his lyrics are edgy, irreverent and heroically creative. Working from the 1950s through the 1960s, he mocked the Church, the Army, the space program — no cow remained sacred. His crudity kept him off the radio and away from full mainstream success, but he still sold millions of records and, maybe more importantly, influenced the comedians of today. Weird Al Yankovich, Randy Newman, and Lizz Winstead, the creator of The Daily Show, all cite him directly. Bo Burnham is a clear spiritual descendant. As political satire has blitzkrieged mainstream American culture, it’s worth looking at its greatest practitioner in the 20th century and seeing what we can learn.

The most obvious element of Lehrer’s biography is his titanic intellect. In 1946, at the age of 18, he started his Ph.D. in math at Harvard (a place he memorably termed a “hotbed of celibacy”). In a group of friends that included a future Nobel laureate, he was considered “the intellectual leader.” Equally impressive as a musician, he once entertained friends at a Harvard party by playing Rachmaninoff in two keys at once, one for each hand.

In college, he wrote musical comedy simply to entertain at parties. But especially as Lehrer’s career took off, much of his work turned more political. On the nuclear arms race: “‘The Lord’s our shepherd’ / says the psalm / but just in case / we better get a bomb.” On nominal liberals: “It’s fun to eulogize the/ people you despise as / long as you don’t let them in your schools.”

This makes his opinion on political satire all the more striking: that it doesn’t work. Lehrer points out that satire is by definition the drawing of exaggerated comparisons, so an “opponent then can easily say 'well yeah, but that's exaggeration, that's not how it is'. Which is true.” His song, “I Wanna Go Back To Dixie,” attacking the racial undertones of Southern nostalgia, probably didn’t convince anyone to rethink their behavior. Overt racists would probably agree that they “ain’t seen one good lynching in years;” others would respond that it’s reductive and simplistic to say that you can’t separate racial and nonracial Southern nostalgia.

I think Lehrer was broadly right, but not quite generous enough to himself. Consider “It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier,” Lehrer’s send-up of the U.S. Army. If someone were to criticize the Army’s competence in 1959, reverence for the institution might well lead a listener to dismiss their arguments out of hand. Humor may not win debates, but it allows us to have debates we otherwise wouldn’t.

When Lehrer’s satire had real political utility, then, it was in helping shift the window of what could be permissibly challenged. Satire cannot slay the sacred cow, but it can remove its protected status.

If that’s all political satire can do, it’s worth asking what it still has to offer. Lehrer bravely attacked the Church, the Presidency, the Boy Scouts; it doesn’t take much bravery for a comedian to take on those institutions anymore. As the left has gained cultural power, many of America’s sacred cows now belong to the left. So what’s a liberal satirist to do?

The satire that now dominates mainstream American culture — the Daily Show, the late-night shows, Saturday Night Live more than ever before — have largely chosen to produce comfortable white noise for like-minded viewers. Fine. Much of Lehrer’s work preached to the converted. The difference is that Lehrer found comedy in poking bears, while these shows simply laugh at carcasses.

Bo Burnham is a clearer heir to Tom Lehrer. He is a musical, irreverent, peerlessly witty comedian, by turns darkly nonsensical and socially observant. He has one foot outside the mainstream. Like Lehrer, his satire is very strongly liberal, but he continues Lehrer’s tradition of irreverence; very few ideologues of any persuasion could sit through his show totally unperturbed. “Kill Yourself” is an excellent example.

Of course, satirists probably shouldn’t upend every taboo just for the hell of it; they should have higher goals than that. But so far in its history, satire has done little else successfully. So SNL and the Daily Show and all the rest have a decision to make: are there any sacred cows left worth targeting? If not, then satire must reinvent itself. I don’t know how, and from the looks of it, neither does anyone else.

Aurash Z. Vatan ’23 is a resident of Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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