Tom Lehrer: no more Mr. Nice Guy
Roger Simon has a wish:
I wish Tom Lehrer were around to write new lyrics to his amusing song about our most distinguished university [Harvard], whose Islamic Studies department is now the recipient of a multimillion dollar donation from Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal.
Roger is referring to Lehrer's "Fight Fiercely Harvard," a song he wrote in an effort to create a football fight song that would be appropriate to the Harvard ambiance he knew (it's funnier when you actually hear him sing it than it is in print).
Well, Roger, I am pleased to inform you that Tom Lehrer is still very much around. That's the good news. The bad news (and I say this more in sorrow than anger) is that Tom Lehrer has gone off the deep end.
Many of you may not know who Lehrer is. That's not a surprise, since he pretty much retired from public life after the 60s. Here and here are some introductions, for those of you who don't know Lehrer's work.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I was raised on Lehrer, from such a young age that his oeuvre probably wasn't very appropriate for a growing child. My family had a good friend who'd been his good friend at college (Harvard, of course!) and so we all had a very early introduction to his work, before he became famous.
To a kid, Lehrer was not only funny, but dangerously "out there." His early records, featuring songs that ripped such targets as the Boy Scouts and small town life and the celebration of an all-too-commercially- oriented Christmas, were outrageous for a child--or for almost anyone back in the 50s and early 60s, when it was easier to be shocking. Later on, of course, he became much better known for political satire, such as this one about Werner Von Braun ("a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience").
I could go on for some time on this subject of Lehrer's songs, since as a child I effortlessly committed his entire body of work to memory (in fact, his song "The Elements, which listed the names of the chemical elements and put them to a catchy Gilbert and Sullivan tune, got me through a rather odd pop chemistry exam once.)
But, Roger and others, please take a look. Back in 2003, Lehrer gave an interview to a Sydney newspaper that showed that time has only not mellowed him, it's transformed his rapier wit into a far more vicious blade.
Here are some selected quotes:
"I'm not tempted to write a song about George W.Bush. I couldn't figure out what sort of song I would write. That's the problem: I don't want to satirise George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them..."
When Lehrer talks in his still-boyish voice about vaporising Bush, he quickly adds: "And that's not funny." It's hard not to laugh, nonetheless, if only because of the sudden change of tone accompanying the word vaporise...
He says he couldn't do anything with the Israelis and the Palestinians "because I'm against everybody and I can't take a side". Nor can the man who found so many snappy couplets and delightful tunes in impending nuclear doom see any toe-tapping inspiration in September 11, the invasion of Iraq, or the thing he seems most keen to talk about the Columbia space shuttle explosion.
"They are calling it a disaster instead of a screw-up, which is all it was. They're calling these people heroes. The Columbia isn't a disaster. The disaster is that they're continuing this stupid program.
One of the things I'm proudest of is, on my record That Was the Year that Was in 1965, I made a joke about spending $20 billion sending some clown to the moon.
I was against the manned space program then and I'm even more against it now, that whole waste of money. And so, when seven people blow up or become confetti, then they've asked for it. They're volunteers, for one thing."
Not the sort of sentiments that will get you air time in the US at the moment, he agrees. And clearly signs of a man who is getting highly passionate, yet who acknowledges such a condition is bad for humour. "That's what happened to [satirist] Lenny Bruce. He got angry, and then he wasn't funny any more. You have your choice there."
Lehrer makes some interesting points about his brand of political satire:
The audience usually has to be with you, I'm afraid. I always regarded myself as not even preaching to the converted, I was titillating the converted.
The audiences like to think that satire is doing something. But, in fact, it is mostly to leave themselves satisfied. Satisfied rather than angry, which is what they should be.
The interviewer writes:
His favourite quote on the subject is from British comedian Peter Cook, who, in founding the Establishment Club in 1961, said it was to be a satirical venue modelled on "those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War".
Lehrer says you can't satirise real evil. "You can make fun with Saddam Hussein jokes ... but you can't make fun of, say, the concentration camps. I think my target was not so much evil, but benign stupidity people doing stupid things without realising or, instead, thinking they were doing good."
I'd really like to ask Lehrer why Saddam Hussein doesn't come under the category of "real evil." But perhaps it's because Saddam is an enemy of the real real enemy, he-who-should-be-vaporized: George Bush.
It's sad to see another mind deranged by BDS, especially when it's the mind of Tom Lehrer.
[ADDENDUM: I hereby nominate the worthy Dr. Sanity as Tom Lehrer's successor.]