Tuesday, December 13, 2005

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.]

32 Comments:

At 3:28 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 3:38 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger Sigmund, Carl and Alfred said...

You know, I wonder if he ever satirized JFK's Bay of Pigs invasion.

What's that, you say? Oh, I see.

We won't talk about that anymore.

 
At 4:04 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger Daniel in Brookline said...

It's sad, isn't it, when our childhood inspirations don't mature the way we do. Call it another aspect of lost youth, if you will -- we can still enjoy the Tom Lehrer songs, but we'll have difficulty respecting the man who wrote them.

I feel the same way about Spider Robinson, whose fiction inspired me to think about many things I wouldn't have thought about otherwise, mostly to my benefit. But he seems to have bought into Bush Derangement Syndrome before it was fashionable... and he doesn't seem to have the sense to keep politics out of his fiction, which takes the enjoyment out of it for me. It's a great pity.

By the way, Lehrer was fiercely political from the beginning; he just covered it up less and less as time went on. One of his songbooks, dating back to the late seventies or early eighties, has an introduction that begins: "These songs were written sometime between WWII and WWIII." He believed strongly that the nuclear arms race would inevitably kill us all, and he made no secret of it. I'm not aware that he has ever addressed that particular failed prediction; instead, his opinions -- and his vehemence -- seem to have strengthened, and added bitterness to the mixture.

It makes me want to offer advice to young people -- have the courage of your convictions, but understand that your convictions may change as you grow older. "Anyone under forty who is not a liberal has no heart; anyone over forty who is not conservative has no brain." There's a kernel of serious truth in that statement... and, ironically, people generally don't understand it until they've become an example of it.

respectfully,
Daniel in Brookline

 
At 4:25 PM, December 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are plenty of works of art I love by artists whose politics I despise. Tom Lehrer is one of those.

As for the modern era, try http://www.jibjab.com. It's not as classy as Lehrer, but very funny nonetheless.

Anyone else have modern musical satire to share?

 
At 5:09 PM, December 13, 2005, Anonymous erasmus said...

If we can leave George W. Bush out of this for just a moment (as Youngman might have said: "Take George W. Bush. Please."), Lehrer is right: there's no first-rate political satire today. No Mort Sahl. No social satire: No Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
Self-centeredness and political correctness make both impossible. They've turned our culture into an either-or world, not the late 1950s "as well as" society, where you could poke fun without fierce anger or hate. It was humor that dissected its object of fun with a scalpel, not today's sledgehammer.

I can't think of anything to say about Bush. Maybe that's worse than hating him.

 
At 5:22 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger David said...

Daniel...the saying "Anyone under forty who is not a liberal has no heart; anyone over forty who is not conservative has no brain" has been variously attributes; I think it may have originally been said by Clemenceau.

Though it may have had elements of truth at one time, I don't think it applies to many of today's "liberals." People who want to abandon the Iraqis to the retribution of the Baathists and terrorists are missing hearts as well as brains. People who want to "tear down the wall" and enable the terrorist killing of more Israeli children are missing hearts, not just brains.

 
At 6:05 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger Mezzrow said...

two, four, six, eight - time to transubstantiate

Lehrer gets a lifetime pass for that line alone...

 
At 6:27 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Sippicancottage: actually, we'll always have:

Gather 'round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun,
A man whose allegiance
Is ruled by expedience.
Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown,
"Ha, Nazi, Schmazi," says Wernher von Braun.

Don't say that he's hypocritical,
Say rather that he's apolitical.
"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun.

Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
But some think our attitude
Should be one of gratitude,
Like the widows and cripples in old London town,
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun.**

You too may be a big hero,
Once you've learned to count backwards to zero.
"In German oder English I know how to count down,
Und I'm learning Chinese!" says Wernher von Braun.


Today, would it be Farsi?

 
At 6:51 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger oldgranny said...

If Lehrer's politics were known, why wasn't he recruited for Al Franken's radio talk show. People might have tuned in just to hear him at least once.

I know I would. We had the original LP record which we recorded to a cassette. It still works and every so often we listen to and it makes me laugh even though, like our hostess, I know then all by heart.

 
At 7:04 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 7:23 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 8:12 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger Motor 1560 said...

When I was a teenager and then a "young person" I loved Lehrer, Saul and all the other humorists. I think it was their sheer, two Old Fashioneds, "naughtiness".

But, I was rereading the last chapter of David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed and he points out the peculiar regional moralism of the Northeast that rejected Populism, "... not our kind, dear. Too crude." but embraced Progressivism. In that sense Lehrer can be seen as one of the last of the old breed and the bridge to our current humorless, elitist, Left; with their empty, absolutist, moralizing.

 
At 9:35 PM, December 13, 2005, Anonymous erasmus said...

Forgot to mention, there's a book about the comics of the Fifties and Sixties: "Seriously Funny. The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s," by Gerald Nachman, including a chapter on Lehrer, pp. 123-150.
Unfortunately, an earnest and, at best, pedestrian summary of their careers and very little appreciation or analysis of how and why they were funny.
Oy.

 
At 10:01 PM, December 13, 2005, Anonymous John said...

Leaving his politics aside, I didn't know that he was responsible for so many of my favorite songs from the PBS show Electric Company. Any child growing up in the '70s remembers "Silent E", "L-Y" and "N Apostrophe T".

 
At 10:42 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

And who can forget "Bright College Days," Lehrer's equal-opportunity spoof of the Yale Whiffenpoof song, containing deathless lines such as:

To the tables down at Mory's
(Wherever that may be),
Let us drink a toast to all we love the best.
We will sleep through all the lectures,
And cheat on the exams,
And we'll pass, and be forgotten with the rest.

Oh, soon we'll be out amid the cold world's strife.
Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life...

 
At 11:20 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger Harry Mallory said...

Erasmus:
"They've turned our culture into an either-or world, not the late 1950s "as well as" society, where you could poke fun without fierce anger or hate. It was humor that dissected its object of fun with a scalpel, not today's sledgehammer."

Its not like poking fun at the President or his administration had disappeared. Its just got a whole lot class-less. Whoopi Goldbergs dig at Bush's name for example.

Such hatred.

Where have all the flowers gone?

 
At 11:34 PM, December 13, 2005, Anonymous timmah! said...

Plagiarize!
Why do you think God made your eyes?!

 
At 11:50 PM, December 13, 2005, Blogger Loyal Achates said...

I see that Tom Lehrer (whom I've quoted from once or twice when commenting on this blog) has still got it. Just a bit rougher around the edges, is all.

 
At 11:57 PM, December 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Neo,
Possibly your meat and potatoes essay should be named "The mind is an "impossible" thing to change" in the same satirical sense that we laughed at "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park." Lehrer's satire easily sold as pro liberal or pro conservative, depending on whether you wanted to laugh or cry. Therefore, the obvious lesson demands that analogies, straightforward or humorous, must give way to hard, cold, logic: I believe in something because . . . .
And if all you have to contribute is to "vaporize" Bush, please let me hear what the guy standing next to you has to say. Mark

 
At 4:01 AM, December 14, 2005, Blogger camojack said...

First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with deep respect and,
Genuflect, genuflect, genuflect, genuflect...


"Doin' the Vatican Rag"

Man, it's been awhile; I'm with Mezzrow on that one.

 
At 7:30 AM, December 14, 2005, Anonymous Paul said...

Oscar Wilde-now he had wit and humor. You can keep Tom Lehrer!!

 
At 7:58 AM, December 14, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Saddam is not a real evil simply because Baathism isn't the ideological foundation for most leftists.

Lehrer, in this case, may be called the founding father of the modern liberal ideology. He sure brainstormed most of their ideas.

Whenever people can't come up with new ideas, they just steal old ones and act as if they are all that.

To most leftists, real evil can only be real when it no longer exists, i.e. Nazis. The fake evil tends to be the kind that exists now, but people don't pay a lot of attention to. Meaning, evil is big when no one pays it attention, and when everyone does pay it attention after we've vanquished evil then the evil is no longer big.

SO this is sort of an ex-post facto thing.

Anyone that thinks evil is big cause it is conveniently not around, is adhering to an ideology out of fanaticism. Of one brand or another.

There is a reasoning to the classifications of evil, and a causality, but fanatics don't tend to have much use for reason and open thought.

They just need some bogee man to paint themselves against, since they are so transparent.

 
At 9:15 AM, December 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In times like this, it is difficult not to write satire", said Juvenal.

From Roger Kimball, writing in The New Criterion:

"Probably the most politically incorrect Roman poet, certainly the most caustic, was the satirist Decimus Junius Juvenalis—Juvenal to us. We expect satirists to expose hypocrisy, injustice, corruption. Juvenal does this. We also expect satirists to exaggerate, to caricature, to lampoon. Juvenal does this, too, in spades. But satire, like liquor, comes in a variety of flavors and potencies. There is mild satire, whose means are gentle and whose aim is comic. Gilbert and Sullivan are satirists in this sense, as, in his satirical forays, is Horace, Juvenal’s meticulous, urbane precursor. Gentle satire pokes, but gingerly, in fun. Its goal is enlightenment, yes, but also laughter.

Juvenal belongs to a different tribe. When he pokes, he pokes hard, to hurt. His satire is bitter—an adjective that is never far from the poet’s name. The phrase “savage indignation”—often in Latin—is another epithet unfailingly applied to Juvenal, though it does not, I believe, occur in his work. Jonathan Swift, a rival in acerb satire, employed it in his epitaph, which pictures him happy at having finally escaped the saeva indignatio that so lacerated his heart during his life. There are plenty of hilarious passages in Juvenal. But in the end, as F. H. Buckley notes in The Morality of Laughter, Juvenal’s “savage indignation stifles our laughter.” Juvenal aims primarily at the catharsis of exposure, only incidentally at justice and reform. The element of humor is but an intermittent companion to his verse."



More on satire here:

http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/21/apr03/juvenal.htm

 
At 11:06 AM, December 14, 2005, Blogger TalkinKamel said...

Let's face it. Starting from the 50's on, our high, and popular, culture has been infected with Marxism and hate for America. None of it can be trusted: not modern day Hollywood, not our "distinguished" writers (such as Harold Pinter and Gore Vidal), not our universities (where professors like Ward Churchill refer to the victims of 9/11 as "Little Eichmanns"), not T.V., not even our humorists and (most) of our science fiction writers. (Too bad about Spider Robinson.) More conservative artists either didn't get noticed in the first place, or, like John Dos Passos (after he had a change of heart), they got the bum's rush.

Yeah, Lehrer made fun of Nazis (safely defeated) and the Boy Scouts (a fearsome menace indeed), but, like most progressive artists, he left the Left firmly alone. He never wrote something like the following jolly jingle:

"I believe Communism will bring us all bliss,
So I sold out my country, sez our pal Alger Hiss!"

By the way---as I've just shown it's very easy to make up catchy, mocking little rhymes; deep thinking? Creating something real? That takes a lot more work---work that, I'm sorry to say, too many of our writers, artists and entertainers, even the most admired ones, weren't capable of.

 
At 1:01 PM, December 14, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Actually, talkincamel, I think that Lehrer did make an attempt at some very mild satire of the left in the song "The Folk Song Army," and of "progressive" education in "New Math," as well as having a pro-porn song (which at least isn't a PC position) called "Smut."
(Follow the links to find the lyrics).

 
At 2:38 PM, December 14, 2005, Blogger TalkinKamel said...

Yes, he made an attempt---VERY mild satire---rather limpwristed, and not against especially impressive targets: folk singers, not the Kennedys; "smut", not Communists; New math, not Red China, or Russia.

 
At 2:48 PM, December 14, 2005, Anonymous erasmus said...

Yes, but let's not look at the 1950s, when Lehrer was in Cambridge and wrote many of his songs, through the left-right lens of today.
Conservatives (Russell Kirk, Sen. Javits, the Eisenhower brothers) were conservative but not Coulter/Limbaugh "right wing," and liberals (Truman, Stevenson, East Coast Dem. senators) were not of the screaming left of today.
Nobody marched in 1955; few screamed. Lehrer poked fun at social and political foibles and rigidities. Remember,some of the Nazi, er, German scientists and spooks came here under a Democratic administration. Ike was still at Columbia!

 
At 4:50 PM, December 14, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Juvenal does this

I wonder if he is the reason why we have the word "Juvenile".

To be a juvenal... hehe

It is a shock that so many words in the ENglish language come from Ancient ROman and Greek times. It makes you wonder whether we picked it up from them, or they picked it up from us. To follow that causality.

 
At 5:55 PM, December 14, 2005, Anonymous nittypig said...

I've always been very amused by Lehrer, although he's much before my time. His politics were indeed always lefty, but he had some exceptionally clever lines.

But didn't he famously say, when Kissinger won the Nobel prize, that political satire was now forever obsolete? Good to see he's sticking to his guns on that one.

(And no I don't think that 1973 was the worst Nobel peace prize ever given. 1985, 1994, 2002, and most especially 2001, are all much worse.)

 
At 2:53 PM, December 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Juvenal was a classic Jew-hater.

 
At 5:07 AM, June 24, 2006, Blogger notanicelberal said...

George the Terrible?

“Since coming to power in 2000, this President has had one clear central objective: strengthening the state, at home and abroad. He pledged to restore the state power that had been lost under his predecessor. Everything else, such as free-market economic reforms or careful, balancing diplomacy, was a means to this end.”

“Above all, he believed that the way to make the country stronger was to shift more authority to the President. Motivated by this conception of state-building, this President has shrunk or eliminated every serious check on presidential power. The two houses, the independent media, governors, independent political parties and civil society -- all are weaker today than they were in 2000, leaving the presidency as the country's sole meaningful center of decision-making.”

Oh? You thought this was referring to George Bush? This description actually comes from a review of "Putin's Russia," by Anna Politkovskaya. Don’t feel bad if you mistook the new Tsar of Russia, Vladimir Putin for old King George. “The state is not effective but corrupt -- unable and unwilling to provide basic public goods to the suffering people of Russia.” "Putin's Russia" suggests that fear is the only public good that today's Kremlin provides effectively.

There were a few other quotes from his review that I found very telling.

The army "is mostly a prison camp behind barbed wire where the country's young are locked up without trial." (Guantanamo Bay?)

“Effective states draw borders between the activities of the government and the private sector. ...one can become rich only by maintaining close relations with the authorities.” (Can I hear a Halliburton?)

“Effective states provide their citizens a basic level of subsistence.” (They call the wind Katrina.) “A World War II veteran froze to death in his apartment because local government authorities would not repair a broken heating pipe.(More cuts in veteran benefits.)

“Putin and his comrades simply do not care about people. Their line is wholly neo-Soviet: humans have no independent existence; they are cogs in a machine whose function is to implement unquestionably whatever political escapade those in power have dreamed up. Cogs have no rights, not even to dignity in death." (Basic health care? Prescription red tape? Katrina again.)

And yet, hidden within these bleak stories are flashes of individual inspiration. For instance, Nina Levurda, a Russian mother whose son died in Chechnya, is trying to sue the state -- not in response to the tragic loss of her son, but because of the inhumane manner in which the state reported (or did not report) his death to her. (Pat Tillman’s family, take note.)

It’s time to wake up, people. The next election is only months away. It is time to take back our country.

And I hate the taste of vodka.

 
At 4:40 AM, December 27, 2006, Blogger TomLehrerLover said...

He has NOT gone "off the deep end"! What a ridiculous, and, at the same time, horrible comment! He still has a hilarious, brilliant mind. Just because you cannot fathom his alertness about the very real problems in society does not mean you should condemn him with claims of insanity! He deserves a tremendous amount of respect; he has accomplished more than I'm sure many of you ever have, and made a significant effect on music and comedy. And as he said, "You cannot be satirical and not be offensive to somebody!"

 

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