Between the upcoming Weird Al biopic and and Kelly Bachman and Dylan Adler’s new comedy album, Rape Victims Are Horny Too, parody songsters have rarely been such a central part of the cultural zeitgeist. Yet comedy musicians have been trailblazing for much longer than we may realize, and before the popularity of Weird Al, or even Bo Burnham, Adam Sandler, and Steve Martin, there was Tom Lehrer.
Lehrer is perhaps best known for “The Elements,” an impossibly fast and impossibly tongue-twisty song that consists of all the periodic elements put to the tune of a “Major-General’s Song” from Pirates of Penzance. This is a classic Tom Lehrer song, so classic in fact that Daniel Radcliffe’s rendition of it on The Graham Norton Show helped score him the role of Weird Al, who has noted Lehrer as a major comedic influence. This full circle loop only emphasizes how important Lehrer was and continues to be in the musical comedy scene, and diving into his diverse oeuvre solidifies just how innovative he was.
Unlike sketch comedy or satire pieces, musical comedians have to master creating two different skills: lyrics and music. There are a few different forms of this, including songs that focus on the comedy first, with the music being an extra element in the back (Adam Sandler’s “We All Know A Guy,” Steve Martin’s “Grandmother Song”), songs that are direct parodies of an already-established IP (Weird Al’s sweet spot, like “Amish Paradise” and “White & Nerdy”), and songs that are lyrical parodies while also being musical parodies of certain artists or genres (Bo Burnham’s “Country Song,” SNL’s “Come Back Barack”). Lehrer was particularly adept at this third genre, highlighted in “Masochism Tango,” “I Wanna Go Back To Dixie,” and “My Home Town,” songs all written without the benefit of Garage Band, synthesizers, or YouTube tutorials on how to write music in different styles.
Lehrer is a particularly articulate lyricist, a notable example being “Smut.” In perhaps one of the most eloquent songs championing pornographic content, he sings, “Stories of tortures / Used by debauchers / Lurid, licentious, and vile / Make me smile.” In this lyric, he skillfully contrasts negative sentiment around smut with his own pleasure derived from it. But the song works on multiple levels, and Lehrer using such erudite words to describe “dirty books” also effectively mocks haughty critics with their own language. His delight in singing about such topics caused the New York Times to note, “Mr. Lehrer’s muse [is] not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.” Rather than refute this claim, Tom Lehrer continued to go against the “high culture” establishment and printed the quote in his album liner notes.
In addition to the lyrical dexterity, the structures of his songs as a whole were also an impressive feat. Lehrer wouldn’t just add a general comedic game to a song, he would often construct the song to follow an even narrower singular narrative. Lehrer used this format in songs like “I Got It From Agnes,” a playful tune that names the pathway of a singular contagion, and “New Math,” a song that follows a mathematical equation solved using two different formulas. The genius of these songs is that even with such restrictive formats, Tom Lehrer is still able to create unexpected jokes and moments of joy.
It would have been easy for Lehrer to be pretentious. He enrolled in Harvard at age 15, was a Phi Beta Kappa, and ended up teaching courses both there and at MIT. But what is special about him was that he brought the things we keep on the “high shelves” of academia – math, science, history, literature – and stuck his nose up at their prestige. His songs are so clearly labors of love, products of a guy who wants to inverse the narrative that smart topics are illustrious in part because they are exclusive. One of his songs, “That’s Mathematics,” is a playful list of how math is everywhere, from bouncing a ball to folding a sheet to cooking a recipe. “Fight Fiercely Harvard,” a fight song he wrote for his own alma mater, mocks the snooty air of Ivy Leagues. “Oedipus Rex” is a jaunty theme for the titular tragic Greek hero, making the sometimes inaccessible classics a subject for the everyman.
With upbeat songs and a wry smile, it’s easy to forget that Lehrer was actually singing about difficult topics. He wrote songs about war, racism, and even mass destruction. “We Will All Go Together When We Go” faces Cold War fears over getting bombed, and “Pollution” references the ever-growing list of climate change effects. All that to say, the things that Tom Lehrer sang about were real and scary. Comedians are often burdened with the job of making terrifying realities funny. In 2002 he remarked, “I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.” It’s not easy to shoulder the weight of an entire society’s fears and darkness, but if the options are to laugh at the lava or stand frozen in terror until it finally overtakes us, I’m glad Tom Lehrer is there to help us laugh while we still can.
Michelle Cohn is a New York-based writer and pop culture enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @michcohn.