Tom Lehrer: Is He Still Alive?
March 1, 2003 10:43 PM   Subscribe

"I don't want to satirise George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them." The unsubtle words of legendary musical satirist Tom Lehrer in a new interview for an Australian newspaper. (The interviewer notes: "he quickly adds: 'And that's not funny.'"...several paragraphs later.) The man who gave us "The Vatican Rag" and "The Masochism Tango", not to mention the recently MeFi-ed "The Elements", before being mostly quiet for 30-some years (His last interview I found on the web was with The Onion in '00) sounds off on the sorry state of satire, plus a look at his 'controversial' Australian tour in 1960, and some words about America's space program that a lot of y'all ain't gonna like...
posted by wendell (22 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
His "New Math" still makes me smile.
I wonder how common it is for academics to make forays into showbiz and then go back.
Any examples of people that have gone the 'other way', showbiz-acamemica-showbiz?

Bud Grace comes to mind (cartoonist/nuclear physicist) but cartooning isn't really showbiz. Entertainment in general?

Excellent post, BTW.
posted by spazzm at 11:43 PM on March 1, 2003

The man is a genius.
posted by VanRoosta at 11:44 PM on March 1, 2003

I'm glad to see the writer recognized what I believe to be the best rhyme ever crafted in the English language:

And you may have thought it tragic,
Not to mention other adjec-
Tives, to think of all the weeping they will do.

Thanks for this, wendell. I do wish the man would come back--if anyone can fuel a return to satire, it's him, and we desperately need some smart, self-depreciating humor right now.
posted by hippugeek at 12:27 AM on March 2, 2003

Back in '96 I started a thread in sci.math on "Who Was Lobachevsky" (subject of a Lehrer song), and got some pretty interesting responses.
posted by RavinDave at 12:37 AM on March 2, 2003

I always loved his boy scout song.
posted by Plunge at 12:51 AM on March 2, 2003

Some of Lehrer's lyrics are here, (scroll down a bit). My first introduction to Lehrer was when my dad got out 'Send the Marines' on vinyl, and played it the morning the Panama invasion was announced...
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:27 AM on March 2, 2003

I first heard Tom Lehrer on The Electric Company. Not long after, I started waiting up late on Sunday nights to hear him on the Dr. Demento show--and in turn discovered George Carlin, Bob and Ray, Steven Wright, Bob Newhart, Steve Martin.... Lehrer very much jump-started my love of intelligent comedy.

A classic Lehrer quip came a couple years when a reporter from Time Magazine asked if Lehrer planned on touring to support the release of Rhino's fantastic Lehrer box set.

Lehrer's response: "Has hell frozen over already?"
posted by Inkslinger at 2:22 AM on March 2, 2003

I grew up listening to Lehrer; some of my earliest (and fondest) memories are of listening to his songs with my father and brothers.

He performed a new song a few years ago in connection with the celebration of the proof of Fermat's last theorem. It was called "That's Mathematics", and was basically a parody of "That's Entertainment" he had written for The Electric Company thirty years previously, but couldn't use on the show because they couldn't get the rights. It was great to hear from him again, even if it was mostly a kiddie song.

There was another interview with him a few years ago where he mentioned his hobby of coming up with strange rhymes like the one hippugeek quoted above. Here's his rhyme for orange:

Eating an orange,
While making love,
Makes for bizzare enj-
oyment thereof.

posted by Zonker at 4:45 AM on March 2, 2003

SF Weekly profile of Lehrer done in April 2000. Compare and contrast.
posted by mcwetboy at 5:27 AM on March 2, 2003

off-topic, I know. But I think the showbiz and academia worlds aren't easily hopped between. It's not quite showbiz, but science-fiction author Rudy Rucker is a professor of computer science at San Jose State.

The only other overlap I can think of was Hedy Lamarr's patent (with avant-garde composer George Antheil) for frequency-hopping as a method of guiding torpedoes.
posted by Vidiot at 6:57 AM on March 2, 2003

He (and Frank Zappa) was responsible for warping my impressionable childhood years.
posted by at 8:48 AM on March 2, 2003

Ben Stein?
posted by SweetIceT at 9:16 AM on March 2, 2003

Loved this bit:

His favourite quote on the subject [of satire] 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".

Heh. That noted, I couldn't disagree more with the claim (from Lehrer, Paul Krassner in the SF Weekly article, etc) that satire is now dead, obsolete or overtaken by today's reality. As if the hypocrisy and lies of the human race are so vastly different than they were back in ancient days. Whatever.

What's probably happening in folks who believe that is simply that they haven't found a way to articulate current hypocrisies in a way that speaks to a lot of people. Or maybe they just got tired of trying.
posted by mediareport at 10:29 AM on March 2, 2003

Satire is certainly alive and well in Canada. We have several comedy television shows dedicated to it.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:03 AM on March 2, 2003

Interestingly enough, I was just thinking of Lehrer this week. The whole Iraq thing and ideas regarding nuclear disarmament reminded my of this lyric from childhood:

First we had the bomb and that was good
'Cause it stood for peace and brotherhood.
Then Russia had the bomb, but that's okay
'Cause the "Balance of Power's" maintained that way....

Egypt's got one too, just to use on "you know who...."

posted by ilsa at 1:29 PM on March 2, 2003

5FF: If satire is so alive and well in Canada, then why does every Canadian politician whore him/herself to get on those self-same comedy shows (Air Farce, This Hour)? They're pretty tame. It isn't satire if somebody doesn't flinch; the fact that Frank magazine is considered anathema by the overclass says something about satire in Canada.</offtopic>
posted by mcwetboy at 4:26 PM on March 2, 2003

Satire is certainly alive and well in Canada. We have several comedy television shows dedicated to it.

Can you list some? The only shows I can think of are the ones mcwetboy mentioned (Air Farce, This Hour) which are pretty lame compared to, say, the Daily Show. Rick Mercer's rants were funny, but I couldn't sit through 21 minutes of tired Newfoundland jokes to watch them.
posted by Gary at 10:37 PM on March 2, 2003

Excellent post, a well-done article about an interesting guy who used to be around, then vanished. Plus I learned a fine new word.
The widespread rumour that von Braun sued Lehrer proves to be a furphy.
posted by LeLiLo at 7:59 AM on March 3, 2003

I'm not Canadian, but I thought The Newsroom was as fine a piece of satire as anything I've ever seen come out of America. On TV, anyway.

Lehrer's pronouncement that satire's function is merely "titillating the converted" is harsh. I don't like to believe it. But since Tom Lehrer is my deity, I guess I'll have to.
posted by soyjoy at 10:40 AM on March 3, 2003

BTW wendell, thanks loads for your FPP. I had missed the Onion AV interview too, and just got to enjoy that one. Thanks.
posted by soyjoy at 10:53 AM on March 3, 2003

I love Lehrer. I still have his "That was the year that was" album. Damn, I may have to go home and listen to it again. I loved the boyscout song and the National Brotherhood week. They are all good.

We need some satire. But he's right, no one would get it. People are calling the astronauts "heroes." What a joke. Everyone who dies these days is a fricking hero, but no one says how stupid that is because everyone gets their panties in a wad about it. Look at Bill Maher. As close to satire as we have these days and he lost everything when he made one remark, that frankly, had a lot of truth to it.

I wish Tom would come back and give us something to laugh about again.
posted by aacheson at 3:29 PM on March 4, 2003

Bill didn't lose everything. He's on HBO with Real Time. It's a little rough right now, but it seems like a better format than PC was. Plus it's an hour long.
posted by john at 11:06 AM on March 5, 2003

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