I am humbled to share a birthday this week with a true Comedist saint, Tom Lehrer. An undergraduate and masters students at Harvard in mathematics in the late 40s and early 50s, he began to play novelty songs in the Cambridge area. Eventually, he spent $15 and made a record in 1953, "Songs by Tom Lehrer" -- recording all of the songs in one one hour session -- which he initially just sold around Harvard for $3.
He was a local underground success, with friends of friends at Harvard ordering copies from other universities until a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle got a copy and suddenly he was nationwide. He began to play shows in New York and sales began to pick up although major labels and radio refused him because of his controversial lyrics.
He joined the army for two years from '55-'57 -- a sure fire way to avoid the draft -- and after getting out he continued to write putting out another album in '59, "More Songs by Tom Lehrer."
The album was successful, he began touring which led to the live album "An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer," and then realized that he hated playing the same thing every night and gave up the road the next year. In the mid-sixties, he wrote for the television program "That Was the Week That Was" and collected the songs onto one last album "That Was the Year That Was." In the 70s, he did some work with "The Electric Company," but for all intents and purposes, he gave up show business altogether, teaching the occasional course in math or musical theater at the University of California Santa Cruz when he feels like it.
Tom Lehrer was counterculture before there was a counterculture. He was a wordsmith and punster par excellence who was not afraid to be smart. Coming from the Cold War 50s when the powers that were were not all that bright, he lampooned with razor sharp insights and a wit to match. He was part of a movement with people like Stan Freberg who were clean cut, educated, intellectual, political and just plain funny.
Here's the classic "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" and the ever-sharp "Werner von Braun."
Happy birthday Tom Lehrer and thanks.
Live, love, and laugh,
Saturday, April 04, 2009