That Was the Wit That Was

Decades after he left the stage to teach math in Santa Cruz, the voice of legendary satirist Tom Lehrer still echoes

Decades after he left the stage to teach math in Santa Cruz, the voice of legendary satirist Tom Lehrer still echoes

By Jack Boulware

Looking sharp in a British suit and fashion eyewear, comedian Greg Proops paces the stage of Cobb's Comedy Club in the Cannery on Fisherman's Wharf. Longtime residents will remember the quick-witted Proops cutting his teeth in local clubs and improv groups, before moving to Los Angeles. The dot-com generation might recognize him from the improv prime-time television show Whose Line Is It Anyway?

In one sense, this return visit to San Francisco (or, as he refers to it, the city of drunks and poets) is like the old days. Watching Proops in a club has always been akin to hanging out with your smart, sarcastic junior high buddy. But as everyone does in their fourth decade of life, Proops has matured. No more bizarre riffs about opening a baggie of marijuana so potent that he could actually hear the I Love Lucy theme. His rants now have more heft. Tonight, he has hit upon a brief geography lesson for the audience, delivered in his snide, nasally voice:

"I now live in Hollywood. Hollywood is not a city, it's an idea held simultaneously by a million assholes."

"San Francisco is a city of twentysomething millionaire white kids named Doug."

"You may know of Orange County? That small Weimar Republic just north of Los Angeles?"

He then turns to California's ban on smoking in bars, and how, as a smoker, he sees it as a warning sign:

"One day you can't smoke in a bar, the next day, the Rosenbergs who live around the corner? Gone."

One tableful of people appears puzzled by the Rosenberg reference, and Proops points at them with mock contempt: "Kill your television immediately. You're too literal."

The audience eventually revs up to the speed of Proops' brain and the caliber of his references. He nods his approval and smiles: "The mastodon of wit has broken out of the permafrost of humor."

Proops' attitude hints of academia, and indeed, he's a power-brain, having appeared on a college bowl-type game show while a student at San Francisco State University. Cultural references, from literature and theater to music and politics, fill his comedy act. Even those who don't understand exactly what he's referring to feel flattered that he gave them the option of knowing it. Proops covers vast territory with articulate and erudite wordplay not seen much in comedy clubs anymore.

A comedian such as Proops could easily have performed at a San Francisco club in the late 1950s. In fact, one did -- a satirical pianist and songwriter named Tom Lehrer, who often played the hungry i in North Beach, and even recorded an album there.

Proops shines with many of Lehrer's best traits. And as it turns out, he is a huge Lehrer fan, he says, stepping out to the Cannery courtyard for a cigarette after his show.

"I thought he was a tremendous satirist, and one of the darkest comics of the '50s. People forget that, as well as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer was being ... ghastly. His material, his attitude toward the crowd, fantastic."

Proops recalls his first memory of listening to Lehrer's records, at age 9 in his hometown of San Carlos. A friend's father had a collection of Lehrer albums, but considered the material so adult that Proops was not allowed to listen without a permission note from his father. After the note was procured, the boys listened to the records over and over, memorizing all the words.

"A couple years ago, I was in Edinburgh, and I bought his record just to catch up on him again, to see if it was as funny as I thought it was," continues Proops. "And it was! It was actually funnier. Some of the lines like, My friend majored in animal husbandry -- until they caught him at it.' And, He became a doctor, specializing in diseases of the very rich.' He would throw these lines away, which would be, like, my closer!"

Proops acknowledges that he doesn't know if Lehrer is even still alive, though he'd heard the old comic went off to teach math at UC Santa Cruz.

In fact, Tom Lehrer is very much alive. During the school year, he lives in Santa Cruz, teaching classes and grading papers. He socializes with friends. He keeps tabs on the current crop of humor, and is a huge fan of Monty Python, Spinal Tap, The Simpsons, and The Onion newspaper.

Lehrer remains a legend to anyone who studies satire or musical comedy. His records have sold over 2 million copies. But he's out of the game by his own choice. With very few exceptions, he has not performed live in 35 years. He's not interested in writing new songs. In his eyes, he is a math teacher who dabbled in show business many years ago.

But that same entertainer impulse that once drove him as a young Harvard student to sing funny songs for friends at parties now coaxes Lehrer out of hibernation to talk up a soon-to-be-released box set of his material. He's still proud of the songs. And if truth be told, it's nice that anyone still cares about them.

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