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

Drafted into the Army in 1955, Lehrer watched the record continue to sell. When he got out of the service two years later, he started receiving offers to do concerts. Since he only had enough material to do half a show, he toured with an opening act, often a folk musician like Odetta, occasionally comedian Mort Sahl, or a young comedy duo called Mike & Elaine (later to become Nichols & May).

Each performance might begin with a man in black horn-rimmed glasses and tuxedo, who would recite a short funny biography about tonight's performer, and then introduce Tom Lehrer. The crowd would applaud, and watch the same man sit down at the piano, and say into the microphone: "You'd be amazed at the money we save that way."

He toured through England, Australia, and New Zealand, all the while writing more songs -- about the periodic table, Christmas commercialism, the joy of masochism. But after two years of show business, he realized he was losing interest.

"I had one record out, until I decided to quit. I didn't have the temperament of a performer, and I could see it. The show would be running late, and the [club owner] would come in and say, 'Everybody's gotta cut five minutes,' and I'd say, 'Fine, I'll cut the whole thing if you want.'"

A 1959 live recording of new material was aborted, and instead was released as the studio LP More of Tom Lehrer. He chose his most unflattering press quotes for the album cover, from the London Evening Standard ("Obvious, jejune, and remarkably unsophisticated") to the Oakland Tribune ("Plays the piano acceptably"). Two more records were recorded live and released, An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer (1959) and Tom Lehrer Revisited (1960), and in July 1960, he gave his final performance in Glasgow, Scotland. He promptly vanished from the entertainment spectrum and went back to teaching at Harvard.

A few years later he spotted an article in the New York Times about a new satirical comedy show on NBC, to be called That Was the Week That Was, which was a remake of a British program with the same title. The American version would feature, among others, two young actors named Alan Alda and Buck Henry. The mixture of sketches and phony news headlines promised to be satirical, but not too offensive. After all, this was America's first attempt at television satire. It premiered on a Tuesday night in January 1964.

Lehrer watched the first few shows of TW3, as it was called. Although balancing a full workload of teaching -- at one point, he taught simultaneously at Harvard, MIT, and Wellesley -- he made time to write and submit a few songs to the show, based on topics from that week's newspapers. The TW3 staff asked him to be a regular contributor, and he accepted with the condition that he never appear on the show. His songs were therefore sung by members of the cast. The first song to be broadcast, "National Brotherhood Week," was inspired by an actual such week listed in the newspaper. In Lehrer's eyes, it was ridiculous. Everyone in the country was suddenly supposed to drop their usual hatred and racism, and for one week pretend to love one another:

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,

And the Catholics hate the Protestants,

And the Hindus hate the Moslems,

And ev'rybody hates the Jews.

As the cast sang the song live on the show, Lehrer noticed that when it came time for the lyric about the Jews, the show's director cut to a black actor on the show, to deliver the line.

"I thought that was very nice," he says.

Now that he had a regular national outlet, his songs grew more pointed. Although still based on popular song styles -- like love songs and military anthems -- the lyrics began to address timely topics like pollution, the Marines, World War III, nuclear bombs, and censorship of pornography. The writing process was the same as his early albums: He paced the floor, singing the lines over and over in his head, substituting words, trying to hit the perfect rhyme.

"The first thing is to get the idea for the song, then to get the title, or the ending, or something. To begin a song is not hard, it's where are you going to end. You gotta have the joke at the end. So it was mainly getting the idea, and deciding what form it would be in, a waltz or a tango, or whatever, and then kind of plugging away at it."

Lehrer had an advantage over other songwriters, in that writing seemed to come naturally to a mind trained in mathematics.

"I think the construction part, the math, how to say it, the logical mind, the precision, is the same that's involved in math as in lyrics," he says. "And I guess in music too. It's gotta come out right. It's like a puzzle, to write a song. The idea of fitting all the pieces so it exactly comes right, the right word at the end of the sentence, and the rhyme goes there and not there. Mathematicians, as opposed to natural scientists, are so interested in elegance. That's the word you hear in mathematics all the time. 'This proof is elegant!' It doesn't really matter what it proves. 'Look at this -- isn't that amazing!' And it comes out at the end. It's neat. It's not just that it's proof, because there's plenty of proofs that are just boring proofs. But every now and then there's a really elegant proof."

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