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

But America's first taste of prime-time satire was never meant to last. After getting pre-empted for political campaign time slots, TW3 was canceled the following year. Fearing his songs would be lost to history, Lehrer worked out an agreement with Warner Bros. Warner would take on his earlier albums, and in turn he would record a new album of his TW3 songs, including ones that never made it onto the show.

In July 1965, San Franciscans opened the Sunday newspaper and saw a listing for "Tom Lehrer, the Harvard professor turned pianist and satirist," appearing live with an act called the Womenfolk, at the hungry i club in North Beach. (Unlike today's hungry i, which is now a strip club on Broadway, the original nightclub was located at 599 Jackson.)

Lehrer signed on for a week's run, two shows a night, with an engineer in the back of the club, rolling a tape recorder. Between songs, he tossed in local references to the Bay Area. (When introducing the song "MLF Lullaby," he explained that MLF stood for Multi-Lateral Force, a group of nations in agreement to deter nuclear weapons, and that, "Much of this discussion took place during the baseball season, so the Chronicle may not have covered it.")

Included in these performances was a new song which was so controversial he hadn't even bothered submitting it to TW3. It was a bouncy, raucous number done in the ragtime style, titled "The Vatican Rag," which left no listener sitting on the fence. They either laughed, or were completely offended:

So get down upon your knees,

Fiddle with your rosaries,

Bow your head with great respect,

And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Like his previous albums, the That Was the Year That Was LP also featured Lehrer's self-deprecating liner notes: "Once again, leaden rapier in hand, [Lehrer] strikes out fearlessly in search of adversaries to skewer, first making sure that they are already down."

He appeared on TV talk shows to promote the record, from Johnny Carson to Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. And in 1967, after a few gigs in Europe, he stopped performing entirely.

In the late '60s, audiences were less interested in Lehrer's type of comedy and more interested in the Vietnam War and civil rights. He says the late concert promoter Bill Graham once told him he couldn't book comedy shows during this time. The crowds didn't want to laugh. They wanted to hear folk singers like Phil Ochs and Peter, Paul, & Mary.

So Lehrer quit. Fifteen club performances, 104 solo concerts, five albums. Done.

That is, until his path crossed with a disc jockey who called himself Dr. Demento.


All the world seems in tune

On a spring afternoon, When we're poisoning pigeons in the park.

Ev'ry Sunday you'll see

My sweetheart and me,

As we poison pigeons in the park.

-- "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," from the 1959 album More of Tom Lehrer

Throughout the '60s, Barry Hansen studied music in college, wrote music journalism, and collected folk, blues, and jazz records. In 1970, he was given a regular slot on a Pasadena radio station, for a show featuring rare and unusual oldies. Novelty records found their way into the mix, and response from listeners was so positive, he dropped the oldies in favor of funny music. Dr. Demento, as he started calling himself, began slipping in a few songs by Tom Lehrer. He'd first heard Lehrer when a girl played some of the material for him in high school, and he'd never forgotten it.

Hansen says that apart from "Weird Al" Yankovic, Lehrer remains the artist most requested by his listeners. "Then, as now, the ones that people seem to like the best are 'Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,' 'Masochism Tango,' 'The Old Dope Peddler' -- that may well have been the first one I played, because the audience at that time was very much into dope songs."

"The Vatican Rag" also became a favorite, he says, until complaints forced the radio network to ban it from the airwaves for a number of years.

Now syndicated to over 100 stations nationwide, a typical Dr. Demento show includes plenty of silly tunes about fish heads and dead puppies. But Hansen always seems to find room for the elevated wit of Lehrer.

"The outrageousness gets you hooked, but then the perfected songcraft, the wedding of lyric to tune, and the fact that every line has some nice wordplay in it. Never wastes a line. That keeps you coming back," he says.

With the increased exposure Dr. Demento brought, Lehrer's records started selling again. Hansen kept wondering about this man Tom Lehrer. What had happened to him? Nobody had heard from him in years. Where was he? Was he even still alive?

Hansen says he eventually tracked Lehrer down. After the two chatted a couple of times on the phone, they met for dinner at a restaurant in Boston. Both were full of questions. And neither knew what to expect.

"I'll admit I had a little case of butterflies at meeting one of my idols," Hansen says. "He was also very interested in meeting me because I was somebody who was playing his stuff on national radio frequently, and helping prolong the sales of his records. I remember I was nervous enough so that I somehow managed to spill a little bit of butter into my glass of wine. I don't know if he noticed it or not, it was very dark in the restaurant."

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