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

Lehrer also remembers the evening, and notes that despite the wacky Dr. Demento persona, Hansen is very much a regular person. But he didn't notice the butter. "People are always spilling butter in their wineglasses around me," he cracks. "I don't even notice it anymore."

In addition to the Dr. Demento exposure, Lehrer kept busy. He contributed songs to the children's public television program The Electric Company, and appeared at Democratic political fund-raisers, often accompanied by celebrities like Shirley MacLaine or Leonard Nimoy. He wrote a few songs about the political campaigns, but he says the experience left him disillusioned. The Democratic hopefuls of this era either turned out to be deadbeats (Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern) or just dead (Bobby Kennedy).

After a 1971 visit to California piqued his interest in the new university at Santa Cruz, he applied for part-time work and was hired. The decision, Lehrer admits, was based at least in part on his previous career. He taught math courses, and, to have some fun, began teaching a musical comedy class, where students would produce stripped-down versions of popular musicals, and perform them in living rooms, accompanied by Lehrer on piano. He's been teaching at Santa Cruz ever since.

A few producers contacted Lehrer over the years, suggesting that his music be adapted into a stage revue, but plans always fell through. Finally, a young British producer named Cameron Mackintosh wrote Lehrer a letter, expressing interest in a stage production of Lehrer's work. Mackintosh had not yet produced the megahits Cats and Les Misérables.

The two wrote back and forth, hashing out the ideas, and in 1981 a revue opened in England called Tomfoolery!, with a cast of four singing some of the more familiar Lehrer songs. The show was produced in cities around the world, and prompted the publication of a Lehrer songbook, featuring all the lyrics. His out-of-print records were reissued on CD.

In 1998, Lehrer emerged from hibernation to take part in a tribute to Mackintosh called "Hey, Mr. Producer." Performers from each of Mackintosh's musicals were invited to take part, from Judi Dench to Julie Andrews and Bernadette Peters. To everyone's amazement, Lehrer accepted. He flew over to London for the performance, sat at a piano, and sang "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," and another tune about nuclear bombs called "Who's Next."

"It was a royal gala, so Queen What's-her-name was there," Lehrer recalls. "There was a line for the queen to come around and shake everyone's hand. She wore gloves, of course -- you never know where these actors have been. She came around, 'Nice to see you, thank you for coming.' And Prince Philip comes around afterward, and he also shakes your hand, at a discreet distance, of course, from the queen. And he said, 'Poisoning Pigeons in the Park' gave us a lot of pleasure. We used to play that.' I could just imagine Princess Margaret and Prince Philip sneaking off to listen. I asked Princess Margaret, 'What does Her Majesty think of the record?' And she said, 'Oh no, she thinks it's horrid. She leaves the room when we put it on.'"

Although not officially endorsed by the royal crown, Lehrer struck a deal with Rhino Records, to reissue all of his songs on a three-CD box set. Due next month, The Remains of Tom Lehrer will include additional rarities for Lehrer fanatics, from children's tunes for The Electric Company to an unreleased ditty about VD called "I Got It From Agnes" and a song Lehrer wrote in 1990 for Garrison Keillor's radio show called "(I'm Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica."

"A lot of people think I'm dead," laughs Lehrer. "I encourage it, in a desperate hope that it will cut down on the junk mail. But it never has. So I don't mind them thinking that, as long as they buy the records."

I'd rather call it "compromise."

Sometimes you have to close your eyes.

Being rich is no disgrace.

Put on your shoes and join the race.

It has a very soothing voice.

It's up to you to make the choice.

Before you know it, there'll be nothing left to sell.

-- from "Selling Out," written in 1973

Comedians have often come to San Francisco to make live recordings, from Lehrer to Jonathan Winters, Woody Allen, Robin Williams, and Steve Martin. Most recently, comics have done albums at Cobb's Comedy Club, among them Robert Schimmel and the late Bill Hicks.

San Francisco's audiences are as appreciative as ever, says Cobb's owner Tom Sawyer.

"We're more educated here. We're quicker, we're smarter, we catch on the small stuff. That's what makes it. This is a cutting-edge town, and it will always be a cutting-edge town, no matter what anybody does. You're talking about people who want to see somebody break the envelope. People want to see somebody push what they think is morally correct and socially correct. As long as it's done with a strong point of view, they'll go with you."

But the nature of satire has changed. The world is not the world of Tom Lehrer anymore, especially if one is to make a career from it.

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