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

Greg Proops takes a drag from his cigarette. "People have a different way of listening now. In his day, they would sit for a whole album of satirical songs."

Proops is interrupted by San Francisco political comic Will Durst, also stepping out for a cigarette, who has spied a conversation about satire.

"It's the attention span of the audience," grumbles Durst. "Comedy used to be verbal jazz. And then the attention span went down. It wasn't the outlet for people who read anymore, it was the outlet for people who watched MTV."

There are nearly as many opinions about satire as there are voices. First of all, what exactly is it? A college textbook on satire includes examples by Jonathan Swift and Chaucer, but omits Sinclair Lewis and Michael O'Donoghue. In a history of subversive humor in America, National Lampoon's Tony Hendra defined satire in Voltaire's maxim to "become your enemy." Talk-show host Steve Allen once referred to satire as "tragedy plus time" (and has since gone from launching the career of satirical comedian Lenny Bruce to today leading a moral crusade to clean up the filthy sewer that is American television).

And even if we can't define it, we know it when we see it, but true-blue scalding satire rarely seems to catch on with the masses. The theater community has always insisted that satire closes on Saturday night, i.e., it never makes any money and people don't understand it. Comedians joke that when a line bombs in a club, that wasn't comedy, that was actually satire. Paul Krassner plans to cease publication of The Realist satirical magazine this year, claiming that reality has overtaken satire.

Another respected name often bandied about in discussions of American satire is Harry Shearer, familiar from his syndicated radio program Le Show, his voice characterizations for The Simpsons, and of course the heavy metal parody band Spinal Tap.

Shearer grew up listening to Lehrer albums. He's been in show business for years, and sees the same pattern over and over again -- satire is always given the short shrift. He e-mails an anecdote as explanation:

"When we were on the verge of releasing This Is Spinal Tap, a high executive of our film company said to us, in all seriousness, 'Don't you think you guys have to wink or something within the first thirty seconds, to let the audience know you're kidding?' Until people like that don't get powerful jobs in the entertainment business, satire will always have a rough go."

All of this shouldn't be interpreted to mean that there isn't a place for satire in our modern world. Some comedians, such as Durst, can be very satirical and political. Filmmaker Michael Moore can be spot-on at times. The Onion newspaper manages to skewer both the monotony of American life, and the tired clichés of USA Today-style news.

But claiming to create topical satire and actually striking gold are two very different things, if you look at what's being done today. The once-innovative Saturday Night Live now cranks out juvenile parodies of other television shows. Dennis Miller and Jay Leno gloss over the nightly headlines with a stream of formulaic one-liners churned out by joke writers. Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher assembles a nightly coffee klatch of pundits and actors, and then constantly interrupts them. A Washington, D.C., theatrical troupe called the Capitol Steps sings limpid political parodies like "Hark When Gerald Ford Was King." Political pianist Mark Russell tapes PBS specials in which he performs uninspired songs about the deficit, and "Weird Al" Yankovic spoofs music videos by Nirvana and Coolio.

Occasionally, someone hits his mark in popular culture at an exactly perfect confluence of history, technology, and social zeitgeist. Tom Lehrer happened along at a period when repressed people needed a laugh about Hubert Humphrey and atomic bombs. And they received these laughs from an extremely clever Harvard professor, armed only with a piano. Unless Lehrer wakes up on the wrong side of the bed one morning and decides to start performing again, all we have left are the recordings. The references are dated, but the precise rhymes and wordplay remain timeless. An innocent, harmless popular melody, contrasted with topics that still resonate in our society -- Boy Scouts, dope dealers, love and war, masochism and venereal disease. And especially the song about poisoning the poor pigeons.

"It's not dated at all," says Barry Hansen. "Pigeons still annoy people in city streets. And that is a thought that is, if anything, more outrageous now than it was then, because now we hear so much from animal rights activists."

"Irreverence is easy," Lehrer is fond of saying. "What's hard is wit."

And what's been hard for Lehrer is to see a reason to continue doing satire. In the Cold War 1950s, the audience was more unified in what they believed.

"Everybody agreed. Adlai Stevenson was good, lynching was bad. Life was much easier. Now, you can make certain obvious jokes, but I can't think of how you could do a song. Monica Lewinsky is easy. I don't know how you make jokes about Sierra Leone, or Rwanda, or Ireland, or stuff that's really going on the world."

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