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?

Tom Lehrer, inventor of the Jell-O shot.
Tom Lehrer, inventor of the Jell-O shot.
Tom Lehrer, inventor of the Jell-O shot.
Anthony Pidgeon
Tom Lehrer, inventor of the Jell-O shot.
Anthony Pidgeon
Anthony Pidgeon
Anthony Pidgeon

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.


Fight fiercely, Harvard,

fight, fight, fight!

Demonstrate to them our skill.

Albeitthey possess the might,

Nonethelesswe have the will

How we shall celebrate our victory,

We shall invite the whole team up for tea

(How jolly!)

-- from "Fight Fiercely, Harvard," written in 1945

Ocean waves crash into shore outside the picture window of an immaculate, top-floor condominium decorated in blue. Framed sheet music covers blanket one wall, and shelves are neatly arranged with books and records. A black upright piano sits against another wall, a sophisticated, high-tech model with a computer disk drive set into the front.

If you lived by yourself on the Pacific coast, you could do an awful lot worse than this.

Tom Lehrer indicates the piano's electronic controls and remarks that with all this new technology, any idiot can now learn to play. Instant Tchaikovsky.

Wearing a red sweater and tan jeans, Lehrer plops onto a sofa to chat. Although his voice wanders from a Massachusetts inflection to proper English, it still sounds exactly like the albums from 40 years ago. And he's still amazingly quick in conversation, laughing easily and tossing out witty comments. Definitely more on the ball than you'd expect of a math professor who turned 72 two weeks before.

He has no problem discussing any aspect of his career, but first things first. There's the matter of the Jell-O shot.

A rumor has circulated for years that in the 1950s, Lehrer invented the Jell-O shot, a cup of flavored gelatin infused with booze, which has now become a frat-house favorite. He throws his head back and laughs.

"That's amazing how that got around! What happened was, I was in the Army for two years, and we were having a Christmas party on the naval base where I was working in Washington, D.C. The rules said no alcoholic beverages were allowed. And we wanted to have a little party, so this friend and I spent an evening experimenting with Jell-O. It wasn't a beverage," he says with a shrug.

"And we finally decided that orange Jell-O and vodka was the best. We tried gin and vodka and various flavors and stuff -- of course you can't sample too much. So we went over to her apartment and we made all these little cups and we thought I would bring them in, hoping that the Marine guard would say, 'OK, what's in there?' And we'd say, 'Jell-O.' and then he'd say, 'Oh, OK.' But no, he didn't even ask. So it worked. I recommend it. Orange Jell-O."

The son of a Jewish necktie manufacturer, Lehrer grew up in Manhattan, studying piano as a child, loathing classical music in favor of more popular records. A natural affinity for solving math problems and logic puzzles accelerated his education, and after prep school in Connecticut, he landed at Harvard at the age of 15.

"Everybody was young," he says. "Right after the war. It was that war, World War 2.0. So everybody over 18 was drafted. The only people left were civilians who were underage."

Between studies, he began playing piano at campus dances and private parties, singing funny songs he'd begun writing. One of the earliest was a mock football fight song called "Fight Fiercely, Harvard," a genteel, even-jawed ode to Harvard politeness on the gridiron. People liked the tunes, so he investigated how he might make a record of them. Long-playing records had just been introduced, and were fast replacing the brittle, 78 rpm disks.

A Boston studio rented him space, and one day he recorded an entire album. Twenty-two minutes of music, total cost: $15. He pressed 400 copies of a 10-inch LP titled Songs by Tom Lehrer, and wrote his own liner notes: "At last reports [Lehrer] had settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he earns a precarious living peddling dope to the local school children and rolling an occasional drunk."

The record sold well around the Harvard campus, and filtered out across the country as students took it home for the summer. A few stores in New York took copies on consignment. The record went into a second pressing, and then a third. Lehrer believed that a real record company might want to take him on. He approached several major labels, but all refused to sign him. Finally, an executive at RCA explained why.

"He said, 'No, we can't do this, because we sell refrigerators and stoves. And we don't want any boycotts of any of our products,'" says Lehrer. "I don't know what the problem would be. If you heard that record, it's nothing. I think I say 'hell' once, but that's about it."

Apparently, the recording industry wasn't willing to take a financial risk on a young Harvard kid who sang funny songs about a Russian mathematician ("Lobachevsky"), a small-town drug pusher ("The Old Dope Peddler"), or an Irish girl who kills her entire family and cooks up her brother's corpse into a stew ("The Irish Ballad"). Lehrer had to distribute the records himself. He set up an office for Lehrer Records, which he shared with a young attorney named Michael Dukakis.

An inordinate number of orders started arriving from San Francisco and Berkeley. Lehrer had no idea why, since he'd never performed on the West Coast. Eventually, someone mailed in the explanation -- a review from the San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic, who had praised the record, and included Lehrer's mailing address at the bottom.

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."

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."

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.

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."

But it's not the Democrats vs. the Republicans anymore. Because American society has grown compartmentalized and filled with special interest groups, it's more difficult to get people to agree on a point of view. Which is why, Lehrer believes, so many comedians go for sexual jokes, or four-letter words. The audience may disagree amongst each other about issues, but everybody can agree on sex or the word "fuck." And such jokes, to him, are cheap and lazy.

"The whole idea of freedom of speech means you can say 'fuck' on television is an anathema to me," Lehrer says. "That's not what freedom of speech is about. It's about saying stuff. Now you can say anything, why don't you? But they don't."

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