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Column: A few words (wasted) about Tom Lehrer on his 90th birthday

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The original nerd comic? Tom Lehrer at the piano in San Francisco in 1965.
(YouTube)

For Americans of a certain age, the 1960s were the high water mark of topical humor. Mort Sahl delivered monologues ripped from the headlines, “That Was The Week That Was” satirized, well, the week that was on NBC in 1964 and 1965, and the Smothers Brothers finally discovered the limits of network tolerance for controversial comedy from 1967 to 1969, when they were canceled by an exasperated and nervous CBS.

Then there was Tom Lehrer. The Harvard-trained mathematician and songwriter provided the acerbic soundtrack to that era with lyrics penned with the facility of William S. Gilbert and tunes that evoked the felicity of Sir Arthur Sullivan. Lehrer’s work bounced the absurdities and paranoias of that period back at us, in rhymed couplets and a bouncy piano beat.

Raised as a mathematical wunderkind in middle-class Manhattan by a family that made its money in necktie manufacturing, he became a songwriting prodigy. He entered Harvard at 15 and graduate school, where he hung with at least one future Nobel laureate, at 18.

I used to pick up the newspaper and laugh....But now I pick up the paper and I have to wait till breakfast is over because it’s just going to ruin it.
Tom Lehrer, 1981
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Lehrer’s albums, including 1959’s “An Evening (Wasted) With Tom Lehrer” and especially the 1965 live performance “That Was The Year That Was,” were played into dust on the suitcase-sized stereo in my suburban bedroom. My friends and I could recite the lyrics by heart, when we weren’t reciting the scripts of Marx Brothers movies by heart.

On Monday, Tom Lehrer turned 90, a milestone that earned him a notice in, of all places, Nature magazine.

What’s remarkable about Lehrer is that his best songs — dare one say “greatest”? — still resonate today. That may be because their topics — racial conflict, pollution, religious intolerance, nuclear brinkmanship — have never gone away. But it’s more likely that he found a way to extract the most serious and scary aspects of daily life and present it in a form that at least left us with the conviction that when we exit, we’ll exit laughing. That the lyrics were often distinctly impolite— what today we’d call politically incorrect, big-time — was part of the thrill.

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A few golden nuggets. There’s “So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III).” This was Lehrer’s gloss on the patriotic songs produced in every war; as he said in his live introduction: “It occurred to me that if any songs are going to come out of World War III, we’d better start writing them now.”

So long, Mom, I’m off to drop the bomb, so don’t wait up for me.

But while you swelter down there in your shelter, you can watch me, on your TV…

While we’re attacking frontally,

watch Brink-a-ley and Hunt-a-ley

describing contrapuntally,

the cities we have lost…

No need for you to miss a single minute of the agonizing ho-lo-caust...

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(Even in 1965, Lehrer had to explain to his audience that David Brinkley and Chet Huntley were the dual anchormen who wrapped up the news every evening for 15 minutes on NBC.)

Pornography?

Smut...Give me smut and nothing but…

A dirty novel I can’t shut, if it’s uncut, and unsubt..le.

As the judge remarked the day that he acquitted my Aunt Hortense,

‘To be smut it must be ut-terly without redeeming soc-ial im-portance …

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Civil rights?

Oh, the white folks hate the black folks

and the black folks hate the white folks,

to hate all but the right folks is an old established rule…

But during National Brotherhood Week (National Brotherhood Wee),

Lena Horne and Sheriff Clark are dancing cheek to cheek …

Historical footnote: Jim Clark was the violent white sheriff who presided over the attacks on civil rights protesters in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

There was much more. Lehrer lampooned the hand-wringing over the liberalization of the Catholic Mass by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 with “The Vatican Rag,” and the glories of American technological know-how in the person of the former Nazi Wernher von Braun (“’Vonce ze rockets go up, who cares vere zey come down? Zat’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun”).

The song with which Lehrer first gained notice is “The Elements,” in which he manages to recite the names of every element in the periodic table, in rhyme, to the tune of the “Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.” A tour-de-force of patter written while he was a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at Harvard, it only hints at his lyrical inventiveness and ability to mine the rhythms of American popular song for comic effect.

Lehrer seemed simultaneously easygoing at the piano and a bit ill at ease, a nerd fallen among chic admirers. Abruptly, he gave up songwriting and public performance in the 1970s, with 37 songs (by his count) to his credit. He never finished his Ph.D. but spent some 30 years teaching math and musical theater at UC Santa Cruz.

The legend is that Lehrer said he gave up his public career because Henry Kissinger’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1973) made satire obsolete. He later denied saying so, but in a 1981 interview — in connection with a Manhattan revue of his old songs called “Tomfoolery,” he said, “I used to pick up the newspaper and laugh. I’d say, isn’t that ridiculous or silly. But now I pick up the paper and I have to wait till breakfast is over because it’s just going to ruin it. ...I don’t know why I’ve become more serious...Is it just me?”

No, it isn’t. The world has become more serious. Worse, we don’t have Tom Lehrer writing songs to tell us how absurd it is, too.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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