Little Ditties With Lots of Bite: 'The Tom Lehrer Collection'

May 12, 2010

TOM LEHRER MAY represent the apex of nerd humor: an erudite Harvard grad and MIT math professor who can list all 102 known chemical elements and set it to a Gilbert and Sullivan tune. Oh, and write songs about nuclear war, masochism, STDs and other non-typical 1950s song topics.

Disc one of “The Tom Lehrer Collection” (Shout! Factory, $13.98) is a CD containing most of the piano-based satirist’s essential songs (quite a few, considering he wrote only 37 songs in 20 years). The real gem is the first-ever Lehrer DVD, featuring a 1967 live performance in Oslo. (Songs like “Masochism Tango” got more airplay in Europe than the U.S., for obvious reasons.) It’s easy to see why “Weird Al” Yankovic idolizes him, as Lehrer comes off as a geek with an innate gift for musical wordplay, though the humor is more biting than anything Yankovic or D.C. piano man Mark Russell ever did.

The classic “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” is certainly warped despite its jauntiness, but you can tell he’s (probably) only kidding. You can watch Lehrer’s smile turn evil, though, on “Wernher von Braun” (“a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience”), and, not surprisingly, the Norwegians applaud the anti-Nazi sentiments. A few of the songs are dated, but others like “Send the Marines” still seem timely: “They’ve got to be protected/And all their rights respected/Till someone we like can be elected.” His most acid commentaries actually come during the deadpan spoken intros to each song; they suggest a cynic who’s fighting absurdity with absurdity.

Some lighthearted DVD highlights: Gen-X kids should recognize the “Yellow Submarine“-ish cartoon segments Lehrer scored for PBS‘ “The Electric Company.” There’s a 1998 performance at a tribute to Cameron Mackintosh, who had produced the 1980 Lehrer revue “Tomfoolery” before finding fame the next year with “Cats.”

The MC is Lehrer’s childhood camp buddy Stephen Sondheim; you have to wonder who influenced whom. Lehrer definitely has a huge influence on college students today, though of a non-musical kind: He’s credited with inventing the Jell-O shot.

Written by Express contributor Paul Stelter
Photo courtesy Tom Lehrer

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Arion Berger · May 12, 2010