Tom Lehrer's creative legacy is far greater than the size of his catalog: The 72-year-old singer, pianist, teacher, mathematician, and political satirist influenced countless humorists and remains a staple on Dr. Demento's radio show, but his body of work consists of only a few dozen different songs. Those songs, most of them recorded and released between 1953 and 1965—though he wrote a few for the children's TV show The Electric Company in the early '70s—remain widely circulated, with more than two million albums sold. The material still sounds fresh today: "The Vatican Rag" joyously lampoons Catholicism, "The Old Dope Peddler" sings the praises of drug dealers, "Folk Song Army" chides self-righteous activists, "National Brotherhood Week" mocks racism and political correctness in one fell swoop, and so on. Whether he's dealing in the darkly absurd ("Poisoning Pigeons In The Park") or the politically pointed ("Who's Next?"), Lehrer's snide delivery remains a constant throughout his music, virtually all of which has been compiled (along with three new songs) on Rhino's new three-disc box set, The Remains Of Tom Lehrer. Since 1972, Lehrer has refrained from performing—he officially retired in 1967 but made a few appearances over the next five years—choosing instead to focus on his work teaching mathematics and a course in the American musical at the University of California at Santa Cruz. His limited musical output and private nature have added to the mystique surrounding his career, but Lehrer cleared up some of the questions and rumors in a recent interview with The Onion A.V. Club.
The Onion: I'd long heard that you stopped performing as a form of protest, because Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Tom Lehrer: I don't know how that got started. I've said that political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize. For one thing, I quit long before that happened, so historically it doesn't make any sense. I've heard that quoted back to me, but I've also heard it quoted that I was dead, so there you are. You can't believe anything you read. That was just an off-hand remark somebody picked up, and now it's been quoted and quoted, and therefore misquoted. I've heard that I stopped because Richard Nixon was elected, or because I got put away in an insane asylum, or whatever. It was just a remark about political satire, because it was true. Not literally, but everything is so weird in politics that it's very hard to be funny about it, I think. Years ago, it was much easier: We had Eisenhower to kick around. That was much funnier than Nixon.
O: A lot of the political humor that followed you, stuff like Mark Russell, is very Inside The Beltway, very de-fanged.
TL: Yeah, de-fanged is exactly right. It's very mild, and that's part of the problem. You can't be satirical and not be offensive to somebody. That was one of the problems with the TV show That Was The Week That Was [on which Lehrer's songs appeared]. They announced right at the beginning that they were going to be hard-hitting and biting and satirical, but that they weren't going to offend anybody. They weren't out to offend anybody. Well, that's a contradiction in terms right there.
O: Do you feel that you had any impact?
TL: That's hard for me to say. I don't think this kind of thing has an impact on the unconverted, frankly. It's not even preaching to the converted; it's titillating the converted. I think the people who say we need satire often mean, "We need satire of them, not of us." I'm fond of quoting Peter Cook, who talked about the satirical Berlin cabarets of the '30s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War. You think, "Oh, wow! This is great! We need a song like this, and that will really convert people. Then they'll say, 'Oh, I thought war was good, but now I realize war is bad.'" No, it's not going to change much.
O: Is comedy important?
TL: Comedy is very important, yes. For one thing, it keeps you sane. But it's not really a conversion. I mean, it's marginally a conversion, because if people tune in or go to a nightclub or even watch television, and hear that a lot of other people are laughing at something you thought was not funny, at least it'll force you to reconsider. I know people who've heard "The Vatican Rag" and then converted, so to speak. They'd think, "Hey, wait. There are actually people who take that as funny. I'm not the only one." I've always done some good along those lines. Many people over the years have said, "Oh, 'The Vatican Rag' changed my life." It's not that they were convinced of something they weren't convinced of before; it's just that now they realize it's okay to laugh. They're not the only ones.
O: Why did you leave? Why did you give up?
TL: I didn't really give up.
O: I didn't mean give up, like, "surrender."
TL: I just lay down and let them trample all over me. No, it's the wrong question, really, because there wasn't really a career to speak of. I figure I wrote 37 songs in 20 years, and that's not exactly a full-time job. It wasn't that I was writing and writing and writing and quit. Every now and then I wrote something, and every now and then I didn't. The second just outnumbered the first.
O: Which is more important, being funny or making a point?
TL: Well, to me, being funny is more important, but I don't know. Most politicians are so interested in making points that they don't… I'd rather be funny myself, and I'd rather listen to somebody with a little sense of humor. We used to have [two-time Democratic presidential nominee] Adlai Stevenson in my day, but I don't know if there's anybody like that now. Bob Dole could have been; he was the closest. He seemed to have a sense of humor, but he didn't show it in the campaign. I would have loved to have Bob Dole come out and really say stuff. But after a while they tamed him, I guess, so it didn't work. Not that he would have won anyway, but at least we would have had a fun campaign.
O: He seemed sour instead of just caustic.
TL: Yeah. No, I think he's good. There are other people, like Alan Simpson [a retired Republican senator from Wyoming], whom I totally disagree with, and he's very funny, so I appreciate that. Somebody can actually poke fun at something and point out the hypocrisy involved, whether it's on the left or the right.
O: How did you deal with people who can't process satire? For example, you did "National Brotherhood Week," which has the line, "Everybody hates the Jews."
TL: Yeah, there were a few remarks about that, but I think most people understood what the song was about. There are people… I mean, there's a recent case in Amherst, Massachusetts, where they canceled a performance of West Side Story in the high school because they thought it was offensive to Puerto Ricans or something, missing the point of the whole show. Or they ban Huckleberry Finn because it has the word "nigger" in it. That's just silly. But what can you do? Except kill those people. People like that should be put to sleep. That's one of my favorite lines from UHF. I don't know if you know that movie.
O: I do know that movie.
TL: It's full of wonderful things. I love when Kevin McCarthy says, "People like that should be put to sleep." [Laughs.]
O: How much of that did you face, where people would, say, accuse you of anti-Semitism? I mean, people are really stupid.
TL: [Laughs.] People are stupider than anybody. People rarely accused me, you see, because in those days I wasn't on television. Occasionally, late at night when nobody was watching, I would do a talk show. But, no, I was never in the public eye. I would do nightclubs and concerts—particularly concerts, which is mostly what I did—and only people who already agreed with me would show up. People weren't going to come and inadvertently turn on their television set and find this offensive stuff coming out. So I was never subjected to that, personally.
O: Did you ever hear from any of the subjects of your songs, like Hubert Humphrey or George Murphy or descendents of [mathematician Nicolai Ivanovich] Lobachevsky?
TL: No, I don't think they cared one way or the other. It's flea bites. I know [German architect] Walter Gropius was annoyed at what I did about Alma and his relationship with her, but he didn't directly convey that to me. [In "Alma," Lehrer sings about the colorful woman who married composer Gustav Mahler, Gropius, and Austrian author Franz Werfel. —ed.] It's not like when you have national exposure and people start getting upset with you. It was just a small underground cult thing where people go, "Yeah, I know this, and you know this, but the public doesn't know about this. Aren't we wonderful and special?" I never got any actual complaints. One or two people might have come up to me afterwards and said, "I don't think you should have said that about the Boy Scouts."
O: Is there more danger to free speech from the PC left or the far right?
TL: Ah, I don't know about that. I don't know if it's a matter of danger. That's the problem here: People on both sides take the other side very seriously. There are people who get really mad if they say "fuck" on the television, or they won't let you say it, or something like that. It's just minor when you look at what's going on in the world. So I don't know which is worse. I doubt there's any danger there. The people get very upset on either side when somebody attempts… People claim First Amendment and all that. But I don't think these are really important issues as long as there's poverty and hunger and a lack of education and people dying and children starving. This is important, not political correctness. I tell people, "I'll call you women instead of girls, just so long as I get paid more than you do." That's the issue, not all that PC stuff.
O: Did you ever face any sort of Smothers Brothers-style suppression?
TL: No, and they only faced it because they were on network television on Sunday night, a major time, so they had a lot of people watching. A lot of people who didn't like it watched. But I think one of the problems—and one of the objections I had to the way they handled it—was that they kept sort of implying that they were being naughty and dangerous and threatening and subversive, whereas if they'd just done it, maybe it would be less objectionable. But I was never on major network TV or on prime time. I mean, I did one song on The Jack Paar Show, and that certainly didn't offend anybody. I did "Whatever Became Of Hubert?" on The Merv Griffin Show when Hubert [Humphrey] was well-known, and they were patting themselves on the back for being so open-minded. So I called them later and asked, "Did you get any objections?" Not a single letter or phone call came in objecting, so I don't think people get as upset as some people would like to think they do.
O: Why aren't comedy albums as successful as they once were?
TL: I really don't know. I think part of the reason is that you can see the whole routine every night on HBO and other places. I really don't understand when I see, for example, Adam Sandler selling all these records. Why don't you just watch it, or tape it, or something? And why would anybody actually want a record of these things? In the old days, you couldn't just turn on and see Bill Cosby or Shelley Berman or Bob Newhart doing that stuff, so the records were popular. The other thing is that you could listen to most of those records more than once. With most of the [new] comedy records I know about, I don't think I'd want to hear them more than once.
O: Or once, for that matter.
TL: [Laughs.] Or once, for that matter. I mean, I can still listen to Nichols & May records, and I actually laugh out loud at Monty Python and some of these other things, because they're so carefully crafted. They're not just, "Here's a joke. Here's something funny." Once you've heard the joke, it's not funny anymore, but it's the way it's told. And I think that's the same with the music: The reason some of my songs have lasted longer is there's a lot of stuff packed in there. You want to hear them more than once, as opposed to, say, Mark Russell.
O: What new comedy do you like?
TL: I don't really keep up with it, I'm afraid, so I can't really name anybody. Eddie Izzard is wonderful, I think, but I've only seen that one HBO special he did. He's one of the few people who talk about stuff other than girlfriends and relationships and flatulence and genitalia. There are very few of them who actually talk about real stuff. I like Jon Stewart. He's not as obnoxious as Dennis Miller, whom I really can't stand. The people who are sort of, "Aren't I funny?" It's that Chevy Chase school of comedy. "I'm funny, aren't I?" I hate that. Just do the job.
O: Craig Kilborn is a lot like that.
TL: Yeah, I think he used to be okay, and Greg Kinnear used to be okay when he was doing those things, but not after a while. I can't think of any particular person off-hand. The ones I really like are dead. [Laughs.] My favorite dead comedians: Bob & Ray, Nichols & May, Flanders & Swann. [Bob Elliott, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May are still alive. —ed.] We all know, without a doubt, that the funniest program on television is The Simpsons, but they're sort of in a class by themselves. I love them. I actually watch Sports Night, too, because it doesn't have a laugh track, and that's my main criterion. It's not so much the obnoxiousness of the laugh track, although that has a lot to do with it; it's the fact that they can sneak in a little joke every now and then without having to have the audience laugh at it and cut it out if the audience doesn't. You can put in all these marvelous little things that don't interfere with the flow of the show.
O: Have you given any thought to performing again?
TL: I have given a lot of thought to it. The answer is always no. I've given a lot of negative thought to this question. No, I have no desire to do that. My last public performance for money was in 1967. For free, it was 1972, with the exception of two little one-shot, one-song things. But that's just for friends, out of friendship for the people involved, and also because it was fun. But, no, I don't have the temperament of a performer, and I certainly couldn't do it every night.
O: I was thinking one big concert…
TL: But then it becomes what as I think of as the Lenin's Tomb phenomenon: People want to see the actual flesh of Lenin, but it doesn't matter, because he's dead. You see Richard Burton in Camelot or Zero Mostel in Fiddler On The Roof: They drag these people out because people actually want to see the flesh. People would go anywhere to see a famous person in the flesh, no matter what they do. I would just be doing an imitation of myself, so unless I had a totally new act with a little nostalgia thrown in—not much—I wouldn't do it. And I don't have that, so that solves that problem. Even then, I wouldn't want to do it. It would require a lot of rehearsal to do that. The last couple things I did, looking back, I think, "I really did that? I went out there in front of 2,000 people and sang a song? I can't believe I did that." I would never want to do that for a career, or even for fun.
O: Why aren't there more photos of you?
TL: There are a whole bunch of pictures, but they're old. Part of my contract with Warner Bros. was that they're not allowed to use my picture, so it's not on any of the records except taken from a long distance. I like that a lot. That was part of the deal. Now, I let it all hang out. I figure this is it, the box set, so we might as well put some pictures in it. There are pictures in there.
O: Did you keep those out of the public eye for a love of privacy? I hear the word "recluse" a lot.
TL: Yeah, mainly. There always was a picture. Whenever Tomfoolery [Cats producer Cameron Mackintosh's musical revue based on 27 of Lehrer's songs] played, they showed some picture or other. There were pictures available, but it wasn't a big thing. There was no big photo spread. There were a few when Rhino put out Songs & More Songs in 1997. But pictures in newspapers and magazines don't count, as you know, because they go out in the garbage. But in books, and even on television, that is an invasion of privacy, definitely. I find that people can pass me on the street who've just seen my picture in the paper and they wouldn't recognize me. If they'd seen me on television, the heads turn. They say, "Wait a minute. I don't know who that is, but he's somebody." I've seen that in action. I've done some TV, and the next day I'll be walking along and people will kind of look at me. I don't like that, because I've seen it the other way around. If I see a movie star in the department store buying something, I'll kind of sidle up and see what they're saying, what they look like, how they sound. That's an invasion of privacy.
O: Do people ever enroll in your class because they're fans, but they suck at math?
TL: Well, maybe one or two, but after the first class they realize that this is math. I don't know any funny theorems.
O: You won't be favoring them with a song.
TL: Not at those prices, no.
The Onion A.V. Club periodically seeks out the commentary of singer "Weird Al" Yankovic, whose newest album is titled Running With Scissors.
Tom Lehrer is one of my two living musical idols (Stan Freberg being the other). Even though his lifelong recorded output was not what you would call voluminous, the undisputed brilliance of those songs has inspired hero worship among several generations of fans of satire and funny music. I've never met Mr. Lehrer in person, but we've exchanged a couple letters and phone calls. (I was thrilled beyond words when he started quoting lines from my movie UHF!) I tried my best to get him to appear on my ill-fated CBS Saturday-morning kids show, but he declined. I knew it was a long shot: Lehrer treasures his anonymity so much that he has never allowed publicity photos to be taken for his albums, and he's successfully managed to avoid the spotlight for more than three decades. I've always kind of considered him the J.D. Salinger of demented music.