Make Do With Grin

When I was nine years old the two comedy singers who vied for my smile were Allan Sherman and Tom Lehrer. Lehrer's got a box set on Rhino (The Remains of Tom Lehrer), but I'll talk a bit about Sherman first, since the two make an interesting contrast.

Allan Sherman takes a whole lot of cultural debris—folk tunes, show tunes, pop tunes—and for laughs he tosses away the original lyrics and puts in "Jewish" content instead. The Jewishness he uses is not religious or historic but utterly mundane. So "The Streets of Laredo" become "The Streets of Miami," and where Laredo had gunslingers, Miami has business partners vying to see who can stay at the ritzier hotel. Or you have Sir Greenbaum, to the tune of "Greensleeves," who's weary of fighting dragons, and who therefore chucks it all and moves to Shaker Heights, where he's got a connection in dry goods. Part of the joke is that Sherman's replacing the heroic and the picturesque with the everyday. I find his strategy touching: Take the culture that's given to you and infuse it with your own ethnic content. The other guy's hero story becomes your ordinary story (a dinner party or business connection or hotel room)—which is a lighthearted and affectionate way of making the ordinary story . . . well, not heroic, but special, for the moment.

In theory, I could find Sherman more interesting than Lehrer. Lehrer's shtick is to take a Viennese waltz or a love song or a folk song and lampoon it, to take a sentimental style and turn it into something slimy and gross. He simply trashes whatever had portrayed itself as sincere in the original style. This doesn't seem like such an achievement, to cheapen sentiment. But actually I prefer Lehrer, partly because upending things can crack my funnybone, but also because Lehrer has the talent, Lehrer has the music, Lehrer has the venom, Lehrer has the bite.

Chuck Eddy tells me: "I'm not convinced yet that Lehrer is a better singer than Sherman. I suspect that I'd be more susceptible to Sherman's mundane-slices-of-everyday-heroism than you for the same reasons that I'm more susceptible to Springsteen or Mellencamp or Garth Brooks than you (where Lehrer's venom is the Stooges or Sex Pistols or Guns N' Roses instead—all of whom I vastly prefer to Bruce/Cougar/Garth, but I don't prefer them as vastly as you do, I don't think)."

For sure, my liking for Lehrer has a lot to do with tearing things up. E.g., I was at a bar in the early '70s when the words "You are the sunshine of my life" came out of the jukebox, and I yelled back, "You are the apple of my indigestion," which seemed a useful thing to say at the time. Not that I have anything against being the light of someone's life; I just find the expression in song sappy and blah. Anyway, Tom Lehrer had arrived at the same conclusion a couple of decades earlier and had come up with a funnier and more complex response.

Lehrer recorded two studio LPs back in the 1950s and also a live version of the second one, and then at the turn of the decade did the first one over again, this time live in front of an audience—songs in the exact same order but with between-song patter. The live versions are way better than the studio—in the studio he's too subdued, like a character actor worrying about getting the accents right (Southern accent for Southern song, Western accent for Western song, Harvard accent for Harvard song). Live he's got his own voice, just much more energy, from his piano, from everything. Plus between songs you get his funny acidic comments, as he tries to convey—or pretends to convey—a sophisticated, intellectual, snide approach to the world.

Then in the mid '60s he wrote some songs for the TV show That Was The Week That Was, a variety show of topical humor. He recorded some club dates of the TW3material, released as That Was The Year That Was, and afterward in effect quit music. Since then he's written a handful of numbers, mostly instructional songs for kids on PBS's The Electric Company, but fundamentally decided he'd rather spend his time teaching math.

So that's it: three sets of songs, five LPs, all collected here. He's best known for the TW3stuff, but he's not as funny being a social satirist as he is being a suave and refined gross-out artist. So if you don't want to spring for the whole box, I'd recommend the live set Tom Lehrer Revisited(though the remaining live show has maybe the greatest album title ever: An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer).

Anyway, having used grossand refinedas virtual synonyms, I'll try to describe how this man's humor works. Obviously, he plays against expectations (which is what most humor does, come to think of it). He's a guy in a tuxedo, a guy with impeccable grammar and diction and double entendres in two or three languages. He's sophisticated as in "You and I get all the references" and "You and I are not taken in by the absurdities out there"—though not sophisticated as in having original insights.

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