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 TW3 material, 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 TW3 stuff, 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 gross and refined as 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.

But his stuff is really funny, and it works well even for nine-year-olds who don’t notice the references and who need to have some of the jokes explained. In fact, nine-year-olds may appreciate him better than anybody else would. This is because, as I said, his best songs break down into grossness and silliness.

But the grossness and silliness aren’t funny in themselves; what’s funny is how he gets to them. He displays several levels of “sophistication”: First there’s a deliberately bogus sophistication on top, the elegant man in tails, performing his compositions (humor in watching this elegance devolve into vulgarity). Then there’s the sometimes-bogus sophistication that Lehrer himself buys into, in company with those in the audience cackling along with him: the idea that we’re not taken in by the same sap and stupidity as the boobs out in the mass market. A lot of this sophistication is defensive and ignorant. E.g., he refers to rock’n’roll derisively as “children’s records,” and he chides folkies for mistaking illiteracy for charm. This last is an interesting (though boneheaded) criticism, because in fact the elements that Lehrer injects into the sentimental song in order to lampoon it are the very elements that a lot of folkies and blues revivalists themselves—and after that, hard rockers, punks, hip-hoppers—inject into their music in order to make it seem real: death, drugs, sex, and violence. Especially death, for Lehrer. As Robert Shelton says in the liner notes to the first Tom Lehrer album, Lehrer has “for one so young, a curious preoccupation with songs about death.” Well actually these are the notes to the first Bob Dylan album, but Lehrer’s got a lot more death than Dylan: dead families, dead game wardens, dead cows, dead lovers, dead pigeons, dead monarchs, dead pets. (“I hadn’t had so much fun since the day my brother’s dog Rover got run over. Rover was killed by a Pontiac. And it was done with such grace and artistry that the witnesses awarded the driver both ears and the tail.”) True, Dylan blows up the world on his second album, but Lehrer blows up the world on his second album too, and then blows it up again on the fifth to make sure. And whereas Dylan waits till his third album for Hollis Brown to come along and slaughter his own family, Lehrer has an Irish girl dispose of hers on his first. And unlike Dylan, who’s merely interested in motives and feelings and social circumstances and so forth, Lehrer gives us the gruesome details: “All they ever found were some bones” (long pause, as the melody gathers itself to spring sprightly to its conclusion) “and occasional pieces of skin.”

Of course, the death in Lehrer’s songs has its impact not as death but as incongruity and comedy, which leads to the question “Why is this funny?” or at least “How is this funny?” And here is Lehrer’s real sophistication, which isn’t about anything, it’s all process. I doubt that he or anyone listening to him is moved by his music to consider why Irish girls murder their families. Having an attitude isn’t the point. The sophistication is in the buildup, the way he sets up his gags. Often enough he telegraphs the idea in advance; all you have to do is hear him launch sweetly into “I hold your hand in mine, dear/I press it to my lips,” and you know very well where the song is going and what the hand isn’t going to be attached to. He gets to this soon enough; the skill is in how the waltz goes lilting along steadily as Lehrer tops one gag with another and then wraps the song up fast.

Or in “The Irish Ballad” there’s the contrast between proper diction and obnoxious subject matter. “One morning in a fit of pique/She drowned her father in the creek/The water tasted bad for a week/And we had to make do with gin”—though at age nine I thought he was saying, “we had to make dew with gin,” a far more intriguing concept. But also, his music works on another level: He writes and plays it well. So the pretty Viennese waltz actually sounds pretty, the haunting Irish ballad is truly haunting, the rag really swings, and the wistful song about old age (“Your teeth will start to go, dear, your waist will start to spread/In 20 years or so, dear, I’ll wish that you were dead”) sounds genuinely wistful. So this is another facet of the sophistication: He’s lampooning these styles, but he likes them enough to do them well.

To return to Allan Sherman, and the subject of Jewishness: Lehrer, like Sherman (and like me), is a Jew, though—like me and I don’t know about Sherman—of the nonreligious sort who grew up in a family like mine that celebrated Christmas and therefore, like me, penetrated to the true meaning of the holiday season, which was to get presents. Sherman’s songs, unlike Lehrer’s (or mine), have little death and no cynicism. (An interesting absence for a Jewish comedian recording less than 20 years after WW II.)

Lehrer’s real social category is Post-Collegiate Wiseass, and that’s the socioethnic content he infuses into the popular song. Some of Lehrer’s cynicism is irritating, some of it is funny. Most of the cynicism is meaningless and in fact isn’t cynicism at all, just a suspension of real-life moral response in service of making the jokes funny. Even a real-life possibility like nuclear war occurs in this unreal Funnyland. Whereas for someone like Dylan, and punks like the Ramones and Eminem, for example—people who are much greater artists than Sherman or Lehrer and are far funnier when they want to be funny, but who use some of the same strategies, so that like Sherman they take music and infuse it with their own socioethnicity, and like Lehrer they put death and sex and drugs and violence into their lyrics—for these performers, the death and violence in their lyrics point to real possibilities, even when exaggerated or done as jokes. E.g., Eminem: “When I go out I’m a go out shootin’/I don’t mean when I die, I mean when I go out to the club, stupid!” He’s not going to go shooting (I hope), but someone will—people do. And if not, he’s still pointing at something in the psyche. Something in his mind is shooting. For Lehrer, the joke’s the thing, whereas Eminem wants to kill the king and rail at all the king’s servants, too.

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