Tom Lehrer On DVD: 'The Steely Dan Of Math-Based Satirical Songwriters' : Monkey See Satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer was hard to find for many years, but now you can see live performances ... quite a few, actually.
NPR logo Tom Lehrer On DVD: 'The Steely Dan Of Math-Based Satirical Songwriters'

Tom Lehrer On DVD: 'The Steely Dan Of Math-Based Satirical Songwriters'

The cover of the new Tom Lehrer Collection. hide caption

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Being a Tom Lehrer fan used to be hard work. Oh, not in terms of finding his music; that was simple enough, since the man only released three albums' worth of material between 1953 and 1965, during what can only rather generously be called his heyday, and they never seemed to go out of print for any meaningful stretch. I certainly always saw them parked in the comedy section of whatever record store I happened to be in at the time. (And I think I was in all of them at one point or another.)

An undated photo of Tom Lehrer. Courtesy of Tom Lehrer hide caption

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Courtesy of Tom Lehrer

No, it was hard work because there wasn't a lot of information to go on. Lehrer did nothing to promote his musical career. Everybody seemed to know that he was a mathematics professor, but that was about it. The 1980 revue Tom Foolery that revived interest in his songs was someone else's idea. Most of us didn't even know what the guy looked like, since the only photos that appeared on any of his albums were the garishly-colored, microscopic, distant-man-in-a-spotlight shots that adorned the sleeves of Tom Lehrer Revisited and An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. (Which is, incidentally, one of the greatest comedy albums ever recorded. No arguments.)

All that started to change around ten years ago with the release of the soup-to-nuts The Remains Of Tom Lehrer box set. There were pictures! Commentary! He did press to promote the thing! In throwing open a door that he had long ago shut, finally cracking a mystery that we never thought we'd see solved, Lehrer became the Steely Dan of math-based satirical songwriters.

The... well, I don't know if I'd call it a torrent, really, but the flow of open engagement with his audience and with history continues with this week's release of CD/DVD combo The Tom Lehrer Collection. The CD ... well, whatever, the CD's great and largely redundant. If you've only got the original albums, then yes, it's indispensable for the presence of two songs he wrote for The Electric Company, as well as for "(I'm Spending) Hanukkah In Santa Monica" and the amazing "I Got It From Agnes." But with the exception of rare but pointless versions of "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park" and "The Masochism Tango" from a British single, there's nothing that didn't already see the light of day on The Remains.

The DVD, on the other hand... Holy cow.

No, really: holy cow, and how to amuse Norwegians, after the jump.

Sure, there are the complete animated Electric Company segments that Lehrer scored with witty songs about the magic of adverbs, silent E, the diphthong "ou" and... words that start with "sn-"? (Leave it to Lehrer to realize that there was gold to be mined in that last one.)

But the real gems are the live, look-that's-actually-him-at-a-piano performances. A few are one-offs: a BBC talk show, a mathematics convention (of course), and 1998 concert in honor of Tom Foolery producer Cameron Mackintosh, where Lehrer prefaces his song with a comment about the Cats producer's finances that is viciously self-lacerating but nonetheless indisputably true in every word. (He's also, for those who doubt the genius of his little chuckly-ha-ha songs, introduced by some fellow named Stephen Sondheim.)

The most vital portion of the DVD, though, is a full 1967 performance from Oslo. It shows Tom Lehrer as he's never been commercially seen: as something being seen. It's a remarkable display of his gifts in full flower... or it would be if his audience understood him. Of course, even in 1967, it's likely that most, if not all, of the Norwegians who came to see him had an excellent grasp of conversational English.

Even so, that's not the same as comprehension, which Lehrer recognizes and attempts to rectify by using some of his song introductions to explain the cultural context of many of his upcoming jokes. It doesn't necessarily work, and lines that get big laughs on his (American-recorded) live albums waft by only to be received with polite smiles. It's comedically frustrating. And it makes the Oslo crowd an excellent stand-in for modern audiences coming to Lehrer for the first time, who would also lack the immediate, day-to-day knowledge of, say, who Chet Huntley was or what the MLF might be.

Still, even his advance footnotes often have a sharply humorous bite to them, adding to the fascinating fact that, for someone who didn't really seem to be pursuing a career in comedy, Lehrer had his act honed to an ingeniously efficient, diamond-hard brilliance. And his songs were so smartly constructed that you often didn't even realize that there was a joke that you didn't get until you suddenly got it years later after you had acquired the proper background information.

So whether it's in front of a audience who spoke the language that Lehrer so masterfully manipulated as a second tongue or a packed Broadway theatre full of people there to celebrate someone else because he brought the Rum Tum Tugger to life, it's great to have actual Lehrer performances available to us after so many decades of not remotely imagining that we would ever see them. As hinted at by what pops up from time to time on YouTube, there may be many others. But, on DVD at the moment at least, they haven't been discovered.