Judge Victor Valdivia would never poison pigeons in the park. He just chloroforms them and takes them home instead.
All the world seems in tune
-"Poisoning Pigeons in the Park"
Tom Lehrer was easily one of the most unusual candidates for musical stardom ever. He began as, of all things, a mathematics professor at Harvard while writing song parodies on piano at night. Having amassed a backlog of comedy songs, he recorded and released a self-financed album that was a huge regional hit in 1953 and led to a national recording career. What followed for the next decade, in between occasional breaks, were a series of albums and concerts that made Lehrer a mainstream star until the end of the 1960s, when he retired from writing and performing, though he retained a devoted cult following that persists to this day.
Lehrer, however, didn't make his name with mild little joke songs. Instead, he wrote songs that were considered shocking and even offensive in their day. "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," his most famous song, was banned from several radio stations and earned Lehrer considerable controversy:
When they see us coming, the birdies all try and hide
Similarly, "The Vatican Rag," a song that pokes gentle fun at Catholic rituals, was yanked from an NBC TV series that was supposed to feature his music:
Make a cross on your abdomen
Then there was "Be Prepared," a swipe at the Boy Scouts of America that so outraged some people that Lehrer recalls in the liner notes of this collection that he had to talk his way out of being beaten up because of it one night:
Keep those reefers hidden where you're sure that they will not be
Lehrer, in other words, was making music that no one else would have even conceived. He helped pioneer and popularize a style of music that can best be described as "intellectual lowbrow"-erudite songs about taboo topics. These were not the so-called "party records" that were sold in plain brown wrappers for adults by such comics as Redd Foxx and Rusty Warren. These were records intended for literate adults who wanted something with a little more bite than mainstream pop music of the early '60s. That sophisticated audiences could enjoy such seemingly "sick" humor is remarkable even by today's standards. Lehrer proved that racier humor could not only sell but sell to mainstream audiences and in the process paved the way for more adventurous comedians and lyricists.
To get an idea of what a Lehrer concert during this era was like, The Tom Lehrer Collection includes a performance filmed for Norwegian TV in Oslo, on September 11, 1967. Here is the setlist:
"National Brotherhood Week"
True, some of Lehrer's more topical humor has dated considerably. Wernher Von Braun, the former Nazi who was given a pass by the U.S. government because of his knowledge of rocketry, was a hot topic back in the '60s but is all but forgotten these days. Also, in the era of South Park and Family Guy, some of Lehrer's jokes that were so shocking back then come off as rather tame. Still, Lehrer's gift for catchy melodies and his articulate and amiable manner make this a pleasure to watch. Performing alone with just a piano, Lehrer delivers his witty insights with gusto. Don't be fooled by his glasses and piano-Lehrer was always far more cutting and smart than his many third-rate imitators (such as Mark Russell) ever were. A song like "The Masochism Tango," which mercilessly eviscerates romantic song clichés, is just as vicious now as it was then. Though it only clocks in at 32 minutes, this performance is a perfect display of Lehrer's talents for both newcomers and fans alike.
The disc also comes with several bonus performances. There's "I Got It from Agnes," a slyly risqué song about VD recorded at the BBC in 1980. There's another performance of "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," filmed in 1997, before which Lehrer was introduced by Stephen Sondheim, one of the many songwriters who clearly followed in Lehrer's footsteps. There are a couple of brief math-oriented songs, "The Derivative Song" and "That's Mathematics," that were recorded at a math symposium in 1997. Finally, the disc also includes four songs that Lehrer composed for the classic children's TV series The Electric Company. "L-Y," "Silent E," "O-U (The Hound Song)," and "S-N (Snore, Sniff and Sneeze)" are accompanied by animation that explains the songs' grammatical lessons. These will bring back memories for anyone who watched the show when it aired.
Technically, the DVD is satisfactory. The visual and audio qualities vary with the age of the performance, but for the most part they all look and sound acceptable. Fans should note that the '97 math songs were shot on amateur video and are thus in the worst quality, although they're so short that it's not a big deal.
Also included in The Tom Lehrer Collection is a CD that compiles many of Lehrer's most celebrated songs from throughout his career. Here is the listing for that disc:
"Fight Fiercely, Harvard"
Devoted Lehrer fans already have all of this material, which was compiled on the 2000 box set The Remains of Tom Lehrer, but for newcomers this is the perfect introduction to Lehrer's oeuvre. The mixture of witty kids' songs with Lehrer's edgier material gives a perfect summary of the breadth of Lehrer's talent and the set includes some rarer songs that are not as easy to find. It's an excellent complement, albeit redundant for those who already have the box set.
In any event, The Tom Lehrer Collection is a well-chosen collection. Newcomers to Lehrer will find the CD an excellent sampler and both newcomers and longtime fans will be pleased with the DVD, which compiles a wealth of Lehrer performances in one place. For anyone interested in learning about the roots of modern comedy, this is an excellent place to start.
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