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Come back tomorrow night, we're gonna do... fractions.

"I find that if you take the various popular song forms to their logical extremes, you can arrive at almost anything from the ridiculous to the obscene — or, as they say in New York, sophisticated."
Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer is an American satirist who managed to achieve remarkable popularity and impact on popular culture, despite having produced only three albums' worth of material in the 1950's and 60's before retiring to a life in academia as a mathematician. Lehrer's pieces often take the form of witty parodies of various popular song-forms. Other common themes in his work are disapproval of nuclear war, Cold War politics, and folk singing. Of course, he undercuts that last by putting forth as perfect a rendition of such songs as can be done with only a piano ("imagine that I am playing an 88-string guitar") as accompaniment.

Lehrer is still alive, and occasionally performing. At the 80th birthday party of a fellow mathematician and friend Irving "Kaps" Kaplansky, he dusted off a handful of mathematics songs to an appreciative crowd of students and fellow mathematicians.

"Weird Al" Yankovic cites Tom Lehrer as one of his inspirations. Lehrer's own inspirations notably include Gilbert and Sullivan and Cole Porter. Allegedly, he invented the Jell-O shot.

Trope Namer for The Masochism Tango.

Quotes from Mr. Lehrer's works are used at the top of the following pages:

And for the picture captions of the following pages:

(Note: These lists may not be complete. As you can see, he's quite popular on this wiki).

Mr. Lehrer's works display examples of:


 And when at last the police came by

Her little prank she did not deny

For to do so she would have had to lie...

And lyin' she knew was a sin...

  • Beastly Bloodsports: "In Old Mexico"
  • Bilingual Bonus: In the recorded version of "Lobachevsky", the reviews from Pravda and Izvestia are, respectively: "There once was a king who had a pet flea," the first line of Mussorgsky's "Song of the Flea", and "I must go where the Tsar himself goes on foot," a Russian idiom meaning "I have to go to the bathroom". Lehrer usually substituted nonsense when he performed before an audience whose members may include Russian speakers.
  • Bunny Ears Lawyer: Aside from being a quirky satirist, he's a Harvard-educated mathematician and a very accomplished pianist.
  • Competition Coupon Madness: Parodied in "It Makes a Fellow Proud To Be a Soldier".
  • Convenience Store Gift Shopping: He mocks the practice in his Christmas Carol.
  • Crapsack World: "My Home Town," although it could perhaps be "Crapsaccharine" given how fondly the narrator remembers it...
  • Creator Backlash: One of the reasons he retired was that he grew to despise touring to perform his songs.
  • Creator Breakdown: The reason he stopped doing political satire was apparently because the politicians became too corrupt. He abandoned his singing career before Richard Nixon was even President, and things haven't gotten better...

 Lehrer: "I don't want to satirize George W. Bush...I want to vaporize him."

    • That's part of the reason, but not the entire reason. There's also the fact that the political issues of later eras became much more complex, and it's hard to get good laughs out of a song that presents both sides of the issue. Here's a piece that has a lot more elaboration from Lehrer. That said, the devolution of politics certainly has not made Lehrer any more enthusiastic about the idea of writing music.
  • Creepy Souvenir: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine"
  • December-December Romance: Satirized in "When You Are Old and Gray".
  • Do Not Pass Go: "We Will All Go Together When We Go" (singing about the global nuclear holocaust) has:

 You will all go to your respective Valhallas.

Go directly, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollas.

  • Filk Song: Virtually everything he wrote has been adopted as "Found Filk," notwithstanding--or perhaps in spite of--Lehrer's feelings about folk music. There have even been full Tom Lehrer Sing-Alongs.
  • Filth: The subject matter of "Smut".
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: "I Got It From Agnes." What "it" is is never specified, but we can guess.

 I love my friends, and they love me

We're just as close as we can be

And just because we really care

Whatever we get, we share.


 These are the only ones of which the news has come to Hahvard,

And there may be many others but they haven't been discahvard.

  • In the Style Of: 'Clementine'
  • Insult Backfire: Well-liked among the more humourous folk and Filk singers.
    • Also, the Harvard University Band regularly performs his fight-song parody "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" at football games.
    • For himself, Lehrer was very fond of a review he'd once received, and loved to quote it: "Mr. Lehrer's muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste."
  • Jukebox Musical: Tom Foolery.
  • Knows a Guy Who Knows a Guy: An exaggeratedly long example in "Lobachevsky". See List Song below.
  • Least Rhymable Word: Multiple examples. Lehrer loves working around this.
  • List Song: "The Elements" is Exactly What It Says on the Tin; all of the chemical elements known at the time, set to "a possibly recognizable tune": "The Major-General's Song" from The Pirates of Penzance.
    • "Lobachevsky" also includes a verse that's largely a list of towns in the Soviet Union.
      • I have a friend in Minsk, who has a friend in Pinsk, whose friend in Omsk has friend in Tomsk with a friend in Akmolinsk!
      • That's not the complete list, by the way. And the return journey somehow manages to squeeze in two more cities that weren't mentioned the first time.
  • A Love to Dismember: "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" "Masochism Tango".
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Particularly his nuclear war songs.
    • Also, "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" is a bright, happy, song about guess what.
    • Special mention has to go to "We Will All Go Together When We Go," a cheery, toe-tapping number about the complete extinction of the human race. And how that's a good thing because it means there'll be nobody left alive to feel sad about it afterward.

 We will all go directly to our respective Valhallas

Go directly, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dolla's ...

    • "So Long Mom" is also a song about nuclear war set to a cheerful tune. The narrator is a pilot in World War III adressing his mother:

 While we're attacking frontally,

Watch Brinkley and Huntley,

Describing contrapuntally

The cities we have lost.

No need for you to miss a minute

Of the agonizing holocaust. (Yeah!)


 There was a man though, who, it seems

Once carried this ideal to extremes,

He loved his mother and she loved him

And yet his story is rather grim...

[merry melody]


 When you attend a funeral

It is sad to think that sooner or l...

...ater those you love will do the same for you

And you may have found it tragic

Not to mention other adjec...

...tives to think of all the weeping they will do

  • Parental Bonus: While most of his songs are still funny, there are lines he says that are rather topical to the 1960s. An example would be when he mentions that Massachusetts is the only state with three senators, it's because Robert Kennedy (from Massachusetts) happened to be a New York senator at the time.
  • Protest Song: Parodied in "The Folk Song Army". Lehrer believed that protest songs were utterly useless and was fond of reminding people of how effective the satirical cabaret shows of Weimar Germany were against the Nazis. He did several songs satirizing political issues of the day, such as nuclear proliferation, and senator and former Hollywood star George R. Murphy's racist remarks during an interview and other such things, but these were more Gallows Humor than protests.
  • Reclusive Artist: And how!
  • Reckless Gun Usage: "The Hunting Song" talks about accidents usual for an opening of the hunting season. With a "recipe":

 People ask me how I do it

And I say, "There's nothing to it!

You just stand there looking cute...

And when something moves, you shoot!"

  • Refuge in Audacity: His 1953 debut album included a tune singing the praises of the neighborhood dope peddler. Lehrer felt he would unable to perform "The Abortionist", and "The Old Dope Peddler" was his second choice.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: "I Hold Your Hand In Mine"
  • Self-Deprecation: One album was named "An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer"; another's cover quoted several unflattering reviews of his work, including one from the New York Times saying "Mr. Lehrer's muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste."
    • There's also the fact that he teaches at and went to Harvard and wrote "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" essentially saying how wussy he thinks Harvard is.
  • Sesame Street Cred: If you've only heard one song of Lehrer's, it's probably "Silent E" from The Electric Company.
    • Or "L-Y" from the same show.
    • Or maybe your Chemistry teacher introduced you to "The Elements".
  • Southern-Fried Private: "It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier"
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: "The Folk Song Army" and "My Home Town" being the two best examples.
  • Take That: As noted, folk-singers, but his "ode" to Wernher von Braun also stands out. Also the MLF Lullaby.
  • Take Me to Your Leader: Spoofed in "Whatever Became of Hubert?":

 "We must protest this treatment, Hubert"

Says each newspaper reader

As someone once remarked to Schubert

Take us to your Lieder

(sorry about that)


 Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown...

"Heh heh. Nazi Schmazi," says Wernher von Braun!


  "I have a song here which I realise should be accompanied on a folk instrument in which category the piano does not alas qualify so imagine if you will that I am playing an 88 string guitar"

    • Then he does it again in the song itself, where he also pokes fun at the lyrical version:

 The tune don't have to be clever,

And it don't matter if you put a coupla extra syllables into a line.

It sounds more ethnic if it ain't good English,

And it don't even gotta rhyme--excuse me--rhyne.

  • Trophy Husband: "Alma", a ballad dedicated to socialite Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, whom he praises for managing to marry three of the greatest minds of the day and having the raciest obituary he had ever had the pleasure of reading.

 The first one she married was Mahler,

Whose buddies all knew him as Gustav.

And each time he saw her he'd holler:

"Ach, that is the fräulein I moost have!"