Tom Foolery

Charlie Jacobson shared an article from Slate yesterday: Tom Lehrer at 90: a life of scientific satire, honoring Tom Lehrer on the occasion of his 90th birthday. It reminded me of just how much I enjoy Mr. Lehrer’s work. It also reminded me that the last time I subjected a class to one of his songs, (We discuss arithmetic in other bases in Cryptography, so we listen to “New Math“) I resolved to write my first ever fan letter. Thing is, the article above is from April 2018, so Mr. Lehrer is now a bit over 91 and a half. To quote the great man himself, “I believe that if any songs are going to come out of World War III, we had better start writing them now.”

Mr. Lehrer is a genius! I believe that I purchased a copy of “That Was The Year That Was” while I was in junior high school and promptly wore it out. I would make a point of listening to Dr. Demento every Sunday hoping to hear his stuff. It was delightful surprise when I realized that Lehrer also write “Silent E” which I had loved from the Electric Company back in second or third grade. I still find myself humming that song nearly a half century later.

I often say he’s the only mathematician I consider a role model and when I told a class last week that by becoming a professor, I’d figured out how to stay in college for the rest of my life, I was intentionally riffing on Lehrer’s “attempt to extend adolescence beyond all previous bounds”. He’s probably one of the biggest influences on my sense of humor, such as it is, which I suppose isn’t a very nice thing to say, but there you go.

The Slate article reminds us of Lehrer’s quote about Henry Kissinger. The first time I’d heard it, I thought it was that “All other forms of political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize” and that’s stuck with me even though I’ve tried and I haven’t been able to verify that version of the quote. It’s always struck me as much more interesting than the version that I usually see, which is merely to say that political satire has become obsolete. But “politics has become too nutty to satirize” is an easy joke, while the other version is is profound. To expand on it: “Henry Kissinger has won the Nobel a Peace Prize after being instrumental in the bombing of Cambodia and other horrible things. The only way that could possibly make sense is if the award itself was actually an act of satire. And it is such a perfect and succinct bit of satire that we’ve clearly reached the apex of the art form. No one else should attempt political satire because everything else will seem empty and futile in comparison. Political satire is obsolete.” It may just be head canon, but that’s what I choose to believe Mr. Lehrer actually said.

The Slate article continues “…and in 2002 he remarked, still less optimistically: ‘Things I once thought were funny are scary now. I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.’” Brilliant.

It’s worth the investment of time to track down all of Mr. Lehrer’s songs, but for those of you who are just getting started, here are a few of my favorites.

We Will All Go Together When We Go:

That’s Mathematics:

Silent “e.”

Wernher Von Braun:

I Got It From Agnes

Who’s Next: