“I thought he was a tremendous satirist, and one of the darkest comics of the ’50s. People forget that, as well as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer was being … ghastly. His material, his attitude toward the crowd, fantastic.”
-Comedian Greg Proops, interviewed in San Francisco Weekly
Lehrer is an oddity, or a rarity: a professor of mathematics who also wrote funny songs. His heyday was the 1950s and 1960s, when he released hit albums full of tunes like “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” “The Vatican Rag” and “The Old Dope Peddler.”
Lehrer’s lyrics were always witty and quite often scalding. His piece “Wernher von Braun” needled the Nazi-rocketeer-turned-American-hero with the line “‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”
Lehrer was as reticent in public as he was rambunctious on vinyl, and eventually he stopped performing publicly altogether. But in the 1970s he was “rediscovered” by radio host Dr. Demento, who still plays his music on his show. Lehrer eventually settled in as a mathematics professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz (where he’s still listed in the faculty directory).
That San Francisco Weekly article mentioned above is a great introduction to Lehrer, albeit from eight years ago. And the Onion A.V. club has a fine interview from the same year, asking Lehrer more directly “Why did you give up?”
That interview ends with this Lehrer-ian exchange:
Onion: Do people ever enroll in your class because they’re fans, but they suck at math?
Lehrer: Well, maybe one or two, but after the first class they realize that this is math. I don’t know any funny theorems.
Onion: You won’t be favoring them with a song.
Lehrer: Not at those prices, no.