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The Brainiest Musical Satire You’ve Never Heard

From time to time, a Slate staffer or critic offers up a favorite cultural pick for Procrastinate Better readers. Today’s endorsement is from copy editor Nathan Heller.

Long before “Weird Al” Yankovic and Flight of the Conchords , the world of musical parody belonged to Tom Lehrer, an unlikely academic-cum-satirist whose piano revue lit the way for several generations of comedic songwriters. Although Lehrer gave up performing in the early 1970s (to take a math professorship at U.C.-Santa Cruz), his songbook has had regular revivals since then. This year brings The Tom Lehrer Collection , a two-disc compilation that joins old audio recordings with new video of Lehrer in performance. It’s a worthy introduction for the uninitiated—and, for those familiar with his curious art, proof that the songs are still biting and funny half a century after they first appeared.

Lehrer is best-known for his macabre springtime classic ” Poisoning Pigeons in the Park ,” but that specimen hardly does justice to his range as a satirist. He got his start as a songwriter at Harvard in the ‘40s (many of his earliest parodies lampoon university life ) and carried on through the next two decades, writing for nightclubs and variety shows. Gawky, geeky, and equipped with an arch nasal singing voice, Lehrer would have been an impossible cabaret act were it not for his Cole Porter-esque dexterity with rhyme and skill getting inside almost any musical style, or news item, and tearing it to shreds. He almost never whiffed: Whether criticizing nuclear strategy , making fun of the New Math , arguing for liberalized decency laws (“Who needs a hobby/ like tennis or philately?/ I’ve got a hobby,/ rereading Lady Chatterley “), parodying Gilbert and Sullivan (“For I love she, and she loves me,/ and raptured are the both of we”), or taunting the Catholic Church with ragtime , Lehrer’s performances are irresistible for their unfailing lèse-majesté and tightrope wit. In a clip on the new Collection , we learn Lehrer once crossed paths at a summer camp with Stephen Sondheim; and while some might say the two men’s verbal talents are equal, Sondheim—as far as I’m aware—never pulled off a winsome, upbeat song about venereal disease

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