Harvard's King of Comedy
The Oldie Magazine|December 2020
Tom Lehrer went from satire genius to Ivy League maths professor. Now, at 92, the great man is giving away his archive.
Francis Beckett

Most famous performers maximise their income.

If I’d had to bet which performer would break that habit, I’d have put my money on Tom Lehrer. In October, Lehrer, aged 92, put his songs on his website and announced that anyone can use them for nothing, until 31st December 2024.

You can even mess around with them; put your own words to his music, for example.

The air will soon be full of folk singing loudly in public: ‘All the world seems in bloom on a spring afternoon when we’re poisoning pigeons in the park.’

Lehrer has always worn his genius lightly. At the height of his fame, in 1972, he stopped writing and performing songs, and went back to being a maths professor at Harvard. He said that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made satire redundant, but that wasn’t why he gave it up. He was just tired of it, and uninterested in celebrity.

In 1959, Lehrer’s songs burst into my stifling Jesuit boarding school like a clown in a cathedral. With The Vatican Rag, Lehrer taught me the precious, liberating lesson that it was OK to laugh at the Catholic Church. (‘Two, four, six, eight, Time to transubstantiate.’)

We had heard witty songs before – Flanders and Swann, Ian Wallace, Paddy Roberts – but Lehrer brought from the US a sharp, satirical edge that Britain didn’t produce until Beyond the Fringe turned up in London in the early sixties.

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