I was so happy this week that in his Los Angeles Times column, writer Michael Hiltzik took note of the 90th birthday of Tom Lehrer.
Now, I’m guessing that many MNB readers never have heard of Lehrer. You have to be of a certain age to know anything about Lehrer, who during the early sixties was right up there with Mort Sahl and the Smothers Brothers, delivering sharp satire.
Wait. You may not know about the Smothers Brothers or Mort Sahl, either.
Let me explain. Tom Lehrer was a Harvard-trained mathematician - he began his Harvard career at age 15, and started graduate school at age 18. He was , in a word, brilliant.
He also was a terrific songwriter, crafting satirical gems that took aim at a wide variety of subjects - government, politicians, the war in Vietnam (especially), NASA, the Catholic Church, the Marines, pollution, brotherhood, and even the periodic table of elements. He’d sit at the piano, in clubs and on television, and would make his points with lyrics that ranged from delicate to savage.
The legend - though he later denied it - was that Lehrer stopped performing after Henry Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize; once that happened, he was reputed to have said, he knew that satire was dead.
I was so glad to read Hiltzik’s column, because it reminded me of how much I enjoyed listening to Lehrer when I was growing up. I had a bunch of his records, though they’ve been lost to the ages (but I’ve replaced them via iTunes). And for your entertainment, above you can watch a video of Lehrer performing one of his best songs - a little ditty called "So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III),” which somehow seems entirely timely these days.
Enjoy. And Happy Birthday, Tom Lehrer.
A few other Friday notes…
• HBO is featuring as two-part documentary, “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling,” written and directed by Judd Apatow, which in my view is totally worth the time it takes to watch it. Apatow, who worked with and was mentored by Shandling before his death from a heart attack in 2016, and he has created a meticulous, affectionate and detailed look at Shandling’s life and career, using the comedian’s copious notes and journals as a framing device.
Shandling was a terrific comedian - from his stints on “The Tonight Show” to his groundbreaking “Larry Sanders Show,” he specialized in a kind of comedy of pain and fear, and his personal emotional journey was infused in every moment he spent onstage. Using extensive clips and interviews, the documentary looks at both the art and business of comedy, concluding that the old adage is correct - dying is easy, but comedy is hard. I recommend it strongly.
• Chappaquidick left me with mixed emotions. It was interesting in how it framed the 1969 car accident that forever defined the life and career of Ted Kennedy and resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, who was a campaign aide to Bobby Kennedy before he was assassinated in 1968. To this day, some feel it was nothing less than murder; there seems little question that Kennedy got off easy, coddled by a legal system in thrall to his family name.
Kennedy is seen as lost in continued grief over the deaths of his brothers, and he makes nothing but bad decisions before, during and after the accident. It indicts him for his actions, and yet it is hard to forget that only two people know what really happened that night, and they’re both dead - which means that much of the film is speculation. The cast is strong - especially Jason Clarke as Kennedy and Ed Helms as his cousin, Joe Gargan - but I felt vaguely uncomfortable and voyeuristic while watching the movie.
That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.
- KC's View: