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A Conversation with Tom Lehrer: the full text

instigated and transcribed by Paul D. Lehrman

Tom!
The following is a transcript of a conversation between myself and the great satiricial songwriter Tom Lehrer, on September 7, 1997, at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This conversation was also the basis for my Insider Audio column in the December, 1997, issue of Mix magazine. Lehrer's first two self-produced albums, along with various bonus tracks, are on a new CD from Rhino Records, and it was because of this record's release that Lehrer, who normally keeps a very low profile, agreed to a series of interviews with various publications, of which mine was one of the last. Thanks to Rhino Records, Mix magazine, and of course, Tom Lehrer. (Read Lehrer's response to the original article here.)

There are some other transcripts of conversations with you on the 'Net, but they look a little weird.

They (Rhino) sent me the disk of the Internet chats I did, so I could edit them. But what they did, apparently, was put the disk right in. I had some comments on previous questions, so I thought they'd go back and change the question, but no, they just put my comment in there. The guy who did the chat room, isn’t there any more. They call it "Rocky's" because that isn't his name. They can put a new Rocky in who's somebody else. In LA, I talked to Mr. KABC, who wouldn't say his name. Presumably that's the same kind of thing; if he gets fired they can put somebody else in as Mr. KABC. But nobody cares. A guy leaves a soap opera, they put somebody else in.

I did a profile of you for the Boston Globe Magazine about 13 years ago, when the show "Tomfoolery" was opening in Boston. The article came out well, but you didn't like the picture that accompanied it.

I know the previous article was in the middle of winter because the photographer, whose name eludes me fortunately, wanted me to come to his studio so he could get to know me. He liked to get to know his subjects so he could really do justice to the photograph. I thought "Oh God", but I didn't want to rock the boat. They had put money in Tomfoolery, so I didn't want to make a thing of it, so I said okay, I'll go along with this. But fortunately my car broke down, so by the time I had it fixed, it was too late, so he came here and did all these weird pictures. So I learned my lesson then.

Elijah Wald recently did a piece for the Boston Globe arts section, which had a picture of you.

Elijah's thing was fine, they just sent a staff photographer over. But the New York Times magazine guy spent hours and hours and hours, starting in April, and finally in July they sent a photographer, and she was a real "photographer", and she wanted to get me holding something and posing, but I put some constraints on that. Then what I saw what they did to Andrew Weil and others, I said I hope that nothing gets published. The photographer didn't arrive till July, and this is September, and it hasn't appeared, and I haven't heard from the writer, Peter Tauber, a freelance. I hope he can sell it somewhere else, because he spent hours on it. He would call me about last minute corrections and stuff.

It didn't seem to be of any contemporary interest except when the record came out. That was the idea -- he interviewed me in April so that in May it would be out, or even in June when there was some convention of That Was The Week That Was alumni in New York -- I wasn't there, but they could time it for that. Past that there was no point. [The piece appeared in November -- Ed.]

The hook was, isn't it amazing that after 40 years it's still selling, but without that there's nothing there. And now everybody else has covered it already. But I turned down the daily Times because of that. I said I'll be glad to do it, but you should know the Magazine is doing it, so he said, well I guess we can't. There goes New York. I got the Newark Star-Ledger, so that's close. And Long Island Newsday.

You were one of the first to make a self-produced record album.

Young folks come up to me and say "You made your own album. I want to do my own album. How do you do that?" And I have to explain to them that times have changed. I was doing stuff around Harvard, like dance intermissions, and it was basically the same people, and I really don't consider myself a performer by temperament, and technology reared its head: the LP had come in roughly '48-'49, and it was feasible to do this, which would not have been possible with 78s, to make the albums and ship them would have been impossible. A lot of people were doing this, including this Dr. Shep Ginandes here in town who had done a folksong album, and Richard Dyer-Bennet, so I thought, let's look into this. So I called Shep and he told me how he went about it, and I looked in the Boston Yellow Pages under recording studios, and there were only two -- I looked the other day and there were four columns.

One was called Ace and one was called TransRadio. Ace was rude to me, like when you go into a restaurant and you're not anybody, and they treat you like they don't even see you. They were not pleasant. But TransRadio was very nice. The place where it moved to later, on Commonwealth Ave, is now on top of the Mass Turnpike, but the place where it was when I did it is still there, I think -- I'd have to look it up. I still have the bill, because people don't believe I did it for $15. It was January, 1953.

So we did it with one mike on the voice and piano, and an engineer. It took an hour -- for a 22-minute record. It wasn't the shortest 10" ever recorded, but it became the shortest 12-inch later on, probably, but nobody complained.

I had done the songs many, many times so it wasn't like I need any time to prepare. I did a song and played it back, and if it was okay we left it, and if it wasn't okay we recorded it again, over the first take. So there was no splicing or slipping, and at the end of the hour we had the complete, edited tape. I think the tape was not included in the $15, but I'm not sure of that. It sounds like it should have been a few dollars more. They probably included it in the recording costs, of making the master. The engineer's name was Eddie, and I asked later what happened to him and nobody knows.

They had an arrangement with RCA Custom or whatever it was called to press the stuff. I was working at Baird Atomic and I asked the wife of a business associate do the cover. I told her what I wanted, with the flames, and no overlapping colors, because that would make it more expensive, and if it was off by 1/8 inch it wouldn't matter. And I wrote the liner notes, and so it was all very cheap. She did it for nothing, but Rhino paid her a fee. She's in an old folks home now. The jackets were printed at a local printer, and then sent down to RCA in New Jersey, for assembling and pasting. I had my home address on Kirkland Road in Cambridge, on the back of the record.

The initial pressing was 400. I asked people if I put out a record how many they would buy, relatives and friends and stuff, and I figured I could sell 300, so if I ordered 400 I could have something left over. I hired someone to help take them to the post office and all that stuff.

[At this point, he goes upstairs to retrieve his ledgers from 1953, which takes only a minute-Ed.] So I made enough profit to press some more. There was never any risk. I invested the profits in another 300 records. Just a little fly-by-night operation, I was really keeping track of this stuff. We sold 91 records the first week. It came out in March, and by the end of the month I sold them out. There was never any capital investment. The Harvard houses [dormitories] had newsstands, and there were three record stores in Cambridge. The record was $3.50, and they paid me $3. They carried it as a "service to the community"--supporting the local artist. Eventually I raised the price to $3.95.

When the second record came out, 10" records had just disappeared, so I redid the first one as a 12" cause it just seemed easier to. I didn't change the price. There's a nut out in Bloomington, Indiana, who collects all this trivia who keeps asking me, "When did you do this?" and "Why is this mono and this stereo?", and it's kind of interesting, and I go and look all this stuff up.

Because of the record, people heard of me outside of Cambridge, and I started performing, I got the Blue Angel in New York and Storyville here, nothing major, and then I went into the Army for two years, and that allowed the whole thing to spread by itself, without my having to do anything. When I got out of the Army in '57, a lot of people knew about it. There had been a songbook, a little hardcover which is out of print. It had the kind of piano accompaniment I play, which I find out now is called stride piano, octave/chord, and it's messy on the page, whereas now they just put one note in the bass and you do the chords with your right hand.

So I got some offers to do concerts as well as night clubs. At that time there was no such thing as the pop concert circuit. If I had hung on a little longer, the college concert circuit was just breaking with the Kingston Trio and people like that. In my day there was Anna Russell and Victor Borge and me, and that was about it for comedians. Later on, of course, I could have called William Morris and said "book me for six months", but there wasn't anything like that. I did some of that, and then I got tired after a couple of years. So I figured I'll put out the rest of the material I had, and there was enough for the second record, and then I'd quit.

The second record took a little bit longer. It was 1959. I booked some time in RCA Studios in New York and went in. It was more professional. We did it in stereo -- of course I can't tell the difference. I suppose you can with earphones, but it's still just a piano and me. We put out mono and stereo versions and charged a dollar more for the stereo, hoping the market would determine which one people liked better.

We also put out the concert version at the same time, "An Evening Wasted", which was the same songs, also in mono and stereo. People were smart enough to realize the extra dollar wasn't getting them anything more, so the stereos have pretty much disapeared.

The concert was done at Sanders Theater. I figured there were people like me who might want to hear me talking and the audience the first 500 times, but after that would just like to hear the songs. So I gave them the chhoice, but it didn't work -- it sold about 50/50.

We recorded two nights at Sanders, so I had a chance to make mistakes. The cover was taken at the Hanna Theater in Cleveland. It was taken from the back of the balcony, and it showed a lot of people there, and I was thinking maybe some guy was there with somebody other than his wife, and there he is on the cover, and I'd get sued, but nothing happened.

I wanted to do the record where there was a guaranteed friendly audience. We did it for the Harvard Liberal Union. In those days the only way you could get Sanders Theater was to be sponsored by an undergraduate organization. Nowadays, it's big money. A guy named Steve Fassett, who had a studio on Beacon Hill, recorded it. He had recorded a lot of other people around: Music at MIT, classical stuff. We worked on the editing together. It was a change of pace for him, to put it mildly. But he liked the kind of stuff I did, and had a bunch of comic records he had taped off the air. I'm sure he's dead. Everybody else I know is.

Would you ever want to re-record the old records?

I'm quite satisfied with the records. When Warner Bros. put out "That Was the Year that Was", I used that as the bait--to get that, they had to take my earlier records too. I was tired of all that nonsense. I didn't really have to do too much, it was all set up and flowing, but still it was a business. So the deal was that Reprise would re-release them. But they didn't want to release all four. In 1960 I had done the concert version of the first set, "Tom Lehrer Revisited", which was recorded at Kresge Auditorium at MIT. Like an idiot, however, I made half the record from an Australian concert. I think the engineer was drunk, I was told later, and it was just self-indulgence to show that I was a star in Australia. I shouldn't have done that. When Decca in England put out the record they said, "no, we can't do this, we'll use the whole MIT version. "That's what's on the CD now -- it doesn't have any of the Australian stuff. The picture for that was taken at Royal Festival Hall. I'm at the piano and there are those two people sitting in the audience, alone. I like that idea. After the audience left I had a photographer come in, and we took that picture. That was recorded in '59, but released in '60, after I had quit performing.

Warner Bros. didn't want to do all four, so they wanted to do the studio version of the first, but they said the sound wasn't good enough and they wanted to re-record it. Which, like an idiot, I did. First of all, I had to imitate the piano arrangements, which I hadn't done for five years. I had the songbook, but what I really played were mostly head arrangements, and in the book I had wanted to put the melody in the piano part. So I had to listen to it and say, "What was I doing there?" and try to imitate it. Also I changed some of the lyrics, which was wrong, bring them up to date. Fortunately, the new re-released CD has the old versions. I changed the order of the songs, which some people objected to because they were used to hearing one song after the other. So that was another mistake.

But they did that, and they reissued the "Evening Wasted With" album, the concert version of the second set, except that I went back and re-edited that, because there was too much applause and it was too loud. I remember doing that in Los Angeles, at the same time I was editing TWTYTW. I was taking out applause, and of course you can't take it out in the middle, you have to take it out at the peak, so I was cutting out all this wonderful stuff, and the engineer couldn't believe it that I was taking this stuff out and said, "Allan Sherman was here last week, and he made us put in applause." So I said he could have mine. It's tighter, it's about a minute shorter.

The re-release of "Songs of Tom Lehrer" had an orange cover which was done by Eric Martin who did the TWTYTW cover. And it sold okay, and a whole generation of people think that's how it was. The CD [on Reprise] didn't come out until 1990, so for 25 years that was the "Songs by Tom Lehrer" was available.

"An Evening Wasted" was released originally in that fake stereo, and many years later Dr. Demento and NPR said, 'We don't use that because the sound is not so good. We use the English version instead.' This was news to me, because I had never listened to the original stereo LP, and it turned out there was this tremendous echo. Twenty-four years this record had been out, and I had never listened to it. So I called them on that, and they said they would re-master it. They sent me the re-master and it sounded exactly the same, and I said try again. It took a long time, it was this convoluted thing, I guess they didn't rush right into doing it, but eventually they sent me one that sounded fine. So this guy in Indiana, the master of all trivia, tells me the new one is in mono. I can't tell, and I never listened with earphones, but what they apparently did was take the mono and jazz it up with fake stereo, and when I complained they just went back to the mono, so now it sounds the way it used to sound.

So now we have three CDs out: "Tom Lehrer Revisited", which is the complete MIT concert, plus two bonus tracks from the Electric Company which I got them to do, which I was quite pleased about, because I wanted them to be preserved somewhere; "The Evening Wasted", which is mono, but of course now it doesn't say on CDs whether they're mono or stereo -- if it's digital then naturally it's stereo; and "TYTYTW", which was recorded at the hungry i, in stereo in a more professional way with a guy up in the attic twiddling dials. They were all put out on Reprise in 1990. So there was a 25-year interval between Reprise taking over the LPs and issuing the CDs. When Rhino called and asked if they could do the CDs, I said it's okay with me, but you have to get permission from Warner Bros., so I had my agent -- I had an agent at that time -- call Warner Bros., and they said "Oh, what a great idea, we should have thought of that!"

They had done it just in the nick of time, because LPs were fading fast. They did it in their usual way -- I have a feeling these companies have a policy of not employing anybody over the age of 16. 'Cause it's very had to get anything done efficiently. I was very pleased with the whole thing, they eventually got it done. So this revives the old stuff, along with the orchestral versions.

How did the orchestral versions come about?

What happened was in 1960 Unicorn Records, which was Jimmy Stagliano, who played with the Boston Symphony and was also some kind of manager, and Bob Sylvester who ran Unicorn Records as a sideline, decided they could get some kind of single out of this. So they paid for Richard Hayman to arrange four songs for a small orchestra, and I went to a studio in New York and recorded with an orchestra for the first time, which was very strange, because what do you do with your hands? I had never stood still before to sing. My hands were always busy, so I never had to worry about what I was doing with them. Here, I had to put them in my pocket, and it didn't feel right. Like, do you sleep with your beard over the covers or under the covers? But I did it and we ended up with four songs.

I will never forget the day [chuckles, does a take from "Lobachevsky"] when Hayman came in, it was 10 in the morning, a regular union group, and they put the music in front of them, no title, no lyrics, no nothing, and they ran through it a few times and they got it. So he said okay, and I went into the booth to record, and the engineer said "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, take one" and the piano player said "Whaat?" and literally fell off the bench. I had never seen anybody do that. They had no idea. It was just this pleasant little waltz, and they thought it was some commercial or something. And he just collapsed. That was the only time I had ever seen someone just fall off.

That worked out fine, and they put out a single of "Poisoning Pigeons" and "The Masochism Tango", and it sold 8 or 9 copies in the United States, because we couldn't get airplay on it. Whereas in England, where they played it on the BBC, it sold quite well. The other two were never released. I was going through my basement, as is my wont, and found the tape of the four of them, so I sent it to Dr. Demento and told him if he ever wanted to use them... The others are "The Hunting Song" and "We Will All Go Together When We Go". Nothing much is added by the orchestra on those two, but the first two I thought were nice, especially the tango. So he played them and he put two of them on his LPs and The Hunting Song on his "basement tapes", and when Rhino did this they asked if they could do all four, and I said sure. I own all the rights to everything. When Dr. Demento did it, Stagliano was still alive, so I paid him a flat fee to make sure, in case there was any legal thing. I had no idea who owned what, but I assumed he owned the rights to something. So I paid him a flat fee and we settled that.

The other song on the Rhino is "I Got It from Agnes". I never did it in concerts, because it was a "party" song. If you remember Ruth Wallis and Rusty Warren and those people had their own little bin in the record store for party songs, and I didn't want to be in that bin. The Crepitation Contest, that kind of stuff. So I never did it on record. But when Cameron Mackintosh was doing "Tomfoolery" in London in 1980, he asked if I had anything in the trunk he could use, and I dug that out and redid it and made it slightly more sophisticated. I'm quite pleased with it -- it's much better than the original version, I think, it has a better verse and is more tightly packed.

But I had never recorded it, so they asked me if I would record it and I said, okay, I'll try it. So we booked some time at a studio in the Fenway area. They booked several hours, and I said, 'I'm not going to need several hours,' but I did, because there's 64 tracks of this and that, and I decided to do the piano track separately because it would be easier, and I would have to practice too hard to get them both together. But that created another problem, because I had to listen to the earphones and get it together, whereas when I'm at the piano it's automatic. They were pleased with it. I'm amazed my voice hasn't changed that much. Putting them side by side like that is pretty risky, but when I heard them I thought, "That's pretty good." It's a real piano, and they had all these mics all over the place, and they had to try different setups and different mixes, and it took forever to do this one lousy song. It took about three hours. Whereas the first LP, the whole album took an hour. Just setting up takes an hour, just deciding where the mics are going to go, and no, that doesn't work, and the baffles and the things, I don't know. Does the microphone have to be in my nose? Because I was looking at the words, I hadn't memorized them, it had been too long.

So I sent Rhino the whole [multitrack] tape [with multiple takes on different tracks], and I said, okay, you edit it, you decide. We did a mix in Boston that I was happy with, but we sent them the master just in case they changed their mind. But I was very happy with what they did. It's only 2-1/2 minutes, but it's stereo and all that. And it worked out fine. I kind of liked the idea that people know that I'm not only alive, but I can stand up, or sit down at least, and am ambulatory to that extent.

The main thing I'm pleased about when I listen to this is not that these are the gretest songs ever written, but that I'm not embarassed by them. The thing I'm really pleased with is that, since I paid for the initial recordings, and I could have recorded anything I wanted, and I had a whole lot of songs that people said, "Why didn't you record that?", I could have done anything, and years later I would be embarassed by it. Like "I Got it from Sally" [the original version of "Agnes"] -- if I had recorded it, I would be embarassed by it today, because it was so crude. So I am pleased with the fact that I picked those 12 songs. There's a few topical things, little things I would change, but I'm okay with it.

I've made it very clear that "Sally" was written in 1952. And I was glad that Tomfoolery was all over by the time AIDS came in, because now you can't do it. And now most of the people who do Tomfoolery don't do the song. I've heard that somebody did it as an AIDS awareness song, "Be careful, don't do this". I've never seen it done that way.

The "Dope Peddler" obviously has a whole different resonance today. Nobody I knew took dope. Jazz musicians did dope. The reference in "Be Prepared" to reefers -- reefers is kind of cute, kind of folksy, but on the Reprise release I changed it to grass, or pot, which was popular then, but it doesn't resonate as well, and it doesn't scan as well. I was delighted to find that "reefer" is on the live version. It was fun to hear the song in Tomfoolery, not here but in London, the audience would start to laugh when the guy would begin, and then the laugh would gradually die, cause it was a kind of chilly song. It was wonderful. He did it with absolutely no affect, not acting as though this is funny in any way, he's just thinking about this lovely old guy who used to be around the neighborhood, but without any kind of feeling about it. We had to go right to the next song without any applause, because the applause would have been kind of embarassed. You're supposed to applaud because the song is over, but it's like the end of the first act of Cabaret -- you don't know what to do, are you supposed to applaud the Nazis?

In Boston, Rob Fisher, who was the music director, sang it from the piano, and it was the only time he ever sang on stage, and then it would go immediately to the next song. It was something surprising, he wasn't supposed to be an actor, and he did it marvellously, without affect at all, just straight, and as soon as he got through he went right into the intro for the "Vatican Rag", so there was no chance for applause. It was very nice.

So it just keeps going. Who knew? When I think about that -- it's 44 years between the two recordings.

How come you shortened "We Will All Go Together When We Go" on the orchestral version?

The bridge of "We Will All Go Together" was taken out because the song is just too long. It's like 3-1/2 minutes long, and no disc jockey would play that. They wanted to put it on the CD and I said, whatever, just as long as it's at the end so people don't have to listen to it if they don't want to. The "Hunting Song" had the second verse repeated to make it a little longer, and added the gunshots, to try to get a Spike Jones thing out of it.

The songs have raunch by 1950s standards, perhaps, but nowadays everything is so explicit. I was trying to be a little subtle, not like Redd Foxx or Rusty Warren and all that. Just a little suggestive here and there. I wouldn't have thought of it as raunch, but I guess by '50s standards....Some people did say, oh you can't play those naughty songs, or those dirty songs. I remember playing Storyville Cape Cod one summer, they had posters put in all the merchants' windows for who was coming each week, and there was one store that wouldn't put up the poster of me. They took all the others, but they thought my songs were dirty.

I didn't think they were dirty, compared to all those party songs like "The Postman Has the Longest Route in Town" or "She's Got the Biggest Kanakas in Hawaii". I wrote songs like that too, just for fun, but I would never record them or perform them. They were influences in these sense of what not to do. It was definitely just to be suggestive -- there's that line in "My Home Town", about Parson Brown. There was nothing I could do there to be suggestive. I could come right out and say something, but that wouldn't be funny to me, but I couldn't find anything that was just suggestive enough, so I just left it out. And fortunately, since there were restrictions at that time, it made sense to say "I got to leave this out", where today it wouldn't make any sense: "What could it possibly be that he can't say?" We have to know that it was 1953.

When I made the second record, I wanted to make sure that I would not be accused of raunchy songs. So there's almost no reference to anything sexual on the second record, unless you count "Oedipus Rex". "She's My Girl" has a little, maybe, and there's a couple of lines about the backseat of our roommate's Chevrolet [in "Bright College Days"], but I didn't want to have any songs about sex, so people couldn't accuse me of writing dirty songs, the way they said I wrote those "sick" songs. On the first record I'd say there were two I could call sick, and there were little parts of others. That was the identification: Time magazine had a thing about the sick comics, Lenny Bruce, me. Whereas now...it's really hard to be sick. You can be offensive, God knows.

Among the influences I hear in your music are the Marx Brothers.

I loved the Marx Brothers, still do, and certainly "Lydia The Tattoed Lady" was something I would admire as being a comparatively sophisticated song. Just slightly raunchy. I heard Groucho Marx talking about that.....and at the end he's in command of the fleet, and he married Lydia, which made it all right. She can seduce him, but when the guy marries her it's okay. That song particularly, but I wouldn't think so...who knows, maybe an unconscious influence.

What do you hear today that you like?

I don't keep up with things today. There are little bits of things. John Forster has several things, but there's no whole record that I wholeheartedly embrace. Forster's take on Paul Simon ["Fusion" on the album "Entering Marion"--Ed.] is so wonderful, "Remember who's the genius here." He has a whole sense of music, with the orchstrations and the sound effects which I never aspired to. He has fun with music, too, which is very hard to do.

Every now and then I hear a song -- Andy Breckman, Christine Lavin have a few good things. I try -- any time I hear anybody say, "oh, you gotta hear so and so", I rush out and get it. [Pulls out "Funny Folk Songs" CD] I saw this at Tower Records. It was some kind of concert with all these people doing one song, showing off. Some of them are quite funny. Lou and Peter Berryman have some funny songs. There are a lot of people who have some funny songs.

One of the distinctions, if I may toot my own horn, is that most of these songs are not interesting enough, in terms of craftsmanship, they're not shored up with rhymes and musical hooks, things to make it interesting, that you'd want to hear it more than twice. That's the problem with a lot of these things. Whereas Flanders and Swann, people like that, I would listen to over and over again. Or Sondheim, or Sheldon Harnick, who write sophisticated songs. Some of these have funny ideas, and you laugh uproariously the first time, and a little the second time, but then they're not clever enough to quote the lines. You can see them in front of an audience who've never heard the songs, they think they're very funny, as I did when I first heard them, but a lot of them don't hold up. Sondheim does witty songs in his shows and so do several others, Kander and Ebb, and so on.

When I look back on the past 40 years and think of funny songwriters, I have a large collection of funny LPs of people who, right after me, were inspired to do the same thing, but all those people -- Bob Peck, Ann Soulé, Paul Winter, Elliot Lee Hoffman, people nobody has ever heard of. There's this guy Ronald Smith who writes these books, Who's Who in Comedy and stuff, and he names all these people, and I wrote him saying I can't believe that anybody else has these records except me. There were lots of them, but very few people I can think of, if any, with records of funny songs that got anywhere. There's Weird Al Yankovic, but that's parody. There are comedy records, God knows.

I mostly listen to show tunes, and that kind of stuff, stuff with sophistication. Unfortunately, I don't really get the lyrics of most pop tunes. People tell me I should listen to, say, Steely Dan, so I really try, and then I have to read the lyrics, but then I say, "But I really don't understand what that means." So even the people that I like, like Paul Simon, I don't understand a lot of the lyrics, and I can't really get into it the way I can other things. I don't appreciate poetry--I don't mind admitting that now, I don't understand poetry. We studied it in high school and college, but they never told us why it was good. I got A's on all the exams--"Hail to thee blithe spirit, bird thou never wert"-- what the hell does that mean? I have no idea. So I don't appreciate poetic lyrics. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I think that they may be great and they're wonderful for those who can get it, but I don't. I appreciate Randy Newman, and people like that who are more accessible.

I can't think of many musical records in the past 20 years that are really funny. For two years, [1959-60] the Grammys had two comedy categories: comedy musical, and comedy non-musical. I was even nominated once [in 1960]. After that they're weren't enough musical ones to have a separate category. In fact, there weren't even then. I was beaten by Jonathan and Darlene Edwards who I think were worthy to beat me, but one of the other nominees was Alvin and the Chipmunks, and I would have felt terrible if I had been beaten by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Now it's Peter Schickele, and that's about it. I've never met him.

Comedy Central just put out a book about comedy, and they say that they're still making comedy records, but they're not selling and not as influential as videos, and the proof of this is that the Grammy Awards for comedy music are dominated by Peter Schickele. They still have comedy records, but Andrew Dice Clay and Dennis Miller certainly don't sell the way that Bob Newhart and Shelley Berman and people like that sold.

I love to talk. Barney Frank was quoted in the paper the other day, and someone asked him why he spoke so fast, and he said, I always find it more interesting when I'm speaking than when I'm listening. I don't mind a chance to spout off. Since it's professional, it's not just for myself, tooting my own horn is part of the deal. As long as I can get away with it, I'd rather talk about me than Princess Diana.

You're going to be 70 next year.

Isn't that amazing? Nobody's more surprised than I am. Can't lie. Subtraction doesn't lie. I'm kind of looking forward to that, cause 69, 68 is so boring. If you say, "I'm 70," people say, "Wow". It was like my mother would introduce me as her son, then she would wait for them to say, "I don't believe that you have a son this old," and if they didn't say that she would be very disappointed. So if I say, "I'm 70" and they say, "Oh, really? I would have thought you were 75," then I'll know it's too late.

I'm cutting down [teaching] at [UC] Santa Cruz over the years. This winter I'm just going to do a math course. I'm doing a three-unit, as opposed to five-unit course on infinity, which I've never done before. I'm planning to study like crazy. It's for non-math majors. I'm trying to bring in the fact that infinity is when things get complicated. In calculus, algebra, probability, geometry, everything, so I'm trying to learn things like how perspective drawing uses infinity. So that'll take me three months. They won't appreciate it, but I will. I'll have fun with it. I've been teaching a course for non-mathematicians for years, and a lot of the stuff has already been covered there.

I don't do the musical theater course any more. The interest in that seems to have declined. It became extracurricular, non-credit. Nowadays there are so many course requirements, and people's eyes are on their careers and they have jobs, so it's, "I can't come Saturday, or Thursday night". In the old days, people went to college to have fun. Especially Santa Cruz. So they were glad to do it. But now you have to give them course credit.

But I was also trying to introduce the undergraduate audience to some of this stuff, even at this primitive level of just readings [of shows]. But it turned out as the years went by, the old folks from downtown would come up, by the busload, and take all the good seats. They were a wonderful audience, because they remembered all the shows, and laughed at all the dated jokes, but it wasn't the audience that I had in mind, and the students didn't come in great numbers. So it was a combination of these two and the fact that it was a lot of work. So if there were a great groundswell, I might consider reviving it, but so far there hasn't been.

Thank God no one has gone from there to a Broadway career. I live in dread of that, although now actually it doesn't matter, but I wouldn't want someone to say they got their start with me, because they'd come out in droves. Actually, one of my students, Rona Figueroa, later became one of the Miss Saigons on Broadway for a couple of years. It had nothing to do with me. She was totally marvelous. One of the things I loved about it was when I asked her if she was a theater major, she said no, I wouldn't go over there, I don't believe in any of that stuff. I was so pleased because she was head and shoulders above all the theater majors in terms of natural talent. She sang in a rock band, and she was gorgeous, she could act and she could sing, just because she could do it. And the stuff over there where they're doing these exercises, these really serious people -- "now tell us your most embarassing experience," "pretend you're a tiger," -- oh God.

What question has nobody asked you that you want to have asked?

The answer is, "What question...?" No, those are too easy. If there is something I want to talk about, I can usually work it in. I learned that from being on the talk shows. Don't answer their questions, bring in your own.

I told Rhino [I would give interviews for] four months, until Labor Day, with an extension in your case. I figured that launches the record, and I don't think it's going to help to do any more. I wanted to support the record as much as possible. I did an hour on Chris Lydon [NPR's "The Connection"] about popular song. The idea wasn't just to plug the record -- we plugged the record plenty, but the idea was to discuss comic lyrics and stuff like that. It went over so well that he asked me to do another hour sometime, but that won't be specifically for the record.

I don't do television. Absolutely. It's an invasion of privacy, for one thing, because I don't like to be recognized on the street. If you get your picture in the paper it doesn't matter -- two days later nobody remembers -- thank God. The other thing is, on television I'm not in control. On radio, I can have my notes in front of me, I don't have to shave, I don't have to worry if there's spinach on my teeth or which camera's on me, that kind of stuff, we can just talk. Also there isn't the time restriction there is on television. There is time restriction, but usually it's taped, and then they edit it down, whereas on television it's there. I wouldn't want to perform on television -- I don't really come across at all. I've seen myself enough times. A serendipitous thing is the two times I was on Johnny Carson, the tape was erased and re-used. In those days they didn't keep it. This was confirmed when he had one of his anniversary shows, he said, "You notice there are no tapes, no examples from these years, and the reason is..." So I'm grateful. I was on Carson twice, I did all the talk shows: Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, all the television that they wanted. I was on once with Carson and once with Bob Newhart as guest host. They never asked me back.

I said something that in retrospect, I'm glad I said it, but it didn't come out the way I meant it. It was during the Vietnam War -- they asked me about the campus I was on, I was teaching at MIT at the time, and I said that the main difference from the old days was that for the male students, the thing uppermost in their minds was to dodge the draft. And I said, it wasn't true during World War II, but in those days we were on the right side. What I meant to convey was that there was no right side this time, but I was told that the audience reaction was kind of cold. The host didn't pick up on it. He didn't say anything, we went right on with the conversation. I was very pleased in retrospect that I had said that, even though it didn't quite come out the way I wanted. That may have been one of the reasons why they didn't ask me back.

I remember when Richard Pryor said something about how in South Africa, all the black people should pick up guns and kill all the white people, and they went right on with the interview, and nobody stopped him on that. "Oh good old Richard, what a card." As long as you're billed as a comedian, I guess you can say anything.

Copyright 1997, Paul D. Lehrman. All rights reserved.


Click here to go to Rhino's site for information on the new CD, as well as a transcript of an on-line chat with Tom Lehrer.