It’s said humor is tragedy revisited, like slipping on a banana peel or getting your foot stuck in metal bucket. It’s not very funny while it happens, but gets funnier when retold or remembered. I keep trying to find the humor in everyday tragedy, something I learned early in life from Tom Lehrer, a humorist/performer of the 1950s and 60s.
I actually spent time with Tom Lehrer at summer camp in Maine. He had been a Camp Androscoggin camper himself, and returned each summer for a week or two as a guest counselor to organize a theatrical production. He was an irrepressibly gregarious fellow filled with energy and enthusiasm sporting a full head of curly hair and dark tortoise shell glasses. When I was eleven years old he spent two weeks that summer bunking in my cabin, and it was a blast. Performing in one of his musical productions was even better; we spent most of the time singing his crazy songs about camp and laughing our juvenile asses off.
The truth was Androscoggin was no barrel of laughs; its military-style approach to summer camp was tough on boys who could not find some niche in which to lead. Luckily for me, humor was my niche, and I took refuge in making kids and counselors laugh. Inside I was not very happy; too fat, too sensitive, too artistic to be a big shot. But like Tom Lehrer I knew how to entertain, and for two weeks in the summer of 1959 we were quite the team.
Tom Lehrer recorded several hit records of his quirky and often outrageous songs. “The Vatican Rag” punctured religion, “Rickety Tickety Tin” explored serial murder, “My Home Town” mocked small-town life, and “The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be” poked fun at atomic bombs. Dealing with tough subjects through musical satire taught me that humor can be intelligent; Lehrer’s recitation of the periodic table in “The Elements” is nothing short of genius. When not a guest counselor, Lehrer spent his year teaching mathematics at Harvard. Having graduated magna cum laude from college at the age of nineteen, he spent time working at Los Alamos, NM (birthplace of the Atom Bomb) which most probably inspired his anti-nuclear lyrics, “I will put on a sombrero and of course I’ll wear a pair ‘o Levi’s over my lead BVDs.”
By the time I was twelve, Mad Magazine’s irreverence thoroughly permeated my view of the world. It’s Lehreresque satire poked fun at politics, political correctness, sexuality, work, advertising, social success and failure. Everything was a target, and today’s Onion, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, not to mention Saturday Night Live, are all legacies of the blossoming of satire in the 1960s.
Perhaps it was the specter of The Bomb which unhinged and refastened comedy from slapstick to satire. World-wide destruction of life on earth may have been a fantasy for most of human history, but it arose as a true possibility after 1945. In the light of nuclear war, what else can you do but laugh? “We’ll all go together, you and I” sang Lehrer, “We’ll be French fries together, by and by.”
Little did he know that hydrogenated vegetable oil and French fries would kill us just the same.