Some True Words Spoken In Jest
For those of us who grew up memorizing every word —indeed, every inflection— on Tom Lehrer’s LPs, the name and accomplishments of the late doctor Samuel Gall are as familiar (and as funny) today as they were the first time we heard them on An Evening (Wasted) with Tom Lehrer back in 1959.
For the brief shining window of a few years in the late ’50s, the Harvard math whiz and erstwhile professor became the embodiment of hyper cool snark — almost half a century before snark was even invented by Wonkette. Talk about being ahead of one’s time.
Tom Lehrer described Dr. Gall to his audience:
Now, I’m sure you’re all aware that this week is national gall-bladder week. So as sort of an educational feature at this point I thought I would acquaint you with some of the results of my recent researches into the career of the late doctor Samuel Gall, inventor of the gall-bladder — which certainly ranks as one of the more important technological advances since the invention of the joy-buzzer and the dribble-glass.
Doctor Gall’s faith in his invention was so dramatically vindicated last year, as you no doubt recall, when, for the first time in history, in a nation-wide poll the gall-bladder was voted among the top ten organs.
His educational career began interestingly enough in agricultural school, where he majored in animal husbandry, until they caught him at it one day.
Whereupon he switched to the field of medicine in which field he also won renown as the inventor of gargling, which prior to that time had been practiced only furtively by a remote tribe in the Andes who passed the secret down from father to son as part of their oral tradition.
He soon became a specialist, specializing in diseases of the rich. He was therefore able to retire at an early age.
Now it appears that Mr. Lehrer was as good a prophet as he was a comic. In yesterday’s New York Times, Eric Konigsberg writes at some length about the new psychiatric/psychoanalytical medical specialty.
After enjoying great popularity in the UK during the mid-1960s as part of David Frost’s team on TW3, Tom Lehrer pretty much retired from the entertainment scene and concentrated on teaching at such places as Harvard, MIT, and Wellesley. Although it is apparently true that he said awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger in 1973 made political satire obsolete, it isn’t true that that was the reason for his withdrawal from the comedy scene.
Some examples of prime Lehreriana are his songs about the user-friendly liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council (“The Vatican Rag”), the pieties of “National Brotherhood Week“, and the controversy over making Germany part of the multilateral force (MLF) with its nuclear capability (“MLF Lullaby”). And, of course, there was the Ur song in which he set the Table of Periodic Elements to Gilbert and Sullivan.