The first real break in the cultural conformity of the early 1950s came from comedians, and the first of those to reach a national stage was Harvard mathematician Tom Lehrer.
Lehrer came to my attention during winter break, 1953. I was home from college and my brother was back from Harvard graduate school. He told us about this extraordinary instructor of mathematics with a wicked sense of humor who George had seen at various Harvard parties.
Lehrer was about to become known nationally because of the long-playing record, a new invention that started to sell in quantity in 1953. It was made of durable vinyl, was light weight and could be dropped without breaking (unlike the old 78’s). I still recall (with horror) a friend skidding his first LP’s across the floor to show how tough it was. (The LP still played with lots of scratches.)
Long playing records held a full hour of vastly superior sounding audio and “High Fidelity” became the buzz. Equipment to play the new recordings was available in kit form. Even students could afford a system. Kids began to have music in their bedrooms and thus could make their own choices about what they listened to in a way never before possible. The light LP’s could be mailed around the country or hauled from home to college, from dorm to off-campus apartments. New sounds traveled quickly even if they weren’t played on the radio.
Lehrer’s lyrics were shocking and would never be played on any radio. I didn’t include a song for fear of copyright violation, but there’s a very funny video on youtube of Lehrer performing before a somewhat baffled Danish audience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHPmRJIoc2k
Lehrer’s Boy Scout song is a catalogue of shattered myths: boy scouts are drinkers, dope smokers and hypocrites who would sell their sisters for a good price and ought to carry condoms for spontaneous sex! I couldn’t find his boy scout song on the Danish concert, but its worth listening to. Lehrer urges the boys “to Be prepared! … Be prepared to hold your liquor pretty well, Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell. … Don’t make book if you cannot cover bets. Keep those reefers hidden where you’re sure, That they will not be found.”
Figuring he could sell at least 300 copies, Lehrer recorded one of his performances and issued his own LP in 1953. After several months of local sales, Lehrer began getting orders from all over the county as Cambridge college students like my brother shared the album with family and friends.
Lehrer was tweaking noses. In “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie” he sings of “old times there are not forgotten, whipping slaves and plantin’ cotton, and waiting for the Robert E. Lee.” The old “Dope Peddler” “spread joy wherever he went” and in Wernher Von Braun, the former Nazi rocket scientist who used slave labor to build the V2’s that attacked London, Lehrer comments, “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down, that’s not my department, says Werner Von Braun.” Everything was up for mocking from America’s handicapped to the wild West where atomic testing made the scenery “attatractive and the air radioactive in the land of the old AEC.”
Lehrer’s humor was sophomoric wise cracking, just what the Society of Cynics would have liked to pull off. It was still Marlon Brando in The Wild One, rebelling against “… what have you got?”
But then Lehrer was just the beginning of a remarkable comic revival.