Opinion: Comedian Adam Kay On The Genius of Tom Lehrer

Editor's note: When Adam Kay performs he usually does smutty songs he has written himself, but later this month – details below – he is doing a show celebrating the work of Tom Lehrer. Beyond The Joke invited Kay to shed a little more light on Mr Lehrer.

Every so often I find myself interviewed by journalists – generally because some show I’ve written on is starting on TV and all the actors are busy – and I get asked the same fucking bunch of questions. (Except by the excellent Bruce Dessau though I’m sure.)

You used to be doctor – why did you change career? (I was a gynaecologist and it was totally disgusting.)

How did you get into sitcom writing? (Nepotism)

Who are your comedy influences? (Tom Lehrer)

And over the last decade of answering the same fucking bunch of questions, I’ve noticed that fewer and fewer journalists have heard of Tom Lehrer (except the excellent Bruce Dessau though I’m sure). And it wasn’t just journalists. When I started to ask normal members of society Lehrer seemed to have drifted off the collective cultural radar. 

And so I did what any egocentric performer with access to West End theatres would do in the situation – I decided to put on a show about him. Here are some fun Lehrer facts for you.

  • Tom Lehrer is the greatest musical comedian of all time.
  • He was born in 1928 and is still kicking around at the age of 88. (Or was certainly when I typed this – 2016’s not a good year to be old and famous-ish.)
  • He went to Harvard when he was fifteen – which is pretty impressive. I went to Laserquest when I was fifteen. 
  • When he was at Harvard in 1953, he self-produced and pressed 400 copies of an album of songs called “Songs by Tom Lehrer” and sold them for $3.50 each. It went on to sell millions of copies, and copies of the original pressing of 400 now sell on eBay for upwards of $8. 
  • He wrote The Elements song, which some annoying kid in your class memorised and would perform at any given opportunity. In my class it was me. In Daniel Radcliffe’s class it was Daniel Radcliffe.
  • Lehrer was conscripted into the army, and during his time there he invented vodka jelly. That sounds completely made up, but isn’t. 
  • After his stint in the army, he released a second album which The New York Times reviewed, saying “Mr Lehrer’s muse is not fettered by such inhibitory factors as taste”. He toured the album to Australia in the early 1960s – where his show was first censored, then banned, then finally he was threatened with arrest. 
  • He performed in front of the royal family, and afterwards Prince Philip shook his hand and said he’d always enjoyed listening to “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”. Lehrer asked if the Queen liked it too. “Oh, she thinks it’s horrid. She leaves the room if we put it on”.  
  • Less than a year after his second album was released, at the height of his fame, and having only performed 109 gigs in his career, Tom Lehrer decided to quit performing forever. Brilliantly, he decided this in the middle of a performance at the Town Hall in New York. I know the feeling well. 
  • In his retirement from comedy, he spent six months of the year teaching a maths course at Harvard on the concept of infinity, and six months teaching musical theatre at the University of California. If I was a retired 30 year old millionaire I’d probably be living on an island surrounded by Mojitos and rent boys, but each to their own. 
  • In the 1980s Cameron Mackintosh produced a West End show “Tomfoolery” based on Lehrer’s songs. Tom later said, “Mr Mackintosh is now a very rich man – thanks to the combined profits of Tomfoolery and Cats”. 

To fall in love with his comedy though, there’s no substitute for listening to him perform. But as he hasn’t performed since before you were born, you’ll have to make do with a substitute – and that’s me performing his songs at the Ambassadors Theatre on 19th April. (NB I performed a sell-out run of this show at St James Theatre last year, so you’re not being experimented on.) 

It’s the perfect introduction to anyone who doesn’t know his work, and hopefully a treat for hardcore Lehrer fans too (including some never-heard-before songs of his). See you at the bar. 

The Remains of Tom Lehrer (Performed by Adam Kay)

Ambassadors Theatre, West Street, London WC2H 9ND

Tuesday April 19th, 8pm

Tickets and full details here. 

Picture by Idil Sukan.

Watch Tom Lehrer in action doing the Masochism Tango here.


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