Lehrer is best known for the pithy, humorous songs he recorded in the 1950s and 60s. His work often parodied popular song forms, notably in "The Elements", where he sets the names of the chemical elements to the tune of the "Major-General's Song" from Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance. Lehrer's earlier work frequently dealt with trivial subject matter, but he also produced a number of songs dealing with the social and political issues of the day, particularly when he went on to write for the TV show That Was The Week That Was.
Before attending college, Lehrer graduated from the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut. As an undergraduate student at Harvard University, studying mathematics, he began to write comic songs to entertain his friends, including "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" (1945). Those songs later became The Physical Revue, a joking reference to a leading scientific journal, The Physical Review.
Inspired by the success of his performances of his own songs, he paid for some studio time to record Songs by Tom Lehrer. Radio stations at the time would not give Lehrer radio time due to the highly controversial subjects he sang about. Instead he sold his album on campus at Harvard for $3, while "supportive record merchants and dorm newsstands bought copies…and marked them up 50 cents." After one summer, he also started to receive mail orders from all over the country (as far as San Francisco after The Chronicle wrote an article on the record). Over the summer friends and supporters brought their records home and played it for their friends who then also wanted a copy of the record.
Self-published and unpromoted, the album — which included the macabre "I Hold Your Hand in Mine", the mildly risqué "Be Prepared", and "Lobachevsky" (a riposte of plagiarizing mathematicians) — became a cult success via word of mouth. Lehrer then embarked on a series of concert tours and recorded a second album, which was released in two versions: the songs were the same but More Songs by Tom Lehrer was studio-recorded, while An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer was recorded live in concert.
Lehrer's major breakthrough in the United Kingdom came as a result of the citation accompanying an honorary degree given to Princess Margaret, where she cited musical tastes as "catholic, ranging from Mozart to Tom Lehrer". This prompted significant interest in his works, and helped secure distributors for his material. It was in the UK where his music achieved real popularity, due to the proliferation of university newspapers referring to the material, and the willingness of the BBC to play his songs on the radio (something that was a rarity in the USA).
By the early 1960s, Lehrer had retired from touring (which he intensely disliked) and was employed as the resident songwriter for the U.S. edition of That Was The Week That Was (TW3), a satirical TV show. An increased proportion of his output became overtly political, or at least topical, on subjects such as education ("New Math"), the Second Vatican Council ("The Vatican Rag"), race relations ("National Brotherhood Week"), air and water pollution ("Pollution"), American militarism ("Send the Marines"), World War III, "pre-nostalgia" ("So Long, Mom", premiered by Steve Allen), and nuclear proliferation ("Who's Next?" and "MLF Lullaby"). He also wrote a song that famously satirized the alleged amorality of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. (" 'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department', says Wernher von Braun.") Lehrer did not appear on the television show himself (his songs were performed by a female vocalist), and his lyrics were often altered by the network censors. Lehrer would later perform the songs himself on the album, That Was The Year That Was, so that, in his words, people could hear the songs the way they were intended to be heard.
The record deal with Reprise Records for the That Was The Year That Was album also gave Reprise distribution rights for Lehrer's earlier recordings, as Lehrer wanted to shut down his own Lehrer Records. The Reprise issue of Songs by Tom Lehrer was a stereo re-recording. This version was not issued on CD, but the songs were issued on the live Tom Lehrer Revisited CD instead. "The live [recording] also included bonus tracks 'L-Y' and 'Silent E,' which Lehrer wrote for the PBS children's educational series ‘The Electric Company.’" Lehrer later commented that worldwide sales of the recordings under Reprise surpassed 1.8 million units in 1996. On that same year, the album "That Was The Year That Was" went gold.
When asked about his reasons for abandoning his musical career, he cited (in an interview in the 2000 CD box set's accompanying book) a simple lack of interest, a distaste for touring, and boredom with performing the same songs repeatedly. He observed that when he was moved to write and perform songs he did; when he wasn't he didn't; and after a while the latter situation prevailed. It has frequently been observed that, though many of Lehrer's songs satirized the Cold War political establishment of the era, he stopped writing and performing just as the 1960s counterculture movement gained momentum.
Lehrer's musical career was notably brief: in an interview in the late 1990s, he pointed out that he had performed a mere 109 shows and written 37 songs over 20 years. Nevertheless, he developed a significant cult following both in the U.S. and abroad.
On June 7/June 8 1998, Lehrer performed in public for the first time in 25 years at the Lyceum Theatre, London as part of the gala show Hey, Mr. Producer! celebrating the career of impresario Cameron Mackintosh (who had been the producer of Tom Foolery). The June 8 show was his only performance before Queen Elizabeth II. Lehrer sang "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" and an updated version of the nuclear proliferation song "Who's Next". The DVD of the event includes the former song.
In 2000, a CD box set, The Remains of Tom Lehrer, was released by Rhino Entertainment. It included live and studio versions of his first two albums, That Was The Year That Was, the songs he wrote for The Electric Company, and some previously unreleased material, accompanied by a small hardbound book containing an introduction by Dr. Demento and lyrics to all the songs.
He remained in Harvard's doctoral program for several years, taking time out for his musical career and to work as a researcher at Los Alamos, New Mexico. He joined the Army from 1955 to 1957, working at the National Security Agency. (Lehrer has stated that he invented the Bartending/Cocktails/Glossary#J during this time, as a means of circumventing liquor restrictions. ) All of these experiences eventually became fodder for songs: "Fight Fiercely, Harvard", "The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be" and "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier", respectively. There was perhaps some truth to his comment in the intro to the latter song, in which he said he had left the Army and was now in the "Radioactive Reserve".
In 1960, Lehrer returned to full-time studies at Harvard, however, he never completed his doctoral studies and never received a PhD in mathematics. From 1962, he taught in the Political Science department at MIT. In 1972, he joined the faculty of the University of California, Santa Cruz, teaching an introductory course entitled "The Nature of Mathematics" to liberal-arts majors — "Math for Tenors", according to Lehrer. He also taught a class in musical theater. He occasionally performed songs in his lectures, primarily those relating to the topic.
In 2001, Lehrer taught his last math class (on the topic of Infinity) and retired from academia. He has remained in the area, and still "hangs out" around the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Lehrer has commented that he doubts his songs had any real effect on those not already critical of the establishment: "I don't think this kind of thing has an impact on the unconverted, frankly. It's not even preaching to the converted; it's titillating the converted... I'm fond of quoting Peter Cook, who talked about the satirical Berlin cabarets of the '30s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War."
In 2003 he commented that his particular brand of political satire is more difficult in the modern world: "The real issues I don't think most people touch. The Clinton jokes are all about Monica Lewinsky and all that stuff and not about the important things, like the fact that he wouldn't ban landmines... I'm not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn't figure out what sort of song I would write. That's the problem: I don't want to satirise George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them." In a phone call to Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post in February 2008, Lehrer instructed Weingarten to "Just tell the people that I am voting for Obama.
A play called Letters from Lehrer was written by Canadian Richard Greenblatt, and performed by him at CanStage, from January 16 to February 25 2006. It follows Lehrer's musical career, the meaning of several songs, the politics of the time, and Greenblatt's own experiences with Lehrer's music, while playing some of Lehrer's songs. There are currently no plans for more performances, although low-quality audio recordings have begun to circulate around the net.
Lehrer was praised by Dr. Demento as "the best musical satirist of the 20th Century". Other artists who cite Lehrer as an influence include "Weird Al" Yankovic, whose work generally addresses more popular and less technical or political subjects. More stylistically influenced performers include American political satirist Mark Russell, and the British duo Kit and The Widow.
Many Lehrer songs are also performed (but not by Lehrer) in That Was The Week That Was (1981)
The sheet music to many of Lehrer's songs is published in Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer (Pantheon, 1981, ISBN 0-394-74930-8).