‘Better Call Saul’ Made the Best Call of All: Tom Lehrer

Dire warning: Contains major spoiler about incidental music in episode of Better Call Saul that aired a week ago.

When AMC’s Better Call Saul returns at 9 p.m. ET Monday for the fourth episode of its fourth season, here’s what it would have to do to top the peak moment in last week’s third episode.

Better Call Saul would have to raid AMC’s Mad Men archives and have Bryan Cranston’s Walter White lead the mountaintop chorus singing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.”

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David Costabile as Gale Boetticher.

That might come close to matching what happened last week on Saul, when chemist Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) tripped lightly through his lab singing the song “The Elements.”

Key point: “The Elements” was written by Tom Lehrer.

Tom Lehrer.

Dude, Tom Lehrer.

One of the finest musical satirists of the 20th century. And, okay, one of the most reluctant.

That Better Call Saul creator Vince Gilligan plucked a Lehrer song confirms, again, that Gilligan is to music selection what Walter White was to cooking meth. Top of his class.

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So was Lehrer, who hung up his piano and ducked out of the public spotlight decades ago. He turned 90 earlier this year and if there is a God, a proposition about which Lehrer has in the past suggested he is unsure, he’s reclining in a comfortable chair in Santa Cruz, looking at the ocean and listening to “My Fair Lady.” He owes us nothing more.

Lehrer didn’t set out to be a social satirist. He was a boy genius who entered Harvard at 15 with a particular talent for mathematics.

He also had a fondness for great American popular songs, in genres from musical theater to light opera, and around 1945 he began writing satiric songs to amuse his fellow Harvard students. A fellow’s got to do something to fill all that downtime at Harvard.

His first songs were along the lines of “Fight Fiercely, Harvard,” which satirized bloodthirsty college fight songs by imploring the gentlemen of Harvard to seek victory in a genteel way befitting the traditions of their socio-economic class.

As a song, it echoed previous sardonic works like Noel Coward’s “Let’s Not Be Beastly to the Germans,” and that musical lineage is a point sometimes lost when people admire Lehrer.

During a 1981 interview about Tomfoolery, a Lehrer revue that had a long run in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1980s, Lehrer explained that his early work often started with parodying songs, or musical styles, rather than primarily aiming to make a lyrical point.

He wrote a lot of songs back then, he added in that interview, “and most of them weren’t very good. . . . People still prod me to play ‘some of the ones you didn’t record’ and when I break down and do it, I finish and everyone agrees, yeah, that wasn’t very good.”

Gradually, though, he built up a repertoire that was very good, sometimes with a dark and macabre edge to the humor.

In the spirit of happy songs rhapsodizing about nature, he wrote “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” In the spirit of ultra-sentimental love songs, he wrote “I Hold Your Hand In Mine,” wherein the hand held by the lovelorn swain has been separated from the rest of his love.

Some critics called his work shocking and tasteless. Unlike them, Lehrer said, he took no offense.

Besides, many of the songs weren’t bloodthirsty. Just funny. “She’s My Girl” professed undying love for a woman “with nothing whatsoever to recommend her.” “It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be A Soldier” is the unhinged and hilarious descendant of Johnny Mercer’s “G.I. Jive.”

It was 1953 before Lehrer had a dozen songs he considered worth recording. So he went into a studio, cut them and pressed 400 copies of a 10-inch LP for his friends. He also went on the road between graduate studies at Harvard, until around 1960 he got tired of playing the same stuff every night and stopped. In 1962 he took a job teaching mathematics at MIT.

Two years later he got a call asking him to write songs for a new weekly TV satire called That Was The Week That Was, or TW3 for short.

So he did. Not a lot of songs, naturally, just maybe a dozen or so. Quality over quantity.

Some were timeless, like “Pollution” or the Cold War rumination “So Long Mom,” a song he later introduced by saying, “If any songs are going to come out of World War III, we’d better start writing them now.”

Lehrer didn’t perform those songs on the show. They were sung by Nancy Ames, whose renditions drove Lehrer nuts. His capsule review: “She had no idea. She butchered them.”

He went back on stage, he said, “so people would know how the songs were supposed to sound.”

Also so people would know what they were supposed to say. NBC diluted a number of his lyrics and flat-out vetoed others. Lehrer later allowed that he wasn’t altogether shocked when NBC heard a song like “The Vatican Rag” and expressed concern over lines like “Ave Maria / Gee it’s good to see ya.”

Some of the TW3 songs today play as historical footnotes rather than headlines: the election of movie dancer George Murphy to the U.S. Senate, the MLF (Multi-Lateral Force) nuclear treaty, the frustration of liberals with Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Still, the songs are stuffed with great lines, even in lesser numbers like “The Folksong Army” and “Smut.”

Lehrer never formally retired from songwriting. He did a bunch of delightful songs for Sesame Street, like “Silent E.” He did, however, stop writing topical and parody songs.

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I did that for a while and now I don’t, he said in 1981, and besides, the world seemed more black-and-white a few decades ago. As the real world got more absurd, satire got harder. He didn’t hear a lot of satire that was very good, he said, and his muse could offer anything better.

That said, he liked Tomfoolery and he was happy to have his old songs live even as he moved on. Starting in 1972 he settled into the University of California Santa Cruz, where he taught mathematics and musical theater.

By which, he emphasized, he meant the golden age of the ’40s and ’50s, not the later lesser stuff.

He avoided interviews whenever possible, though he was cordial when he had no choice, and he’s been only an occasional whisper in the wind since he retired from Santa Cruz in 2001.

It’s anybody’s guess whether he watched Better Call Saul last Monday, considering his Nancy Ames experience. If he did, it probably worked out. “The Elements” requires little interpretation, since the lyrics simply list the elements, and Gale Boetticher seemed to be singing along with Lehrer’s own recording.

Gale, for the record, was a relatively minor yet critical character in Breaking Bad. Better Call Saul, as a prequel, fills in some backstory.

In some ways he’s an oddly innocent anomaly in a Machiavellian world, a science geek who sings along with quirky songs while he works.

“The Elements” qualifies as quirky. And if Vince Gilligan has any quirky song slots left in Better Call Saul, he probably knows Lehrer also wrote a catchy little ditty called “The Old Dope Peddler.”

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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