As a graduate student at Harvard University he began to write comic songs to entertain his friends, and those songs later became The Physical Revue. Influenced mainly by the musical theater, his style consisted of parodying the then-current forms of popular song. For example, his appreciation of list songs (à la Danny Kaye's "Tchaikovsky") caused him to popularize the periodic table of the chemical elements sung to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Major General's Song".
Inspired by the success of his performances of his songs, he paid for some studio time to record an album, Songs by Tom Lehrer, which he sold by mail order. Unpromoted, the album, which included the macabre ("I Hold Your Hand In Mine"), the lewd ("Be Prepared"), the unusual ("The Elements"), and the mathematical ("Lobachevsky"), became a success via word of mouth. With a cult hit, he embarked on a series of concert tours and released a second album, which came in two versions: More Songs by Tom Lehrer was studio-recorded, and An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer was recorded live in concert.
Allan Sherman also wrote songs and song parodies for That Was the Week That Was, which were of a similar calibre, though less ironic and pointed, and somewhat less likely to age well. Mark Russell's PBS shows in the 1990s were much like Lehrer's work in the 1960s.
There is an urban legend that Lehrer gave up satire when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. Although he did say that the awarding of the prize to Kissinger made political satire obsolete, he has denied that he stopped doing satire as a form of protest and pointed out that he had stopped doing satire several years earlier.
After that, he concentrated on teaching both mathematics and musical theater, but continued writing the occasional educational song for the children's TV show "The Electric Company". In the early 1980s Tomfoolery, a revival of his songs on the London stage, was a surprise hit.
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 booklet containing an introduction by Dr. Demento and lyrics to all the songs.
Reviews selected by Lehrer for his liner notes: