Sean Altman's laughs with a purpose
Embracing his Jewishness with his songs.
Sean Altman is embracing his Jewishness in his own way, thank you very much. And that way is through the creation of Jewmongous, a concert performance that employs the New Yorker's talents as a singer, songwriter, and musician to both poke fun at and celebrate his heritage.
"Jewmongous is the way I'm able to connect with whatever Jewishness is inside me," Altman says from his home in Harlem. "I'm culturally Jewish, but I'm not religious. . . . This is sort of my way of connecting with my heritage without going to synagogue or without having to pray.
"It serves two purposes," he continues. "It alleviates my guilt for not being a believer - a lot of people feel I'm contributing something to my Jewish culture - and I've always liked to make people laugh. I've always been a joke-teller, and I've always loved to sing. So, I stumbled upon a way of doing both at the same time - and the jokes rhyme now."
Yes, they do, and you can hear just how on such hilariously entertaining numbers as "They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let's Eat)," "Blow, Murray, Blow," and "Christian Baby Blood," all of which can be heard on the Jewmongous album Taller Than Jesus.
The tuneful accessibility and Altman's engaging delivery reflect his main musical endeavors as a singer and guitarist. He founded Rockapella and led that vocal group when it was featured on the PBS series Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? (he cowrote the theme song), and he also leads a band that excels at Beatlesque pop. As he points out, the musical elements of the Jewmongous songs help make some of his more outrageous lines go down easier (this is not a show for kids).
For all the laughs, Altman also aims for his Jewmongous songs to make deeper, more serious points. Such is the case with one of the newer ones, "Blame the Jews" (you can see the video for it on YouTube).
"That video represents what I'm trying to do well," Altman says of one of his most biting and funny satires. "I like the fact that I'm trying to tackle institutionalized anti-Semitism."
Saturday's show is part of Altman's annual mini-tour at this time of year. And this time out, he is promising to party "like it's the 1,999th-iversary of Christ's bar mitzvah" (one of his new songs is "Jesus Christ's Bar Mitzvah").
"December always seems to be my best hit," Altman says. "The counterprograming element of it - the novelty of a Jewish guy performing at Christmas - is just too irresistible."