If the history of Jewish oppression has created a tradition of Jewish humanitarians fighting for equality, it has also created plenty of offensive jokesters.
Jewish comics from Lenny Bruce to Sarah Silverman have spoken the “N” word with abandon, insulted gay people and laughed at Jesus, impervious to accusations of prejudice if only because they also aimed their brash humor at other Jews. Not to mention, they were very funny.
“It’s no coincidence that Jews and blacks have a stranglehold on the comedy business, because I think there is something about oppression that breeds comedy,” says Sean Altman, a New York songwriter/comedian who will be performing a variety show called Jewmongous at the Triple Door on Wed. March 21. “The only way to withstand constant oppression as Jews and blacks have done for many, many years is to have a sense of humor about it.”
What is crystal clear is that Altman has a sense of humor about it. Jewmongous is an over-the-top musical gag that strip-mines Jewish stereotypes for every last bit of comedy. In his 11-city tour of the West Coast, Altman will be performing tunes such as “Christian Baby Blood,” an Irish drinking song that delights in the sensational mythology of the blood libel.
A typical sample of his lyrics goes: “We’d bottle the blood of every Christian toddler if we could / We’ve guzzled Waspy baby hemoglobin since the Flood / It’s euphoric, non-caloric / It’s Christian baby blood. L’chaim!”
“I like to sing about the absurd stereotypes of being Jews,” says Altman. “In poking fun at them I believe I diffuse them of all their power to inflict pain on us.”
By that standard, Altman is a master healer. For seven years, he was one-half of the duo behind “What I Like About Jew,” another Borscht Belt-inspired musical comedy routine that received positive reviews from the New York Times, Village Voice, Time Out New York and other publications. Altman’s name was mentioned in the same stories as the names of a new generation of Jewish comedic luminaries such as Jon Stewart. Last April, “What I Like About Jew” came to the West Coast for the first time, received a praising write-up from both JTNews and The Stranger, put on a well-received show at the Triple Door, returned to New York and then broke up. That’s show business.
Altman decided to create a new act. Some of the songs performed in Jewmongous will be leftovers from “What I Like About Jew.” But Altman has also written new material, including several songs that will debut during the West Coast tour.
In truth, Altman’s humor never reaches the height of offense. His barbs are usually directed at Jews themselves, not other social groups, with Christians perhaps the one exception.
In the song “Be My Little Shabbos Goy” Altman sings about a visit to a strip club on Shabbat, where he is unable to put money in a dancer’s g-string because Jews are forbidden from handling money on the Sabbath. He calls out for help from non-Jew, the eponymous “Shabbos Goy.”
“If anybody thinks that Jewmongous is cute then I’m doing something wrong,” says Altman. “I want these songs to be aggressively funny and edgy. Some people will probably think it’s over the top. But these are the things I laugh at. My friends and I are teenage boys stuck in middle-aged bodies.”
Altman’s jokes are of the variety shared between bunkmates at a summer camp. He sings about masturbation and is keenly aware of the female anatomy. One song is an extended daydream about a wealthy and charming businessman who wants to correct one small deficiency. Here’s a guess as to what that deficiency might be: the song is called “Another Inch.”
At the Triple Door, Altman will share the stage with Cindy Kaplan, a writer and humorist who will do some of her own material and also perform with Altman. He will also be touring with his wife, a professional opera singer whom he met on JDate.
Talking to Altman, one also gets the sense there is a lot of audience participation.
“One of the running gags of the show is that people in the audience who know a lot more about Judaism than I do are constantly correcting me throughout the show. That’s part of the fun of the show,” he says.
The other part is making fun of Christians.
“If there is anyone that takes a beating in the show, it’s Jesus,” says Altman. “He’s like a piñata. Literally.”