That tall man is at it again.
A decade after his (in)famous “Taller Than Jesus” CD, Sean Altman (the 6-foot-3-inch Jewmongous) has a new record and a deliciously inappropriate Christmas gig. There will be much laughter, many snarky jokes, some outraged listeners. The usual, you know.
But this aspect of Altman’s career may be drawing to a close. He says with a wry grin, “I’ve made two albums and written 24 Jewish-themed novelty songs and co-written four or five others. That’s about 25 more than anyone needs to write.”
Don’t misunderstand, Jewish-themed novelty songs have been very good to Altman. They haven’t secured him a lasting place in musical history, nor have they made him wealthy and adored by millions. His years with Rockapella and “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” probably did more in that direction.
Mind you, he’s not complaining. Jewmongous is merely one of a multitude of projects that, taken as a whole, keep Altman busy and solvent.
“I make money from about 10 different things,” Altman says, sipping from a cup of tea in a cozy Hamilton Heights café on a chilly December afternoon. “Jewmongous makes me some money, usually in December. I do two or three videos a year, private events — which pay the bills. Three weekends a month I sing with the Pella Singers, an Orthodox a cappella group that does simchas, mostly weddings and bar mitzvahs. I do a lot of corporate stuff, which pays well, I sing on commercials and on other people’s albums.”
He also has returned to his non-Jewish musical roots recently.
“I think of myself as a songwriter,” he says. “I’ve always described my singer-songwriter material as ‘angst-ridden, but giftwrapped as pop.’ I have a solo album coming out in February or March entitled ‘SALT.’”
He also has entered into a couple of collaborative projects, a series of duets with Patti Rothberg they’re calling Dragon Meets Phoenix, “a pop ‘he-said-she-said’ thing,” he says. (Incidentally, he’s the dragon, she’s the phoenix.)
More recently he has been working with a young singer-songwriter named Jack Skuller on a project called The Everly Set; plays into Altman’s high but mellow tenor voice with a collection of tunes from the Everly Brothers.
“We met at the Loser’s Lounge Tribute Series, which I’ve been a part of for many years,” Altman says. “One of the organizers introduced us and asked if we could do something for a Simon and Garfunkel program, and for about a year we’ve been doing the Everly Brothers material.”
Inevitably, though, the conversation returns to Jewmongous (the Christmas gig is Dec. 25, 9 p.m., at the Triad Theater, 158 W. 72nd St., triadnyc.com). In the decade since Altman was last profiled in these pages, he has added another member to his family, a daughter who is now 8.
Given that much of the Jewmongous material centers on circumcision and other genitalia-related subjects, large noses and dark moments in Jewish history, does he let her listen to his songs?
“If I don’t think it will scar her for life,” he replies with a grin. “She knows all the lyrics to most of my songs, but she doesn’t know what they mean. When she asks, I say, ‘It’s a grown-up thing, I’ll tell you when you’re 12.’”
With audiences in a public performance it’s a little different, he notes. “We don’t market this as a family-friendly show,” he says. “We’re not encouraging people to bring their younger children. Occasionally we’ll spot a kid in the audience, we’ll make a joke about it, then we do the show.”
Altman says that on the new album, “The Least Jewy Jew in Jewville” (available at cdbaby.com), he has begun to “be a little more satirical about anti-Semitism and stereotypes.”
He notes that in college he was a political science major and that politics fascinates him. More than that, he adds, foreskin jokes “are a cheap laugh.”
Are there any topics that are off-limits?
“It’s not about the topic so much as the wording,” he replies. “Pop song structure and internal rhymes make the bitter pills easier to swallow. Besides, how can you do Jewish humor and not mention the Nazis?”