Harry Shearer and Judith Owen bill their annual Christmas variety show as a “reverent and irreverent antidote to the holiday season.”
The first incarnation was an actual house party at their residence in Santa Monica, California. Following Hurricane Katrina, they took the show public to raise money for New Orleans, their second home.
Despite the philanthropic slant, “Christmas Without Tears” remains true to its original purpose. An “antidote” to Christmas is necessary, Owen said during a recent interview, “because I find it so stressful.
“I think a lot of people find it really stressful. The pure stress of trying to make it a perfect day. And (the stress) of who’s not here anymore and who is here. That’s my joke: Christmas is the time to be with the ones you love, and sometimes even family.”
Following performances in the Chicago area and Los Angeles, Owen and Shearer conclude their “Christmas Without Tears” mini-tour at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre on Friday and Saturday. Show time is 7:30 pm. Tickets are $35 general admission, $70 VIP.
The format and staging mimic the old gathering of friends in Owen and Shearer’s living room. Their guests showcase their own renditions of often humorous or bawdy holiday songs. The evening concludes with Owen presiding over an epic “12 Days of Christmas” singalong, for which audience members are encouraged to don related costumes and join in.
This year’s cast features familiar faces as well as new participants, appearing on either one or both nights.
They include Bryan Batt — who last year delivered “the most egregious and filthy song about Christmas I’ve ever heard,” Owen said — John Goodman, Michael Cerveris, zydeco bandleader Sean Ardoin, cellist Helen Gillet, clarinetist Evan Christopher, pianist Tom McDermott, keyboardist David Torkanowsky, bassist Matt Perrine, singer-songwriter Dayna Kurtz, vocalist Tonya Boyd-Cannon, vocal groups Solid Harmony and the Jingle Belles, and burlesque performer Foxie Flambeaux.
Proceeds benefit the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic and Assistance Foundation, as well as the historic Le Petit Theatre itself.
“We make sure the last show lands on Harry’s birthday,” Owen said. “There’s no better way to have your birthday than onstage.”
Individually and collectively, the couple spends a lot of time onstage. Owen, a pianist, singer and songwriter, has amassed an ever-increasing collection of accolades and albums. Her latest, “Somebody’s Child,” includes a cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” which came about after she toured with Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry in 2016.
Her humorist/actor/bassist husband continues to voice multiple characters on “The Simpsons,” host his syndicated radio program “Le Show” and busy himself with myriad other creative pursuits.
But they always synchronize their schedules to wind up the year in December in New Orleans with fellow musicians and artists, “gathering around the piano and singing, entertaining yourself, doing that thing that people used to do hundreds of years ago.”
In “Christmas Without Tears,” some songs are skewed, some are straight.
“You’ve got Bryan Batt doing something so outrageous, you’ve got Harry being completely cynical, you’ve got me being absolutely earnest in my songs,” Owen said. “That’s the balance. It has to be about the fun of it, the joy of it, the wit, and it has to be irreverent. You have to have a sense of humor to get through it.”
For her, Christmas means “singing, dancing, acrobatics, storytelling, music, animals. Everything that delights a child is what I’m trying to get onstage, for people to recapture their childhood.
“You get to be a child for such a small period of time, and you’re racing to grow up. You get to be an adult, and you wish you could be a child again," Owen said.
"Really, we’re just big children. You’ve still got that child-like place inside you. I think it’s very important to reconnect with that and do things that make you feel like you’re part of a community.”
In New Orleans, “people are more used to being young and childlike and witty and fun. Just look at any parade at Mardi Gras. There’s no problem in New Orleans with people connecting with their childlike and fun and joyful side.”
At “Christmas Without Tears,” the “heightened pitch” of the concluding “12 Days of Christmas” is a show-stopper, a parade unto itself. Owen compels audience members to act out the lyrics for gag prizes. Many break into choreographed routines.
“The audience is part of the show. I encourage people to come prepared, and come dressed. New Orleans grasps this better than any other city in the world.
“As every day is filled with so much joyful news, I say with my tongue firmly in my cheek, it necessitates the arts and finding places where you can have real moments of joy and companionship. And that’s what Christmas is — community and absolute joy. I hope that’s what we bring every year.”