EVERYTHING about comedian Alexander “Sandy” Gutman (aka Austen Tayshus) is a dichotomy. In life, he is a tea-totalling, erudite intellectual, the father of two daughters – a far cry from his foul-mouthed, incendiary, dark-glasses-clad on-stage persona.
He has a love-hate relationship with his audiences, which he is famous for taunting – recently he made a Japanese audience member get on stage and apologise for World War II in exchange for a cessation of tsunamis and earthquakes – and simultaneously describes his hero Barry Humphries as the gold standard of Australian comedy and a “total snob”.
He’s as comfortable doing gigs in “toilets” – Gutman’s colourful description of the backwater pubs where he often plies his trade – as he is bewildering audiences at legendary comedy haunts in Los Angeles and New York.
On the surface, he is as Aussie as a Southern Cross tattoo, but his anger and cynicism bely his larrikinism and, unwittingly for most, inform his humour.
The son of a Holocaust survivor, Gutman’s split personality embodies, allegorically and also literally, the struggle of the second-generation survivor to assimilate. His shtick is, at its heart, outsider art.
“That’s why I’ve adopted the persona that I have [Austen Tayshus], a fairly aggressive persona, It’s a survival mechanism,” Gutman says of his alter ego.
“I’d go out into a beer barn full of idiots and that’s the way I learnt to do the job. I still do a lot of work in pubs and shitholes, I enjoyed it and now I can work in any milieu. I can work in front of Jewish crowds, I can work in front of intellectuals at universities and Jew-haters.”
Gutman has been performing this delicate balancing act for more than three decades, but far from tearing him asunder in some sort of Woody Allen-style existential crisis, he says his ability to easily reconcile the duality of yobbo and immigrant has given him the ability to work with all people and in the process become one of the most vaunted figures in Australian comedy.
“Most of the time when you’re working in Australia, if you’re working publicly, you work for f–k-wits,” the Sydney-based comedian says of his audience.
“But when I do the Jewish shows, and I’ve done hundreds of them, it’s like coming back to Shabbos dinner. I feel so comfortable and so familiar with the Jewish crowd because they understand chutzpah; it’s something that goes without explanation. When you’re working with the goyim, they don’t really know what that is.
“If I’ve got a smart crowd then it’s a much more interesting show. If it’s an idiot crowd then I’ve got to resort to old stuff.”
One of the golden oldies Gutman refers to is his 1983 smash hit Australiana, a spoken word piece full of puns written by Billy Birmingham of 12th Man fame that was the country’s top-selling single for eight consecutive weeks. In 1999, there was a follow-up single Footyana.
Gutman’s mother, Margaret, has been active in the Sydney Jewish community and in 1993 received an Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday honours for her communal work.
Gutman’s life is now the subject of a new biography, Merchant of Menace, co-written by author-broadcaster Ross Fitzgerald, who is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, and comedy writer Rick Murphy.
It was launched earlier this month at Sydney’s Jewish Museum, where Gutman saw it for the first time. “It ain’t easy, buddy,” Gutman says of reading a book about himself.
“But, you know, try stand-up for 30 years, that’s not the easiest job either, particularly in the toilets that I work in. But it’s also complimentary that somebody wants to write a book about you.”
The book includes amusing stories and events from interviews with prominent Australians who have worked or had dealings with Austen Tayshus, including Andrew Denton, Baz Luhrmann, Rodney Rude, Akmal Saleh, Wilbur Wilde, George Smilovici and Vince Sorrenti.
The cover of the book trumpets the high praise: “Australia’s most dangerous and subversive performer.”
It’s a fitting plaudit for a man whose incendiary, dissenting voice has endeared him to the Australian public, even if he does like to goad, make fun of and, at times, offend them.
Austen Tayshus: Merchant of Menace by Ross Fitzgerald and Rick Murphy, Hale & Iremonger, $29.95 (rrp).
REPORT: ADAM KAMIEN
PHOTO: Sandy Gutman speaks at the launch of his biography, Merchant of Menace, at Sydney’s Jewish Museum.