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You wanna go, Anna?

28 May 2011 One Comment

SANDY Gutman always had a sardonic Aboriginal character in his arsenal, and was keen to introduce the character to a wider audience.

He had been developing a series of word-play jokes and ironic taglines that added a new dimension to the character , who now became part Jewish kvetcher. The routine was laced with venom and cunning. Comedy writer Trevor Farrant seized on the subject and, together with Gutman and Michelle Bleicher (Gutman’s then girlfriend and whip-smart manager), wrote the spoken-word comic song Highway Corroboree. The single came out in early 1988 amidst celebrations of Australia’s Bicentennial, without coincidence. The track debuted on Channel Nine’s Sunday program. Host Jim Waley announced the video with considerable respect, prefacing Austen’s wild reputation and hinting at the song’s timely nature.

Gutman wore dark face make-up for the performance, yet in no other way strove to appear Aboriginal. A backing band that included indigenous actor and musician Ernie Dingo on didgeridoo provided the jangled reggae soundtrack as Gutman’s character took us on a tour of colonial Australia. The piece was taped at the Harold Park Hotel in Sydney and is regarded as Gutman’s best, if not most popular, recorded track.

Despite an initial burst of positive reviews and the video being picked up by most current affairs shows, radio stations struggled with the track’s length. At seven minutes, Highway Corroboree was too long to be a hit single, and too “adult for Top 40 rotation, yet the track sold well. “It was an important record, Gutman says, “and is still considered an important comedy record. It was probably the best thing I’ve done, because it came at a time when we, as Orstralians, became consciously aware that the Aborigines were pissed off… Still a lot of redneck racists around, but there was a shift in attitude right across Australia. Everyone knew something about the Aboriginal people, and for the first time in our history it wasn’t hip to deny the injustice; you’d look like a hillbilly.

Criticism of the track centred not on the lyrics but whether Gutman had a right to perform as an Aboriginal character. Political correctness had become an important tool in countering all kinds of isms. “I think Ernie Dingo had a problem with Highway Corroboree, or a problem with his role, Gutman says, pondering the idea of tokenism.

Gutman recalls that Dingo had once said in the press that he was sick of being used as the token Aboriginal character in other people’s well-meaning sketches. “He was right, Gutman agrees. “We didn’t write parts for Ernie, we wrote parts for Ernie the Aborigine. It would piss me off if ¬people only ever wrote parts for Sandy the Jew.

Gutman confused the issue further by introducing a routine that mocked Midnight Oil frontman, and now federal government minister, Peter Garrett. Onstage, Austen Tayshus would claim a long-time friendship with the singer , an activist on Aboriginal and environmental issues , before satirising him as an over-serious zealot. “We agreed on almost every issue, Gutman smiles. “We’d played together many times at festivals. I just found Midnight Oil to be a bit humourless. It was all taken so seriously. If you were in conversation with people and the name Midnight Oil came up, everyone would act very serious and mutter words like ‘integrity’ and ‘commitment’. I really didn’t have anything against the band or Garrett, just that cult of seriousness that had built up around them. It had to be good for a laugh.

“The Peter Garrett jokes initially shocked audiences, I think. You could tell because they’d laugh faster and at a higher pitch. It was the first time someone had dared make fun of Midnight Oil. It was a f..king sacrilege. As Garrett’s long-time “friend, Austen Tayshus let the audience in on a different side to the singer’s personality. “There’s nothing Peter Garrett likes more than venturing out into the wilderness and clubbing a baby seal to death with a piece of wood from an endangered Queensland rainforest. Not a lot of people are aware of this.

In mid-1989, Austen Tayshus released the single Put Down that Stubbie, a parody of Midnight Oil’s Put Down that Weapon. The lyric portrays Australian binge-drinking as akin to nuclear devastation, and is sung with Gutman’s deadly impression of Garrett’s distinctive voice.

It fared well as a novelty song. Garrett expressed dismay at the unprovoked attack, and questioned Gutman’s taste and originality. Gutman, meanwhile, had put so much time and money into developing his records that he rarely had anything to show for it. He had to tour to pay for the film work in development, and he had to make films to break away from the strange anonymity of touring. And now Peter Garrett hated his guts.

Billy Birmingham and Rodney Rude were selling records by the truckload. Austen Tayshus had released two live albums and a string of singles, most to mixed reviews, with many critics suggesting it was a brand of humour that could only be enjoyed live. Gutman’s live material often dealt with issues of the moment, on many occasions subjects of the day. As such, it had a comic shelf life of 24 hours.

For all the years at work, he had only ever used a small percentage of scripted material in his act. The 1989 Austen Tayshus album, Whispering Joke, contained solid material from collaborations with writer Morris Gleitzman, now a respected children’s author, and Trevor Farrant, who had written some of Gutman’s strongest routines. But Farrant escaped the Austen Tayshus circus halfway through a series of gigs in Sydney that followed. “Things were going well, Gutman says, “until I gave him the shits so badly he just disappeared. Then Gutman’s girlfriend and manager, Michelle Bleicher, packed her bags. “She left me. Or maybe she just wanted her own life … which is a bit selfish, don’t you think? Gutman laughs. “Everyone was leaving me.

Now Gutman faced another problem. He was known to be careless with money , reckless, generous and wasteful. Committing time to film projects, he used his credit cards to survive. When they maxed, he hit the road. Without Bleicher’s sure head, Gutman made a few strange decisions in the desperate grab for cash, one of which led to the most talked about Austen Tayshus story of them all. Almost everyone mentions it, and most comedians assume it is known: “You have heard the Fairstar story?… You know about the cruise ship, right?

In November 1989, Gutman approached an agent who booked acts on cruise ships. The agent laughed. Gutman would have to do it himself. Working a cruise ship is regarded as a sure sign that a stand-up comedian is not at the height of his or her powers. It suggests the beginning of the downward spiral. The line would have to offer a proud comedian a lot of money to step onto one of their ships. In Gutman’s case, it was $12,000 for a two-week cruise on Fairstar, the notorious floating party that had entertained a generation of drunken, horny 18- to 25-year-old suburban Australians.

The ship’s management had promised headline acts and they were happy to pay. Gutman needed the money, and legendary rock band Mental as Anything must have needed the considerably larger cheque they took to be the house band. The gig sounded good to Gutman: if Mental as Anything thought it a good idea, that was enough for him.

That an entertainment manager for a large and popular Australian cruise liner could book Austen Tayshus without question now seems strange. “I didn’t have any trouble getting the booking. It was pretty simple, Gutman says. “Everything was fine until I got on board. I was right on time to meet the guy … the bursar. He acts as if I’m late and starts telling me what I can’t say and do on the stage, which was mainly about cutting back on the swearing. He actually said, ‘Can you cut back on the swearing?’ Apparently there were a couple of kids on board. Guests of the captain, I think. Thirty minutes later he bales me up and says that under no circumstances should I say anything derogatory about the captain, who was an angry bastard not given to bursts of spontaneous humour. The bursar and his team hounded Gutman with pleas and orders to agree to their terms. “I think someone must have told him about me between signing the contracts and the start of the cruise, ‘Arghhhh, f..k mate, I heard you booked Austen Tayshus. F..kin’ hell, you’ve got guts.’

This was Gutman’s first time on a cruise ship since he was an infant, and his stomach was now, if anything, even more sensitive. He didn’t much like the look of the passengers, either. “It was like one big western suburbs leagues club disco. F..king horrible. The bursar couldn’t locate Gutman. He’d barricaded himself in his room and put out the do-not-disturb sign. “I knew it was a bad idea as soon as I got there, Gutman claims with powerful hindsight, “and I’d probably struggle to last two weeks.

Sydney comedian and long-time associate Vince Sorrenti takes up the story, which he learnt from an associate: “They didn’t see him all the first day. He missed rehearsals and sound-checks. Then he missed his first engagement to welcome dinner guests. Showtime and still no sight of him. Then he appears and walks straight up to the microphone and says, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentleman. Sorry I’m late, but I was just upstairs f..king the captain up the arse.’ That was it; he just walked off. They never saw him again.

Gutman takes up the story. “I went straight to my cabin and 10 minutes later they came to place me under arrest. I was considered a risk to the safety and wellbeing of the passengers. The captain went off his nut. Gutman spent 24 hours in a small room with a bunk, a sink, a toilet and a sealed door. He preferred it to life on deck. “They decided to put me off at Fiji, Gutman says. “They paid me the full contract fee and gave me a plane ticket home, which was a bit of a surprise. As they led me down the gangplank, everyone had lined up on the deck, hundreds of people. Some were yelling out, ‘Good on ya, Austen’, and ‘Sorry it didn’t work out, Austen’. Like I could give a f..k, Gutman says with great joy. “I went to the Fiji Sheraton and met the manager. He was a German guy who’d heard about me. “Oh, yis, I know zis Austen Tayshus. He offered me a room for two nights if I’d do a show. It was great: nice room, good food, and a good show. I got stuck into the Germans like you wouldn’t believe.

Three vignettes from the book show Gutman’s fearless streak
IN July 2010, Gutman was endorsed as the Australian Sex Party’s candidate for the federal seat of Warringah on Sydney’s northern beaches. This endorsement posed a problem for the sitting member, Tony Abbott, leader of the federal opposition. The threat of a comic showdown was real and unacceptable; the chance of a reasoned debate, zero. Abbott took the safe option, with a dismissive “no comment his only response. Austen Tayshus, on the other hand, let it all hang out. He was photographed in his underwear on Manly Beach, a dig at Abbott’s much publicised Speedo fixation. He then announced he would go one better and campaign door-to-door naked, all the while drawing attention to the issues as he saw them.

THERE was a method to Gutman’s seeming madness, with much of his public pranking leading to stage material … He’d walk into a deli, or any public space, and start doing everything in slow motion. His voice would sound like a warped tape recorder: “Helllooo, hoooowww arrrrrre youuuu. He slowed his motions down… people were genuinely scared of him. Others wanted to kill him because they assumed, quite correctly, that he was taking the piss out of them.

IN mid-1984, Gutman accepted an offer to perform at a mixed outlaw motorcycle club function … the air was thick with marijuana. “Good evening motherf..kers! Gutman bellowed. Never, he shouted, had he seen so many brain-dead mechanics gathered in one place. He bristled with disgust when describing the assembled biker elite as enfeebled idiots obsessed with dressing as pirates… The room was completely under his control; even the waiters stopped work to take in the spectacle. At show’s end he received a standing ovation and farewelled the crowd with one last insult: “I’m Austen Tayshus, the smartest comedian in Australia, and you are the dumbest pack of c…s I’ve ever met!

Edited extract from Austen Tayshus: Merchant of Menace, by Ross Fitzgerald and Rick Murphy (Hale & Ironmonger, $29.95), out Monday.

One Comment »

  • Emily said:

    Darling daddy.
    I am very proud of your Austen Taysus article. I sent it to chris taylor
    What a surviver huh!

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