A rare genius for burning bridges
WIt’s a telling passage from a book whose cover declares its subject ‘‘ Australia’s most dangerous and subversive performer’’.
For what becomes clear in Austen Tayshus: The Merchant of Menace is that the most lamentable victim of the subversion is Gutman, a gifted comic with a hunger for success, but also an unfathomable capacity for sacrificing his dream on an altar of narcissistic bedlam.
The problem began at home, where Alexander Jacob Gutman, the son of a Bergen-Belsen survivor, struggled with his father’s emotional inheritance. Sandy’s younger brother, Michael, recalls a loving but distrustful father who would ‘‘ react to any perceived slights by withdrawing his affection’’ from his older son, who was ‘‘ very sensitive to my father’s moods’’. HEN the comedy single Australiana hit No 1 in 1983, Sandy Gutman, aka Austen Tayshus, sobbed, as Ross Fitzgerald and Rick Murphy record in this biography of the celebrated stand-up comedian. I had failed and quit so many things . . . had become such a loser that it felt like my last chance to actually do something. In the Jewish culture it is encouraged, and sometimes expected, that you will attempt to do great things in your life. It was a relief more than anything.
Isaac Gutman’s survival mentality saw the world in terms of success and failure, and Sandy, Michael tells the authors, ‘‘ bore the brunt of my father’s unrealistic expectations’’. This dynamic exploded come Sandy’s rebellious adolescence, in scenes that resonate well into the future.
‘‘ Every dinner table conversation ended in an argument,’’ Michael remembers.
For the lounge chair psychologist — or those who know Gutman — this is most instructive indeed, and it’s no less of a pity for being inevitable that the rest of The Merchant of Menace feels bereft of such tight personal revelation, the adult Gutman having burned more bridges than the Red Army as he marched toward his artistic dreams.
Long-time friend Jack Levi, aka comedian Elliot Goblet, reveals Sandy is ‘‘ prone to overreact to criticism . . . can be abrupt, if not actually abusive to people’’; while David Poltorak, one-time writer for Gutman, confesses to having ‘‘ felt like a punching bag’’ while on tour with the performer, who ‘‘ treated me, and most other people, like second-class citizens, always using the self- Things would get very loud and abusive, and Sandy would storm out, leaving everyone in tears . . . That was a bit of a pattern; we were obsessed with Sandy. It became the big issue in the family, and I think the only one it didn’t worry was Sandy.
serving rationale of ‘ his art’, which excused some pretty disgraceful behaviour’’.
Few people, it seems, have remained close enough to Gutman to weave for us a coherent personal narrative, and while the authors have performed a heroic job in corralling interviews with associates and industry peers, in the end there’s just too many of them, the book becoming a wearying litany of laymen’s prescriptions and disjointed anecdotes starring Sandy or Austen (it’s hard to tell which) taking the mickey out of audiences, venue managers, cab drivers, waiters, cops, petrol station attendants — anyone in his path.
What begins as a fascinating portrait of a seriously tortured artist becomes part intervention and part celebrity roast, and one feels the book might have been more nourishing had it been written directly by the subject.
Critiquing a book for what it might have been is a notoriously maligned exercise, but perhaps no more futile than to judge a performer for what he might have become but did not. Many of the voices in The Merchant of Menace do just that, the overriding opinion being that Gutman could have conquered the world if only he’d have behaved himself. The evidence does seem to bear this out: he blows an audition at the LA Comedy Store by insulting proprietor Mitzi Shore; he scuttles an SBS television series because he considers a producer’s request for a synopsis ‘‘ beneath him’’; a lucrative gig on the Fairstar ‘‘ funship’’ ends abruptly when Gutman, having been prevailed upon to keep it clean for the conservative tourist crowd, opens his act by explaining, with lurid economy, that he was late because he’d been having sex with the captain.
All jolly good fun in the telling but catastrophic to a working performer’s career, and the mystery as to why Gutman is no global superstar evaporates, bit by bit, with each turn of the page.
Melbourne comedian Rachel Berger wonders aloud ‘‘ how many people come back to see him a second time . . . Sandy’s got a fairly heavy loss rate, I would imagine. He thinks he needs the anger, but he would be better without it.’’
Understandable as it may be, it is regrettable that Emma Cromb, Gutman’s wife of 12 years (the marriage ended in 2005) and mother of his two daughters, could not be convinced to contribute more than a perfunctory paragraph to this book. (Her mother, God bless her, contributes even less, a masterpiece of veiled mother-in-law’s contempt though it is.)
Through Emma, a girl once so enamoured with Gutman as to have abandoned her own career for him, we might have learned something truly revealing about the enigmatic man behind the curtain, far from the stage, the fellow comics, the taxi drivers, the waiters, the endless audience.
‘‘ People have asked why I stayed with him for so long,’’ Cromb says. ‘‘ Sometimes I wonder the same thing myself.’’
She is the keeper, perhaps, of a hardlearned truth: that lovers and crowds, always hypnotised by the dreamer, will inevitably tire if he doesn’t wake up. Jack Marx is a journalist and author. His books include Sorry: The Wretched Tale of Little Stevie Wright.
Fast finger work . . . the career of Sandy Gutman, aka Austen Tayshus, has been an exercise in self-sabotage