A rare ge­nius for burn­ing bridges

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jack Marx

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

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