Austen Tayshus sends a postcard from the edge
NEXT year marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of Australia’s best-selling single ever, ‘Australiana’.
Performed by Sandy Gutman (aka Austen Tayshus), this subversive spoken-word piece is filled with an array of Australian puns, including ‘How much can a Koala bear?’, ‘Do you want to go Anna?’ and ‘Tryin’ to Platypus!’
Born in New York on March 17, 1954, Austen Tayshus – a combination of “ostentatious” and “Austin, Texas” – first gained widespread public recognition when Australiana was released. Indeed this comic masterpiece is still in huge demand whenever and wherever Australia’s most dangerous and subversive comedian appears.
Alone, unprotected and often at the mercy of drunken mobs, Austen Tayshus has been working as a stand-up comic for three decades. An observant son of Judaism who is obsessed with the Holocaust, his comedic heroes are Jerry Lewis, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and our own Barry Humphries. Because he pushes audiences to the limit, and beyond, many critics maintain that Austen Tayshus is psychologically disturbed. Other, perhaps more discerning, observers argue that he needs to constantly perform as an on-the-edge stand-up comic in order to keep destructive forces within himself at bay.
These days, Austen Tayshus appears in some of the toughest venues in Australia and his act often, if not always, consists of outright provocation. Even though he is a celibate teetotaller who eschews all drugs, alcohol is the fuel of the audience, and he is often the target of their rage.
It wasn’t always like this. He studied to be a filmmaker in the 1970s at the Australian Film and Television School, and has a life-long love of cinema. However, one needs a lot of patience to make movies, plus organisational skills and the ability to collaborate. Austen Tayshus possesses none of these virtues.
Stand-up comedy, by comparison, is immediate. A performer has an idea, and an hour later he receives the response. Sometimes it’s thunderous laughter, sometimes violent abuse. It really doesn’t matter which, it’s the response he is looking for. As a stand-up, Austen Tayshus combines the role of performer, producer, writer, director and editor. If it all falls flat, it’s entirely his fault.
His comedy is not to everyone’s taste. Some people find it too scary and many others take offence.
The provocation is an unerring device to unsettle and disorientate a crowd, to take them a great distance from their comfort zone. Australians, Austen Tayshus believes, live far too predictable lives, and hence expect predictable comedy. In contrast, his aim is to deeply unsettle everyone he meets and to play with almost everything he hears and sees.
There are a thousand different ways to be funny and Australia has many comedians. They do their thing, while he is out on the margins. These days Austen Tayshus exists on the remote edge of the comedy industry, in city pubs and suburban clubs and theatres, and far outback mining towns full of drunken yobbos, who all still love, and demand, ‘Australiana’.
You want to see alcohol abuse? Come on tour with him. The truth is that Austen Tayshus has been vomited on, glassed, kicked, confronted with a variety of weapons, punched, and even knocked unconscious on stage by a Hells Angel who was supposed to be his protector!
Back home in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, Austen Tayshus, who for years has had nothing in his blood but blood, calls these the good nights. Often he’d have to flee a venue via the back door and sneak out of town in the dark of night. People yell and scream, drop their pants or spit on stage. “Austen, I think you pushed them too hard tonight”, the hotel manager will say. “You drove them f … ing crazy”.
Although he has performed in the US and Britain, first and foremost Austen Tayshus is an Australian comedian who deeply understands our culture and can attack our prejudices and follies. Australians can laugh at themselves … up to a point. But to really get under their skins, a stand-up comic needs to dig deep. Whether it’s the inner-city urban elite or the outback red-necked working classes, everyone, he thinks, deserves a ribbing. Sometimes his best audiences are Aborigines listening to his satirical song ‘Highway Corroboree’; sometimes they are the well-educated and the hip who understand the nuances.
Byron Bay is one of his favourite touring destinations, an eclectic mix of hippie losers, the well-heeled, the drug dealers, the drifters and the backpackers. Smarter than most, a Byron audience understands his ingrained irony and his preferred position as devil’s advocate.
When he started in the comedy game, he was, he admits, “scared shitless and rarely deviated from prepared material”. The Austen Tayshus persona of dark glasses and black Armani suit worked as a mask, a place to hide. Confidence grew as he became the rock ‘n’ roll comic, opening for Jimmy Barnes and John Farnham, or sharing the bill with Midnight Oil or INXS in front of thousands of out-of-it punters at Selinas or the Mona Vale Hotel in the 1980s. Then there was little chance of being quick on your feet, other than to dodge flying beer glasses.
Now his act is virtually all improvisation. The joy is in finding humour in everything around and inside his often anarchistic head, especially when he is under the spotlight.
Audiences know when things are fresh, when the gags are plucked from the moment, and these jokes get the biggest laughs. There is no better feeling for a stand-up comic than to set a crowd on a roar with a joke that he has seemingly been conjured out of thin air. They know it, Austen Tayshus knows it. It keeps him travelling down that hard and winding road, which is the life of a much-travelled comic performer.
Older if not wiser, at his best Austen Tayshus can be the greatest stand-up comedian Australia has ever seen. At his worst, and most provocative, he still remains a mother’s (and an agent’s) worst nightmare!
Ross Fitzgerald is co-author with Rick Murphy of ‘Austen Tayshus: Merchant of Menace’.
The Weekend Australian December 29-30, 2012 Inquirer p 18.