He’s been called ‘Australia’s most dangerous and subversive comedian’, but Austen Tayshus (aka Sandy Gutman) insists he just wants to shake things up a little.
Thirty years after his record-breaking hit record ‘Australiana’, he’s touring the country to entertain – and provoke – a new generation of Australians.
‘Australiana’ was such a slice-of-life track. As the child of migrants in the late 1950s, did you grow up feeling Australian?
I grew up feeling Jewish, but now I would see myself as a Jewish Australian, like John Monash. ‘Australiana’ was written by Billy Birmingham, a real ‘Aussie’ who grew up surfing in the beaches of Dee Why, long hair and beer in his veins; he probably came out on the First Fleet. ‘Australiana’ is not really where I’ve come from, but it’s given me a huge break as an entertainer. It was such a one-off; an unusual recording to go to number one for eight weeks.
What did that record do for your career?
It basically exploded. By 1982 I was doing shows in front of all the big rock bands: Midnight Oil, INXS, Cold Chisel, Mental as Anything, etc. I was MCing their shows, doing 30 minutes of comedy and introducing the bands in all the biggest venues around the country. Then ‘Australiana’ happened and I became ‘the rock’n‘roll comedian’, which was a big problem for my career because instead of playing theatres like all comedians subsequently did, I stayed in pubs and clubs. It’s been a tough road.
What kind of comedy bores you?
Most comedy bores me, to be honest. Comedy that doesn’t really have a point of view, a meaning, that is shocking for the sake of being shocking. That’s not my thing. People misinterpret my stuff and say, ‘he’s just out to shock, to get a reaction’, but it’s much more than that. It’s about theatre, an interaction with the audience, and shaking up Australian values.
Are there any comedians you admire?
My hero has always been Barry Humphries, but he’s far more conventional than me, because he won’t tell people that he hates this culture and finds it very parochial – he won’t tell them that as himself, but through a character. I like Will Ferrell too.
What can the audience expect from your current show?
They can expect to laugh a lot. I cover touchy concepts like religion, sexuality, gay marriage, asylum seekers, and politics in general. It’s a show that will appeal to the thinking people; there are those who love it and others who don’t get it. I have a polarising effect on my audiences no matter where I perform.
Why do you feel such a need to shake up the audience?
I’m really about challenging the status quo in any way I can. Australian culture is fairly lethargic, there’s not much going on, ‘no worries mate’, and so my principle is to push the boundaries of taste: to be vulgar, clever, and spontaneous. I think people are coming around to my stuff now. I give them a bit of something very different from the mainstream offering.
Is it harder for a comedian, not having a regular spot on television?
It is difficult, but I’ve never really looked for the mainstream. I’ve always been a marginalised entertainer, and I’m happy about that.
‘Australiana’ is available on iTunes.