Mother and Austen at The Sydney Institute

July 6, 2011 by Henry Benjamin
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Gerard Henderson’s The Sydney Institute yesterday hosted Margaret Gutman and her son Sandy accompanied by his alter ego, Austen Tayshus. Austen was quick to tell the Institute members and their guests that he is never invited back to anywhere he performs…but this time he was.

Austen Tayshus and Margaret Gutman pic: Henry Benjamin

Henderson said that the presentation “Mother and Son – Living with Austen Tayshus” by the former president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and her comedian son was “a lot of fun” and he was quick to invite Margaret, Austen and Sandy to return to the Institute.

Margaret Gutman opened proceedings with an account of her son Sandy’s early years in New York where he was born. She told he meeting that her family had fled Poland and had settled in Sydney where she became a journalist. She received an internship from the United Nations and was posted to New York where she was to meet her husband Isaac who she described as “tall, dark and handsome with a wonderful sense of humour and a great raconteur”. She described Sandy as having been “a manly looking baby – no-one very took him for a girl”.  she added: “Sandy was very inquisitive and had great lungs and could bellow with gusto.”

The Gutmans ceded to pressure from Margaret’s parents to return to Sydney where the Gutmans established their new home in Castlecrag.

Margaret Gutman tole the meeting that her husband was a traditional Jew for whom practising Judaism had been “very important”. Isaac had spent four years as a slave labourer for the Germans “suffering hunger, brutal beatings and daily torments”. She said that his family had been wiped out by the Nazis and that Isaac had attributed his faith as having helped him through the Holocaust experience.

The family moved to Vaucluse to a home in which there was  “lots of story-telling, wise-cracking and laughter”. Gutman described her father as having been “an impish man with an enormous collection of jokes”.

Puberty changed the shy Sandy who “lost interest in school and who became restless”. At the age of 15, Sandy became the Australian Jewish Bible champion winning a prize which would take him to Jerusalem to compete in the world finals.  Two years later, Sandy Gutman was swept up in the time of the youth revolution and the  anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and became a hippy. Isaac bought his son a movie camera and the man who was to become Austen Tayshus found a creative outlet in making movies. To make his parents happy, Sandy Gutman studied dentistry for two years before giving up  and switching to Fine Arts.

The Australian Film and Television School had just been established and the young Sandy was accepted in its first intake of 25 students. He graduated from the school with a diploma in direction and cinema-photography.

Austen Tayshus joined the Gutman family in 1983 the year in which he made Australia’s most successful comedy record, “Australiana”. Tayshus was to put his movie-making skills to good work winning the Tropfest short film award for “Intolerance”, a film made on a Holocaust theme.

Margaret Gutman completed her address with a take on life with Sandy/Austen…”unconventional, often rocky, testing, unpredictable, challenging and never dull”.

Gerard Henderson welcomed Sandy to the podium….

Gutman’s address was a combination of personal feelings and a performance. Either way, the audience lapped it up.

He said: “I am going to give you an insight as to why I do this job, which is not the easiest of jobs and  it must have been very difficult for my fairly conservative family to understand why I decided to become that crazy and push things right to the edge. A lot of people think that the aggression they see in my character is innate. The Holocaust has been part of my upbringing and has influenced my comedy in many different ways, subliminally and in many ways that I am not quite sure of myself.”

As he proceeded through his comedy routine, Gutman/Tayshus did enlighten his audience with flashes of his personal take on his career saying “everything leads to nowhere in my career”.

He said that what his career had developed into was “just being a nudnik comedian…and a comedian with a social conscience”.

Gerard Henderson asked Margaret Gutman how many times she had seen her son perform in a professional environment. She replied: “Several times but perhaps not as many as he would have liked.”

Ross Fitzgerald who authored the Austen Tayshus biography ‘The Merchant of Menace’ with Rick Murphy asked Margaret  Gutman if she thought Tayshus’s life and work would benefit from therapy stressing that it was a serious question. She replied: “A serious question deserved a serious answer…but you won’t get a serious answer. Perhaps the right therapist would derive fun from working with Sandy.”

Margaret Gutman responded to a question about why her two sons are so different. Sandy leads the precarious life of a comedian. His younger brother Michael is a very successful executive working in the shopping centre business. But Margaret does not think they are so different. “They are both tall, very well built, good-looking and they’ve both got an excellent sense of humour. They’ve chosen different directions.” Sandy had a different take. “I was born nine years after my father was liberated from Bergen-Belsen. Unlike a lot of survivors he was very open about everything and I was interested in what he had to say. But I copped the lot and Michael was spared that. He also benefited from all the mistakes I made.”

Fellow comedian Rodney Marks asked Sandy Gutman: “What’s the relationship between you and Austen Tayshus and do you think Austen Tayshus is just one of Sandy’s characters?”

Gutman replied: “I’ve always thought of Austen as being an extension of myself. I’ve always believed that art imitates life and that life imitates art. I’ve always looked for the opportunity to cause trouble. Austen Tayshus is the troublemaker in me. I don’t know who Sandy is. Austen Tayshus is the larger than life Sandy who I use publicly to upset, insult, unsettle, challenge provoke and ensure that I never make one cent from this business.”

Gerard Henderson asked Margaret Gutman why people should buy the Sandy Gutman biography “The Merchant of Menace”.  The answer was reinforced by author Ross Fitzgerald who said he firmly believed that Austan Tayshus and Barry Humphries shared the roles of being Australia’s two most significant comedians.

As J-Wire played back the tape of the presentation’s last ten minutes, Margaret Gutman’s non-stop laughter while listening to her son’s antics would certainly deny any hint of her tiring of his humour.




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