One of the big advantages of being a comedy fan when it comes to books is that pretty much everything ends up in second hand stores. Even the cruddiest used bookstore usually has an A-grade collection of comedy books on their shelves, simply because comedy books are the most disposable, throw-away books there are. A store’s fiction shelves may be lined with faded Robert Ludlum and Jackie Collins paperbacks, but hit the comedy shelves and everything from a bunch of Barry Humphries’ collections to the Fast Forward book to Tony Martin’s Lolly Scramble to the excretable Double the Fist book are yours for the taking. Unless we get there first.
Often lumped in with the more overtly comedic books are biographies of comedians, and recently we picked up two covering the lives of two of Australia’s biggest comedy figures: Ross Fitzgerald & Rick Murphy’s biography of Sandy Gutman Austen Tayshus: Merchant of Menace and Grahame “Aunty Jack” Bond’s autobiography Jack of All Trades, Mistress of One. What do these books have in common apart from being purchased at bargain prices? We’re glad you asked.
There’s something of a dividing line in Australian television comedy between those who rose to fame before the late 80s and those who came afterwards. It’s not hard and fast by any means, but it’s safe to say pretty much everyone who hit the big time before 1985 or so is now long forgot (or branched out into serious acting, a la Garry McDonald and Shane Bourne), while at least some of those who rose to fame in the late 80s are still kicking on in comedy: Paul McDermott, Working Dog, Andrew Denton, Jane Turner & Gina Reilly. So what happened? Why did the comedy door close for some people yet stay open for others just a few years later?
Buggered if we know, and neither of these books – both of which, in case you hadn’t guessed, involve people who’s careers peaked before the cut-off date for lasting success – offers any kind of wider explanation. We’re not going to delve too deeply into their overall contents or approach here, which is to say this isn’t going to be a proper review of either. But if you’ve come here for a review, in summary:
* Bond’s book has a lot of interesting anecdotes, is generally fairly self-serving (he’s brilliant, many of the people he worked with less so) but not overly spiteful, has lots of photos and is generally pretty entertaining, if not exactly insightful.
* Fitzgerald & Murphy’s book is full of praise for Gutman without ever really explaining why he’s so funny (it’s clearly aimed at his fans, so this approach makes some sense), but if you want loads of stories about Gutman embarrassing people he’s with or acting like a jerk this is the book for you, even if Gutman himself comes across as an interesting and likable, if troubled, fellow.
What both these books do manage to provide is some insight into why their individual subjects didn’t continue their early successes in comedy. In Bond’s case, after hitting it big massively with Aunty Jack he fairly quickly grew sick of the character:
“As Garry [McDonald] was discovering his alter-ego Norman Gunston, I was falling out of love with mine”
“It felt strange playing second fiddle to my own creation”
“I lost my freedom”
“It was demeaning”
“In the end that’s why I killed Aunty Jack – because I found that I was losing myself to a fantasy character”
So that’s pretty clear then. That wasn’t the end of his comedy career right away – he tried his luck overseas, did a successful stage show, and so on – but it’s fairly obvious that advertising was increasingly becoming an option for him, especially when a mate called him up and asked him if he wanted to be the creative director of his newly-purchased ad agency. Sold!
But then there’s this:
“The reason I dropped out of comedy in the late 1980s was because I became aware that comedy was about to change forever with the gradual rise of political correctness. PC was like an unstoppable plague spreading through the entertainment industry. It was so all-pervasive comedians had to stay within very tight guidelines. I went back to advertising”
Which reads to us a little like “I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now, what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary.” Thank you Grandpa Simpson.
Okay, let’s be slightly less of a dick about it: comedy was changing by the late 80s and Bond either didn’t like or didn’t want to change with it. Watching clips of Aunty Jack now – both complete series of the Aunty Jack Show are available on DVD, which is a sign of just how popular the show was – it’s pretty clear that loud costumes, cartoon violence, local references and comedy gibberish wouldn’t really fly up against Kylie Mole, which was actually referring to something going on in Australian culture.
Meanwhile over on the other book being covered here, it’s fairly obvious that Gutman’s career tanked after the massive hit that was 1983′s Australiana largely because the writer of that hit single, Billy Birmingham, didn’t want to work with him any more. In fact it looks like no-one wants to work with Gutman, as he seems to be both self-destructive and something of a massive pain to have to deal with.
Seriously, just opening the book completely at random uncovers the following quotes:
“His reputation was making many venue operators nervous, and post show complaints were increasing at an alarming rate” (p.142)
“Gutman went beyond reasonable boundaries of forgiveness” (p.231)
“He eventually found a niche working on rock videos. His outrageous nature was right at home on the drug-and-alcohol fueled sets. The money was good and the access to coke even better” (p. 70)
“Trevor Farrant escaped the Austen Tayshus circus halfway through a series of gigs in Sydney. ‘Things were going well,’ Gutman says. ‘Until I gave him the shits so badly he just disappeared.’ (p. 199)
“‘Although I admire his talent and intellect, it could be said that Sandy uses his middle-class education to bully people’ [Rachel Berger] says” (p.251)
“His cocaine use was out of control by any reasonable standard” (p.158)
“‘I was his driver on tour for a while,’ Poltorak says. ‘I got sick of it. He was always very aggressive. I felt like a punching bag after a while. He treated me, and most other people, like second class citizens, always using the self-serving rationale of ‘his art’, which excused some pretty disgraceful behaviour” (p.153)
You get the idea. There’s plenty that’s positive here as well, and we wouldn’t want to give the impression that Gutman’s career hasn’t been a strong one since Australiana – for one thing, he wrote and starred in the Paul Fenech directed short Intolerance, which won at Tropfest in 1998 - but the overall picture in this book is of a very angry and somewhat erratic performer who thrives on adversarial relationships, both professionally and with his audience. Not surprisingly, professional success hasn’t so much eluded him as been hurled from his grasp; the praise from the various big names quoted here tends to swing between “underappreciated” and “untameable”.
As for “funny”… well, like we said, this one’s for the fans. And presumably the fans know his material, because aside from some examples of scripted material (written by other people) and numerous references to him calling police, politicians and personalities “cunts”, there’s next to no examples of his actual on-stage comedy material. Supposedly he’s a skilled improvisor which explains the gaps a little, but it still puts a major dent in the book’s argument that Gutman is a powerful comedy force. If you pick this up wondering why anyone would still care about someone best known for a comedy single that’s 30 years old, you’ll put it down none the wiser.
As for our big question, it seems safe to say these guys seemed ground-breaking and innovative at the time because, well, they were. But once the ground was broken, those who followed built on what had come before. The earlier performers fought hard to make it, and once they had – once they’d established that there was a market for this comedy stuff – the people that followed could put more of their efforts into actually being funny. Which helped them carry on longer than their predecessors; when the path to success is relatively easy and a winning formula is widely known*, it’s a lot easier to keep on going than when every step is a struggle.
In short: if you think biographies get written when there’s nothing more left to say, both these books will confirm that view. They’re looking back at comedians who’s best days are behind them: these books are, in part, for people who want to know why.
[edit: Sandy Gutman has contacted us via Facebook to let us know that more information about his career can be found at his website.]
*part of which is, “don’t try to crack the States”: both Gutman and Bond gave it a go, and it’s fairly clear their failures sapped a lot of energy out of them.