Down Under Comedian Brings Show to Israel

Austen Tayshus, a prominent Australian comedian, became a household name after the release of his 1983 classic spoken-word single, which used word play on all things quintessentially Australian. Yet the humorist, who is currently vacationing and performing in Israel, has quite a different angle for his Holy Land tour.

"My thing is not one-liners, my show is much more a philosophical take on being Jewish, on living in the Diaspora, in a gentile world, on Jewish pride, on maintaining a secure Israel and the Holocaust and its affect on my generation," explained the 55-year-old, whose real name is Alexander "Sandy" Gutman.

Gutman, a tall man who never steps onto the stage without his black suit and his dark shades, could never repeat the success of "Australiana," the best-selling single of 1983 that combines words to create lines such as " much can a koala bear?" and "Wattle we do about Nulla?"

"It was a huge hit in the 80s," Hadera resident Leon Schneider, who was born three years after "Australiana" was issued, said yesterday. "I remember hearing it on the radio when I was six or seven years old. Every Australian over the age of 20 has heard of Austen Tayshus," he said, adding, however, that for the last 20 years he hasn't heard the name very often.

Since "Australiana," Austen Tayshus has performed over 10,000 shows, produced films, documentaries and records, most of which are no longer about word plays but deal with social issues. After his Israel visit he plans to return to Australia for some 100 gigs countrywide and to release a new record.

Gutman's shows - which often work through imitating accents and personalities - can be quite provocative. "There are people who hate my first guest - racist, homophobe, depraved - even anti-Semitic are some of the insults thrown at him," a popular Australian TV show host said to introduce Austen Tayshus in 2005. "Described as a drunken yobbo's worst nightmare, someone who can outgross you, outyell you and outlast you, Austen Tayshus can lay claim to being our greatest outsider comic."

"My humor is very current," the comedian said this week, explaining that in his latest shows he's been talking about the pope and the abuse scandal that recently rocked the Catholic Church. Other topics he likes to discuss in front of Jewish audiences are South African Jews who move to Australia and their alleged obsession with materialism, Israel's different ethnicities and his experience performing as an Australian-Jewish artist in Arab countries.

"In Israel I've been talking about going to Yad Vashem and the effect that it had on me, and about the relationship between the Jews and the Arabs."

Not exactly topics that would make most people burst out with laughter.

"It's a whole mixture of ideas, and I make it very funny," Gutman promises. "I don't really do a regular routine, I improvise a lot," he explained. "I work a lot with the audience and depending on the sekhel [smartness] of the audience, the more clever the show is.... My show is constantly changing. So the show this Saturday night is going to be completely different from the show I did last week."

The son of a Hasidic Holocaust survivor, Gutman grew up in an Orthodox home. At the age of 14 he won the Australian Bible competition and competed at the finals in Israel, where he got in the top 5, he recalls. He later spent a few months studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva and came back to volunteer during the Yom Kippur War.

The New South Wales resident says he wants to move to Israel as soon as his daughters, 10 and 14, are grown up. "I think all the Jews should come here, now that I've been here again for another couple of weeks," he said. "We should come here and be strong. We need a strong leader right now, someone like Menachem Begin. We need someone who's not going to bend too much."

Austen Tayshus will perform this Saturday at 9:30 P.M. at the Off The Wall comedy club in Jerusalem.