Whatever happened to the Sandman?
Remember that comedian, a fixture of the late '90s? On Triple J, Good New Week, the Melbourne Comedy Gala? Tall, beaky nose, deadpan, slightly cracking voice, twisted humour? Ever wonder what happened to him?
I never had, not really, until an email from out of the blue last week both asked and answered this question. Turns out The Sandman has been off our screens for around seven years. To be more precise, he's been gone since his last appearance on Australian television in 2009 on Sunrise, on what was supposed to be the first of a 12-part slot. Could have been something to do with the piece he presented – "How to touch people without attracting legal trouble" – but he was not asked back on.
The result was a kind of epiphany for Steve Abbott, who had been performing as the Sandman for decades.
He's now got a new show – or, rather, a work in progress that he's tentatively touring to test the waters of the public taste for navel-gazing, what with the '90s being, well, decades ago now. What Happened to Sandman (or How I Became a Birdwatcher) sounds exactly like the title of a trademark two-minute Sandman segment that used to punctuate breakfast radio or the popular TV panel show Good News Week. But it's actually a meditation of what it's like to kill off a character.
Because Sunrise was a kind of death knell for the persona.
"After that it made me realise that Sandman was dead, really," he says.
"It actually didn't worry me at all, but it just reinforced the idea that Sandman had run its course, and he left a pretty good legacy really. A lot of people liked the character in the '90s, when there was Radiohead and Beck and all that, it just seemed to suit the atmosphere of the '90s, that nihilistic sort of loser outsider, fringe-dweller type of character. So it just felt like he'd had his time and it was kind of an epiphany moment."
The moment, such as it was, coincided with Abbott's increasing fascination with birdwatching which, he says, was as much a surprise to him as it would be to any of the [still] many people who stop him in the street to ask what he's been up to.
A lot has happened since the Sandman was ubiquitous. He spent a decade on Triple J, then several shows on SBS, including a trip to Russia with his mother, called Sandman in Siberia.
"I started doing more things with Steve, and Sandman just went to the side, and then I went through a period of doing nothing. Really, I was on the dole," he says.
"And then out of the blue, my agent rang up and said, 'How about doing Sunrise?' And I thought, lord, no."
He did it anyway and we know the rest. But in fact, he's been working as one half of a scriptwriting duo with Warren Coleman (who co-wrote the film Happy Feet) for the past several years, while watching birds, although not, he's keen to emphasise, with his trousers hoiked up under his nipples, the stereotypical garb for the aging male bird enthusiast.
The hobby grew out of "an epiphanous moment with a wandering albatross down in Clovelly in Sydney", he says.
And at a time when many of his contemporaries – including members of the comedy troupe the Doug Anthony Allstars – are back touring for nostalgia's sake, he realised he still had an itch to perform to an audience.
"I thought, I haven't performed for such a long time and it used to be such a big part of my life, and I thought how can I do another show? But without just playing Sandman, a guy with the emotional range of a 14-year-old? Sandman is kind of me if I did everything my mum told me to do growing up, really," he says.
The resulting show, which he'll perform over two nights at the Street Theatre, is "extreme navel-gazing, that's what it is", he says.
"It's a bit tongue in cheek, really, but that's the only good way to present some of the Sandman stuff and be a bit objective about it.
"That's kind of what it's about, really, it's about letting go and breaking up with yourself. It's like a tragic case of co-dependency. I see people in the street and they still call me Sandman, and not Steve, and it is pretty much the core thing of what I'm trying to deal with here, in a comic and hopefully musical way – what it's like to break up with yourself."
He says he's never really identified himself as a comedian, even though he's always played for laughs. But those laughs have been reluctantly won in recent times and especially when he reprises his alter-ego.
"Sandman gets the biggest laughs, but it's a difficult thing… I can still play the character 24 hours a day if I had to, but it's always the old stuff that goes over better than the new material for Sandman, I just feel like that mine has been completely cleaned out," he says.
In true Sandman style, despite my insistence that, what with the current enthusiasm for '90s nostalgia amongst the 30-somethings, he will likely find a receptive audience here in Canberra, Abbott is surprisingly hesitant to spruik this new show wholeheartedly.
"The show's a work in progress, really," he says.
"It will be an hour and 10 of your life that you'll never get back."
Oh, come now, Steve Abbott. Buck up – Canberra's game for it!
Steve Abbott will be performing What Happened to Sandman (or How I Became a Birdwatcher), at Street 2 Theatre, May 28-29. Visit thestreet.org.au for more information.