In 1997 he competed against seven others in the Australian documentary series “Race Around the World”. He lost, but that didn’t stop him. Over the next decade he went on to launch many successful documentary series on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) and SBS television. His programs explored the various aspects of religion and spirituality, and the differing views about interfaith and interracial love. In his travels he has met priests, gurus, voodooists, Klan members, and Freemasons. He’s endured beatings from zen Buddhist teachers, was given an exorcism by the Christian preacher Bob Larson, and has had nails driven through his hands when he subjected himself to a devotional crucifixion in the Philippines. A man this intense could only be JOHN SAFRAN (PART 1)
David Luna: In your adolescence, did you do anything comparable to the wild acts we see in your shows, like drinking peyote in the desert, or placing a voodoo curse on your ex girlfriend?
John Safran: Absolutely not. The kind of weird thing was, before I went on the show “Race Around the World” (which was the first time I was on TV), I was always really quiet. I find pranks so wince-inducing. I hate doing them. I hate being in them. I only do it because, I think that in the past there’s been times where I have this creative spirit in me where I feel like that’s me, who I am, what I want to do, so I sort of go through it because of the end product. But I hate doing it.
I was quite quiet. I was always poking around trying to look at different things to be creative with, like putting a band together or trying to learn how to draw comic strips or trying to devise a board game in grade six. I was just one of those kids, always trying to do creative stuff. Yeah, I was never really loud.
DL: Where do you imagine you would be if there were no Race Around the World?
JS: Well, I was working as a copywriter in an ad agency, and I’d been there like for four years, and I just know I would have stayed there. I sort of got into a groove there. And I reckon I’d be really fat by now. Really fat.
DL: What accomplishment from one of your shows, or anything else you’ve done, are you most proud of?
JS: I guess it’s the stuff in the very beginning of my career where I go, “Oh!” That was the thing where I found my feet and my voice and stuff, so there was that. Or probably when I got exorcised. A week will not go by when someone doesn’t engage with me on some substantial level, and so it’s flattering to me in a good way. Like yesterday, the guy serving me coffee was going “yeah, I grew up in this Christian cult, so when I saw that it kind of made me question things about this and that,” so it seems like I’ve sort of engaged with the world in some kind of positive way. You look like you’re trying to be transgressive, which you are, and you screw up and actually hurt people’s feelings, I’m not denying that. But generally, like, I’m not a sociopath, I’m usually way happier if people are happy with what I do, like if they laugh at it or say, “Oh, that made me think.” You can’t please everyone on the one hand, but if I’ve done something and I really get a “vibe” that everyone was so offended by it, it might not have been the right thing to do. Oh, well.
DL: Do you have a least proud, or most embarrassing moment?
JS: [Laughs] I guess on my last show, “Race Relations,” I intentionally did this thing where it was all about making it as cringe-worthy as possible. It was more disorienting than most of my shows. I’m sort of putting myself in these situations where it’s really ambiguous as to whether I’m being a jerk, or am I being brave. And I just got a lot of blowback from that where I just thought, “Maybe in my next show I won’t do that slightly more performance-arty thing again.”
DL: If money and time were no object, what would be your dream project?
JS: I’d probably go back to the South, in America, where I was last year for this secret project I can’t talk about. I just love it there, and it’s the right dynamic, like I’m a fish out of water there and everything’s sort of problematic in a good way for my kind of work. If you’re white in the South are you economically disadvantaged and sort of a victim, or are you continuing on from your forefathers’ racism? Everything’s the right kind of complicated in a way that’s sort of exciting, so I’d probably go back there.
DL: Growing up, who or what made you laugh the most?
JS: Probably the first thing I remember laughing at was sarcastic Looney Tunes cartoons. They’ve become so ubiquitous. They’re printed up on t-shirts and there’s all these bad new versions of them, but if you go back to the original ones they are very subversive and sarcastic and funny and postmodern. It blew my mind watching the Daffy Duck one where he starts having an argument with the illustrator. That just blew my mind when I was a kid. So when I was young I was into all of these things that lots of young guys get into, like Looney Tunes cartoons, Mad Magazine, and I went through a Monty Python stage, all that kind of stuff.
I wasn’t even into television or documentaries, not that I wasn’t, I just didn’t think about it either way. The Race Around the World thing was this opportunity where it was like, “Submit a five-minute documentary and you can get in this TV show.” And so I just went out there and did it, and I noticed there was this great, nervous energy in the fact that it’s real, and I started noticing that it’s a great way to create this humor, like you’re imposing a comedy sketch onto the real world. So I stuck with it.
The other thing was with Race Around the World we had to submit a five-minute docos every ten days, and my first three I think didn’t even have my “shtick” in them. I kind of knew I wanted to do something weird or funny, but I hadn’t quite worked out what it was. And then I went to West Africa to look at voodoo curses, and I had letters from my ex-girlfriend and photo of her, and I went around asking all these people to put curses on her, and it just kind of clicked into place. I was like, “Oh, my God, this is what I should be doing!” There’s all that humor in like you take all these big, important themes and then make it really narcissistic and personal.
DL: Do you have any favorite comedians or favorite comedy writers?
JS: I guess when I was growing up there were a lot of things I thought were funny, but not strictly comedy. I like some hip-hop, where they’re playing characters and trying to prod at you by saying outrageous things. So I’d laugh at some Beastie Boys stuff and LL Cool J stuff and digest it as comedy, like the ridiculous, over-the-top bragging. When LL Cool J did that I didn’t take it literally, I more took it like this is funny, like he’s being intentionally ridiculous to get a laugh.
I guess like reading books now, people like Hunter S. Thompson, I find funny. But I love other stuff, like Sacha Baron Cohen and all that stuff too. And love South Park. I like all that pretty standard stuff that everyone likes or a lot of people like if they’re into slightly transgressive comedy.
DL: Are there any documentarians that you emulate?
JS: That guy, Louis Theroux, I watched his show (after I had done Race Around the World, but before I did Vs God) and saw how he interviewed people. He always does that thing where he leans against a wall and starts talking to someone, rather than setting up well-lit interviews. I watched that and took that, and when I went out and did Vs God I was definitely influenced by that kind of style.
DL: If you could have a conversation with a dead person from history, who would it be?
JS: I guess Hitler’s the obvious one, isn’t it?
DL: I knew you were going to say Hitler.
JS: [Laughs] Who else would there be? That’d be the one. Or I guess Mohammad or someone, or anyone from the Bible would be kind of cool, like Moses. It’d be pretty funny maybe. Okay, so Moses, or Mohammad, or Hitler. Or maybe Jesus.
DL: If you could return after death as any animal, what would you be?
JS: Maybe that new monkey that came out. You know, they discovered that new monkey in the Congo. That looked pretty cool. Yeah, that new monkey in the Congo.
DL: Way to be topical. If you could choose your death, how would you go?
JS: That’s kind of scary, isn’t it? I don’t know. I reckon I would just – can I get a multiple choice or something? It seems so foreign to me. It seems weird when you think about it, like I can’t, you know, like it seems alien to me. But, I guess you don’t want to be in a lot of pain for a long while, do you? That’s like the boring answer, isn’t it?
DL: It’s not necessarily boring. It’s honest.
JS: Yeah, there might be a little bit of pain so you get to say everything.
DL: How do you think you’ll end up going?
JS: I guess things like car crashes, maybe. That seems credible. I don’t really speed or anything, it just seems like people are always dying in car crashes, aren’t they? Occasionally, if I’m at the red light, I’m on my mobile phone, texting. So I’m kind of asking for it.
DL: After you die, is there anything you want to be remembered for?
JS: I guess if I died now, then maybe every five years there’d be a couple of dozen kids who’d discover me online and think, “Oh wow, he’s interesting, or weird, or whatever,” and that’s fine with me.
DL: So you wouldn’t want to leave behind a legacy, like Jesus, and Moses, and Hitler?
SL: Nah. I’d like to do heaps more work, though, like, substantial work. When I say substantial, I don’t mean like weighty and intellectual work, but more like, for example, my show John Safran Vs God.
DL: Would you ever want to do a show for a US network?
JS: Yeah. I did a pilot in 2007 for MTV in America, and it just went nowhere. I’ve got nothing against being more successful. It’s not like I’m calculatingly trying to not be more successful; it’s just the way it’s rolling out. [Laughs]
When I was in America, doing the pilot, there was something weird where I found it hard to adjust to the changed context. Like, in Australia I’ve really got my bearings as to what the context is. So the context is, I’m on this network where you’re meant to be all nice and decent and be outrageous, but as soon as I was in America I didn’t get what I was meant to — like, what’s the reference point that I’m being the counterpoint to? Things aren’t always funny in other contexts. So, for example, if I’m on ABC in Australia and I bagged the audience for being insufferable, left-wing pinkos who read Noam Chomsky, it seems funny. But when I went on MTV, what am I meant to do? Bag fourteen-year-old girls or something?
DL: Do you ever feel famous because of the success you’ve had?
SF: If I go to Sydney I sort of notice, like people come up to me or whatever. It’s like a privilege, in that people talk to you, and you go into all of these weird worlds that you otherwise wouldn’t have. It makes your life a lot more interesting. Like all things that are sometimes vacuous, like people who usually wouldn’t talk to you, and maybe they’re using you a bit or something by inviting you somewhere, or whatever. But still, it all adds up, so I’ve just had all these wild adventures in the real world over twelve years that I wouldn’t have had if I were a copywriter. I would have just been fat and bitter.
John Safran’s completed projects include John Safran’s Music Jamboree, John Safran vs God, and John Safran’s Race Relations. He currently co-hosts the weekly radio show Sunday Night Safran. You can learn more about Safran and his work through his offical webpage, www.JohnSafran.com.