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.”