John Safran

Renting Mums and Riling

The Career of John Safran

John Safran is no mere comedian or shit-stirrer – he’s an auteur, writes Dave Hoskin.

There are a lot of things I didn’t know before I watched John Safran’s Race Relations on ABC1 late last year. I didn’t know you could reverse a circumcision by stretching your foreskin. I didn’t know you could dig a hole next to your mother’s grave, lie in that hole and then communicate with her via a Kabbalistic ritual. I didn’t know a white person could artificially darken their skin to the point where they could pass for an African American. I certainly didn’t know there were Filipino Christians who voluntarily crucified themselves. Didn’t know any of that. 

But even amid such a torrent of weirdness, Race Relations’ most memorable segment was also the quietest. Safran’s own mother is dead, and after trying the Kabbalistic ritual mentioned above, he decided to take advantage of a Japanese rent-a-mum service and ask a proxy for permission to marry a non-Jew. It should have been ludicrous. The woman that arrived was Japanese and therefore didn’t look anything like Safran’s mother. Nor did she appear to have been briefed on how to behave, simply giving a generic ‘comforting mum’ performance. And yet somehow none of this really seemed to matter. The anonymous Japanese woman simply did her best to console Safran as he poured his heart out, and the result was bizarrely moving. For all intents and purposes she did become his mother, and we watched two strangers creating something uniquely delicate. 

The disappointing thing is that virtually no one seems to have noticed. I realise it’s only natural for Safran’s more controversial segments to hog the publicity, but I can’t help thinking that the media’s obsession with the ‘outrageous’ has meant something special has been overlooked. It’s rare for auteur theory to be applied to television, and it’s even rarer for it to be applied to non-fiction programs. Nevertheless, after watching Safran go all the way to Tokyo to weep in the arms of a rented mother, I realised I was watching auteur TV. Plenty of presenters like David Attenborough have channelled their obsessions into long-term careers, and plenty more have used personal experiences – such as Tony Robinson wrestling with whether to place his mother in aged care – to illustrate a subject. Despite this, it’s not often that anyone meets both of these auteurist criteria, and it’s even more remarkable for someone to create their own subgenre. For just as David Cronenberg and Alfred Hitchcock mutated genres until their surnames became a new adjective, Safran has welded stunt comedy and documentary into something that’s more than the sum of its parts. 

The irony is that when you examine Safran’s career, it’s pretty clear he was an auteur from the get-go. He burst onto the scene in 1997 as a contestant on the ABC’s Race Around the World, and re-watching his documentaries with the benefit of hindsight, it’s striking how much of his persona emerged fully formed. He’s funny, intelligent and reflexively rebellious (the ABC’s only condition for Race’s audition videos was that they begin with ten seconds of black – Safran claimed that the shop was all out of black and instead substituted ten seconds of yellow). He’s also fascinated with the weirder aspects of race and religion (one episode featured an interview with a Muslim polygamist and his wives; another saw Safran getting an animist to place a curse on his ex-girlfriend) and acutely self-aware (describing himself as a token ‘skinny, pale, whiny person’ in his audition tape). What’s even clearer, though, as Tony Squires remarks while judging Safran’s very first documentary, is that he’s a highly personal storyteller. The documentary itself is pretty ordinary – Safran gets locked inside a stairwell in Osaka and that’s about it – but Squires pegs him perfectly. ‘He may well have been in Japan, [but] that was a story about John,’ he says. ‘That staircase could have been anywhere.’ 

Safran’s been called a lot of things in his career – documentarian, serial pest, culture jammer, wanker – but probably the most misleading label is comedian.

The interesting thing is that while Safran seemed to find his voice quickly, his post-Race work felt like he was struggling to define his identity. Safran’s been called a lot of things in his career – ­documentarian, serial pest, culture jammer, wanker – but probably the most misleading label is comedian. His first pilot for the ABC, John Safran: Media Tycoon, was intended as comedy, but what’s striking is the fact that the funny bits are often the weakest. There are some undeniably decent jokes – the Dalai Lama-meets-Tarantino sequence is a scream – but overall Tycoon feels like the work of a smart-arse. Of course, everyone talks about his détournement of Ray Martin, but the sketch itself doesn’t really work as comedy. Film writer Leslie Felperin observed that legendary comedian Andy Kaufman’s gags (such as punishing an audience by reading the entirety of The Great Gatsby) were ‘almost always more amusing when described than when observed’,[1]Leslie Felperin, ‘Man on the Moon’, Sight and Sound, April 2000, <>, accessed 20 January 2010. and that’s how the Martin sequence feels to me. The preamble has its moments, but when Martin finally appears it’s like watching an argument escalate out of control in a pub. Safran would later pull similar pranks on people like talkback host Steve Price and the Ku Klux Klan, but they don’t have quite the same tone. Instead, Safran’s close encounter with Martin feels more akin to his later exorcism and crucifixion: they’re sketches that sound ‘outrageous’ when the media reports their broad strokes, but they’re more complex beasts when viewed in context. 

This is not to suggest that the ‘outrageous’ stuff is of lesser quality, indeed quite the reverse. I think the reason Safran’s post-Race
work doesn’t feel as satisfying is because he isn’t using comedy for a larger purpose – he’s just trying to be a stunt comedian. The result is that, in trying to achieve the ostensible goal of being funny, there’s often a palpable sneer in Safran’s work, a sneer that keeps both his subjects and his audience at arm’s length. Thus, while it’s amusing to see targets like the meat industry, the ponderous ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’ song or McDonald’s getting skewered, as comedy it’s pretty cheap stuff. The Chaser team could do stuff like this. So could Lawrence Leung or Sacha Baron Cohen. Frankly, it’s telly anyone could do and, more often than not, do a lot better. However, when Safran allows himself to become the butt of the joke, both in mining his own life for material and/or becoming a participant rather than a commentator, he achieves something far richer. The comedian’s sneer gets wiped away and the auteur appears, delivering the kind of telly only he could produce. 

Safran walks in the shoes of others in Chicago

Following these false starts, Safran started getting his groove back when he created John Safran’s Music Jamboree for SBS. The series still gestured towards the mainstream in that it was a comedic exploration of the world of music, but in hindsight it feels like a transitional work. Safran’s obviously a music fan, but he’s beginning to use the stunt comedy format to smuggle in his more esoteric interests. Consequently, while Music Jamboree showcases a lot of his comedian side, it also sees Safran trying to get a Jewish group signed to a Christian record label and inviting guest bands to perform their songs using world music instruments.

Music Jamboree was exactly the shot in the arm Safran needed. It was his first unqualified success since Race Around the World, it proved the Ray Martin thing wasn’t a fluke, and it developed a format best suited to his talents. Even better was the growing realisation that being interesting was just as worthy as being funny. For instance, while theMusic Mole segments were presented in a very silly way, I couldn’t help thinking that the titbits of industry lore were the reason they were truly worth watching. Similarly, while Safran visited a Scientology centre posing as Beck, the Scientologists’ beliefs were treated with a surprising even-­handedness. It’s a novel approach for this kind of subject matter, and something that would later become a hallmark of Safran’s work with Father Bob Maguire on triple j. 

If Jamboree has a fault, however, it’s that it can feel a bit small. Most notably, the stunts seem a lot safer than usual. Dressing up and performing as Prince or Ozzy Osbourne can certainly be hilarious, but the show lacks the equivalent of riling Ray Martin or Race’s streak through Jerusalem. Basically, Safran’s still trying to be a comedian for most of Jamboree, but the point where he would definitively become an auteur was just around the corner. John Safran vs. God was the first time he concentrated exclusively on race and religion, and consequently it was also the first time he really started playing with fire. He’d already demonstrated a knack for irking the pompous – filmmaker and Race judge David Caesar lambasted his work on that show, for example, and Steve Price went ballistic upon being informed that ecstasy tablets bearing the 3AW logo were available – but from the title sequence onwards, vs. God was clearly taking things to a new level. 

Now, as touched on above, there’s nothing the Aussie media likes more than a spot of outrage. Like any other country we have our sacred cows, and it often appears to be taboo to even acknowledge said cows, let alone slaughter them. The cool thing is that Safran had a long track record of refusing to be reverent, but in vs. God that attitude was turned upon bovines that truly deserved it. Because of the worry about sparking an outrage, race and religion tend to be the preserve of polite shows like Q&A or Insight, and results are usually anodyne at best. Confronted with such a vacuum, Safran actively goes looking for landmines, and this means we get to learn a lot of things we otherwise wouldn’t. He dared to wear the Mormons’ sacred underpants. He didn’t flinch from showing voodoo worshippers biting off a goat’s testicles. He demonstrated how the Dalai Lama is often just as conservative as the Pope. He even took part in an exorcism that looked disturbingly real. And he achieved all of it by putting his ego aside and getting off the oh-so-balanced sidelines. 

The saving grace of all this is that despite all the hand-wringing, Safran is taking risks to answer the big questions. He’s not taking the piss out of rage or trying to tempt Shane Warne into smoking a cigarette; he’s dealing with subjects that would not be illuminated by a more reverent approach. There are occasions where the point of a stunt might seem a little spurious or self-indulgent, but this is balanced by his willingness to put aside his defences in the hope of finding something remarkable. Safran admits that while shooting vs. God, ‘when I went to a voodoo temple, when I went to a Buddhist temple I suspended disbelief and said, “Okay, I’m going to play by your rules. I’m going to approach this like you approach it and I really want something amazing to happen”.’[2]‘John Safran’, Sunday
, ABC Local Radio, 5 June 2005, transcript <>, accessed 20 January 2010.
The results are startling, and the same rare attitude pushes Race Relations to even greater heights. It’s brave of Safran to let us watch him drunkenly ranting about his friends and family, to watch him panic about his wedding to a bin Laden relative, to watch him pleading for answers from a Japanese rent-a-mum. It’s this vulnerability that ensures his best work lingers long after you know all the punchlines, and it’s the reason why I don’t feel embarrassed giving him a wanky label like ‘auteur’. This is television that has something to say about the things we don’t talk about, television that’s fearless

And God knows we need a lot more of that.

1 Leslie Felperin, ‘Man on the Moon’, Sight and Sound, April 2000, <>, accessed 20 January 2010.
2 ‘John Safran’, Sunday
, ABC Local Radio, 5 June 2005, transcript <>, accessed 20 January 2010.