The most commented on t-shirt I own is this John Safran tent I purchased from the internet using my Mum's credit card in 2005. I have no idea why it solicts the most attention.
What usually happens is myself and a member of the public (I'm in TV, we all talk like this) will be about to pass each other on the street until they catch sight of the shirt, at which point they'll step infront of me so I have to stop while they peer at my torso. Everyone who has done this has looked confused for about five seconds, muttered something like "oh," and then walked on.
The most famous person who did this was noted columnist and fashion photographer Chris Trotter who staggered up to me one night at the Wine Cellar. He tenderly parted my hoodie to get a better look and spent what seemed like twenty seconds staring before he looked me in the eye, nodded in a conspiratorial fashion, as if to say "your shenanigans make me feel young again," and wandered off in the direction of the toilets.
It was bought at the height of my Safran worship. At the time I pretty much thought that John Safran Vs God was the best thing I'd ever seen, which conversely saddened me because it underlined how unlikely it was I'd ever create anything with as much life, humor and investigative passion for its subject. So I bought some merchandise.
I also got the opportunity to interview Safran for Real Groove while he was in Auckland promoting the show. He was nervous, but articulate. I was nervous, but incomprehensible. What follows is a transcript of the interview, which I found recently hidden in some mucky folder on my computer. I'm pretty much the worst interviewer to ever walk the earth (while playing LA Noire I've sent more honest men to jail than the actual LAPD), but I had the good sense to admit to Safran that I was his "biggest fan" AFTER I turned off the dictaphone. Unfortunately I kept it on when I was talking.
JOHN SAFRAN INTERVIEW 14-07-2005
Anyway as a way to break the ice umm I thought I'd give you this as a gift from everyone here in New Zealand.
Cool. A nation under siege. Is that that the dudes, what is it called? The Destiny's Church?
Destiny Church, yeah outlining how the government has a homosexual agenda. And stuff like that I actually had to go down
Witchcraft, that's fantastic.
Yeah, yeah, it's excellent I had a look at it last night, it's really great it's got (note how I lack so little authority in the interview)
Are they like all Maoris in this party?
Um yeah mostly but it's not a Maori party per se um
There is a lot of Pacific Islanders.
What's the perception between Maoris and non-Maoris? Because in Australia, like, if someone's Aborigine like there're really like an other it's like, and it's such a small group compared with most of Australia, like it's really considered a separate group, is it a bit messier in New Zealand?
Yeah, yeah, it is because there's heaps
Is it more half and half?
There's heaps of you know integration over the years and stuff like that
Um I I haven't been to Australia but my perception is that Maori are a bit more integrated
Into you know white society than um you know Aboriginals
We still have our problems and stuff like that um
And is there like is there like some equivalent like I mean there's not too racism in Australia but like right wing generally are there any people who are conservative and you know there're dark on homosexuals and dark on the liberal media or whatever but also they're not happy with Maoris? Or not really?
The racism towards Maori really it's all to do with land with land claims
There's a lot of insecurity between the Whites and Maori at the moment. Um anyone with half a brain knows that it's not that way. You know certain tribes are looking for compensation from the government stuff like that but yeah is it like that in Australia with land claims? (What an amazing summary of the last two hundred years of colonisation. That professorship must be coming in the mail any day now.)
Yeah yeah but it'd be like um I guess if there was a party like this chances are that they'd be like this and also anti-aboriginal.
But to get the DVD I had to I thought you could just order of the internet. So I thought I'd be cool to just give you that it's kinda funny so you might be able to use that. Um it's got flying graphics and everything like that. But they don't give them away on the internet so I had to go to the speaking tour he's also got a political party as well. And I had to go to this little hall in Mangere which is South Auckland um and I actually thought I could stay for ten minutes and just pick up the thing, you know? Cause I really didn't want to listen to his bullshit pick up a whole lot of merchandise and leave but then they brought out the merchandise after the talk so I had to sit there for two a half hours. And the worst thing is that this was in a small community hall and they played like a sort of elevator music version of Neil Young like basically the whole Harvest CD so it was kinda like so that's all about drugs but if you set it too pan flutes that's like OK.
Thank you very much. (He thanked me. Squeeeee! And all I had to do was bore him shitless)
Have you seen Popetown at all?
No no but I've heard about it. I only heard about it because um Amanda told me of the controversy and I checked it out like a day before I came, just read an article on the BBC website. But reading between the lines it seems like it wasn't funny enough.
No. I've seen one episode so it's probably not enough but it's not really that funny. It's half of what Father Ted is you know? Catholics are kind of worried about it and say it's disrespectful. Do you think there's like a double standard with media and western society in general where it's OK to take the piss out of a Christian party or you know Catholics and stuff like that but it's not OK to take the piss out of Buddhists or something? (how can you tell I was a humanities student? I used the words "media" and "western society" in the same sentence)
Um. I guess. I guess a lot of the comedy in my show was like coming out of playing on that preconception. How come it's fun to make fun of bishops and no one else? But in reality I just reckon in 2005 everything's too disparate. There's not even one mainstream that like ninety percent of the people follow and then there's like an alternative thing that stands. It's like on the Footy Show in Australia you probably can make fun of Islam or something like that. But yeah generally like I don't think it's quite as simple as that no one can make fun of Islam or no one can make fun of Judaism or whatever. And I also think the confusing thing in Australia is that generally except for smart arses like me people do just want to have a pretty calm day. So they're pretty much not going to make fun anyone really. So um yeah so
Because in your show Vs God which I've seen and is really cool by the way (christ on a stick) um you hang around with Father Bob for a while um but you don't your're quite easy on the Catholics I'm not saying you kowtow to them or anything like that but it's quite easy compared to the other religions that you look at?
I guess it's also like who my audience is, so I've got this real focus on who the audience is so and yeah I do say my audience is kind of lefty, uni students, Michael Moore fans and stuff like that. Because I know they're my audience I try to challenge them. And I understand that audience because I kind of grew up like that so I feel informed about it so therefore that's kind of like when I make crap jokes about that audience, it's more informed than the crap jokes I'd be able to crack about rednecks because I just didn't grow up in a redneck community or anything.
But in the case of Father Bob it's far less philosophical and its more to do with just comedy and stuff. So with Father Bob he was just so funny I just didn't have to say anything and that's way the story was kind of cut that way. That was the reason. When we started out we tried to be broad and cover everything, but then you just go out and film and some things are just funnier than other things. For example I think we got three stories on the Mormons and you know one story on Islam and it's like how did that work out? When push came to shove we did this story about Islam and Rove and that was funny. We did that and another story we did on Islam wasn't good enough so then we did these stories on the Mormons and there happened to be three that we thought were of better quality. It's more like that. It's quite mercenary.
It seems the show is a lot about shattering peoples' assumptions, like what they think is going on? Like the Dhali Lama segment where you run around with him and the Pope look-alikes. Was that a completely conscious thing?
It's like the last couple of years I just hang around lefty people and they're all kind of sure of themselves and I get lots of people saying to me "oh you know John you're just like Michael Moore." But generally it's good feedback, I reckon people love it when you make fun of them as long as it seems informed. I reckon there's this misconception that like comedy somehow you get an audience and you make fun of their enemies, but I reckon people love it. If it comes across like you're being sort of accurate, so you don't just seem like you're doing stupid stereotypes, people really like it. I guess it's like hip-hop kids love Ali G. He's making fun of them, but they it's kind of flattering in some way to be made fun of.
You've got to watch it though in one of you're closing rants when you're talking about um humanities students who have the book on page three that was completely me. I was watching it and you were basically describing me and I was just sitting there going. And my flatmate started laughing at me going "He's talking to you buddy." And for two minutes it was like you tore me apart. But then I turned off the DVD and got a coffee and thought stupid lefty pinko. But it was really good because a lot of your stuff hits the mark. And it seems to me it's a product of really good research. You put a lot of time into that?
Oh definitely. I'm just kind of interested in religion anyway, but I have found you get off the hook a lot if you kind of research enough. I remember on Music Jamboree I did this thing where I dressed up as Prince and went door to door knocking because he became a Jehovah's Witness When I was writing the song rather than just, you know, writing any old shit I actually read their literature so I could start getting all their little nuances of their religion in it; so talking about the 144,000 that go to heaven etc. There's all these little codes and sentences in it and Jehovah Witnesses watch it they're all kind of "oh that's pretty cool. It's like he's kind of done his homework and stuff."
Are you attracted to the trappings of different religions? The funny little things that they have?
Oh yeah definitely. I don't why I'm just one of those people who grew up and I just loved all that kind of conspiracy theory kind of world. It kind of it just gets me giggly and excited and, um, it still hasn't subsided. I love how religion's just mad, it's really mad. Did you see the last episode like the exorcist dude? I hung out with him in his world for four days. it's this insane world and they all believe it, like there's no bullshit where when the camera's off "oh yeah now we'll go off and be regular people." They're like that all the time. It's just amazing that there are people like that. I guess the problem happens when religious people get too much power. I reckon they should just butt out of that. I reckon they provide good dimension to the world they make it more exciting and more colourful and stuff, but when they get too much power that's when they become like jerks.
So Bob Larsen came to Australia?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah he came to Australia. I wasn't allowed to met him because I saw him off the record but both SBS my television station and me decided because apart from his exorcism shit, which was fine, he was quite absolutely beyond the pale with extracting funds from his congregation. I just totally cut these people slack, you know I did the scientologists I did the Klan I just sit there and for whatever reason I don't get cuffed by them. I'm sitting there with the Klan and I'm not getting cuffed that he's bagging jews I don't know why. Bob Larsen, when it came to extracting funds from his congregation, was so beyond the pale so unethical and
What sort of stuff?
Oh just like tell these stories like 'cause his audience is basically working class whites or working class blacks he targets his message to that. He's like "you know I had a friend he was a member of my congregation I saved his marriage through his exorcism. You know what? He has one thousand dollars in his bank account. That's all he had in the whole world. And you know what he did? He took it out and gave it not to me but to my church. He said because what price is saving my marriage if you can do for other people what you can do for me." So he's just telling these people who have one thousand dollars in the whole world to empty their bank accounts and give it to them. He was pretty unethical.
So you didn't talk to him on camera or anything?
Oh he'd talk about that on camera but we just had half an hour …
Because weren't you and him going to sort Australia out?
Oh yeah. So he came back to Australia so we made this decision, me and SBS, like in the context of that thing that like the doco thing but if I'd if he comes to Australia and I'm in public like because he would've loved to have gone on talk shows with me and stuff. It just seemed I was endorsing him, so you know. But I did see him off the record. We had a secret surreptitious Starbucks meeting where I met him and his wife and his kids. They brought down a whole exorcism team to Australia. It was only about two months ago and he brought this whole exorcism team to Australia and everyone. It was like a Jerry Springer show where everyone was either remarkably skinny or remarkably fat with no in between people.
I just loved the way he was incredibly self assured the whole time.
I had so much fun hanging out with him for four days. When you're watching a show you're thinking "oooh the scary bit must be in meeting the Klan or it must be hanging around with those Voodou people" but the scary bits always when you've got this crew over there and you've got one day. Are we just going to waste this and be fucked and not have good material to put in the show? That's always the stress over everything. So when I met him and I had five minutes with him, there was like this relief. My God! Every time this guys opens up his mouth he says some thing more offensive than the previous. I could not belief it he was just so perfect! And then after spending about half an hour with him I'm going "This guy could be a whole episode." And then it was so relaxing because now we've got a whole episode. He just was incredible. And then when he was asking me to forgive Hitler I just couldn't believe it. I was like "oh my God it couldn't be more perfect." This guy was saying the most perfect things I couldn't even script or whatever.
Yeah he loved the camera didn't he?
Yeah, you'd think the great thing about him he'd start saying something really offensive and then whilst saying it he'd go off on these tangents and top the previous thing that was really offensive five seconds ago and then he'd go off on another tangent. Like there's one that's in the episode where you think he's going to bag Islam and so he goes "You know John? You know who's compelling suicide bombers?" And I thought "oh my God he's going to start bagging Islam and make out that Islam's all about suicide bombing and be really offensive" and then he goes "You know who causes it?" and I go "what?" "demons!" So suddenly not only does Islam compel suicide bombers, but they're satanic and stuff and he's just really great at that. There's stacks of stuff that we cut because we only had half an hour.
I have to ask what do you think happened to you on those fateful days when you were supposedly possessed?
He either hypnotised me or he exorcised me.
So it's kind of a end of Signs thing where it depends on what you believe?
Yeah. It really annoyed people in Australia. People got really annoyed that I didn't have a thing at the end of the episode. We got like thousands of e-mails. I've never done anything where I've got such a response.
There were really bits where I was going "oh, be careful what you wish for because it might come true." You know, you want to do something that has an impact, but I'm not sure. I got contacted by like mental health people who where like: it's really dangerous to put that on air because you know people who are like already a bit wonky that's really going to push them over the edge and I thought "oh yeah, bullshit." But then I met this guy on the street and he was like really nice he wasn't trying to upset me or anything and he was telling me about how his kid had a mental problem and they always watch my show. And they saw that episode his kid is now going around thinking he's possessed by demons. I got contacted by this school who said this girl turned up to school crying and I have an obligation and tell her blah blah so that's the real extreme response to it.
Does that sort of stuff make you feel guilty at all?
I guess the response I want to get is generally just people love or it made people think or made them laugh. I don't really like it that much . You know I did this thing with Ray Martin this current affairs host and afterwards all the lefties are like "aww good on ya John, fucking take him down!" I really hated it. I remember one time I did this, not for TV, I did this fundraising thing for Free West Papua which is a bit like a free East Timor thing and I really supported that stuff and they 'd written me this speech to read. I just read it or whatever and everyone in the audience is cheering "yeah yeah!" And even though I agreed with the issue I really had this problem with people listening to me and taking me seriously.
"I found it interesting" yeah I love that. But when it gets too specific like "oh yeah now I'm going to join a fucking cult." I had a few things like people saying "oh yeah I always dismissed my Christian roots but after seeing that last episode I realised there are things out there and I've started going back to church." And I'm like "oh fuck."
On that track what did your father think of the whole Vs God Series?
Oh he was fine with it.
Is he like an orthodox Jew or something?
With Jews it's a little like most Jews are like paradoxes and its all confusing because most Jews are only culturally Jewish as opposed to religiously. The cultural stuff is generally a religious thing so like you'd have a lot of Jews in Australia who have the Friday night Sabbath meal, but they're not being motivated by the same thing that motivates a Christian to go to church. It's the same thing that motivates a Greek person to be Greek. But it all gets paradoxical and confusing especially with my family. My Dad is really culturally Jewish, he's a volunteer Jewish guide at the Jewish Museum and he's really into it. My Mum was like an atheist Jew it's all just really messy. I live in a Jewish area in Melbourne, so lots of orthodox Jews and they all know me and they're OK with the show and stuff like that as long as it's not political. They've got a real wide berth when it comes to making fun of religion, it's just when you get into Zionism or something.
If you attack Israel or something.
Yeah yeah, then they're really dark on you. If I was making fun of Israel they'd be really dark on you, but if you're making fun of rabbis and doing pork jokes they love it.
They've been doing it themselves for years.
It's weird how interesting the Jewish stuff was because we don't have a large Jewish community here so it's like how we're fascinated by America because we it's a lot of stuff we don't have here.
I definitely drag in my Jewish past because people go "oh that's kind of interesting." I am as Aussie as I am Jewish but no one wants to here me go "Hi I'm John Safran and I'm in a suburb now. And I'm getting on a bus." But if I include that I went to this Jewish school then suddenly it's interesting.
So was there any trouble like when you had the gameshow for your Israeli citizenship?
Oh yeah, there's some stuff in the show where when we were making it where it was really tense and heated, but the time it gets out on a little TV screen some of the heat was taken out of it. That was really tense to shoot because I had my Zionism friends there and these Palestinians in my home and everyone was into it and everyone got it, but still there was a real tension there.
It was the same when we shot the Aboriginal land rights story where whenever you do race irony once it's on TV everyone's fine and it's in context and people realise it's funny and not mean spirited or whatever, but yeah it's a pretty big thing to get up there and we had the white Australian film crew and the Aboriginal actors and I had to stand in the middle of them and say "so anyway we're going to dress you up like ha ha tribal Aboriginals…" like it's really quite awkward. Especially with the Aboriginal thing with white Australians it's such a sore point. Lots of the crew the white crew were really tense about it because they thought I was making fun of Aboriginals.
And the Aboriginal crew?
Oh they were fine with it. When you go all around the world it's this recurring thing where people just kind of get it and they're just not that pious and they like a bit of fun. We get so much feedback like we did this story with this priest Father Pino where I confess that I masturbated in his bed when I was his guest five years earlier. And when we left at the end he was like "oh guys that was so much fun." He just loved it.
So you were pretty stressed there for a few days while you were working up the courage to confess?
It was kind of like: was he going to bite? It was really hard to do because with everyone else you go to and act sincere like "we're going to do a serious documentary" and you pull something and you've got them, while with him I had already "got" him when I had done my story on him for Race Around The World and then I'm going back five years later and pretend that I've grown up. "Yeah yeah I know last time I was here I was in that prank show, but now I've grown up." But he was really into it.
So are you and Rove OK?
Yes yes yes. He was OK pretty much straight away.
Did you tell him what you were going to do beforehand or after?
After we'd filmed it and before we edited it we had to figure out a way to take the heat out of it. There was so many reasons for heat to be in it. The whole thing was presented like the stereotype of Muslims is that they're always violent, so what the hell we're doing this alternative comedy show would it be like if we did the same bullshit? And there was the other thing where people were really worried that the Fatwa would be followed through. That it's really irresponsible to do that. So one way we thought to get around it is if we had Rove having a right of reply at the end of it. And I approached him at the Logies, but I left it really open. Then we went to our lawyers and they said nah it's a bad idea because if he says no then maybe we'll have to can the whole story. But since that I've spoken to him I've only spoken to him on the phone and one radio show I went on and they rang him and then I went on his radio show also.
That's nice. A happy story.
Yes. A happy ending.
Do you compare yourself at all to Clive James?
I love his book Unreliable Memoirs it's hilarious. When we were out filming stuff we didn't quite know how it was coming together so one of the options was for it to be like one of those Clive James shows and do a sarcastic voice over like afterwards, but we always found that it seemed gutless doing sarcastic voiceovers. I don't know what it was, but you watch and go "oh yeah good one John." So we found we could only ever use voiceover if it was just being utilitarian, it was like "and now we're here to there." But even the slightest sarcastic jokes in the voiceover seemed real gutless and smarmy. (And now I do that for a living. You really took a lot from this didn't you José?)
Which he quite often sounded like, although there was one real good Christmas special. But we won't talk about that. (what?)
I remember being really young and thinking "That guy's got such a weird shaped head." Before I read Unreliable Memoirs I always thought he was the guy on the telly with the weird shaped head but then I read the book and thought it was so funny.
Are you a rules or league man?
Aussie rules. Oh yeah I'm from Melbourne so no one even really knows what rugby is over there. But it's obsessive. There is no one who is not into AFL, even the female secretary at some place is in to it. The richest guy's into it. The poorest guys into it. It's really odd. I might be the guy who's the least into football in all of Melbourne.
But you're still kind of into it?
Yeah well my family's into it more than I am so I'm quite like if you're Catholic and you turn up to church just to keep them happy.