John Safran on growing up, Reclaim Australia and anti-semitism

July 28th 2017

  • John Safran :: Interview with Nathan Bernfield

John Safran opens up about how he really feels about pranks, his early Jewish and Australian influences and why he decided to write ‘Depends What You Mean By Extremist’. The impromptu interview was recorded at the Sydney Writers Festival in May.

NB: What was one of your earliest pranks?

JS: I’m allergic to pranks outside of the context of that they worked for what I wanted to do at that point. So I was never pranking before I fell into television.


So they were a medium to express something?

When I was young, from about grade three, I just wanted to do something creative. And I was always trying to figure out what that was. So I’d buy a ‘How to Draw Bugs Bunny’ book from the supermarket and tried drawing bugs bunnies but I was no good at that. Then over the years, I just tried anything, like joining a band. Then, in [‘Race Around the World’ in 1997], I had to submit  short documentaries [and], for me, that was just another go. When I was on the road around the world, I stumbled across this thing of imposing myself into these earnest situations, that I usually studied either academically or earnestly… For example, investigating voodooism in West Africa and [trying to get a voodoo curse on my ex-girlfriend]. It kinda just worked and I was happy I’d discovered something that worked.

But when I was in university, I remember reading about this movement in the 60s called the Yippies, not the Hippies but the Yippies. And they would do some weird pranking that had some subtext. For example, needing a thousand people to stand around the Pentagon and try to levitate the Pentagon.


Were [the Yippies] like the absurdist hippies?

Yeah, I think so. Even though I read about them — about pranks that had some meaning to them, like culture jamming — it never meant that much to me. I read a lot of different things at uni. But then when I was on the road and I was thrown into this documentary series, suddenly I remembered that and applied that. As a technique is sort of worked. And so then I just kept on doing it because it worked creatively. But on a personal level, I winced and didn’t enjoy it. Because it’s just so awkward.


So when you’re at family events, you’re not doing gags off camera?

Definitely nothing I think will upset anyone. With my friends, I might do ‘micro-trolling’ just for the hell of it.


What’s micro-trolling?

Micro-trolling? I might pretend to be offended about something I’m not offended by. But basically I’d never — unless I really thought the other person was going to be happy with it… but I guess my whole life is just a micro-troll, really…



In the late 90s, when all these pranks were coming out on TV (for example, in the Race Around the World), what did your friends, your family and the Jewish community think of all of this?

I think they were kind of cool with it. The cool thing about the Jewish community, there definitely is this well-established track record of Jews and comedy and how that’s kind of good and not bad… and Jews just being wildly and innovated. There was already a well-established blue print… so of course you’re going to have some people… I can’t have everyone liking me… but generally more good than bad. Until I got really offensive later on, I never really felt like the world’s against me.


Do you feel apart of that canon of ‘Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Woody Allen’? Of continuing on a tradition of Jewish comedy?

Ah I don’t know. It’s hard to know what you’re influenced by. I wouldn’t deny I’m influenced by that but I’m influenced by other things that have nothing to do with that. So it always give the wrong impression… For instance, for this book, Depends What You Mean By Extremist, theres this Aussie film from the seventies and it’s called ‘Wake In Fright’. It’s about this city slicker who ends up in rural Australia and the whole tension is that it’s classic Australia and everyone’s drunk, “have a drink, have a drink!”, any moment this tension could really turn ugly on a dime. It’s like, if you’re not fucking like us, then fuck you, you think you’re fucking too good to drink! And I really feel like this whole book is like a re-boot of that film. In fact, there was a point when we were going through all the possible titles for the book and one of them was ‘Wake In Fright’. So what I’m saying is that, absolutely growing up and watching Jewish comedy was an influence but lots of other things as well.


Probably another aspect of comedy that I really learnt from – and I didn’t really know all this stuff was Jewish when I was younger, I’d just watch it on TV and when I was older, I was like ‘Oh the Marx Brothers were Jewish’!


Right, you’d find out afterwards.

Yeah, yeah. And a lot of Jewish influence in Mad Magazine. And then the thing I engaged with the most that made me realise ‘Oh my god, these are my people’ was those Looney Tunes cartoons like Daffy Duck. I don’t know how Jewish technically they were but part of the DNA of that show was based on Jewish vaudeville – the Jewish style of comedy. So all this Jewish shit that I didn’t realise at the time. The reason I tell you this is because one of the big things I picked up was that [when] I used to watch Marx Brothers films with my Dad when I was young. And I really picked up this thing… I noticed they never started off being wacky. They always set up an earnest situation. Like a posh garden party or the opera. And therefore, when they came in with their muddy boots, it was like ‘Ooohhhhahhh’. And I really feel like, I just always, from the go get with my television work, I kind of do that. The topic, for instance, of religion, is like: ‘Okay, I’m going to talk about religion’. Already that’s me setting up the scene at the opera or the garden party. Earnest and mentally treated with reference and then it’s like: ‘Oh shit, John Safran’s coming in’[For example], if there were a TV shot of a white Hindu temple or a mosque or a synagogue and already the audience is squirming.


It reminds me of your marriage with Bin Laden and it just went on and on and it was kind of an awkward punchline.

I know, I know. That show – I can’t even watch it. It was like haywire.  The best thing I can say is that at least it was strange. I learnt a lot from that show. I think it went too far into performance art territory. I think what people like about me is my doco stuff but not when I go into Dada-esque performance art with artificial story-arches.


You mentioned before you go on these earnest quests – I’d call them spiritual quests. For example you cast a voodoo curse on your ex-girlfriend and drank the peyote in Arizona. Is it coming from a real sincere place of spiritual experience?

Yeah, yeah, I absolutely want them to be true. No matter what it is, I can suspend disbelief and [think] ‘this might be true’.


Where does that sort of quest come from? Does it come from a place where maybe Jewish Sunday school wasn’t for you and so you wanted to experience different things?

Yeah, I think so. They kinda messed with my brain. I reckon I could have children and maybe by the time they have children, all that stuff will be out of their system. But it’s too late for me to not believe in magic and supernatural things. I kind of got my head brainwashed at a young age. My parents weren’t that religious but they still sent me to Sunday school. You can’t undo what was done to you as a child. There’s just no way, if I put in all my effort, not that I’d want to, to be some sort of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris sort-of-atheist. Even Sam Harris is a bit weird because he believes in Buddhism or whatever. But just to be some smart ass, some atheist, who just thinks ‘religion’s shit and has no purpose and I hate it all’. I just can’t do it, it’s too late.



Let’s move on to your new book, Depends What You Mean By Extremist, how did it all start?

Well it started because of my background, as you know. So already those things are floating through my head all the time. Issues of like racism and secrets. Because I grew up and in my high school years, I’m hanging out with these Hassidic Jews who have been sent from New York to Melbourne to help bring about the Messiah and then in the evening I’m with my grandparents. And we never, I don’t even think there was one conversation about the Holocaust. But I kind of knew that they had escaped and all of their family had been killed. At the time I didn’t think about it but there was a slightly mad energy about them. [For example], I knew that a fellow survivor had built their cabinet in the flat with a hollowed out wall so they could hide their possessions.


Sounds like the Anne Frank story. But hiding their possessions rather than themselves.

Yeah, yeah. And just things like: they had so much canned food just in case or whatever… So there’s that kind of stuff floating about but then the more recent incarnation is me rocking up at a Reclaim [Australia] Rally and being surprised. I was promised skin heads and white Pauline Hanson supporters… and then I rock up and theres a brown dude on the microphone who’s part of Reclaim Australia.


What’s his name again?

Pastor Daniel Naliah preaching against multiculturalism. And he’s brought along this congregation… and they’re kind of multiethnic too… but they’re not on the side supporting multiculturalism, they’re against it. So I just needed to jump down that rabbit hole. Especially because another element of it is that I posted some sarcastic tweets about it all and I got a bit of this blowback… And I found it weird…


From the Left?

Hmm, well, not from Right. People thought I was up to no good because I was pointing out that there’s non-white people.


Yeah, you’re pointing out that the right-wing has become more multicultural.

Yeah. And I really trusted myself. I [was] going ‘why are these people shitty with me?’. I don’t think I’m an idiot. I don’t think I’m always having a fight… But I’m going ‘I was fricken there at the god damn rally! Definitely there was multi-coloured dude’! And then I started thinking it’s interesting how we’re so immature as a country in the way that we discuss things that I can rock up in Oz 2015 and even just saying this stuff… because it’s just not said. If you were to take people alone, especially people from non-anglo backgrounds, such as Japanese-Australian or Indian-Australian or Muslim-Australian, and have some cheeky conversation, it would be like ‘oh yeah, there’s all these racist grandparents’.


The kind of stuff I discuss people know is true but it’s never discussed on the panel of Q&A. 


Maybe it’s easier to talk about issues when they’re black and white or left and right?

Yeah and I kind of felt that it was exciting to talk about something that was so lumpy and awkward to so many people. For instance, Pastor Daniel Naliah was taken to court by three Muslims for religious vilification. And he’s a non-white immigrant and the three Muslims who took him to court were anglo-Aussies who had converted. I’m already like, that’s funny or ironic because the whole thing is meant to be about white people oppressing brown people. But in this case, it’s the Muslims who are white and this guy’s the immigrant. And if you were to say, ‘But yeah John, what does that mean? What’s your policy position’? I don’t know what it means! But lots of people think, unless you’ve got some policy position, why are you even talking about it? Like, on Q&A, I’ve noticed no one’s ever allowed to say anything where it’s not ‘an there policy position…’ and then also ‘what the government should be doing…’. But I don’t know! It’s not like every conversation the only valid endpoint is ‘And, therefore, the government should…’.

And I guess my whole book is [that] this is just so under-discussed [so] me just bringing these things up and me not knowing how they all tie up into nice neat little bows at the end. I’m fine with it.



Do you feel, behind all this, is there something sincere you care about? Values you hold dear?

Absolutely. In the case of this book, definitely there was an element where consciously whilst writing the book or researching the book, [I found] there was all this grubby, casual anti-semitism. Or at the very least, people turning a blind eye to anti-semitism because it’s a bit awkward and the wrong people are committing it. [For example], if Trump supporters are anti-semitic, the Left’s onboard like ‘fuck these Trump supporters’. And anti-semitism is really bad-


Or what if it’s someone from the extreme Left?

Yeah. Or if it’s Muslim anti-semitism… So I just made a decision… I have a platform and my book’s going to be filled with lots of other things. [For example], Jews being racist and islamaphobic. I just felt like, I’m absolutely going to go there and I’m not going to let casual anti-semitism off the hook with all these pat little explanations as to why it doesn’t count.


I’m sure your family is really proud of you for that.

Yeah, yeah, I’ve already got a little bit of good feedback for that. Some of the Right-wing Jews are already going hard on me. It’s almost like they haven’t read the book. They have read the book but they just pretend that in the book it doesn’t exist. Because they just want to attack me for being some sappy Left-wing pinko. And it’ almost like they’re pretending that in the book I don’t spend a significant amount of time with Australia ISIS supporters… and I go there. Because they want there pat little thing to be ‘ugh, he’ll criticise the white Australians but he won’t say anything about Islam’. And it’s like ‘what the fuck are you talking about’? I spend so much time with Aussie ISIS supporters. So anyway, that’s an example of a value and I’ve already got a couple of pats on the back from the Jews who [have] said ‘good on you John, for going there’.


Good on you mate.




I feel like what you do is, through comedy and wit, everyone holding hands… it sounds quite utopic.

Mmm and then I pass the Jim Jones Coolaide to everyone. That’s like the end plan or whatever… Do you know this? Oh I can’t tell you this because then I’ll go off on a tangent… No, I have no answer except for: My instinct tells me, in the overall mix of things, its good to have comedy voices and its really helpful to have smart allics who poke away at things… so that’s my contribution.


Song credit: Sister by Angel Olsen

Listen back to the Canvas: Art & Ideas interview with John Safran.


Digital Producer on Canvas: Art and Ideas.

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