John Safran Talks Blackface, Crucifixion And Eurasian Underwear – Part 1 of 2

Between crucifixions, blackface stunts and turns as a Thai Ladyboy, Australia’s favourite bespectacled envelope pusher, John Safran, should expect some colourful hate mail in the not too distant future. But as Pedestrian learns, context matters as much as content and when it comes to Race Relations it’s not always black and white.

P: What’s your new series about and what prompted you to do it, what inspired you to talk about race?

JS: Its all about cross cultural love, whether we’re in 2009, this is all relevant. And that it should even be in your head that someone’s from a different ethnicity does that mean I should or shouldn’t particularly date them? So yeah, it’s looking at that. It goes through the filter of me. Because I’m from the Jewish community where it’s a real pronounced issue. Even though it’s mainly talked about behind closed doors. It’s a real raw issue about whether you should date then marry people who aren’t Jewish, because you know, you’re betraying your culture and stuff like that. So it’s sort of my funny investigation and extrapolation of that issue.

P: So for people who may not be aware of that, what was it like growing up in Jew-town in the 3183?

JS: Well you just kind of knew, knew that you should end up with a Jew. And it’s a bit of a tangled issue. Even parents who weren’t that religious. On that one particular issue will pressure their kids on that one particular thing. That they should marry in.

P: Something that really appealed to me in the series was you fascination with Eurasians because my girlfriend is Eurasian. Did you get to the bottom the attraction?

JS: When we started the show we were going to make the foil this Muslim girl I went out with but when we started writing it – it seemed funnier honing in on the Eurasian thing. Because I had conveniently broken up with this Eurasian. And then it really was incidental. This Eurasian broke my heart and then incidentally when I started writing the show I was dating this other Eurasian girl.

So the co writer and me just started bouncing around that. And it just seemed funnier me having a Eurasian fetish than a Muslim one. I also liked what Eurasians represented, that they somehow had broken free by being in two cultures. They’re what one side of me wants to be. They’ve broken free of being mono-cultural.

P: I just came back from America and there’s this really weird dovetail between Jewish culture and Asian culture. Like Kosher Chinese restaurants. Is there a Jewish fascination with Asian culture or Chinese culture?

JS: I think they share mutual values, respecting education and stuff like that. And sort of having big families and family loyalty. I’m just totally over generalizing and stuff. In Carlisle Street, which is the Jew-iest part in Jewtown in Melbourne, there are all these sushi places and in one of the places they’ve started serving kosher sushi. Kosher sushi Thursday, Fridays and Sundays. Each month it goes on and they expand a day.

I think when you’re not a WASP, when you start talking about issues that informed you growing up and the conflicts you’ve had. Being an outsider whilst being an insider. Some other ethnics are more likely able to understand what you’re getting at. As opposed to getting some WASP that’s like †what’s the problem?, we’re all Australian everything’s fine’. I find that sometimes I can just engage with whoever. Like last Saturday at a party I ended up in the corner talking to this half Turkish half Korean girl about all the stuff in the show.

P: You’ve traveled the world for the series. Is Australia in the grand scheme of things a harmonious society? Is that melting pot ideal true?

JS: Yeah, except, again a total over generalisation, I don’t quite know what I’m talking about. Not only do I live in a bubble, I already live in a bubble because I’m some intercity type, who doesn’t know what goes on in the real Australia. Plus I kind of live in the bubble inside the bubble. I spend lots of my time in my flat really. (laughs) And amongst my very small circle of friends. I might not be the most cumulative quantitative research in Australia. But over all it seems like Australia’s pretty harmonious.

P: So that issue of dating outside your tribe may not be as big in Australia as it is overseas.

JS: Oh, you’ll be surprised. When you scratch the surface. If you talk to anyone who, has for example Indian parents or Turkish parents or whatever, its amazing how much pressure there is. And there’s a genuine feeling like maybe I owe it to my background to date someone… And you know its definitely there.

P: There’s a lot of crazy shit that happens in the show, what was the craziest moment for you when filming the series?

JS: I guess the craziest, and there were a lot of crazy things. I think this show has a kind of higher rate of craziness then any other of my series I’ve done before. So maybe in another series I put a Fatwa on Rove and got exorcised. That’s it. There’s a lot of non-crazy stuff in between. This is just compounding craziness.

Probably, I imagine, the crucifixion (laughs) that was pretty crazy. Where we planned it one afternoon and then it’s the next day and I crucified and then we get out of there. Most of these things we do, there’s heaps of preparation back in Australia. But there’s only so much you can gauge from Australia in terms of sort out, and then you’ve kind of land on the ground. Your brain has to be clicking at 100 miles/hour trying to work out what we need to get. So yeah the crucifixion was a pretty crazy day. Obviously.

P: So were there physical nails going through your fingers?

JS: Oh yeah, yeah.

P: And do you still bare scars from that?

JS: Very tiny ones. They kind of bash the nail through you and then when they pull it out the skin just kind of boings back. So there was a little bit of blood, not like you’re gushing. And it pretty much stops right away. And we went straight back to Australia. Its almost like I was embarrassed to be walking around town without these huge bandages on my hands.

P: You mentioned before just the amount of crazy shit that you’ve done has increased in frequency with this series. Was that a conscious decision to have a huge crazy stunt for each episode?

JS: It just sort of ended up that way, really.

P: Did you feel you had to up the ante from the last series?

JS: Not really, they just sort of rolled into it. We kind of wanted it to be more sincere than stuff I’d done in the past. Where you buy my journey a lot more so its not like I’m just unattached and commenting from the side lines. We really wanted to push me into it. And as the series goes on, it just gets more and more skin crawlingly personal. It gets way more personal as the series rolls in. People just kind of dive into the crack of their couch to escape the television set.

P: I was kind of diving in the crack of my couch from the first two episodes alone. Is it hard to be that guy? To go there emotionally when you’re doing controversial, cringe-worthy stuff?

JS: It is but it isn’t. Because if it’s working you’re kind of relieved. It’s really hard to make stuff that stuff seem sincere and sort of valid.

P: You also present quite an earnest front throughout the shows and you touched on that before but is there some reality in that or are you just playing a character?

JS: I’m playing ‘John Safran’ which is kind of just an edited version of the real John Safran. I don’t know where it starts and stops really by this stage. I think it’s like that Eminem / Slim Shady type distinction. You know how he has that speech which I never quite understood, where he goes ‘you know Eminiem is blah, Slim Shady is blah, while Marshall Mathers is blah. Basically that speech. There’s definitely some version of myself. But I actually don’t mind slightly enhancing things for the sake of the story.

P: Speaking of rap, you actually freestyled as a Black man in Chicago and copped a bit of heat on the back of the Hey Hey blackface uproar. Do you think that would have even been an issue at all if the “Hey Hey” thing didn’t happen?

JS: I think it still won’t be an issue. I’m pretty confident with that episode. We only really got in trouble with the first one where maybe I misjudged it. The first one was meant to be just setting up my world and stuff. And also I was thinking, and this just goes to show that I shouldn’t really try and pander to anything. I was thinking for the first episode I’ll kind of make it easy to get your teeth into. Not some friggin’ complicated esoteric bullshit. But just something simple.

It started with the premise that we’re not attracted to people who don’t look like us and then it kind shoved the slightly naughty stuff in the first episode. I thought that would be appealing to a wider audience. I think we sort of screwed it up and everyone just thinks it’s disgusting. (laughs)

P: And what are you referring to there?

JS: Just the two things in episode one. Which seems really obvious now in retrospect now that everyone’s bagging me for stealing underpants and masturbating. But you know with that masturbation thing, seriously I was thinking even though its a little outside my comfort zone, I just thought it might be like if I kissed a man in the first episode. You know shocking but what everyone wants. Apparently it’s not what everyone wants.

P: And was that completely real that masturbation scene?

JS: Oh yeah, we ensured that after the fact the samples weren’t entered into the system. We thought that might have been unethical.

P: What’s harder masturbating in front of a camera crew or masturbating to a picture of Barack Obama?

JS: I don’t know why but I found the other stuff way more embarrassing. I don’t know why. Also with the crew, I’ve worked with them for years. So it just seems like fun or something. I definitely had heaps of fun on this shoot. It was so fast, we covered like 12 countries or more in 7 weeks. We would land at a place at night and get a couple of hours sleep and then doing some outrageous thing in the morning and then we’d be sitting around having a coffee and 20 minutes after doing some outrageous thing, that for anyone else would have been the craziest thing they’ve done in the last 5 years, and it wouldn’t even register with us. We’d all just be sitting around going OK cool so what’s the next thing, that’s right tomorrow I’m in Japan kissing a robot!

P: Were there any pitches or concepts that were too outrageous and got canned by the producers?

JS: There was one thing that I can’t really talk about, but editorially there was one thing the ABC didn’t let us do after the fact. Then there is another thing, which is a crying shame. There was one thing that was so good, that we kind of just got into a game of legal brinkmanship with the person who was involved in our thing. We turned up and pretended we were a serious crew and it became apparent we weren’t so we had to drop that story. Which was really annoying.

P: And you can’t talk about it?

JS: Nah, but when he dies, we’ll be able to run it. And he was a relatively old guy so it may only be… But then people live really long these days. So maybe the 20th anniversary addition, Race Relations can have this extra story…