John Safran Talks Religion, Race, Hip Hop And The Matrix

John Safran talks to us about hip hop, faith, race and The Matrix ahead of his first ever Q&A appearance and the release of his latest documentary, Jedis & Juggalos: Your Census Guide.

Jedis & Juggalos: Your Census Guide airs on ABC1, Tuesday, 10.05pm.

Hey John, what have you been up to? Just preparing for a topic secret…thing.

That you can’t talk too much about… Yeah, yeah. That’s so vague I might as well not have said it. It’s like a combo of not wanting you to think I’ve got nothing on but not telling you what it is at the same time. I wanted it both ways, I should have just shut up.

Yeah, you should have said nothing. That’s fine. Doing nothing is fine. OK then, I’m doing nothing.

So tell us about this new show you have coming up, where was the idea first conceived? It started off with Artscape, they do these one off arts docos and they approached me to do a one off arts doco. Initially it had nothing to do with the census but I happened to be reading this horror writer called H.P. Lovecraft at the time and he created this whole fictitious religion, but a really intricate one, and whilst I was reading it I was going “If I didn’t know, this is a pretty valid and believable religion”. So I decided to do something on that and about authors who make up fictitious religions and I thought it would be something like First Tuesday Book Club and maybe me and Marieke Hardy and Wil Anderson could sit around and talk about our respective favourite books and fictitious religions. But it didn’t pan out that way and became more of a straight up documentary. The whole thing with the census was given more weight as we figured out how to tie it all together and I think it really makes sense in a way now that wouldn’t have happened without the census.

I guess the central idea that ties the census to these religions is identity and how people self-identify in the modern world. Is that the overarching theme of the show? Yeah I think it’s challenging that notion that people don’t care about religion anymore. Like we’re in a new secular age or something. But I explore devotion from a pop culture context too. Because I’m always thinking “why are people so into vampire movies?” so this is my effort to explore that and discover what people get out of it. I tried to find people who were really sincere as well, I didn’t just want to get sarcastic atheists pretending they’re into the spaghetti god or whatever. So it’s not really about these people who have rejected religion and made up new ones from scratch it’s more about how they’re using new symbols to explore old yearnings.

You mentioned how sincere these people are. If religion is a measure of conviction could you compare a Jedi to a Jew? Oh absolutely. Especially for someone like the Juggalos or The Matrix guy they’re aware that people are skeptical of them but they’ve really thought through the sincerity issue and the conviction and they’ve doubled down and said “No, this is absolutely how it happened.”. I guess the Matrix guy is the odd one out because he throws out old religions and makes real definitive statements like the way the universe is explained in the The Matrix is the way it is. Whereas with the other ones they’re a bit more flexible.

I guess the question then becomes what do people get from pop culture that they get from religion. Like if there was a Venn Diagram of values and benefits what’s in the middle? I reckon some secular anthropologist would look at how men, and it tends to be men, get really obsessive about narrow things. Like a dude in his room reading some Kabbalah book and tearing apart every minor detail in his head and reading too much into everything and being totally obsessed. That seems to be one commonality I’ve noticed. Both things try to explain the universe and what’s going on. Obviously the costumes are very similar. And everyone likes to dress up. It’s weird, the Muslim guy I interviewed had written a book about Islamic themes in Lord Of The Rings and he’d also written about Jedism and on the phone he was really playing that up. But when I met him in real life he was pretending that everything was a coincidence like “Oh yeah of course I dress like this, it has nothing to do with Star Wars.”

There’s a word for people with narrow interests who are super critical and obsessive – nerds. So maybe really religious people are the biggest nerds of all? I don’t know. Who was the biggest nerd or strangest person you met? The Matrix guy was very eccentric. He was in Rome with his own camera guy and I couldn’t see him when I was interviewing him because it was just over the phone. Then when we got the footage back my producer was a bit worried because it was just some guy ambling around an alleyway and talking to a camera. I loved it. I was thinking how more TV shows should do that, where it’s just Tracey Grimshaw talking and the guest is in an alleyway pacing up and down and talking to themselves and not looking into the camera.

Which religion appealed most to your sensibilities? Like if you were forced to which would you join? I really liked Sufism which is this kind of mystical Islam. The fact that they don’t nail things down and leave things a bit vague is something I can get behind. I also really liked the Muslim Jedi. That would be really cool and would really annoy my Jewish friends, if I not only became a Jedi but a Muslim Jedi. But yeah, I really liked Sufism. It seemed like the one that was mega tolerant to other things and it seemed really self-aware. Sufisim was probably the least fundamentalist of them all whereas The Matrix one, like that was fun, but how long could I keep that up for?

What do you self-identify as? I just say Jewish because it’s not too controversial. Then I can wriggle around with “I meant that as my culture” or “I meant that as my heritage”. But spiritually I’m somewhere in the spectrum between Agnostic and Deist. I told The Age journalist I was a Deist which is where you believe in some kind of god but it’s not too specific. That was a bit weaselly.

Since childhood is so pivotal how much do we consciously or sub consciously identify with the religion of our forefathers? I reckon I’ve definitely been brainwashed. I can’t un-think all the things that were put into my head as a kid. There’s no hope for me. I’d love to be an atheist but I can’t undo everything that’s been put into my skull at Sunday school.

OK let’s talk about some things not related to the show. I know you’re a hip hop fan..I actually saw a Youtube video the other day of you performing at a Bedroom Philosopher gig. Can you talk us through that? I was very disappointed in my performance. I started off too squeaky and I had nowhere to go. It’s kind of like the horse race announcer who starts off too big.

No dynamics. Exactly. I was squeaking too much and the chord was caught around the thing so I reckon that threw me off a bit – not that I’m making excuses. Hopefully in ten years time when I do it again I’ll get it right.

Are you nervous about going on Q&A and what are you doing to mentally prepare? I said I’d do it because, again, I’d been brainwashed by religion. They asked me to be a guest and I said yes because for one it was their religion episode so I thought at least I might have something to talk about, it’s not like they’re going to ask me about carbon credits. And the second thing was the episode was going to air the night before my doco so I felt like it was God sending me a message. In the end I realized God was telling me to be on Q&A even though they’d asked me loads of times before and it was something I resisted because I didn’t think I’d be fluid and people would be asking about topics I only knew vaguely about. You know what? I so respect Lady Gaga. She comes to Australia and they ask her about anything and everything and she always comes up with an answer. They ask her about Julia Gillard’s de facto relationship and gay marriage and whether she’s a hypocrite and it’s such a specific parochial question…and yet she magically concocts an answer that doesn’t offend everyone, and has an opinion and seems informed. I wish I could do that. I was a bit disappointed that Tony won’t be there. It would have been good to make fun of Tony to his face rather than tweeting sarcastic comments at him.

Also, you’re going to have to defend your opinions in front of people who might think you’re there purely for comedy relief… I get really annoyed in situations where the reason I’m there is different to the reason the audience thinks. For example if they’re asking me really aggressive questions I’ll feel like “You know what? I don’t even want to be here. I just did it to blah blah blah”. So maybe I’ll snap like that and start screaming at the audience. That would be good. I wonder if they’ll try and get egg on my face? I wonder what they could do?

They’ll probably defer to some jerk on a webcam. I’m already furious with them because when they haven’t caught you in their hook yet they’re really gentle and accommodating. But as soon as they’ve got you they pull up the moat and you can’t get them to return your calls.

It’s total media entrapment sometimes. I guess I deserve it. I think I’ll just try and look sad which is what I will be anyway. I don’t know, how will they jump on me? How could you crucify yourself? That kind of thing?

They could ask you anything, you’ll just have to Catherine Zeta Jones out of every situation. (Laughs) Good advice.

On Race Relations you donned black face which is something no one seemed to really care about or be particularly outraged by. What do you think about Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys character S.Mouse? I think that American culture is like a steamroller across the world. Some representations of that would be fast food like McDonalds, others would be Disney and another one would be hip hop. So it seems pretty fair game that hip hop would be satirized or even pummeled by a comedian. But it doesn’t come off as anything malicious or mean-spirited I don’t think. Obviously it would be the hardest argument ever for me to sit here and go “Oh listen, when I did black face it was the most important and valid thing ever but there’s a slight difference with Chris Lilley…”

I guess what I’m saying is that context colours everything and there’s degrees of context that makes something OK or not OK. I think he’s got even more right by his context in that he’s sending up hip hop. The one thing I find funny was that article on The Vine where hip hoppers responded to S.Mouse and it was funny because I love hip hop and everything but for god’s sake there are vast paddocks of really bad, cynical, offensive, shallow, no-point hip hop and suddenly they create some alternate reality where it’s Soulja Boy and Vanilla Ice but besides that it’s pretty much all these sincere political geniuses with good hearts like Gil Scott-Heron and Chuck D? And it’s so not true. Like what percentage of modern hip hop is something along the lines of Gil Scott-Heron saying the revolution won’t be televised? It’s a very slim bracket of the pie. Anyway, you can’t trust me on these thing I don’t get offended by much.

Finally does being nominated for a Logie mean anything to you? Umm, well, I’ve got nothing against it. There was one year I think it was Vs. God and we got nominated. Then months later this SBS woman told me “You do know there was a deadlock in the room.” Like every other station just sticks up for their own so if you’re from Channel Nine you’ll be loyal to Channel Nine shows but apparently this SBS person with their stupid SBS morals said “I guess the fair thing to do is not to vote for John” and she abstained from voting or voted elsewhere and I lost it. SBS made me lose my Logie. Having said that it’s a lot of fun going to the Logies. It’s like some weird night where you see these people that you’ve only seen on ads. Suddenly you’re in some corridor with Guy Sebastian or Andrew G while playing scrabble on your phone.