The comic wizard from Oz

Can the cutting-edge humor of Australian Jewish comedian John Safran translate to success abroad?

safran 88 (photo credit: )
safran 88
(photo credit: )
What would happen if you took controversial American director Michael Moore and mixed him with Britain's irreverent comic Ali G? You might have John Safran; the enfant terrible of Australian television, and a man who has the ability to get tongues wagging. The 34-year-old Australian presents viewers with iron-fisted, thought-provoking issues and portrays them with a velvet-glove combination of satire and self-deprecating humor. If his name sounds familiar, you might be confusing him with author Jonathan Safran Foer. "I have heard of him but haven't read his books. Someone, though, once emailed me saying I should refund him because he bought his book thinking it was me," Safran told The Jerusalem Post. In an age when most television programming is flat and dull, Safran pushes the envelope. Some of his past escapades include applying for the Ku Klux Klan despite being Jewish, taking a priest with him to watch The Passion of the Christ‚ and placing a fatwa on an Australian television personality. It is this kind of cutting-edge humor that has helped Safran develop a cult following in his native Australia. "While some of the topics I address are deliberately provocative, they also have to work on both an intellectual and comedic level," explained Safran. Safran was working as a copywriter in a Melbourne ad agency, but was destined for bigger things; he just needed a chance. That opportunity came in 1997 with the reality show Race Around the World - an Australian competition in which eight young filmmakers submitted short documentaries from wherever they happened to be. Although he didn't win, Safran came to prominence with his entries, which featured him streaking through the streets of Jerusalem, being baptized in the Ivory Coast and placing a voodoo curse on his ex-girlfriend. Safran makes you think and laugh, and this quality has served him well. "Race Around the World was a fun time and a great experience. I still keep in touch with some of the other competitors," said Safran, though he is the only one who was able to use the show as the springboard to a career in entertainment. As he tried to capitalize on the following gained from this exposure, Safran found that the heat had gone cold. Television pilots went nowhere. Calls weren't being returned as quickly. "It was a testing time, but I wasn't nervous about it - I was doing other stuff." That stuff included hosting a weekly radio show that allowed him to maintain a public presence. In 2002, Safran's perseverance was rewarded, and he made a comeback with a show of his own. Called Music Jamboree, it was a light-hearted series which put the music industry under a microscope. Among other shticks featured on the show, Safran created a Jewish "boy band" to compete with the Christian ones, and knocked on random doors dressed as Ozzy Osbourne and Prince. The show was a runaway success. Debbie Lee, senior commissioning editor for Channel SBS, gave Safran his first break. "We were at a seminar about pitching television ideas, so I asked him to pitch a few of his own," Lee explained. She is more than pleased with the way it all panned out. "John is very unassuming and has a strong ethical framework. He is a sophisticated thinker with an unusual intelligence. We are proud of the program, and pleased to be working with him." Michael Idato, one of the foremost television writers in Australia, thinks Safran is more than a blip on the radar screen. "John is a great talent for Australian television. Innovative, creative, and he also thinks outside the square. There is this undergraduate element to him which is both a plus and a minus, but he challenges accepted thinking head on with humor, and succeeds. He brings a fresh perspective, and has both the guts and skill to turn TV on its head." Nowhere was TV more turned on its head than with Safran's next series - his most ambitious and successful project to date. Titled John Safran v.s God, it was an eight-part affair which looked at religion and theology. No sacred cow was spared as Safran went all out, whether trying his best to be a Zen Buddhist in Japan, auditioning for the Harlem Gospel Choir or undergoing an exorcism. Since then Safran has just wrapped up a television series over the Australian summer called Speaking in Tongues, for which he teamed up once again with Father Bob as the two discussed current events from a religious point of view. "We mulled over talmudic style, the big world questions, as well as current events," said Safran. Because it deviated from his trademark documentary style, Safran's fans were divided over this show. "The documentary style is definitely my strength, but the 12 episodes for this show took 16 weeks to do as opposed to the 18 months for eight episodes." Along the way the two spoke to a person who claimed to have seen the Golem of Prague, as well as a person who discusses the use of cosmetics in Islam. Father Bob and Safran have an interesting relationship, with Bob definitely the straight man. "John is an expert at what he does and is well versed in the art of setting you up. I have never met anyone like him before." Thus far Safran hasn't had much impact outside Australia, although "there has been some interest in New Zealand as well as Finland. I went to the States a few times and met with MTV, but besides their fascination with my accent, not much happened." If he does penetrate the US, the rest of the world will be next.