John Safran vs God: articles

A quick word with John Safran

John Safran is the host of comedy-doco series John Safran vs God (Tuesdays, C4, 9.30pm) who you may remember from John Safran's Music Jamboree. This time, the Jewish Aussie test-drives a variety of religions in an attempt to enlighten us all.

Are you actually religious?

It's not as if I go to the synagogue. I passively eat bacon. I'm still going to hell.

If you could speak to God right now, what would you say?

"Listen, you used to do obvious miracles so we knew you existed and now you just do vague stuff. I mean, are we meant to take your word for it? Why don't you just do a friggin' really impressive miracle?"

What do you think the reply would be?

"Get stuffed."

What excites you about religion so much?

If you don't know something, you just make it up. Hindus are just unreal, they've just got insane explanations for everything. They'll be like, "Well, the reason the earth is floating there, John, is because there's a giant elephant underneath and four turtles on either side." It's a bit like my work - it's pretty much true but a little bit untrue.

What sort of feedback have you had for the show?

Religious people like it. The last episode was this exorcism so lots of Christians really liked it. In one episode a goat gets sacrificed in Haiti - some people thought it was too disturbing for TV. We also got negative feedback when I vomited in one episode.

Aren't you worried you'll offend someone?

Generally, if it's not funny, that's when you get into trouble. If I think I can't make something work I won't do it. Like, I don't know how to make paedophilia funny so I won't try.

How did Rove react when you had a fatwa [Islamic ruling] placed on him?

He thought it was funny, I think. Because we got this cleric in front of a room full of people screaming his name we thought we don't have to go hammer and tongs slagging off Rove. Rather than it being mean-spirited like, "[expletive] off, you sell-out", we made it a bit ridiculous, not really self-righteous, so I think we got off the hook there.

You must have found yourself in some scary situations during filming?

Definitely in Haiti when they started throwing rocks at our car. When I met with the Ku Klux Klan I didn't really think about it that hard. It was only later I realised I was really stupid.

We hear you're writing a film - what's it about?

It's like a self-absorbed, non-political version of Super Size Me but instead of trying to heal the world or do something positive it's just me trying to get closure with all my ex-girlfriends. I think that's an appropriate use of one-and-a-half hours of people's time.

How on earth do you meet women?

It's fine, although I have been out with people and their mothers have said "Be careful or he'll embarrass you on television".

Seeing as you're a music buff, what are your top five religious tracks?

Johnny Cash - When the Man Comes Around, 50 Shekel - (Jewish rapper) - Hooked on the Truth, Nas - The Cross, Daniel Johnson - Devil Town, Mozart on Crack - Hate Priest

By Rebecca Barry
July 23, 2005 The New Zealand Herald

If God would just lighten up, faith could be fun, not blind

LOTS of things have stopped me hooking up with God and settling down with some sort of religion.

For a start, we generation X types are hopeless at making a commitment. Deity A might seem like a goer after a couple of vodka and sodas on a Saturday night, but how do we know deities B, C and D won’t be a better bet in the long run?

(And please note that “long run” in generation X-ville can last up to an entire month.)

If you could date a faith or have an open relationship until you made up your mind, it’d take the pressure off. But under most religious codes, even de facto scenarios are out of the question on the grounds of living in sinfulness.

Then there are all those painful religious rulings about not having sex, being a good person and so on.

The abstinence obsession is not such a big deal. People will always invent reasons to feel guilty about snuggling with each other regardless of their religious status. But what’s the point of forcing people to be good? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

A few years back, I accompanied a grieving friend to a church service to honour the relatives of organ donors. It was all very moving until the guy in the hat up the front of the church started reading from the Bible. Christians, he lectured the suffering humans before him, were obliged to relinquish their organs for others. It was on account of the help-thy-liver-less-neighbour clause or something.

While it’s always great to see a religion that doesn’t dismiss medical technology as a satanic spawnling, Hat Guy’s position was really quite offensive. After all, most of his weeping congregation hadn’t given the OK for their loved ones to be farmed because they were following some rule in a book or were scared of an angry dude with a beard in the sky. They’d made a heart-breaking decision after suffering the agony and uncertainty of free will.

Jeez. Give the poor buggers some credit, for God’s sake.

Apart from the fact that you can’t do anything right and if you do someone else gets the kudos, the other thing that really puts me off religion is the way God seems to be such a humourless bastard. While I’ve only read the Brodies Notes version of the Bible, this document seems to contain zero light relief. You’re not even allowed to cack yourself over the sacrificing pigeons when you menstruate bit. And the Koran isn’t much better. “Don’t yell at your parents” I can live with, but all those prohibitions against meat raffles, alcohol-based mouthwash and bracelet jangling are real party stoppers.

I can’t help thinking that if the average religion contained more jokes and less animal sacrifices, people of different creeds wouldn’t be so keen to kill each other. Mind you, we atheists can also be guilty of extreme, holier-than-thou hypocrisy. It’s quite common for us to snigger madly at Christian religions at the same time as worshipping (in the dinner party sense) “exotic” underdog faiths such as Aboriginal and Asian spirituality. As John Safran points out in his excellent new TV series on religion, most atheists are unable to explain why the Big Bang theory is more rational than Genesis and are therefore as guilty of blind faith as the next pigeon sacrificer.

Despite the annoying realisation that not even lack-of-religion religions can withstand rational challenge (my irregular Darwin and Hawking reading seems to render my atheist status as officially lapsed), John Safran versus God should be compulsory viewing for the Godless and Godful alike. It takes the piss without taking sides. It makes faith funny, interesting and fallible. And only a couple of innocent goats and chickens cop it in the process.

John Safran versus God screens on SBS on Mondays at 8.30pm. Unmissable highlights include the time he tries to join the Ku Klux Klan, the time he goes on a date with a Catholic priest and the time he arranges for Sara-Marie from Big Brother to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine.

September 01, 2004
The Australian

John Safran versus God

Show of the week

Totally off the wall but very amusing. In this series, John Safran, a perceptive and irreverent chancer, takes on God. Not the big one so much as any other number of deities he treats as worn-out punchbags.

Actually, it’s God’s earthly agents who are the targets. There’s L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, who, according to scuttlebutt Safran eagerly repeats, numbers Jamie Packer in his flock. Safran doesn’t mind that but professes concern at what will happen when Kerry “passes on” and Channel Nine comes under Jamie’s control.

Cut! That’s Safran’s little joke. He visits London to obtain a fatwa on Rove McManus, who once dumped him from his show. He tracks down Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, self-appointed senior judge of the United Kingdom Shariah Court. “Oh, boy, is he fatwa friendly,” says Safran as he asks Bakri to deliver the goods on Rove.

To Arizona and the Rev Anne Zape, of the Peyote Way Church, whose rituals allow its zonked-out members to drink juice of the peyote plant, an otherwise prohibited hallucinogenic drug. And what of Ray Martin, whose former image—not that of Made-Over Man—is twice spotted? Is he next in line?

Safran’s OK. He makes me laugh. Even when he tells us to go to hell.

By Robin Oliver
August 30, 2004
The Sydney Morning Herald

John Safran

Not one of the meek: John Safran craves your indulgence for his latest TV offering.

John Safran Versus God

He’s back. The skinny Jewish boy with a predilection for making the personal vendetta public is taking on God—in all his different flavours—in this eight-part, magazine-style series. The global search for the Big Guy is on, starting with the usual monotheistic suspects, on down to the lesser-known, but PR-friendly, Native Indian peyote variety and taking in the egregious KKK version. But like his previous effort, John Safran’s Musical Jambouree, John Safran Versus God is in many ways primarily about John Safran, a solipsistic journey of discovery cementing his bravura reputation as the enfant terrible of Australian television. Luckily for him and us, then, that he possesses the necessary charisma to carry off the now-trademark stunts that elicit equal parts hilarity and discomfort, and the always-present question: “Should I be laughing at this?”. See, for example, the take-no-prisoners introduction to this week’s episode, where Safran attempts to have a fatwa placed on Channel Ten personality Rove McManus by radical British Muslim cleric Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad. The evidence presented against Rove is fabricated—the pseudo-real vendetta is based on the (re-enacted) reversal of fortunes that saw Rove finding commercial network fame and Safran, SBS. Will the scary Sheikh Omar take kindly to the news that his beliefs have been ridiculed? Will Rove see the joke in his own personal death threat? It’s a morally questionable, squirm-inducing sequence, saved by the subjective fact that it is side-grabbingly funny. Other segments betray more masochism than sadism, including a visit to a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery where the presiding monk is fond of corporal punishment as a way to enlightenment. John Safran Versus God (it could be retitled John Safran’s Religious Jamboree) builds on the same themes (and the same grab-bag of tactics) seen since Safran’s Race Around the World days, from ambush-journalism to satirically charged reportage, delivered in his trademark whiny rant. Regular segments include the weekly road test—this week it’s the Peyote Church of God, where spiritual insight is gained through drinking the hallucinogenic, vomit-inducing cactus of the same name—and a reverie on possible developments in Channel Nine programming when a Scientology-leaning Jamie Packer takes over. Safran is front and centre in his universe and the success of the show depends on whether his outre personality amuses or rankles. For my money, God might defeat him in hand-to-hand single combat, but when it comes to satire Safran’s the clear winner.

By Reviewer Larissa Dubecki
August 26, 2004
The Age

Mess with religion

HE’S left of centre, kooky and slightly controversial and once again John Safran has pushed boundaries in his new SBS show John Safran Versus God.

Safran takes viewers on his quest to find God as he investigates religions and cults throughout the world, participating in their bloody and not so bloody rituals.

No details are spared with images of animal sacrifice, even goat testicle munching and blood baths featuring in some episodes.

In others, Safran keeps clean when posing as a Catholic church alter boy, sleeping in sacred Mormon underpants and, in the series finale, becomes the centre of attention at a Christian exorcism ceremony.

Safran admits some sections of the show are graphic but says only necessary footage was shown.

“It was pretty minimal, we didn’t go over the top, we just kind of showed what had to be showed,” he says. “But I know the editors had to look away when putting together the goat sacrifice from the voodoo ceremony.”

Of Jewish heritage, Safran visits the KKK in America to sees whether he would be able to become a klan member.

The situation sounds daunting but, surprisingly, the 32-year-old was not fazed, and says the chances of being killed while filming were pretty slim.

“I actually felt my life was at risk in Haiti,” he went on. “Not because of the voodoo ceremony, but because the climate of the country made me really nervous.”

After the success of Safran’s award-winning comedy series, John Safran’s Music Jamboree, SBS welcomed another series from the documentary-maker who first came to public attention in Race Around the World.

He says he always manages to squeeze religious themes into his work so decided it was time he devoted a whole show to the the topic.

“The reason why I am interested in all these (different religious rituals) is because I want them to be true,” he says.

“I remember in primary school being really confused about that whole creation thing, learning that God created the world in seven days and before that it was just God.

“And that really messed with my head because I was like ‘Well, how did God get there? Did he ever have parents?’

“So I’ve never been a relaxed atheist, but sidelined religion because it messes with your head too much.”

Now the show has wrapped up, Safran says he has had time to reflect on his spiritual journey and is ready to dig deeper.

“And considering Madonna is getting deep with Kabbalah, it is a bit embarrassing that she knows more about Judaism than me.

“So I think I will start learning the Jewish genealogy because it seems like a bit of a waste that I haven’t done it yet considering I went to a Jewish school.”

John Safran Versus God, SBS, Monday, 8.30pm.

By Katrina Witham
August 26, 2004

John Safran

From witch doctors to biblical prohibitions on dancing, religion is a regular Safran theme.

Saintly Safran

In looking for a “colourful and exciting” meaning of life, John Safran found religion.

John Safran seems uncharacteristically nervous. In his new series he had a fundamentalist Islamic cleric put a fatwa on Rove McManus and now he worries whether Rove is going to get the joke.

Surely Rove will see the funny side of local Jewish upstart Safran travelling to London to persuade a radical Muslim cleric to issue a death sentence with his name on it. Or perhaps not. Perhaps Rove won’t see the gag in the ridiculously doctored images Safran presents to the cleric—in one Rove is supposedly advertising pork with the slogan “Forget hallal, get some pork on your fork”—or get that he is ridiculing the ease with which this supposedly leading, if extremist, spiritual leader is convinced to issue the severest decree of all.

That is the crux of Safran’s latest series. Some will find John Safran Versus God hilarious, perhaps probing; others will find it offensive and puerile. Religion, Safran seems to be reminding his audience, can be as divisive as it is unifying and spiritual.

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“I hope Rove doesn’t mind, it should be OK. I’m going to bump into him at the Logies… What did you think of it?” Safran asks about the fatwa sequence. When I reply that it is very funny he presses: “So it doesn’t look like he’s going to get killed?”

No, it looks like the sort of highwire prank we have come to expect of Safran since he streaked through Jerusalem as part of the ABC’s first Race Around the World series.

This new series is filled with similar antics balanced by more probing discussions about religion.

Like the pranks, religion has been a long-running theme for Safran. In Race he got an African witch doctor to put a voodoo chant on an ex girlfriend. In John Safran’s Music Jamboree, which screened last year on SBS and won two AFI awards, he returned to his strict Jewish school and did an impromptu performance of Footloose after tackling the principal on biblical interpretations used to prevent his students from dancing with the opposite sex.

“Religion is a good topic in Australia in that I reckon people are really interested in it but it’s not really covered a lot, it’s so under the radar,” Safran says.

“Even in Australia, when you see those docos about the Hillsong Pentecostal Church and they go ‘15,000 people turn up’ you go ‘What? How did that happen?’”

“I think (my interest) is because I’ve never been an atheist, I’ve never comfortably gone ‘Ohh, those religious nutbags.’ I’ve always thought of religion as a more exciting explanation for the world than science or atheism. The right religions just have better stories for how the world came about and just seem more colourful and exciting.”

Safran has made religion a big part of his work, though, he says, he does not fully understand why he feels as Jewish as he does.

“If you were black you’d just go ‘Oh, it’s an objective fact I’m black’, and it would be easier to reconcile than when you’re Jewish it’s a bit of an abstract thing. I mean, there is that thing where your mother was Jewish bla bla bla so there is a genetic thing on that level, but it’s not like this real solid, objective thing like I’m black or I’m an Arab.”

In this eight-part series he considers some of the world’s biggest and lesser understood faiths by inserting himself in the midst of them. To the dismay of his lapsed Catholic friends, he says, that religion comes off best. Certainly the gruff South Melbourne priest he focuses on seems kinder than the cane-wielding Japanese Zen Buddhist monk who, Rove may be happy to hear, cruelly beats Safran on several occasions.

In a discursive, sometimes fascinating series, Safran occasionally diverts from strict religious organisations to try to get the Klu Klux Klan to admit him as a member because he is only “half Jewish” or to uncover some of the secrets of Freemasonry. The series veers between comedy and the realm of the more serious documentary as Safran prods at the contentious and humorous aspects of spiritual belief.

When this is put to Safran he says he did not set out to be deliberately contentious, but later realised that contention was where the best jokes were. He then lets on that he has been worrying about that aspect of the series as well, and it’s apparent that the super confident, super cheeky onscreen Safran is probably quite removed from the 31-year-old uncomfortably perched on a couch in his East St Kilda flat.

“When I was watching things like Supersize Me and Fahrenheit 9/11 they do that thing where they tell you what the point is, but not in a bad way, and I think that’s kind of what an audience wants. I was kind of worried with this show that maybe I should have been a bit more literal at some points,” his voice trails off a little, “but I didn’t and it’s too late now.”

Perhaps it is because he is so central to his comedy/documentaries and thus so exposed that he seems troubled by doubt afterward. And then there is the fact this topic seems to truly intrigue and disturb him to the extent he could probably never be satisfied with his portrayal of it.

“In the show I explore religion and the culture of religion but it’s for entertainment and I probably should just sit down and spend a year doing it without the cameras on if I’m going to get some answers. It’s like I’ve created this life for myself where everything is being filmed.”

Safran maintains he began each religious experience in the series seriously hoping something would happen. As he explains it, if he found a particular religion to be true that would be a sensational discovery.

It is a quest he is not through with yet. Though he feels he’s exhausted the thesis in this format it seems that down the track there could be more mileage in religion for Safran.

“I think maybe on a creative level I’ve played it out but not on a personal level, so possibly if I think of some other creative angle that’s different I’ll still be able to address it in the future.”

John Safran Versus God premieres on Monday at 8.30pm on SBS.

By Nicole Brady
Picture: Rodger Cummins
August 26, 2004
The Age

Tempting fate

John Safran pulls no punches in his irreverent new comedy series on religion. Greg Hassall reports.

He’s the enfant terrible of Australian TV, the kamikaze comic who streaked through Jerusalem in Race Around the World, baited Shane Warne with cigarettes in The Late Report and scuffled with Ray Martin outside his home in a never-to-be-seen pilot for the ABC. Now we can add another stunt to the list. From next Monday John Safran will be remembered as the guy who had a fatwa placed on Rove McManus.

This happens at the beginning of his new SBS series, John Safran Versus God, which was filmed in five continents over 10 weeks and casts a quizzical eye over the world’s religions. It’s an audacious stunt, even by Safran’s standards. First he meets Britain’s now-imprisoned Muslim cleric Abu Hamza before gaining an audience with the elusive Omar Bakri Muhammad.

“I actually didn’t know who they were,” admits Safran, 31, over coffee. “When I was briefing the researcher, I was going, ‘We need some religious authority who can help us get a fatwa.’ It was only afterwards I was going, ‘Oh, my God, you got me the head of the UK sharia court.’ “

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Safran presents Bakri with a series of hilarious forgeries documenting McManus’s supposed crimes against Islam. Some, such as Satanic Verses II, are ludicrous, but others must have given the SBS lawyers heart palpitations. “The original version of that story we had to, um, edit. People working on the show were worried we’d softened it too much.”

When I tell Safran there’s nothing soft about the finished result, the possibility of McManus not appreciating the joke seems to occur to him for the first time. “It doesn’t come across that I’m serious that I hate him or anything, does it?” he asks nervously.

Watching Safran present his case to Bakri, knowing he would eventually have to tell him the whole thing was a joke, I’m struck by his sheer chutzpah, demonstrated again and again over the eight-episode series. Doesn’t he get scared putting himself in these situations?

“The only place I was scared, and perhaps naively, was Haiti [where the car he was filming from was stoned]. All the other ones I just deluded myself and in retrospect I realise I’m a f---ing idiot.”

In episode three, Safran tries to join the Orange County branch of the Ku Klux Klan, before casually mentioning he’s Jewish.

“They were fairly pissed off,” he recalls. “The crew was telling me afterwards that there was this point where it got really f---ed up, but I was too immersed in it.” Anyway, he adds, “it’s much better to overstay your welcome a little bit”.

Safran says he loves working with a crew because it takes the focus off him, helping defuse tense situations, and allows him to concentrate on the interviews. He’s certainly not nostalgic for the DIY approach of Race Around the World. “Ever since Race I just hate cameras and being responsible for the sound; it just makes me really tense.”

He does, however, have great affection for the show that launched him in 1997. And watching John Safran Versus God, the similarities with his work on Race are striking. It’s as if that show forged the template for all he’s done since: the ballsy stunts, the fish-out-of-water pose, the comic use of personal vendettas, the interest in religion.

“I reckon I was really, really lucky with that show.

I remember at the start thinking, ‘I don’t want to do docos, I want to do anti-docos,’ but I didn’t quite know what it meant. And my first couple of stories weren’t that good. Then I did the voodoo one [in Africa], where I brought my ex-girlfriend’s love letters and stuff, and I remember going, ‘This is it.’ “

With its focus squarely on religion, John Safran Versus God seems a logical progression for Safran. “I’ve done religious stories on everything I’ve done,” he says. “On Race Around the World, at least it was relevant but, then, I’m doing this music show and suddenly there are stories about Prince being a Jehovah’s Witness and Beck being a Scientologist and about 83 Jewish stories, so it was like, ‘OK, let’s just bite the bullet and do a religious show.’ “

Although some people may be offended by the show, Safran’s interest in religion is genuine. He is Jewish (“I either amp it up or amp it down, depending on what’s going to make the joke funnier”) and considers himself religious.

“I’ve never felt like an atheist,” he says. “I’ve always felt, even from a young age, that there’s this presence and I’m going to be f---ed over by it because I’m f---ing evil.”

Having road-tested the best religions the world has to offer, does he have a favourite?

“The religions I like are the ones that are either intellectually stimulating or intellectually audacious,” he says. “You have ones like Scientologists, who, for better or for worse, have this really colourful, well-textured belief system. It’s so audacious you kind of respect it. And I think the Jews are kind of like that—their philosophy is actually stimulating.”

It’s Catholics, however, who get the best run in the show. “Definitely, I’ve just had good luck with Catholicism,” Safran says. “I did try to do some bad stories on Catholics but they didn’t work out.”

Typically, this show is as much about Safran as it is about religion. It’s his schtick to put himself in the centre of stories, drawing on perceived slights and humiliations for much of his humour. He picks McManus for the fatwa because he was dumped as a guest from Rove Live in 2002 to make way for Pink, and any ex-girlfriend is fair game. It is, he is anxious to point out, just an act.

“I never try to use the show to have vendettas. I honestly have no issue with Rove whatsoever but I step away from it and go, ‘Well, it’s funny. People will be interested in that.’ And the thing with hassling ex-girlfriends—I just think it’s this thing that doesn’t usually get on TV. It’s like girls are always talking about emotions and I think it’s kind of interesting having some guy f---ed up by relationships.”

At least his targets can take comfort in the fact Safran spares himself no indignity. As he puts it: “What other angle do I have besides looking like an idiot?” In one episode, he auditions for the Harlem Gospel Choir, an act of skin-crawling embarrassment topped only by his confession that he once masturbated in a Sicilian priest’s bed. “Everyone who watches it goes, ‘I can’t watch that—it’s just too humiliating.’ “

As for the future, Safran’s written a film script and is encouraged by the success of documentaries such as Super Size Me and Fahrenheit 9/11, both similar in approach, if not content, to his work. But for now he’s happy where he is.

“I reckon television’s ace … There’s something about video and shaky cameras and being slightly out of focus that gives TV this great energy.”

He has no ideological objection to a return to commercial TV but suspects it wouldn’t be a happy marriage. “Suddenly it would be like, ‘Don’t talk about being Jewish all the time,’ and then it wouldn’t be real anymore.”

John Safran Versus God begins on Monday, August 30, on SBS at 8.30pm.

By Greg Hassall
August 25, 2004
The Sydney Morning Herald