July 2011

The Nation Reviewed

The quest for Muslim Jedis

By Craig Sherborne
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
John Safran’s new ABC TV project

The world is up this way, just over here. Follow me. Mind your head, you are entering human nature. There are narrow tunnels of religion. There is politics and bad blood. It’s a maze of superstitions and fears. Writers bother with this sort of thing but so does a thinker like John Safran.

I call him a thinker because I don’t know what else he is. He’s not a comedian – he’s funny but not through slick one-liners. He’s not a journalist, even though he is a foot-in-the-door pest. He’s not an actor, though he’ll black-up to ridicule the neuroses and smug hypocrisies of American racial politics. He does all of these occupations but really they’re just a means to pursue his quest.

He doesn’t even know what that quest is. No one on a quest truly does. It’s about being restless, a little bit angry; perhaps not angry, more a case of not being near enough at peace.

 Life wants us to be quiet and agreeable. It wants us to lie down when challenged. It wants us to behave well and view the world from its best side not its worst. It doesn’t want its sham pieties mocked, its vapid polities slyly disrespected and made to look silly.

If, like me, you believe western civilisation is winding down, had its day and slowly fizzling, you can believe someone such as Safran is leaving a cultural caricature of it for whatever is coming after. He’s got an eye for grotesquerie, Hieronymus Bosch–like, though his medium is video not painting. Bosch had fifteenth-century Dutch villages in which to find freaks and moral phonies for his models. Safran has everywhere, especially the US.

He also has the use of himself if he wants. No amount of self-harm this side of death is too much for a thinker embarked on a quest. Whether it’s getting sick on peyote to explore the spiritual effects or having himself crucified to feel the nails going in as Jesus did, Safran has been prepared to give masochism a go.

Here we are having lunch at my place in Melbourne, and you can see how his Boschian models take him into their confidence, gullibly let him into their lives. Such a polite and serious-looking fellow. Dandruffy shoulders below gingery scalp and face. Lisp-voiced and deferential in conversation. But quests require of their owners two things: an ice-box heart and a soul full of guns. I’ve always supposed Safran, 38, must have them. I detect that he has.

 “I can step outside myself and ask, ‘what benefit is it to me in doing this?’” he says. “There’s a lot of delusion where I block myself out. The equivalent of someone who writes a book or makes a film: what is the best way to do the job? I am deluded. I do these things and I can’t believe I do them. I mean, when I went streaking in Jerusalem. I could have been shot.”

Same with the time he fronted up to a branch of the KKK and tried to join, then informed officials he was Jewish. His “delusion” so gripped him he stopped fearing being set upon and fretted about logistics. “I just had to deliver the lines. But as I was doing it there was this little stereo playing music in the background. I was worried about how we could turn it off for any copyright problems.”

 And there’s his fear of failure. With producers having paid for his travel and film crew, he doesn’t want to let them down. It short-circuits his sense of right or wrong, or danger. “I go, ‘this could be really good.’” He trusts his crew to tap his shoulder if he goes too far.

But Safran is one of those blessed people with a reef of charm running through their character. Or is it simply a tic of vulnerability? Either way, he can get away with more than most of us. He can sit opposite someone and take the piss very deadpan or act in ways you’d class as cruel, but be accepted as reasonable, curious, friendly. You’d forgive him anything. In one of his early TV antics he had a voodoo priest put a curse on a girlfriend who’d dumped him. A bastard of a thing to do, you’d reckon. Even if you don’t believe in that mumbo jumbo, a curse is a curse and keeps you looking over your shoulder.

“Nah,” Safran smiles. “We had breakfast together the other day. The epilogues from my shows are more positive than you’d think. I’m sort of melded for life with the people in those shows. It seems hypocritical not to be.”

Religion. Whatever his quest is, it has religion in it. Yes, he went to a Jewish school but religion wasn’t fused into him there like high-voltage wiring. “I was the kid at school who didn’t think about religion all that much,” he says. It just seeped in over time. “I’m agnostic. But I definitely believe I’m going to be punished for bad things I do. I relate more to superstitions than confident atheists.”

From his Sunday night Triple J radio spot with Father Bob Maguire to his new ABC TV offering, Jedis & Juggalos: Your Census Guide (airing on 19 July), you’ll find religion, in all its unusual manifestations. The new show starts with this year’s Australian census (that’s right, we’re having one on 9 August) and ends up in America with rap artist–preachers, and a Muslim man who has incorporated Jedi worship into his Islamic faith.

“It’s that vexed question in the census: what is your religion?” says Safran. “In Australia I’m in a country that doesn’t think about religion. But I want to explore people who have blended popular culture with religion.”

That means heading overseas. It means heading to America where every bizarre and preposterous grafting together of God and theatricality, righteousness and wrath, is waiting for a TV camera to record it. “Overseas increases the chance of being more interesting to watch. People think everything has been discovered but then you just do a bit of research and find a Muslim Jedi.”

There are no Muslim Jedis in my part of town. Here folks stay on the pebble path of wife and husband and working, with cars and investment properties to obtain like assignments. Their blazered children hiss to their mothers that they are honest and neat. This is the underside of Heaven where nobody believes in anything, and the council keeps the streets inspected and swept up and clean. I like having John Safran in the area. I hope he comes again.

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Hoi Polloi, and its sequel Muck, which won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He has written two volumes of poetry, Bullion and Necessary Evil, and two novels, The Amateur Science of Love and Tree Palace.

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