- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
John Safran’s getting squeezed out. These days, it seems every journalist shares his beat. Where once the impish provocateur was famous for inhabiting the fringes of culture, those fringes now occupy centre stage.
Health reporters ponder the rising human consumption of deworming paste for cattle, while tech writers explain the global torching of mobile phone towers. Members of parliament peddle quack cures, the Therapeutic Goods Administration anxiously declares a “tenfold” increase in the importation of Ivermectin, while Sky News invites the far-right onto the telly.
The extreme is mainstream, the author likes to say, and paranoia, civic distrust and quack theories are front-page news.
“I managed to have a career because I go to the fringes of the fringes and come back with this stuff,” Safran says. “Now these things have just taken over the world, it’s sort of like a mainstream kind of theatre.”
So, what now for Safran? It might surprise you: a book on Earth’s largest cigarette company, Philip Morris, and the world-bending influence of corporate language.
Puff Piece – How Philip Morris set vaping alight (and burned down the English language) opens in a Melbourne bus terminal’s carpark late at night, where Safran meets a dealer of contraband. The writer has come for the IQOS – a type of electronic cigarette produced by Philip Morris, which, despite the machine’s dependence upon tobacco (aka “HeatSticks”), the company insists is neither a vape or a cigarette. It’s outlawed in Australia.
From here, Safran investigates the company’s tactical pivots – for example, on World No-Tobacco Day, Philip Morris declares its intention to “unsmoke” the world. Safran warns it’s best not to trust grand social claims made with corporate neologisms and examines its attempt to redefine smoking, not merely through technological innovation, but with words.
“From a storyteller’s perspective, it’s fascinating that Philip Morris have their back against a wall, and they’re gonna have their menthol cigarettes banned in Europe, and they’ve figured out this way to weasel around it, and they’ve won in a way,” Safran says.
In his car, after closing the deal with his shady eBay hawker, Safran is left fingering the device that Philip Morris says is helping people to quit smoking, but which by book’s end Safran convinces us is merely designed to addict people to something only artificially different to the old product.
Safran was the “least religious kid in Melbourne’s most religious school” – St Kilda’s Yeshivah College – before entering RMIT’s school of journalism in the early 90s. He dropped out and joined the world of advertising.
Safran enjoyed it – making a successful ad was like solving a logic puzzle, he says – and while driving around the city he found himself pondering the invisible design of billboard ads. He also learnt two valuable lessons.
“Advertising trains your mind to come up with short, snappy ideas,” he says. “I also learnt that very little in that world is done accidentally.”
But Safran had grander creative ambitions, and in 1997 he became one of eight young documentary film-maker contestants for the first season of ABC’s Race Around the World. In the Ivory Coast, Safran conscripted a voodoo priest to curse his girlfriend; in California, he showed viewers how to break into Disneyland. Safran won the public vote, but was disqualified by judges after secretly filming Brazilian priests giving confession. A star was born.
The next year, the ABC commissioned a pilot: John Safran: Media Tycoon. Lampooning the aggressive door-stop techniques of A Current Affair, Safran forced a legendary confrontation with its host Ray Martin. The pilot never aired, but the footage has enjoyed a long and cultish life online. Soon after, Safran would find himself in court in a bizarre test of trespass laws, after remotely sending a cigarette-puffing robotic seagull onto the MCG to “tempt” Shane Warne – who had recently signed an endorsement deal with Nicorette – into sneaking a cheeky drag.
Safran’s national reputation as a sly jester and social stuntman was cemented by three TV series that aired in the noughties on SBS and ABC: John Safran’s Music Jamboree, John Safran vs God, and John Safran’s Race Relations. It’s significant that each series bears his name, and the covers of two of his three books bear his face: the subjects of his documentaries matter less than his distinctive treatment of them. Early in his career, Safran says, he realised how to attract an audience. “You can get humour by making it all about yourself,” Safran says. “Making stories personal while making it about a bigger thing.”
He uses humour because he doesn’t want to come across deadly serious, because then no one will listen to you
Father Bob McGuire
Perhaps his most popular work was his long radio partnership with Father Bob McGuire on Triple J. For 10 years, from 2005, a Jew and a Roman Catholic – an agnostic and a priest – riffed on the week’s news, often in bitter disagreement.
“We had a funny way of being serious,” Father Bob says of their partnership. “I liked John’s attitude to life, which is scepticism. Everything’s up for grabs, all things flow. And John has common sense, which is a great attribute much underestimated by humanity. The ruling class doesn’t want you to have common sense because then you’ll see right through them. And he uses humour because he doesn’t want to come across deadly serious, because then no one will listen to you.”
John Safran, public performer, is a confection of sorts. The difference between the private Safran and the public one is enormous. Privately, Safran is shy, awkward, deferential. Few people could pull the stunts he has – or volunteer for such weird danger – but that he has might suggest that it comes naturally. Or enjoyably. It doesn’t. It’s remarkable that such a quiet man has so insistently made a career of outlandish provocation. That career is a long, and very serious effort of will.
“I really love being a storyteller,” Safran says. “And I’ve figured out a way to engage an audience, but I have to be brave to get my material so I can put it in a story that an audience will react to. But [the stunts] make me uncomfortable in the stomach. I mean, I find it uncomfortable just approaching people. I find making phone calls awkward. A friend said that I’m intimidated by authority, and I think that’s true.
“And,” – he’s only half-joking here, perhaps – “I’ve forgotten what the real me is anymore.”
The enfant terrible is almost 50 now, and the pranks are mostly retired. He’s an author these days, though his books remain stamped with the Safran schtick: heavy irony, dramatised naivety and restless personal digressions.
“The fact I’m always talking about little stories in my life, well, that’s because that’s what my audience and Penguin wants,” Safran says, and jokes that his publisher would frown upon him writing a novel – Safran is a bankable brand.
His first book, Murder in Mississippi, was released in 2013 and became a prize-winning best-seller here (American critics were far less kind). It was a non-fiction account of the killing of a white supremacist by a black man – coincidentally, the murder victim had previously been the subject of a Safran prank. Confounded by the usual difficulties of journalism – lack of access, unreconcilable contradictions – Safran says he struck upon a realisation that would inform not only Mississippi, but both subsequent books: rather than harming the story, these difficulties could become the story.
“I got really stressed out,” Safran says. “We didn’t know what was happening, and I couldn’t meet the killer. And that drove me crazy. But then, like, it clicked: oh, you just write about whatever the obstacle is.”
Safran’s second book, 2017’s Depends On What You Mean By Extremist, written with his eye for personal strangeness and contradiction, was a Gonzo romp amongst the far-right, Islamic radicals and antifa. The figures were often vulgar, volatile and unblanchingly bigoted – but perhaps too often presented as merely laughable. Today, when humour and a diseased irony functions as both recruitment tool and alibi for those in the alt-right fringes he has immersed himself in – a way to suggest it’s all a joke, while stoking the hatreds required for very real obscenities – I ask Safran if he thinks humour might be most effective when used against the humourless.
“The answer to alt-right irony is better irony,” Safran says. “I have 100% faith in humour.”
To use humour against bigotry, injustice, or corporate cynicism is not to trivialise these threats, he says, but part of a tradition of facing and surviving darkness. “Humour’s been this awesome thing for a thousand years, this lubricant and way of decompressing trauma,” Safran says. “That’s my culture. That’s my way of doing dot paintings.”
And so it is for Puff Piece, a kind of jester’s voyage through etymology, combustion science and corporate blaggardry, and stuffed with winking asides, terrible puns and earnest dialogues with his rabbi about the nature of evil. After remarking on the glamour of an image of Hannah Arendt smoking, Safran writes: “I love everything about cigarettes except for the cancer.”
For all his irreverence and cringe-making stunts, Safran is deadly serious about humour. And language. He’s been thinking about words for decades. In Puff Piece, there’s this beautifully taut expression of his faith: “Words hold power. A phrase so overused it has itself lost much of its power. Still, it’s no less true. I’ve been clobbered with this concept since Sunday School: according to kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism, God created the universe by breathing words. And, the Jewish mystics teach, we too can build and bend realities, like God has. Not with piping, mud and scaffolding, but with words.”
And Philip Morris, Safran says – that old titan – will either die, or guilefully reinvent itself with them. “It all pivots on corporate kabbalah, breathing words into the world, hoping they catch alight and reshape reality.”
• Puff Piece – How Philip Morris set vaping alight (and burned down the English language) is published by Penguin and is out now