Review: Safran’s “Race Relations”

22 October 2009

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Comedian John Safran and the ABC have had an on-again-off-again relationship.

It was the ABC that first uncovered Safran back in 1997, when he was a viewer-favourite on the first season of Race Around the World. His popularity led to two television pilots for the national broadcaster in 1999 – John Safran: Master Chef and John Safran: Media Tycoon.

Both shows were over before they began when television presenter Ray Martin took offence at Safran rummaging through his rubbish in a segment for Media Tycoon.

In the years that followed the bespectacled Jewish-Australian wrote and starred in three successful series – John Safran’s Music Jamboree, John Safran vs. God and Speaking in Tongues – all of which were broadcast by SBS.

But with last night’s premiere of John Safran’s Race Relations, the decade-long separation between Safran and ABC TV is finally over.

If the first episode is anything to go by, Race Relations will feature Safran at his hilarious, insightful and controversial best.

Last night’s look at inter-race relationships featured Safran masturbating to a photo of U.S President Barack Obama in a Palestinian sperm bank while chanting Obama’s famous phrase “yes we can!”

A separate sketch saw Safran sniffing women’s underwear in order to “scientifically” prove his predilection for Eurasian women.

While parts of last night’s episode are sure to further the discussion about pushing the boundaries of  comedy, the real focus will be on next week’s episode when Safran dons black face-paint in his quest to look like an African-American.

The episode comes at a tense time in Australian comedy, with the “Jackson Jive” performance on the Hey Hey It’s Saturday reunion causing much consternation. The sketch featured six “mainly coloured men”, five of whom sported Afro wigs and black face-paint in their depiction of the Jackson Five. The sixth member wore white face-paint in his portrayal of the late Michael Jackson. The performance created a uproar after guest judge Harrick Connick Jr. took offence and declared that he wouldn’t have appeared on the show had he known of the “Jackson Jive” performance.

The Chaser’s War on Everything also made waves back in June with its now infamous “Make a Realistic Wish Foundation” sketch. The segment was a parody of the Make a Wish Foundation but the intended meaning was lost when the sketch culminated in the punch line; “why go to any trouble when they’re only going to die anyway?”
The skit and the resulting furore led to a two-week break for the The Chaser while the ABC reviewed its internal processes and “relocated” its Head of Comedy, Amanda Duthie. For many observers, the sketch and the response it attracted also led to the premature demise of the program’s third season.

For those who found the premiere of Safran’s Race Relations offensive, the warnings had been loud and clear.  In April this year, Safran participated in a ritual crucifixion in the Philippines for the final episode of Race Relations. The event evoked the ire of Jewish and Christian communities around the world and attracted significant media attention for the program.

In the weeks leading up to last night’s premiere, the Australian Family Association fired off a pre-emptive strikes on Safran, with their spokesperson John Morrissey telling the Herald Sun that Safran’s new show was “in bad taste and…certainly not something that kids should be exposed to”.

But all potential controversy aside, Safran makes some important points.

In an era defined by the election of America’s first black President and of continuing conflict in the Middle East, the time is right to examine the effects that race has on our everyday lives.

Safran’s ability to mix the big issues with self-deprecating humour makes for compelling and thoroughly enjoyable viewing.

The first episode of John Safran’s Race Relations will be repeated on ABC2, tonight (Thursday) at 9:00pm.

Matt de Neef is completing his Graduate Diploma of Journalism student at La Trobe University.  This is his first piece for upstart.  You can read Matt’s blog at http://acursoryglancedotdotdot.blogspot.com