For a show that purports to concern itself with intimate relationships between people of different races and creeds, John Safran’s Race Relations seems instead to be a freewheeling cultural bulldozer hurtling out of control across the globe.
One can only sit cringing, amazed, often hardly able to watch, as the weedy Aussie suburbanite blacks up and pops in on some fairly committed black issues blokes in the US - who from his bizarre appearance almost sniff him out straight off as a white rat - but wins them over and even sings them a rap song about a Melbourne tram. Not to undersell his own chutzpah, next he is onstage at a rap venue apparently wowing the crowd with his tram rap, engineering a near race riot at a Chicago restaurant, speed-dating black women and setting up a possibly more lingering assignation with one, and preaching to a black congregation, climaxing with the impassioned “I am John Safran, and I am a proud black man”.
The previous week’s stunts had seen him secretly nicking soiled panties from Jewish and Eurasian women for a "smell test" to see which ethnic type he preferred - episodes about as real as any “reality television” - and pulling off a sperm bank donation quinella to taint notions of race in both Israel and Palestine.
But is Safran anything more than a jerk-off, albeit a smart one? What is he trying to pull beyond a splash in the great cotton wool void of tele-suburbia? He’s shown us that he’s willing to be crucified to get followers: mind you, he might say it worked for Jesus Christ, so why not?
Back when Safran’s career ignited on Race Around the World, and in his TV incarnations since, the method has hardly varied. There is the faux-naif interest in some religious, racial or cultural taboo or bugaboo, followed by a suitably tangential, bizarre and often confronting stunt for the camera, pulled in a feigned earnest search for truth by a man we all know is far more clever by half. Or at least, so say his nods and winks.
Thus may he sniff the filched panties of ten women, and go out among African Americans as one of them in the worst black face since Al Jolson, looking nothing more closely than a demented Trekkie.
It’s all very naughty and lots of fun; it’s a little bit denigrating and more than a little bit patronising to the people whose confidence he betrays, but who gives a bugger because they’re far away now and would never spring for the fare to come here and get him back. Oh, and it makes for terrific television.
But is there any deeper purpose to Safran’s shows, or is he merely yet another carpetbagger, hawking his own brand of snakeoil from an open-topped wagon? One might suggest this question that is constantly present in the viewer's mind is the abiding appeal of Safran, and that it is why he fascinates and tantalises us, and as such fills a sorely needed religious-cultural transgressive niche in our media and society. Or such.
But the answer, really, is no. He is the jester in the court of our cultural correctness, indeed, the clown in the cathedral, the fool we crave and the gifted child trying to shock his parents with dress-ups by going just that much further - all that he is, yes. But in the end he is the huckster of one and one thing only pertaining to the spirit: one hundred percent proof John Safran. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, as another Jewish funnyman was wont to say.