JOhn Safran was ousted. These days, it seems that every journalist shares their rhythm. Where once the mischievous provocateur was famous for inhabiting the fringes of culture, these fringes now take center stage.
Health journalists reflect on the increase in human consumption of deworming paste for livestock, while technical editors explain the global fire in mobile phone towers. Parliamentarians peddle quack remedies, the Therapeutic Goods Administration anxiously announces a “tenfold” increase in ivermectin imports, while Sky News invites the far right on TV.
The extreme is dominant, the author likes to say, and paranoia, civic mistrust and quack theories grab the headlines.
“I managed to build a career because I go on the sidelines and I come back with this kind of stuff,” says Safran. “Now these things have just taken over the world, it’s kind of like a mainstream kind of theater.”
What now for Safran? It might surprise you: a book about the world’s largest cigarette company, Philip Morris, and the global influence of corporate language.
Puff Piece – How Philip Morris Set Vaping On Fire (And Burned The English Language) opens in the parking lot of a Melbourne bus terminal late at night, where Safran encounters a contraband smuggler. The writer came for IQOS – a type of electronic cigarette produced by Philip Morris, who, despite the machine’s addiction to tobacco (aka “HeatSticks”), insists the company is not a vape. nor a cigarette. It is prohibited in Australia.
From there, Safran investigates the company’s tactical pivots – for example, on World No Tobacco Day, Philip Morris declares his intention to “de-smoke” the world. Safran warns that it is better not to trust big social demands made with corporate neologisms and examines its attempt to redefine smoking, not only through technological innovation, but with words.
“From a storyteller’s point of view, it’s fascinating that Philip Morris is leaning against a wall, and they’re going to see their menthol cigarettes banned in Europe, and they found that way around that, and they won in one. way, ”says Safran.
In his car, after closing the deal with his eBay street vendor, Safran finds himself fingering the device that Philip Morris says helps people quit smoking, but which at the end of the book we convinces, is simply designed to make people addicted to something artificially different. to the old product.
Safran was “the least religious child of Melbourne’s most religious school” – St Kilda’s Yeshivah College – before entering RMIT’s journalism school in the early 1990s. He dropped out and joined the world. advertising.
Safran enjoyed that – making a successful ad was like solving a logical puzzle, he says – and as he was driving around town he found himself thinking about the invisible design of the billboard ads. display. He also learned two valuable lessons.
“Advertising trains your mind to come up with short, catchy ideas,” he says. “I have also learned that very little in this world is done accidentally.”
But Safran had bigger creative ambitions, and in 1997 he became one of eight young documentary filmmakers. participants in the first season of ABC’s Race Around the World. In Côte d’Ivoire, Safran enlisted a voodoo priest to curse his girlfriend; in California, he showed viewers how to get into Disneyland. Safran won the public vote but was disqualified by the judges after secretly filming Brazilian priests going to confession. A star Is Born.
The following year, the ABC ordered a pilot: John Safran: Media Tycoon. Denigrating A Current Affair’s aggressive doorstop techniques, Safran forced a legendary showdown with host Ray Martin. The pilot was never aired, but the footage has enjoyed a long and cultured life online. Shortly thereafter, Safran would find himself in court in a bizarre test of trespassing laws, after remotely sending a robotic cigarette-puffing seagull to the MCG to “tempt” Shane Warne – who had recently signed a deal to approval with Nicorette – sneaking a cheeky slip.
Safran’s national reputation as a crafty jester and social stuntman was cemented by three television series that aired in the 2000s on SBS and ABC: Music Jamboree by John Safran, John Safran vs God and Race Relations by John Safran. It is significant that each series bears its name, and the covers of two of its three books bear its face: the subjects of its documentaries matter less than its distinctive treatment. Early in his career, says Safran, he figured out how to attract audiences. “You can get humor by focusing on yourself,” says Safran. “Make the stories personal while making them something bigger. “
Perhaps his most popular work has been his long radio partnership with Father Bob McGuire on Triple J. For 10 years, starting in 2005, a Jew and a Roman Catholic – an agnostic and a priest – riffed the news of the week, often bitter disagreement.
“We had a funny way of being serious,” says Father Bob of their partnership. “I liked John’s attitude towards life, which is skepticism. Everything is up for grabs, everything flows. And John has common sense, which is a great attribute that is greatly underestimated by mankind. The ruling class doesn’t want you to have common sense because then you will see through them. And he uses humor because he doesn’t want to sound very serious, because then no one will listen to you.
John Safran, public artist, is a sort of confection. The difference between the private Safran and the public is enormous. In private, Safran is shy, clumsy and deferential. Few could pull the stunts he has – or volunteer for such a strange danger – but one he has might suggest it comes naturally. Or pleasantly. This is not the case. It is remarkable that such a calm man had so insistently made a career of senseless provocation. This career is a long and very serious effort of the will.
“I really like being a storyteller,” says Safran. “And I found a way to engage an audience, but I have to be brave to get my material so that I can put it into a story that an audience will react to. Corn [the stunts] makes me uncomfortable in my stomach. I mean, I find it uncomfortable to approach people. I find it embarrassing to make phone calls. A friend said that I am intimidated by authority, and I think it is true.
“And,” – he’s only half joking here, maybe – “I’ve forgotten what the real me is.”
The enfant terrible is almost 50 now, and the pranks are mostly retired. He is an author these days, even if his books remain stamped with the Safran schtick: heavy irony, dramatized naivety and restless personal digressions.
“The fact that I always talk about little stories in my life, well, it’s because that’s what my audience and Penguin want,” says Safran, and jokes that his editor disapproves of the fact that he writing a novel – Safran is a bankable brand.
His first book, Murder in Mississippi, came out in 2013 and became an award-winning bestseller here (American critics were much less kind). It was a non-fictional account of the murder of a white supremacist by a black man – coincidentally, the murder victim had previously been the subject of a prank by Safran. Confused by the usual difficulties of journalism – lack of access, irreconcilable contradictions – Safran says he stumbled upon a realization that would inform not only Mississippi, but the following two books: rather than harming history, these difficulties could to become the story.
“I was really stressed,” says Safran. “We didn’t know what was going on and I couldn’t meet the killer. And it drove me crazy. But then, like, it clicked: oh, you just write whatever the obstacle. “
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 between the far right, Islamic radicals and antifa. The figures were often vulgar, volatile and fanatic without whitewashing – but perhaps too often presented as simply laughable. Today, while humor and sickly irony work both as a recruiting tool and as an alibi for those on the fringes of the alternative right he has immersed himself in – a way of suggesting that everything this is just a joke, while stoking the hatreds required for very real obscenities – I ask Safran if he thinks humor can be more effective when used against the humorless.
“The answer to alt-right irony is a better irony,” says Safran. “I have 100% confidence in humor. “
Using humor against bigotry, injustice or corporate cynicism is not trivializing these threats, he says, but part of a tradition of facing and surviving darkness. “Humor has been this great thing for a thousand years, this lubricant and this way to decompress trauma,” says Safran. “It’s my culture. It’s my way of doing point paintings.
And so it is for Puff Piece, a sort of jester’s journey through etymology, combustion science, and corporate swagger, and stuffed with winks, terrible puns and serious dialogue with his rabbi on the nature of evil. After noticing the glamor of an image of Hannah Arendt smoking, Safran writes: “I love everything about cigarettes, except cancer.
Despite all of his irreverent and creepy stunts, Safran is extremely serious about humor. And the language. He’s been thinking about words for decades. In Puff Piece there is this beautifully strained expression of his faith: “Words have power. A phrase so overused that she herself has lost a lot of its power. Yet this is no less true. I have been crushed 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 construct and distort realities, as God did. Not with pipes, mud and scaffolding, but with words.
And Philip Morris, says Safran – this old titan – will die or reinvent himself slyly with them. “Everything revolves around the corporate Kabbalah, breathing words into the world, hoping they will ignite and reshape reality.”