"It’s not my fault," John Safran responds when asked if he chases controversy or if it finds him. "I wake up and I'm not even trying to get in any trouble but it just happens." The answer is less than ingenuous; as the gadfly of Australia’s comedy scene, Safran has courted controversy for his entire career.
So it’s surprising that his latest venture has been mostly drama-free. Depends What You Mean By Extremist is his look at "the worlds of toxic people and their contradictions". Based on his extended interactions with Islamophobes and jihadists, the book explores their motivations. He humanises the characters he encounters while poking fun at their absurdities. Among the cast are a wannabe terrorist who quotes Monty Python and a Sri Lankan pastor dedicated to protecting Australia from multiculturalism. He’s had feedback from "some of" those he profiled but, "no one really vicious – I think people just generally have bigger fish to fry when push comes to shove... There's an expectation that I'm going to get chased down the street by these dickheads but they've got their shitlist and I'm just not in the top 10."
That doesn’t mean he wasn’t nervous. But putting himself in uncomfortable situations is part of Safran’s schtick. Even when he tries to confront people with righteousness – as he did his school rabbi on an episode of Music Jamboree – he comes across as the butt of the joke. "I wrote that as an Ali G thing where I say this and – bam, he’s humiliated. But then I just end up looking nervous and uncomfortable and that becomes the joke."
Some far leftists criticised Depends What You Mean By Extremist for finding the comedy and humanity in its subjects rather than decrying them. It’s largely this reaction that informs his Fringe show Jew Detective: Sarcasm Is Not A Crime, which is a distant companion piece to the earlier work. "One of the big themes is using my experiences writing the book, and after the book, to look at how people who are coming from an artistic perspective, like I am, are often in conflict with people who are ideologues." And it’s a fair guess that the artists will come out on top. "Oh yeah, definitely," Safran laughs. "That's because I'm right and they're wrong."