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Pushing the envelope on black humour

There has been a lot of discussion about John Safran’s Race Relations program on ABC.  Most of it has been decidedly negative.  Occasionally you find a fan, if so you will find them categorising Safran as a comic genius, up there with Sacha Baron Cohen or Woody Allen (lehavdil).  One thing is for sure, there is no middle ground.  You either love John Safran or you hate him.  Watch one episode of his show and you can’t maintain a pareve veiwpoint.

There is little doubt that this series is a ‘shock and awe’ approach, falling off the edge of the spectrum of cynicism when it comes to evaluating Judaism’s attitudes towards mixed marriage and assimilation. 

I have come to the conclusion that most of the people who hate Safrann do so, not because of a lack of maturity within his humour (which is why the show has an element of appeal to yours truly), but rather because it takes many traditionalists well out of their comfort zones.  This is precisely what the presenter intends.

Not many Jews in Australia are used to having some of the confrontational and sensitive issues that sit within our community debated through the use of comedy on television.  Free to air, state sponsored Television at that, nebach!  Occasionally we will see US comedy sitcoms with their obligatory Jewish one liners, and every so often a documentary appears on Australian TV that delivers a little visibility to Australian Jewry.  However we have see nothing like this before.

“What was he thinking?” was the response from the couch potato armchair critics in my house.  “OK, so we get the joke, but what about the hundreds of thousands of people around Australia watching this that has no idea what the joke is”.  That to my mind, is what makes this show so funny.  Confirming these observations, I was putting the rubbish out early the next morning and the neighbour, a religious Hindi, came out to ask me if I could explain what the show was about.

There are a few areas within this show where it could be easily argued that John Safran has gone to far with his parody and expose of the limitations Judaism has when it comes to mixed relationships and marriage.  However, on the whole, I would stop and ask any Jewish person that feels uncomfortable with this show to explore what it is that makes them uneasy.  Most of them know deep down that it is humour, but they just can’t quite work out whether it is funny or offensive.  They are confused as to whether it is supposed to be funny or not (and from an intergenerational point of view, that itself is hysterical).  Whether it is mixing sperm, gassing David Irving, or digging up a grave next to your mother, there are antics within this series that disturb emotions and push past the boundaries.  They are distasteful, no question.  However what is the author trying to achieve?  To irk our ire through overstepping the mark?  To get us to laugh at ourselves?  Or to make us think about the underlying themes of his actions?  Perhaps it is a mixture of all three. 

The real questions it begs are, is this OK because it is a Jew mocking Judaism?  If it were a non-Jewish person producing this, would the level of feeling intensify (no doubt I would feel differently if this was directed towards Judasim from beyond a member of the tribe)? 

All up, I can handle John Safran, and it does not bug me that Judaism is the subject of pop culture or art.  Those who don’t want to watch won’t, and those who don’t understand will  see no value in the program.  Of all the reactions stirred, I think it is the intergenerational tolerance from within Australian Jewry which has been exposed this most by this show.  On that note, if a Jewish person cringes because they see Judaism on the TV, even in a context that is self-directed parody, then so be it.  This type of Jew, who prefers to keep all matters “in the family, and not on show for public display” has a complex about their Jewish identity.  They feel uncomfortable that any public display of Jewish topics brings their identity to the fore, and they would rather keep it hidden.  Perhaps its these people that Safran is speaking to the most.

Mr Safran, Rabbi Groner may have told you to study Talmud, Rabbi Packouz may have given you tips to not marry out, and your Hebrew reading (especially as a Yeshiva College Graduate) may be very ordinary.  Your show may push the limits.  But you are funny, and you should not be ashamed to use Australian Jewish culture as a theme for your TV productions.

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