John Safran has been playfully goading the Australian public since the late 90s and in Jew Detective: Sarcasm is Not a Crime, he turns his famous acerbic eye to ideologues and extremists. The show takes off from his experiences as a ‘war artist’ in the trenches of the far right for his most recent book, Depends What You Mean by Extremists. Having spent time with religious and racist extremists in order to explore bigotry and hypocrisy, Safran found himself levelled with criticism for treating his subjects with too much humanity and humour, and this fuels the fire of his new show.
Safran pits artists against ideologues – political extremists of both the far right and left – and ultimately argues the importance of artistic expression when tackling social and political issues. Using social media posts, photos, videos and, of course, a healthy dose of sarcasm, Safran leads us through the complicated world of ideologues, bigots and identity politics, where if you’re not criticising your enemy seriously, and according to a narrow margin of criteria, it's best to not speak at all.
Safran is funny, but he’s not a stand-up comedian. Sometimes his gesturing and tone don’t best fit his punchlines, and he over-explains where he could pull back. Much of the humour speaks for itself — in his visual cues and sarcastic observations — but he often hammers the point home, taking the point a step too far. He reads from prepared notes hidden behind a lectern and, on occasion, particularly at the beginning of the show, the faux-lecture style really works. I only wish he’d leant into the format more and teased out a kind of playfulness with the style that would really suit his awkward-but-kind-of-charming personality. At the moment, the show sits somewhere between a lecture and a traditional stand-up routine, as though it can’t quite figure out what it wants to be.
Ultimately, there is a lot of very interesting commentary at the heart Jew Detective, and his message about the role of artistic expression, particularly humour, in critiquing and fighting against bigotry in all its forms is important. It’s not roll off your chair funny, but, particularly for fans of Safran’s work, there’s a lot here to see.