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INTERVIEW: John Safran on Music Jamboree

With John Safran's Music Jamboree just released on DVD (you can check out our review here), Anthony Horan locked up his rubbish bins and braved the phone to speak with the self- confessed skinny pale whiny person himself to find out more about it...

You finally got a series happening after all this time...! The Music Jamboree DVD set has quite a few extras from your earlier TV efforts; these were from the channel 7 Late Report days?

Yeah, two of the stories were. That one on talkback pranks actually went to air on Channel 7, except it was when the show had totally died. I'd finally gotten a decent story together, but it was something like week ten and no-one was watching by then. The McDonalds story was meant to go on The Late Report, but they wouldn't put it on.

What did you actually get stopped by the police for in that story - is it actually illegal to dress up as a clown and go to a McDonalds store?

It became apparent what had happened - that McDonalds had misrepresented things to the police. Even though they knew that we were just being idiots, that I was pranking, they tried to get the police down there faster. So they implied that there had been a hold-up. When we got pulled out of the car the police were searching us for guns, and we had to put our hands up against the roof of the car and everything. But then as soon as it became apparent what had happened, the heat was totally off me dressed in my clown uniform and totally on the McDonalds management. The police were not very happy. Eventually this one got played on a British TV show called Disinfo Nation, which was on Channel 4 there.

And did McDonalds react to that when it went to air?

No, they were fine.

It's pranks like these that people mainly associated you with before Music Jamboree turned up, but there's a lot more to the series than just that. Does that "prankster" image work against you sometimes?

Yes and no... I try not to get too of pretentious about these things. I'm just happy if anyone likes my stuff! People go on about whether I'm worried that after doing the Ray Martin thing that I'll be known as the Ray Martin Guy. And the thing is, I guess most people are going to be known as... no- one! It's like how the Sex Pistols are my favourite band, but they only ever had a couple of good songs...

Speaking of the Ray Martin prank, that's been lurking around on the Internet for years now, but it's not on the DVD... not even as an "Easter egg"?

No, unfortunately not. I don't own the copyright to that one, it belongs to the ABC. So that won't be happening. I'll have another go at trying to get some footage off them when I put out the DVD of my next series, but I wasn't able to secure any this time. And I tried. And then there's that whole possibility of all the discs getting pulled off the shelf and stuff like that. I thought I'd better not put it on. It was tempting though... I wonder what the legal ramifications are of that, if you physically put something in but no-one ever watches it.

That must have made it much harder to get a TV series going, when the Ray Martin thing had been so controversial from a legal point of view...

Well, it wasn't actually too much of a problem from a strict legal point of view. It was a problem from an ABC ethics policy point of view. And in fact it's the other way around from a strictly legal sense - once the ABC lawyers had looked over the Ray Martin footage, their thing was 'John, do you want to take action? He has technically assaulted you, and you could take action against him,' though I wasn't going to do that. Definitely the commercial networks see something like the Ray Martin thing and they think it's cool, it's all sensationalism. But SBS were good and supportive, and they were the first people who followed through on their promises. Everyone else says 'hey, we really like that thing, do it for us,' but then when you do it for them you get the police frisking you while you're dressed as Ronald McDonald and they won't put it to air. But SBS totally followed through amazingly at all stages on their initial claim that they'd let me do what I wanted.

SBS is in some ways almost turning into a Channel 4- like station, but Channel 4 back when they were really being innovative...

That's definitely right. Debbie Lee, who is the SBS Commissioning Editor, was looking at Channel 4 and seeing how TV can be. Because there are British shows that, even if they're bad, they're kind of interesting, you can see they're trying in a way that most Australian shows don't. It's just a different mindset or something, it's weird. You just wouldn't get an Ali G or a Chris Morris Show in Australia.

A lot of people still think of SBS as the "ethnic broadcaster".

Yeah, and what they told me is that they are trying to expand it. So yeah, they're the ethnic broadcaster, but if the function of an alternative to the commercial networks is to broadcast what they wouldn't, then surely they can somehow squeeze interesting (English language) programming into their charter.

Okay, so who's the Music Mole?

Ah. Well, even at this late stage I must protect the identity. It'll be like that Deep Throat thing at Watergate, every five years it'll be about to come out who it is.

What happened with that World of Instruments segment that got removed from the DVD?

That was Sonic Animation's song Evil. It was just a paperwork type of thing, a kind of unfortunate issue that stopped it from being on the DVD. It is a bit of a shame, but as they say, when life serves you lemons, make lemonade!

Which you did in this case - the "commentary" you put in its place was arguably better anyway. Were you tempted to do a commentary for the entire series?

I've never seen a director's commentary where it's not, after four minutes, like 'oh god, STOP IT!!!' You can get the wittiest people, the cleverest and most artistic people in the world, like the team behind Fight Club, they're obviously so talented and clever. And then you play the commentary, and after five minutes it's just too much. The only good one I've ever heard was on Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Because you know how you assume that doofus guy (Jason Mewes) is acting? When you hear the commentary you just realise he's not. And Kevin Smith and him have their cute little fights and stuff.

But commentary or not, DVD is the perfect way to watch an entire series like Music Jamboree...

I'm so excited about it - I love DVD so much, it's just ace. Especially for a TV show. Instead of just being on the air and then floating away into nothing, you've got this permanent thing that can turn up anywhere. My pilots were kind of like that - nobody actually saw them on TV, it was all this dubbing and taping.... So I guess my entire TV career has not been all shown on actual TV. So this was just an official way of doing it.

In the mini-commentary you mention posts made to the aus.tv newsgroup; I'm guessing that the people that did those posts at the time didn't think you'd be reading...

Well, I've had fun with them before. Once I read on there, on the aus.tv thing, there was some guy complaining while I was still filming the show before it even went to air on TV. He was saying 'I saw John Safran posting a letter down in South Melbourne... sheesh, how many takes does it take to post a letter?' So suddenly not only do I have to do an entertaining show, but apparently when I'm filming it I have to make it entertaining for any passer-by who happens to be walking past. So I went the guy at this Triple R outside broadcast - totally incidentally, for some reason I brought it up because I thought it was funny. I acted really angry, but I was obviously joking. And the guy was actually there. He ran out, and then he posted on aus.tv 'oh my god, I was at the outside broadcast and I got scared and ran out...'

I notice you changed the email addresses in the newsgroup posts you mention on the DVD...

Ah yes. I didn't know the legal issues that were involved there. But I thought I'd use their names just to freak 'em out.

People must constantly think that you're going to play a prank on them, especially after Music Jamboree went to air...

Do you know the extent to which people think I prank? A person came up to me today when we did a Triple R outside broadcast, and they said they rang up JB HiFi to ask about my DVD, and the guy there said 'nah, he doesn't have one, he's obviously doing a prank.' And this person said I'd been talking about it on Triple R, and the guy from JB said 'yeah, I listen to Triple R, and he's pranking you.' So the buyer at JB HiFi doesn't even believe that I've got a DVD out...!

Of the people that you satirise in the series, have you had any legal hassles with any of them? Or is that all vetted before the show goes to air?

On that level there were no problems, which was really good. As opposed to, say, the Ray Martin thing on the ABC pilot. Maybe it's because there were more colourful costumes, it was quite obviously a joke this time. And while it's not a legal position to take, if it's obviously meant to be humorous you usually get off the hook a lot more easily than if you're indignant and self-righteous.

I would have expected Steve Price to be a little bit indignant though...!

Yeah, well people were ringing him up and asking him about it, and he wouldn't bite, thank god. You so don't want to get into the legals of that. People think it's cool if I have to go to court over something. But I know Stephen Mayne, who went to court with Steve Price over defamation and had to sell his house to pay the legal fees. So I really don't want to get in trouble!

So is there going to be another series?

Yeah, but not a music series. Probably a religion show. It'll be light-hearted, of course. It won't be too mean. Me and Mark O'Toole - who wrote Music Jamboree with me - are going to start writing it at the start of 2003.

So the Church of Scientology should start worrying now?

Well, like I said on that commentary thing on the DVD, they rang me up and thanked me for the publicity...!

John Safran's Music Jamboree double DVD set is out and about to buy right now through The AV Channel - assuming you can find a shop that believes it, of course...

LINK : http://www.dvd.net.au/goto.cgi?news.cgi?id=2873

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