Harley Breen finds new ways of exploring uncomfortable topics in Taboo

Nicole is 32 years old. She's married with a toddler. And she has less than two years to live. Hilarious, right? Well, yes and no.

"I have a toddler and a baby on the way and the idea of my partner dying and leaving those children and me is just about the saddest thing I can think of," says comedian Harley Breen. "But there is still humour in Nicole's situation – not in the reality of that, but the moments within that horrible reality."

Harley Breen reframes discussions about difficult topics such as disability and terminal illness in Taboo.Credit:Network Ten

Breen is the host of Taboo, a new factual series on the Ten network that came out of last year's Pilot Week. In it he takes a holiday with a small group of people suffering some kind of serious hardship – physical disability, for instance, or terminal illness – gets to know them, and then produces a stand-up routine about them.

Based on a Belgian format, for Breen it's a perfect fit. Making comedy out of tragedy is kind of his thing: his first solo show, in 2006, was built around his depression as a teenager that culminated in attempted suicide.

Humour can be a wonderful release valve. "But humour can also be a way of avoiding the true emotion behind something. And I've probably done a lot of that," Breen says. "So comedy can be a distraction. But at least you are, in some sort of way, still talking about it."

That's certainly a big part of the motivation behind Taboo: to make difficult subjects approachable both for us and for the people involved. But one man's funny is another's appalling bad taste – and making fun of other people's problems is particularly treacherous ground.

With Taboo the process starts in the casting, where the net is cast wide to find people suitable for and willing to participate in a documentary that essentially exploits their hardship for laughs.

"It must have been an absolute bitch of a job," Breen says. "I mean, just selling the idea…" Finding the perfect match(es) is also crucial. "They have to factor in my personality with their personalities and their personalities with each other."

Harley Breen prefers to find out about the participants of his show after they’ve been cast.Credit:Network Ten

From an initial pool of about 50 candidates (who knew so many people would be so keen to tell their story?) a final four is produced. "I then get sent a brief on all the participants, but I kind of skim that," Breen says. "I don't want to be too informed about who they are before I get to meet them. Because people on paper are not the same as people in real life."

From there, they all just turn up on the first day of their "holiday". Breen sits down with each individual and conducts a long one-on-one interview. It'll be the first time he's met them. Everything is filmed. By the end of the process they'll be the subject of his stand-up routine.

"The most important factor is getting to know what's going to push their buttons in terms of funny," he says. Breen needs to write an overarching routine that will make a regular live audience laugh. "But the specific jokes about the individual people – I really need them to laugh at that joke. It's about them and that's what makes the whole idea work – them laughing at themselves."

Getting to know each individual is crucial. As is writing realms of potential material. "So much stuff is not going to work. I try to end up with just four points on each participant. And then just hope that I've read them right and that they find it funny. It's sink or swim."

Harley Breen (centre) hosts Taboo.Credit:Network Ten

That getting-to-know-you is really the heart of the show. It's a documentary with lots of funny bits, not vaudeville.

"I think the really appealing part of it is I've always described myself as more of a storyteller than a joke writer," Breen says. "Then I pepper my stories with jokes, so they're funny stories. And this is such an exceptional way to tell a story. You get to see the sadness and the tragedy and the joy and the love – and the punchline comedy."

He also stresses that there's nothing intrinsically rib-tickling about terminal illness, or disability, or mental illness, or racism (all tackled in the series). There have been a lot of things in his own life that have been a struggle and a trial, that haven't been funny at the time. Or ever. "But usually you take yourself away from that situation and have a little bit of distance from it and you can start to see the humour."

And even when you can't get distance, or when a situation is truly tragic, as it is for Nicole, the minutia of life can still be deliciously absurd.

"Not everything's funny," Breen says. "But there is funny in everything."

Taboo is on Ten, Thursday, 8.30pm.

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