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TV

For Taboo host Harley Breen, finding the funny amid the wreckage is serious business

“You can joke about everything, but it’s about intent and tone...”

By Thomas Mitchell
This is an age where saying the wrong thing can get you into trouble. While some people might call it political correctness gone mad, it's to do with the fact we're collectively more aware than ever before, so most of us try our best not to offend.
It makes it a particularly tough time to be a comedian, especially one trying to make a funny yet insightful TV show about some of the worst things in life: terminal illness, racism, mental illness and physical disability.
That's where Melbourne comedian Harley Breen comes in.
"The world has changed, society has changed, but comedy will still find the funny in whatever the reality of the day is," Harley, 39, tells TV WEEK. "So I think this whole argument about what can we can and can't joke about is redundant.
"You can joke about everything, but it's about intent and tone – how you come at it – and that's up to the comedian to make that choice."
"Comedy will still find the funny in whatever the reality of the day is..."
It's a lesson Harley has learnt as the host of Taboo, a series in which he dares to tackle the tough-to-talk-about subjects.
Harley spends a week with people who are terminally ill, have been victims of racism or are living with mental illness.
He then writes a stand-up comedy routine inspired by and about his new friends and performs it in front of them and their nearest and dearest.
The show was originally part of 10's Pilot Week and was picked up after an overwhelmingly positive response to the pilot episode, which focused on people with disabilities.
Since then, Taboo has been commissioned for a full series – and nominated for a TV WEEK Logie Award for Most Outstanding Factual Or Documentary Program.
In last week's episode, Harley bunkered down with four individuals battling terminal illnesses. One of their stories has proved difficult for Harley to let go of.
"Michel, the dad who's dying of lung cancer, has young daughters who'd already lost their mum," Harley recalls.
"Your first instinct is to think, 'How can there be a shred of anything that resembles joy in this situation?' But Michel is still a person, and he's not defined by the worst thing that ever happened to him."
Harley with his new friends from Season One's first episode.
Undoubtedly, Harley heard Michel's story through the prism of parenthood. Harley has two young sons and, with another baby on the way, the reality of sitting opposite a father who won't be there for his family in the future hit home.
"Your job is to look after these children, to raise and care for them, and to send them into the world as the people you want them to be," he says.
"Then, you meet someone who isn't going to be able to do that job because of circumstances out of their control. It breaks you a little bit."
And while there's no cure for that type of sadness, comedy does help.
"It's so satisfying to see people laugh, because the tension is off the charts," Harley says. "I always get nervous before a normal show, but nothing compares to how I've felt on Taboo.
"I was that stressed, that when I walked off stage after that first episode, I said to our executive producer, 'I'm going to get stomach cancer from this program.'"
Harley says "nothing compares" to performing a set on Taboo.
Harley adds that although the days are long and emotionally taxing, "it's an incredible feeling when you land a joke and someone laughs instead of cries", he explains.
It turns out laughter is the best medicine after all.
Taboo airs Thursday, 8:40pm, on 10.

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