Harley Breen: When Is It OK To Joke About It?

I’m at the top. I’m the peak of the privilege mountain.

I got asked to write an article about a TV show I’m in, focusing on how to joke about sensitive subjects and that comedy is changing…I don’t know what that means.

While there may be elements of the comedy industry that are changing and always have been I don’t believe I’ve changed the way I do comedy at all. I sincerely hope I’ve become better at it.

I have become more efficient at writing and producing a finished product. But essentially I still do the same thing. I engage in my life, I observe what happens around me and I turn those experiences into stories and jokes to perform in front of an audience for their entertainment.

Or to put it more succinctly; in the words of my friend, comedian and absurd human David Quirk “I participate in life and report back”.

Comedian Jon Stewart is known to shine a light on serious issues and minorities through the use of comedy. Photo: Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP

There are no rules in comedy. No boundaries, no taboo subjects. Say and do whatever you like. But know this: the audience will and should judge you for being shit at your job.

What I choose to do is impose a set of perimeters on myself as a performer. One of these is “Don’t punch down”. Put simply; As best as I can, I write material that doesn’t humiliate and shame people that exist below my point of privilege. But this isn’t a rule or a law, it’s a choice.

I don’t want this to be a green light for those idiots that sit on social media relentlessly virtue signaling or those “woke white boys” that think they have been elected the world’s moral police.

A point of fact for those who spend their days in outrage; comedians aren’t elected representatives. We’re not paid by your tax dollar. We don’t have to adhere to anyone’s ideas of political correctness or apologise if we offended you. We’re artists, we are performers and we’re risk takers. Furthermore, we’re not a unified organisation. We don’t even have a bloody union. I’d say the only uniting aspect of us is the desire to entertain. Also, some comedians are shit people. So are some toddlers.

All that to say, because I impose the perimeter of not punching down on myself then as an able-bodied-straight-white-affluent-male, there is no up. I’m at the top. I’m the peak of the privilege mountain.

It’s why I’ve spent most of my career metaphorically punching myself in the face. Self-deprecation has been my sharpest tool and most of my material is introspective autobiographical comedy. Put simply; I joke about my family. I dare anyone to be offended on my mother’s behalf.

The challenge of being involved in a project like TABOO was how on earth do I write jokes about people who are perceived to be below my privilege? How do I exist within the confines of myself imposed rule when three of them are literally sitting down in a wheelchair and the other one lost his bloody legs? It has been the number one greatest writing challenge of my career.

The eye opener for me was a discussion we all had while shooting the documentary side of the program that ended with this comment from one of the participants “If you don’t tell jokes about us, then we’re invisible”. I’d never even thought to consider that.

But how? How do I joke about you and your shitty set of circumstances? It firstly comes down to tone and intent and then the brilliance of this format is that I “the story teller” had the opportunity to involve myself in their lives, I took part in their story and then I told their stories with the intent of entertaining them, their friends/family and then as an extension, the broader TV audience.

I stand by everything I’ve said. I’m not here to fix your healthcare system or overhaul the education department. I won’t put forward an effective public transport plan and I’m not going to develop a climate change policy. I will however, to the best of my ability, produce a product that will inclusively entertain as large a section of society as possible. It’s certainly not for everyone. Puritans, you’re not my demographic. But never have I ever written something with the deliberate intent to offend.

Buttholes are funny. Poo is an excellent word and comedy is masterful way to tell a story. I hope you enjoy the stories of my four new friends.

Harley is part of Ten's Pilot Week, with his show Taboo airs Tuesday, August 21 at 9pm. Taboo sees Harley spend five days and nights with members of a disadvantaged group of society and then use those experiences to create a stand-up comedy routine about them. The kicker? The subjects will be front and centre in the audience. The show originated in Belgium, where it broke audience records.