“Before preparing for another surgery, Lauren decided to learn Spanish so when she woke up she could fool her parents into believing something strange was happening to her brain,” Australian comedian Harley Breen tells us, which caused dozens of people to burst out laughing .
“Strange because during the operation the surgeon damaged her vocal cords and she couldn’t speak. She thought she was going to come out of surgery and say, “Hi, how are you?” and came over to say, “brraaaah.” ‘Oh my God, she was late,’ the parents thought. More laughter.
The subject is touchy, but nonetheless the subject of a number of jokes. Humor is greeted with smiles, laughter and applause from the audience. Right in the front row was Lauren, 28, who has been battling cystic fibrosis for more than a decade and is believed to be terminally ill. Beside him were three other terminally ill patients, still young, some parents of young children, but all with advanced cancer. All, without exception, have counted their days and have been chosen precisely for this reason.
They were the guinea pigs and first four guests of ‘Taboo,’ a comedy show that premiered on Australian television in 2019 – adapted from a Belgian original of the same name – that sought to approximate the usual red lines imposed on comedians. Can we laugh at the terminally ill? From the poor? Of those who suffer from intellectual disabilities? In all cases (and episodes) the answer is yes.
This was the format chosen by SIC and Bruno Nogueira to win the battle for TV audiences. It was known that the actor and comedian was working on a new program, but further details were only revealed this Tuesday, January 26.
Like the original, it will be called “Taboo” and will follow the winning formula that won multiple awards for the Belgian and Australian versions. Each episode deals with a topic. The Belgian, for example, opted for eight chapters focusing on physical disabilities, terminal illnesses, people of color, deafness, poverty, obesity, mental illness and the LGBT community.
In each episode, Bruno Nogueira spends a week in the company of guests who reveal what her life is like and how each of her traits affects her. Through this interaction, the comedian will then create a small stand-up routine that will be shown and interspersed with images of conversations between the presenter and the guests.
Taboe, the original Belgian show, aired in early 2018 and was a ratings hit. Hosted by one of the country’s biggest comedians, Philippe Geubels, the first episode was seen by 1.5 million people, with a 54 percent share.
National recognition earned him an award for Best Program of the Year, and he was also nominated for an International Emmy in 2019. It was also adapted by Australian television in a version that aired in 2019 and had only four episodes.
In this version, most of the episode focuses squarely on the interaction between the comedian and guests as Breen attempts to question the details and challenges each guest faces on a daily basis. Embellished with the occasional good-natured rant, the conversations almost always hit a nerve and inevitably descend into a heavy mood.
Interestingly enough, the embarrassment is regularly not broken by the comedian, but by the guests themselves, who are not afraid to make fun of their own deaths. “She really enjoys preoperative medication,” Lauren jokes after finding out Nicole, 32, a mother of one child with terminal cancer, would have to drop out of the program for urgent surgery. “Well, there goes another one.”
In one-on-one sessions, the most dramatic details are revealed – and where the most sensitive issues are discussed, like the legacy everyone wants to leave behind, what will happen to their children after they’re gone. For example, Michael is the father of two daughters, one aged 9 and the other aged 11. He too is terminally ill.
The story becomes more dramatic: the mother of the daughters died of a heart condition. But that doesn’t stop Michael from breaking the ice with a confession: Before he dies, he wants his new partner to make a plaster cast of his penis. “Not to use it alone,” says the moderator later on stage in front of the audience. “What Michael wants is that if she finds another man after he dies, that she uses the cast on him.”
It’s a roller coaster ride of emotions that inevitably evokes strong emotions in the viewer, whether tears or laughter. Inevitably there will be those who are offended. The biggest concern, Breen revealed on the show, is the reaction of the guests’ parents.
It is risky work, touching on such sensitive issues at a time when any misstep can trigger an avalanche of criticism. It’s also the most exciting time to try to touch that “red line” that many want to draw but comedians choose to ignore.
“The most important thing is to find out what makes the guests laugh,” the Australian presenter and comedian tells The Sydney Morning Herald. “The specific jokes about each individual – I really need them to laugh at this joke. It’s all done for them and that’s what makes the concept a success: making them laugh at themselves.”
In one of the show’s most dramatic moments, the three remaining guests and the host take a balloon ride. After landing, Lauren staggers, who underwent a lung transplant at the age of 19 and whose organs are only 30 percent functional. In the next picture he is lying unconscious on the floor after a cramp.
While waiting for an ambulance, Breen takes the opportunity to lighten the mood. “So I took three wonderful people out for a walk,” he says, before being interrupted by Michael, who continues to hold the unconscious Lauren’s hand. “It’s just the two of us now, isn’t it?”
In the moment that exemplifies the morbid and hilarious combination of “Taboo,” Breen takes the cue, approaches the camera shot of Lauren lying unconscious on the floor, and announces, “Stay tuned to see who wins.”