Katherine Ryan, Series Two Champion, Taskmaster
“Oh, I understand. You’re a madman.”
Taskmaster, the British experimental comedy competition, has taken off around the world with spin-offs produced in more than a dozen other countries. Surviving an ill-fated U.S. iteration, as well as Covid stealing its live audience and its intimate group setting, Taskmaster continues to expand. The original U.K. series easily scores among the greatest comedy TV shows of all time. It’s not finished either, nor may it ever be. With versions now based in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Croatia, Denmark, etc., the show even invited the U.K. public to participate via Youtube when that country was locked down at home during the 2020 pandemic.
Taskmaster has a massive cult following partly because its episodes and highlight reels are so easily accessible through Youtube, Daily Motion, Amazon Video, and it goes on.
“How nice that you can devise this show and then hide behind me.”Taskmaster, Greg Davies
The mad super-genius behind the show is Alex Horne who seems to never run out of wacky ideas to humiliate his fellow comedians. His tasks might involve contestants wearing a blindfold, solving a mystery, or cooking something strange just to find out in a second task that they must eat it. There’s often a strict time limit counting down, while other times contestants are given months to shine.
Spin-off versions of the Taskmaster franchise have lacked some of the gravitas of the original, as there is only one Alex. It’s modeled around a tyrannical Lord who assigns tasks to five jesters and he then sits in judgment at how pathetically the poor saps have performed under pressure. Tasks are executed over several months prior to the studio recording.
Alex Horne, the actual creator of and author behind most of the tasks, is not himself the Taskmaster. That role is filled by the towering Greg Davies. While Horne is the brains behind meting out assignments to the contestants, the Taskmaster is the supreme deciding force — not Alex. Instead, Alex assumes a subservient, beta-male role at Greg Davies’ side. That’s the first oddity, as the reality behind the show, what’s happening and why, is often confusing. The constant fluctuation between what’s real and what’s false can be difficult to decode and adds significantly to the show’s magic.
Greg Davies apparently cannot stand Alex and humiliates him regularly. He encourages the contestants to do likewise, and he rewards them with points for doing so. Hate-fests of mockery have been turned toward Alex during the studio sessions, as contestants tend to want to lash out and exact some kind of vengeance for their tribulations. The comedy roast environment is a key factor in the show’s success, as is the British late-night free-for-all milieu — nothing is off the table. They aren’t concerned about pleasing censors and thus employ no filters as the shit hits the fan.
Alex Horne sprang to fame by his connection to 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, the Jimmy Carr madhouse, which has a similar comedic sensibility. Horne was an actual competitive Countdown champion, the words and numbers game that has been a British institution since the 1980s. Jimmy Carr’s loony reinterpreted version of that show does besmirch the original in some eyes but it’s still quite hilarious most of the time.
Horne invented the Taskmaster concept for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2010. He also put together his own jazz ensemble, The Horne Section, to play parody songs. It became apparent that Horne’s twisted takes on music and his oddball sense of humor were unique.
Horne’s musical efforts and his connections to musicians in The Horne Section led to the eclectic soundtrack of the Taskmaster TV show. The original music is a consistent part of the show’s flow. It brings a reliable format structure to contrast against the complete madness of the unknown tasks that lie ahead.
Taskmaster has actively sought out some of Britain’s most twisted mutants. Some comics stand out as particularly unstable, and the risk of them actually snapping is ever-present, given the deliberate pressure applied by the format. Horne’s genius is in sneakily pushing their buttons, misdirecting them, springing surprise reversals, and frustrating their feeble efforts for our amusement. His sinister puppet-master vibe is subtle but undeniable. An element of danger sometimes pops in from out of left field.
“I’m starting to think we shouldn’t be laughing at Paul.”Sara Pascoe
Rhod Gilbert’s surprise javelin attack was one such moment. And pretty much Paul Choudary’s entire series seethed with an undercurrent of risk and rage. Choudary’s dark, gravelly Batman voice didn’t help his case. Even the petite Bridget Christie stormed across the stage and openly threatened Greg Davies’ life on national TV.
Both Joe Wilkinson and Johnny Vegas were reduced to openly begging for points, Wilkinson literally on his knees. Lou Sanders took her scoring decisions so seriously that her glares at Greg could melt iron. And yes, she did win her series.
But, none of it matters! The prizes are jokes provided by the contestants themselves. Nothing of real value is offered up to be won — with the exception of a few key moments in the show’s history, featuring high rollers. Ask Josh Widdicombe for more on that topic, as he did once offer up a blank bank check. The victor of each season does receive Greg Davies’ golden painted bust, which he once claimed was unable to make back its three-pound reserve bid on eBay.
Team tasks also take place where the comedians are mixed and matched — and the personalities often clash within a group effort. But, as it is partially staged, we have to consider whether the clashes are overblown for effect. That’s part of the game.
A team construction task with Rhod Gilbert, Phil Wang, and James Acaster stands out as exceptional and could probably be studied by psychologists. In fact, Rhod Gilbert’s entire season was unforgettable and a candidate for the top example of cultivated comic insanity.
In addition to the normal series, the UK show has added celebrity/holiday specials, a Champion of Champions super competition, as well as a podcast for contestants to discuss every episode.
The beauty of Taskmaster is that the next task is a complete surprise to everyone except Alex. It could be just about anything. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting an egg somewhere that no one had ever landed an egg before, or perhaps filming a short movie starring a frozen pea. The next task could involve an obstacle course/war simulation on a unicycle. Who knows? Only Alex.
One of the draws for comedians to endure the humiliation is the opportunity to showcase their talents. This showbiz aspect is built into the format. Tasks might be musical, dance, dramatic acting, sports, or puzzle solving. There’s something for everyone, eventually.
Some of the great moments in Taskmaster history involved cheating and being exposed by multiple cameras after the fact. Series One established the precedent, when Tim Key revealed himself, repeatedly, as less than trustworthy. The sheer number of strategically placed cameras and cheap GoPro units expose most attempts at liberty-taking. Disqualifications have been rampant. The tasks, however, are wide open to interpretation. It’s a fine line between creative thinking and outright dishonesty, and that call is to be made by the Taskmaster alone. Say the task was to tie yourself up, and that the contestant who takes the longest amount of time for Alex to untie him or her wins the points. How would one be certain to romp to victory?
Some of Greg’s decisions were controversial, and on several occasions, he’s taunted his detractors on Twitter. The contestants are encouraged to think outside the box, and they had better do so or else face the wrath of the Taskmaster.
“But are these the wrong hands? Has the power been abused? Yes!!!”
Taskmaster, Greg Davies•