Taskmaster: one of TV’s funniest, most unexpected comedies

Dave's Taskmaster is ace at everything but balanced representation. Sort that, and it could be one of the most enjoyable shows on TV...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

In a media environment where every outlet is battling for attention more intensely than ever before, TV channel Dave has carved out quite a handy niche for itself. Many years since its erstwhile days as UKTVG2 – the ghettoised cousin of dusty sitcom purveyors UK Gold – a prominent Freeview EPG position and a remarkably successful rebranding has allowed the channel to build its own fanbase and identity. It’s now “the home of witty banter”, its schedule jam-packed with panel shows, satirical comedy, and male-skewing reality.

In recent years, the heightened awareness of Dave has allowed the channel to venture into original material, and such forays have generally been quite a success. Panel debate Argumental proved neatly on-brand, sitting nicely alongside the likes of classic Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week repeats; Dave Gorman, of Googlewhack Adventure fame, was afforded the perfect space to explore his PowerPoint-driven stand-up comedy in Modern Life Is Goodish; and Storage Hunters UK breathed new life into the phenomenally popular US format, a Dave daytime staple for years.

As fantastic as many of these shows are, though – and I’d go to bat for Dave Gorman every day of the week and twice on Sundays – it’s a little show called Taskmaster that’s proved the crowning jewel in Dave’s original programming line-up. Spawned from an Edinburgh Fringe skit by Alex Horne way back in 2010, the comedy-come-game show setup was adapted for TV last year, and it’s already worked its way through three series; two more are due next year.

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The premise: Greg Davies, titular Taskmaster, issues strange and unusual tasks to a set of five celebrity comedians (rotated every series). They are encouraged to complete the tasks as effectively or efficiently as possible, enlisting outside-the-box thinking where necessary. Assisting him is the aforementioned Horne, who presides over proceedings quietly, aiding the comedians if required, and offering Davies the data necessary to assign points for each task.

Each episode features three or four pre-filmed task montages, which Davies judges in front of Horne, the contestants, and a studio audience. There are also ‘live’ challenges, which take place in front of Davies, Horne and the studio audience, there and then; and ‘prize’ challenges, wherein each episode, each comedian is tasked with bringing in the best or most exciting item on a given theme. The comedian who wins the most points from Davies in a given episode wins all of that show’s items.

It’s a great concept, but it would all be for nought if the tasks weren’t up to scratch and the comedians weren’t up for the game. Thankfully, that is assuredly not the case, and the show routinely delivers the funniest, most unexpected comedy of the TV week. Take the first series, which featured Frank Skinner, Josh Widdicombe, Roisin Conaty, Romesh Ranganathan and Tim Key – a stylistically diverse lineup of comics if ever there was one; the dry, festering resentment of Ranganathan contrasting hilariously with the surreal Key and bouncy Conaty.

The tasks were similarly divergent: consuming as much watermelon as possible within one minute; growing the longest nail in ten weeks (finger or toe both acceptable); staging a realistic ‘home video’ blooper. Most memorable, though, was a challenge in which they had to identify the contents of pies without breaching the pastry themselves. Conaty enlisted a reluctant Alex Horne to taste the pies, following the letter of the rules if not the spirit; she would then guess the contents based on his subsequent facial expression. It transpired that amidst the selection lurked a pastry filled with marbles, and the enticingly named “hot toothpaste pie”. Horne didn’t look too sated.

The second series – with Jon Richardson, Richard Osman, Joe Wilkinson, Katherine Ryan, and Doc Brown – felt even stronger, overall. The tasks were broader in tone and theme, perhaps partially aided by series 1 contestant Tim Key having joined the creative team as a Task Consultant. There were more open-ended challenges, wherein the contestants really had to stretch their imagination and think as laterally as possible; attempts to “impress the mayor of Chesham” were hilariously broad, ranging from a personalised song from the ever-wonderful Ryan to the delivery of 42 Calippos, eight pints of beer and £15 cash, courtesy of dry, wry Wilkinson. But of equal joy was the hilariously specific prompt of ordering a cheeseless pizza on the phone without using the words “pizza” and “cheese”, while simultaneously attempting to coerce the order-taker to say “bubbles”.

Series three, which concludes on Dave on November 1st, features Paul Chowdhry, Dave Gorman, Al Murray, Rob Beckett, and Sara Pascoe, and the format shows no signs of tiring yet, with deceptively simple tasks – walking to a microwave in the fewest number of steps – proving just as challenging, and hilarious, as the more complex assignments. Series highlight to date is surely Chowdhry’s attempt at an improv snowman: a plush toy rabbit, ice, and food colouring. Food colouring also came in handy with the challenge to make a meal that looks like a flag; Rob Beckett opts for the hilariously simple Japan, and it’s not even a tasty effort…

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The tasks are always pitched perfectly on the precipice of lunacy, allowing the comedians to interpret them with both conservative and more radical methods. While a conventional method may sometimes result in a win – Dave Gorman easily won “heaviest item in a shoebox” with a good old-fashioned block of concrete – the show comes into its own when the rules are stretched to breaking point. Al Murray was justly rewarded for getting an 18-mile round-trip taxi ride before “propelling a pea the furthest distance”.

It doesn’t always work out in the gambler’s favour, though: Murray was later hoisted by his own commitment to gimmickry, as when faced with the challenge of filling an egg cup with sweat, he opted to fill it with urine instead. (“They’re basically the same thing, aren’t they?”, he questions, before apparently confirming his hypothesis with a cursory Google search). Alas, Alex Horne and his crack team of scientific researchers deemed that the difference between sweat and urine was chemically substantial, and Taskmaster Davies awarded zero points to Murray.

Three series in, a number of recurring themes have developed. Each run to date has featured a Sweden-themed task: the first time around, the comedians had to make a Swede blush; in the second series, they had to procure basic personal information from a Swedish person who could not speak English; and in the latest season, one ‘live’ task involved balancing as many swedes as possible on a Swede. Each set of comedians have also had to present the Taskmaster with a £20 gift – Josh Widdicombe’s ankle tattoo of the word ‘GREG’ surely the most memorable; Tim Key’s £16 of vouchers (“the card was £4”) paled in comparison.

A more frustrating tradition is that the show’s producers seem set on sticking to only one female contestant per series, leaving the gender balance six-to-one in favour of the men. Katherine Ryan won her entire series, this is not a show that inherently favours men in the scoring department; let’s hope that, in future series, they see fit to redress that balance, drawing more deeply from Britain’s strong well of female talent.

That’s the only change I’d be hoping for, though. Taskmaster is a fantastic format that requires little to no tweaking; it’s effortlessly one of the most enjoyable shows on the box. And, deservedly, the show has been a roaring success for Dave. It’s quite unlike anything else on TV, and word-of-mouth has been strong; each series has grown on the last’s viewership, with the latest run reaching well over half a million viewers an episode, usually Dave’s highest-rated show of the week by a substantial margin.

As funny as the comedians chosen for the show inherently are, what really makes it such compelling television is the range of approaches they each implement when faced with a problem. Some think things through logically; some take more unusual approaches; some simply try to valiantly cheat the system. It’s a funny show that constantly keeps the viewer guessing, racking their own brains to determine how they’d best play the game.

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Series 4 and 5 of the show will be longer, with eight episodes apiece, meaning there are sixteen new editions on deck for 2017. I can’t wait. The cleverest spin on the panel show format in years, it’s must-watch TV.

Taskmaster currently airs on Tuesdays at 10pm on Dave.