Alex Horne has been sent a human heart in a jar. It’s unnerving, though not strictly a cause for concern because he sort of asked for it – not a human heart per se, but to be sent strange items through the post. He set the challenge to the public as one of 200 tasks in the official Taskmaster tie-in book and the public, it has to be said, responded with enthusiasm.
Taskmaster, the comedy series Horne co-presents with Greg Davies on Dave, inspires enthusiasm. An hour-long weekly panel show in which five comedians are set a series of ludicrous and entirely pointless challenges, it started out as a cult delight adored by those in the know and has gradually grown into a strapping hit with a healthy fanbase. (Though given the human-heart-in-a-jar tendencies, perhaps healthy isn’t quite the word.)
To mark the arrival of its eighth series, Den Of Geek spoke to Horne about where it all began…
When Frank Skinner agreed to be on series one, you’ve said that was a real turning point in convincing other people to come on board. How did you get him to agree when there wasn’t anything to show him?
I knew him a little bit because he’d done stuff with the Horne Section before and we were up in Edinburgh doing the festival and he was handing out the Perrier award that year. We’d been put together a couple of days before for this awkward lunch where I had to sell the idea to him and it was horrible. I’m a big fan of Frank’s and I’ve seen him live loads, both growing up and as a comic, and I’m very bad with people I like so I just wanted him to like me back and think I was funny. This lunch didn’t feel as if it was going particularly well and – this is going to sound boastful – but I’d been nominated for the Perrier that year. When it came to him announcing it, I didn’t win and he actually said ‘Oh good, this had gone to somebody who I really like’ and it wasn’t me [laughs]. Immediately afterwards though, I saw him and he said he’d decided to do the show, so it was a really nice way to find out that he’d agreed to do it.
I love Taskmaster’s origin story. You always say that you dreamt it up inspired by jealousy of Tim Key’s Perrier award.
That is kind of my stock answer to that, but it is genuinely true! I’m not proud.
The motivational power of professional jealousy can never be overstated, I always think.
Yeah, it’s horrible. Especially back then, it’s so hard to make a living as a comic and little successes… that felt enormous, someone winning a Perrier award. You just feel desperate, but it’s good, it does inspire you to get up and do something.
I wasn’t jealous enough not to invite him onto the show! [Laughs] And I think I’ve just about got over it. Tim was just nominated for a Bafta and I was very pleased with myself that my only emotion was happiness for him, so I think I might have turned a corner in my personal growth [laughs].
There were a few hurdles to getting it commissioned, weren’t there? Is it right that it was turned down by each of the mainstream channels?
I think most ideas are turned down, I don’t think that reflects badly on the channels, because it was a new idea and I wasn’t very well known. We had various obstacles, like people saying they didn’t like it would be the same cast for the whole series, and not telling the cast [the tasks] in advance put people off because they thought it would be funnier if they knew in advance. I can absolutely see the logic of both the things but I’m very glad we stuck to our guns and that Dave thought it might work.
TV is so expensive to make and these channels aren’t necessarily rolling in money, that getting anything off the ground… they can’t take that many risks. It was difficult, but it did also improve it. If somebody said no, we’d tweak it a bit and take it to the next person, so I think it’s all part of the process.
Dave have been brilliant from the beginning, they haven’t picked apart the format at all, they’ve let us get on with it. It’s nice being on a smaller channel, but also a channel for people who are interested in comedy. We have quite a knowledgeable audience I think.
The Taskmaster book at the end of last year opened the show up so your audience could join in. What kind of responses have you had from the public to the tasks in the book?
It’s been really, really great. It was what I was hoping would happen. It was awkward writing the book because I’ve written a couple of books before, but it’s so different from normal comedy when you say something and get an instant response, a book is sent out there and you have to wait months for anyone to respond, or you don’t ever hear anything. With the book, I was desperate that it would just sit on people’s coffee tables or on a shelf, I wanted people to get up and do things. They had to rip pages out and travel the world.
People have done ridiculous things, which is so exciting. On one of them you had to freeze a page of the book in the best block of ice and a rink in Manchester froze the page in their ice rink, which is such a nice, weird thing.
I think one where you had to write a 50-word story on a page while running, and someone’s sent a video of them doing it while running a marathon with the book in their hand… We had ‘read the book in the most extreme situation’, so there have been people on rollercoasters or on speedboats, it’s just lovely that people have got on board.
‘Send the most unusual thing to my PO Box’ is one task. What’s the most unusual thing that’s been sent to your PO Box?
I’ve been sent somebody’s heart in a jar. At that point, you’re thinking, I’m not sure if I should be opening this! Am I encouraging people to send letter bombs, effectively? So that was odd. [Laughs]
And on the 14th of September of this year, I understand you’re going to have a picnic [if fans correctly follow a set of geographical coordinates to find the location].
What are you expecting is going to happen?
Two things. One, I’m very worried, because I’ve given out the coordinates but the way it’s printed in the book, there’s a slight mistake, there’s a dash in the middle and the dash is meant to be a minus sign, not a dash, so if people don’t read it correctly, they will go to the wrong place. I think they’ll go to Epping. If you are writing this now, please put ‘don’t go to Epping’
Go to Chesham
Type it in again with a minus sign. I know a lot of people who’ve said they’ll be there, but it could be anywhere from 20 to 100 people.
Are you going to film it?
No! No, we’re just going to have a picnic.
Will you be inviting other Taskmaster people?
I don’t think so. It’s not meant to be a publicity stunt. It’s just a nice little get-together for anybody who can be arsed to work it out and come. I’ll be there with the kids and I’ll just see what happens really. At one of the recordings last week a few of the most prolific book tasking people came along. There is a little community of people who get in touch with each other about it, so it should be fun. People are a lot less weird than they might seem. They tend to all just be imaginative and funny, so it should be great.
I saw on Twitter there’s a Taskmaster-themed wedding coming up where the invitations were a puzzle?
There have been quite a few actually. We’ve had two proposals at the house, where they’ve managed to find the house and have knocked on the gates and I’ve come out. I don’t particularly like to encourage people to come to the house because it’s probably not ideal, but I always want to encourage anyone who’s at all keen on the programme because it’s such a nice thing. Somebody said ‘I’ve got a task here, can you give it to my girlfriend?’ And in the task it said ‘Marry me’. It was really emotional and really odd, but that sort of thing’s happened a few times, weirdly.
And you going to go to the wedding?
I can’t attend the wedding, which is quite a relief because it would have been the most awkward thing, but they did come to the studio for a recording and we gave them some bits and bobs from the house, so it’s nice. It’s a positive thing.
Currently, the book is No 3 in TV tie-ins on the Amazon chart.
Is it? Okay, that’s good!
No 1 is Alan Partridge’s book.
No 2, is James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes.
Oh, fair enough! I think he seems to be the hot comedian at the moment. He’s very good, he deserves it. He’s one of my favourite ever contestants.
Has he ever actually said ‘hello’ to you?
[Laughs] At the time, obviously I noticed him doing that [repeatedly blanking Alex whenever he said ‘Hello’], but I don’t think he did it particularly to be cruel, like he said on the show, he just wanted to get on with the task. But when we noticed, it was so funny. He is now keeping that up forever I think.
Onto series eight – what can you tease?
It’s the most disparate group of contestants in that they come from very different worlds. First of all geographically, we’ve got a Scotman and a Welsh lady… they pretty much come from the four corners of the country. Also, they come from very different places TV-wise, so we’ve got The Chase, Car Share, Love Island, The Inbetweeners and Lou has done Mock The Week and QI. Lou is very much more the stand-up, Paul Sinha, as well as being a Chaser is of course a GP, and also a brilliant stand-up in his own right. Whereas Sian and Joe are more actors. They write and they’re very funny people, but they’re actors. Iain Stirling, he’s got both Love Island fans and children through CBBC. That will be really enjoyable to see how that works.
Do any of them wear outfits as impressive as Phil Wang’s?
No-one is wearing anything as impressive as Phil Wang, but there are a couple who will wear special things. Paul Sinha in particularly wears this crisp white suit on The Chase, he’s not wearing a crisp white suit on this.
Are there still themes for each series? I lost count around the time of coconuts I think.
This one’s heavily themed actually, manga-themed, the Japanese comics. The director Andy Devonshire, who’s amazing, is very good at the detail, I think people like when we put a lot of effort into the show. It is just a nonsense, throwaway comedy show but hopefully there’s a lot in it for people if they want to get invested.
Can we expect the return of Fred the Swede?
[Laughs] I’m always amazed how many people ask me that. The trouble is, Fred the Swede’s gone back to Sweden! He used to be the drummer in my band, but he went back to Sweden. He still plays the drums, but he also does painting and decorating. We don’t quite have the budget to fly Fred over to do something but it is now on in Sweden. They make their own version so we can try and put them in touch with him, so that may be the way to see him again.
With the US version [that ran for one series in 2018], you said on the Richard Herring podcast, it was a matter of the timing not working. It was too short compared to the English one and they didn’t quite get the tone right?
I think in retrospect I wouldn’t have agreed to change the format quite as much as we did. It was half the length, so we didn’t really have the prize task, even then we just had two other tasks, so it was over in a flash so it didn’t quite have the opportunity to go off on a tangent like we do on our one.
I was very proud of it. I think it’s good but it didn’t quite make the splash it needed to over there. We made eight episodes and they showed them as double-headers on a Saturday night so it was only on for a month and gone. I’d love to have done more, and it might still happen, but if I’m completely honest, if it did, then I don’t think I’d have been able to make it over here anymore because it’s such a time-consuming thing over there, and I also get to see my children again, which is nice. It was a really fun experience. If it happened again, great, but I’m fairly comfortable if it doesn’t.
Reggie Watts had a really different vibe to Greg, and the rapport between you and him was different, which made me realise that the persona Greg has created of the Taskmaster is so key. I remember you saying that when you’re inventing tasks, you try to tune into what this man, this monstrous Taskmaster creature, would demand.
He’s an odd character.
Tell me then, what does the Taskmaster eat for breakfast?
I think he’s pretty deranged. He’s power-hungry. I think he is reasonable and you can talk to him but he has odd habits I think. The things that he wants people to do for him are unnecessarily obtuse. For breakfast he would have a lot, a lot of meat, and he would demand it be brought to him in an elaborate fashion, a sort of Henry VIII figure really. Not quite a megalomaniac, not quite a dictator, but definitely someone who enjoys the power.
Taskmaster series eight starts tonight at 9pm on Dave.