Gloom has several remedies. Jogging, alcohol and the excessive consumption of Kit-Kats each have their merits. There’s a fast-acting fix though that, unlike the other three, is highly unlikely to end in vomiting. Its name is Taskmaster and it is the UK’s happy place.
Since 2015, Taskmaster has aired nine series and one special in the UK, growing from a cult delight on digital channel Dave to a Bafta-nominated, millions-attracting hit about to make its debut this autumn on major broadcaster Channel 4.
But all that’s just numbers. In real life, Taskmaster has done much, much more. Ask anyone who loves it and they’ll tell you. This unimprovably silly show in which comedians complete a series of absurd tasks, and then get together to watch the results, be judged, and laugh at themselves, is a holiday from strife. It’s an open window on a suffocating day, and a blessed reminder that whatever else may be going on in the world, people are funny and inventive and magnificently willing to do stupid things to make each other laugh. As the Cheers theme song says, sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. Sometimes though, you want to go where Bob Mortimer is demonstrating his patented sausage and pork pie presentation unit and a woman from Bridget Jones’ Diary is inserting slices of cake into a scared man’s armpit.
When a Taskmaster line-up is announced (there are five new comedians each series, giving the show a 50-strong back catalogue of established and rising names in UK comedy), the response isn’t just positive, it’s thank-God-can-we-have-it-now-please grateful. That’s because fans know a new series means a precious 10 hours off. Off work and off worry and off having to think about anything other than whether a man is going to successfully hit a Babybel across a football field with a snooker cue. (He isn’t.) A new series of Taskmaster is respite. It means being among friends and being kept company by inane joy. Great if you’re bored, a lifeline if you’re grieving, struggling to find common ground with your kids, or just struggling full stop.
Comedian and writer Greg Davies plays the titular Taskmaster, a sort of fee-fi-fo-fum giant whose relentless demands for contestants to fill an egg-cup with tears or paint a picture of a horse while riding a horse give the show its premise. Davies judges the comedians’ performances, awarding points that go into a league table and determine the overall winner. His sidekick is series creator Alex Horne, the task umpire who accompanies contestants through their wildly inventive/pitiful endeavours.
In the US, The CW is starting with series eight and nine, on the understanding that if the American viewing public take to the show, they’ll also buy in the previous series. ‘If they do air the rest,’ Greg Davies tells Den of Geek, ‘Alex and I will be getting younger as it progresses, giving it a sort of Benjamin Button-type twist.’
‘The props will be getting cheaper and the Taskmaster house will get stripped down,’ says Horne. The house is the backdrop to most of the tasks and the site of the famous-among-fans shed and caravan. ‘Guess how much the caravan cost,’ Horne challenges Den of Geek. £500? ‘£200. It’s fully plumbed.’
There was, briefly, a 2017 American remake on Comedy Central but it failed in one key area: time. Cut in half to just 30 minutes an episode, there were fewer tasks and crucially, much less space given to the comedians reacting to their own and others’ performances. A major joy of Taskmaster is the interaction between the five contestants. The comedians are asked not to discuss the tasks – most of which they complete solo – until the studio record, making it the first time they find out how well (or otherwise) they’ve done. The laughs almost all come from the clash between expectation and reality, from the camaraderie and competitive rivalry.
‘Something that I think American viewers should know is how much people want to win the show,’ says Davies. One early task was to buy the Taskmaster a gift for £20. ‘I had some great things bought for me. Someone bought me a title, so I’m a lord now, and someone genuinely had their foot tattooed with my name. That people would actually have their body tattooed for life in order to get points on this show… It seems on the surface to be a frivolous gameshow but it’s life and death for these people.’
The series eight contestants US viewers are going to meet first up are a strong mix of personalities. There’s actor-writer Joe Thomas, a former co-star of Davies in British comedy series The Inbetweeners. ‘He’s quite well-known because The Inbetweeners was an enormous hit in this country,’ says Greg. There’s Paul Sinha from UK gameshow The Chase,‘a former GP, a gay, Asian quiz champion who we’ve since discovered has got Parkinson’s Disease, so he’s got a lot going on,’ says Horne when asked to describe the line-up. ‘He’s very nice and funny,’ says Davies. ‘But very bad at the tasks,’ adds Horne, ‘possibly our worst contestant.’ There’s Car Share’s Sian Gibson, ‘a very good actress and writer and nice person from Wales,’ says Horne. There’s comedian Iain Stirling, the voice of huge UK reality show Love Island, described by Davies and Horne as ‘Scottish, nice, funny and like a puppy.’ Finally there’s stand-up Lou Sanders, ‘a scatty British comedian on the rise,’ says Horne. ‘She’s quite a unique voice,’ adds Davies. ‘She believes in angels.’
Davies calls Taskmaster a joy to be part of and hopes it’s also joyful to watch. ‘Even though I’m horrible to a lot of people on the face of things, it’s meant to be an inclusive show where people can forget about the more troubling things and just be silly with us for a while. I hope that some of that joy makes it over the pond.’
Some of that joy made the journey earlier this year. During UK lockdown, the Taskmaster team introduced Hometasking, which expanded the task-setting premise to the general public. For weeks while UK schools were closed and businesses had put their staff on furlough, the team set tasks online, giving people fun activities to occupy them in a a worrying time. They received record entries from around the world – over a third from North America. If you had 17 minutes downtime, you could do worse than watch this final results video to see just what it meant to those who took part.
The effort devoted to tomfoolery is perhaps what’s most cheering about Taskmaster. Over its many series, teams of people have devised literally hundreds of challenges the sole goal of which is silliness. They’ve debated the comedic merits of throwing a potato into a golf hole and making a Swedish person blush. They’ve considered the practical implications of one comedian wheeling another around inside a bin or driving a golf buggy blindfolded. The risk assessments must be as thick as telephone directories. And they’ve gone to these lengths purely in the interest of good cheer.
Horne hopes that Taskmaster will be embraced in America the way it has been in the UK. ‘It’s a cult-y show here, but a family cult-y show. It’s not too niche, but the people who like it really like it. If that could happen in America, people to really get into it when they discover it, rather than it being a mild curiosity, that’s what I’d love.’
Is Horne worried that the peculiarly British quirks of some tasks might not translate to the US? ‘I’m starting to,’ he tells Den of Geek. Will Americans embrace, or be confounded by, Taskmaster’s distinctive Britishisms? Surely the former, but just in case, here’s a bit of context for our American friends on a few UK-specific task items.
Greg and Alex, over to you.
Taskmaster explains: Marmite
Series 5, Episode 4 Task: Make the best Marmite
Greg Davies: Marmite is a yeast-based spread that you might put on toast. It’s been around since the 1940s, certainly since the war, maybe even before. And for many decades, Marmite has prided itself on its advertising campaign which consistently has been ‘Marmite: You’ll either love it or hate it’ but it’s not true. It’s a lie, at least a 45-year-old lie, because I for one am indifferent to Marmite. I certainly don’t mind it being put on my toast but I wouldn’t ever ask for it. So, the truth of the advertising campaign should be ‘Marmite: You’ll love it or you’ll hate it, and some of you will be absolutely ambivalent to it.’
Taskmaster explains: Christmas Crackers
Series 7, Episode 7: Make the best Christmas cracker
Greg Davies: I can honestly say in all my years on this planet, I have not once enjoyed pulling a Christmas cracker. I think America is leading the way and it’s something we should get rid of. Pulling an explosive tube of cardboard to reveal an awful gift is something this country can do without.
Alex Horne: They are a poor tradition. I have never enjoyed a Christmas cracker. As a dad, we’re just giving children choking hazards at Christmas. They get so excited about the thought of pulling them and then it always ruins the day.
Greg Davies: My mum was a skinflint at Christmas so a typical cracker gift would be a small tape measure.
Alex Horne: A little pack of cards was always a highlight.
Greg Davies: That’s high-end.
Taskmaster explains: Egg Cups
Series 1, Episode 4: Fill an egg cup with tears
Alex Horne: Really? Americans don’t use egg cups? How do they keep their eggs upright? You’d have to chase it around the plate.
Greg Davies: But that means they can’t have soft-boiled eggs? What do they do, hold it in their hands? What do they hold an egg in?! That makes no sense at all. It’s a staple of British crockery!
Alex Horne: An egg cup must be a really peculiarly British thing. We use it as a measuring device because it’s a satisfying item. It’s probably 20 ml or fluid ounces. There must be something they use. It’s probably a shot glass isn’t it? That’s an equivalent.
Greg Davies: A shot glass! Which I do use as an egg cup actually.
Alex Horne: I go the other way around.
Taskmaster explains: Traffic wardens
Series 7, Episode 5: Cheer up this former traffic warden
Alex Horne: They enforce parking restrictions and I guess they’re a sort of jobsworth position, someone who thinks they’ve got a lot of power but doesn’t, and is a constant irritant to the motorist.
Greg Davies: But a saviour for the children.
Alex Horne: Do you mean lollipop ladies?
Greg Davies: I do mean lollipop ladies. I try to be kind to traffic wardens even when I’ve been ticketed because I just think it must be an awful job having that many confrontations a day so I try not to get cross.
Alex Horne: And lollipop ladies?
Greg Davies: I’m furious with them.
Alex Horne: You’d be a lovely lollipop lady, Greg.
Greg Davies: Well I’m sure that’s where I’m headed.
Taskmaster explains: Squirty Cream
Series 6, Episode 4: Make the best art using the entire contents of this can of squirty cream
Alex Horne: Squirty cream is a staple of every British fridge. You spray it straight into your mouth. It’s made of, I think, plastic and no dairy products, and we’re not allowed to show people spraying it directly into their mouth on British TV anymore because of health and safety.
Greg Davies: I’ve got three tins of it in my fridge and every day over lockdown I treated myself to a squirt. Whenever I needed a lift.
Taskmaster explains: aubergines
Series 9, Episode 1: Hide three aubergines from Alex in this room
Greg Davies: There’s a name for it over there. It’s a purple vegetable and I for one would move for us to just get rid of those off the face of the earth. What do they call it over there?
Alex Horne: I’m enjoying this, seeing him scrabble around.
Greg Davies: What does it begin with, the American one?
Alex Horne: It rhymes with your name.
Greg Davies: Greg?
Alex Horne: Yeah. Well, not the whole thing. If your name was Greg Slant, it would rhyme with that.
Greg Davies: My name isn’t Greg Slant though.
There you go, America, hopefully that should now all be crystal clear. Tune in to Taskmaster series 8 in the US at 8pm ET/PT on The CW from Sunday the 2nd of August. Seriously, do, it’s good for what ails you.