Was Taskmaster Series 15 Its Best Cast Yet? 

A grumpy dad, an eccentric mum, and three wayward siblings battling for approval… Series 15 got the sitcom family dynamic spot-on. 

Taskmaster Series 15
Photo: Avalon/Channel 4

Taskmaster was originally a hard sell. Channel execs worried that audiences would be bored by the cast not changing every episode. “People didn’t think viewers would tune in the next week to see the same comedians,” creator Alex Horne told Chortle, “we had to persuade them it was more like a sitcom than a panel show. Because actually, people got to know each contestant.”

Casting Taskmaster – in which five comedians compete in absurd challenges, wrangled by Alex Horne for the approval of Greg Davies – like a sitcom was one of the show’s many masterstrokes. If task-setting is all about encouraging a range of approaches (it’d be dull if everybody beautifully destroyed a cake in the same way) then the same goes for the series cast. Different personalities, from cool customers to chaos merchants, batty enthusiasts, neurotic overachievers, and ‘let’s fuck it all off’ rebels are required to clash and bond. 

“We need somebody who’s a bit quirky, somebody who’s perhaps a bit more mature…,” Horne told Den of Geek back in 2017. “It’s just a feel. We want all the series to feel different. We get a couple of people and then think, who would be good with them rather than ‘we need a statistician here or a quirky man’.”

The best Taskmaster groupings mirror great sitcom ensembles. They combine, say, the splenetic rage of Fawlty Towers‘ Basil, the sardonicism of Sibyl, the common sense of Polly, and the madcap idiocy of Manuel. The very best Taskmaster groupings mirror that, plus the intimate dynamics of great sitcom families. The laziness of Homer Simpson is combined with Marge’s beaten-down potential, Bart’s naughtiness and Lisa’s goody two-shoes achievements. Combine any two of those family members or put them all together, and something starts to happen.

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The recently concluded series 15 welcomed Frankie Boyle, Ivo Graham, Jenny Éclair, Kiell Smith-Bynoe and Mae Martin, a finely calibrated sitcom family in which something was always happening. Jenny made the perfect eccentric mum, Frankie, whose impression of not caring about success or failure gave him status over the others, was the aloof dad, and the younger comedians took the roles of their squabbling kids. 

The worst kind of Taskmaster cast is one that only interacts with Greg and Alex, and the comedians don’t bounce off each other (see series six). There was no fear of that in series 15, where the bickering started early and strong. Was Mae’s throw a throw? Were Frankie’s yellow shoes gold? Ivo made some heated points about ducks, and there was the eternal question: are all words metaphors for the thing they represent, thereby proving the hypothesis that a drawing of a pineapple is in fact, a pineapple

But bickering and explosive rants aren’t enough to entertain on their own. (The contestant who provided the most – series eight’s Iain Stirling – is one of the least popular among Taskmaster fans. Real anger feels too harmful to this silly set-up, like revving a chainsaw in a Toys R Us.) When a Taskmaster cast really works, it’s when relationships and storylines start to form between the comedians. 

Pairing Frankie and Ivo for team tasks, for instance, was a golden move, quickly seized upon for its father/son comedic potential. A gruff, sarcastic, working class dad with a neurotic, posh, expensively educated boy? It’s Frasier, but with Marty and Dr Crane collecting spoons using a magnet while blindfolded. Viewers could feel the tension of Ivo’s natural politeness arresting his natural desire to succeed. We felt the burn of familial shame when Frankie’s approval was sought but not given. It gave the studio recordings in which comedians are confronted with video of their own (often misremembered) performances, an extra frisson. 

Putting Jenny with Mae and Kiell created an instant ‘taking mum out for her birthday’ vibe. The younger two indulged her while trying to run things, and she had marvellous fun doing exactly what she wanted regardless.

When all five contestants were put together, as in the final live studio task of each show, there was either the cheery vibe of a celebratory Christmas Day lunch, or the tetchy atmosphere of a family breaking an overlong car journey around a service station picnic table. Either way, it was a scene straight out of sitcom family life. Like the world of professional wrestling, Taskmaster audiences want to invest in these sitcom-like comedic relationships and interpersonal storylines while understanding that they’re only for show. 

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Taskmaster already runs on a built-in master and servant sitcom dynamic of Greg Davies and Alex Horne. The Taskmaster himself is Daddy (seen nowhere more than in one of the show’s most popular clips in which Davies takes series seven comedian James Acaster to one side of the stage for a quiet talking-to), a role sometimes challenged by the presence of another “Daddy” among the comedians. Dara Ó Briain, Liza Tarbuck, Sarah Kendall, Jo Brand (not all Daddies are men) and Frankie Boyle all shifted Greg’s authority just by being there. The presence of Davies’ close friends like Roisin Conaty and Rhod Gilbert in a cast has also tilted the power balance in unexpected and interesting ways. 

Power is the crucial element to any sitcom ensemble: who has it, who wants it, who’ll always be comedically denied it. Taskmaster and its contestants understand that, because they understand comedy. We might come to see who can eat as much watermelon as they can in one minute, but we stay for the family spats, love-ins and power dynamics. Bring on series 16.

Taskmaster series 15 is available to stream now on Channel4.com