Five Reasons Why ‘Taskmaster’ Is the Next Show You Should Binge-Watch
Meticulously scripted comedy certainly has its place on television. But there’s also something to be said for putting funny people in bizarre situations and seeing what they can come up with, on the fly, with no script at all. That’s the joy of Taskmaster.
Series creator and Taskmaster’s Assistant Alex Horne originally developed the format as a stage show for the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but since 2015 it’s been a TV staple in the U.K. In each episode, the season’s cast of five comedy performers (generally, but not always, stand-up and sketch comedians) assemble in front of a studio audience to watch tape of themselves completing challenges. The conceit is that the titular Taskmaster, host Greg Davies, has set the tasks, but this is a fiction everyone agrees to believe in, partly to affirm his authority when it comes to judging how well they did. It’s sort of a game show, in that points are awarded — there’s a winner for each episode as well as for the season overall — but contestants are playing more for glory than for any material benefit, handsome though the season winner’s prize of a golden Greg head certainly is.
Greg and Alex are constants through the entire run of the show, but each season, viewers meet an all-new cast of five contestants. Tonight, as Series 16 airs its “grand final” in the U.K. and we bid farewell to another group, here are the five reasons why, even if you’ve never watched before, this season is an excellent place to start — with Episode One, free (like the rest of the season) on the show’s YouTube channel.
Alex Is Still Surprising Greg
Amazing as it is that Alex and his team of producers are still managing to come up with tasks we’ve never seen before, it’s even more incredible that one of the two people who’ve been in every episode of the show can still get caught off-guard by the other. In a Zoom conversation last week with both co-hosts, I asked Alex how well he can anticipate which tasks will get a big reaction from Greg.
“I think I would know how to please him if I was a contestant,” Alex said.
“Well, that’s going to be a good quote, isn’t it, out of context?” Greg joked.
But Alex admitted that, no, he generally can’t predict what Greg will think. “Say it’s like a prize task at the beginning where they have to bring something in,” Alex explained. “I will quite often think, ‘Yeah, that will really tickle him.’ And then as soon as they (show) it in Greg's presence, Greg goes, ‘Oh no, that's rubbish.’ He’s quite inscrutable.”
Most partnerships, professional or otherwise, aspire to this level of freshness eight years in: The delight that comes of a true shock is apparent on screen.
Contestants Are Still Surprising Greg… With Their Failures
Longtime fans will remember, fondly or not, Series 7, when Rhod Gilbert terrorized Greg with a particular semi-nude photo of Greg by incorporating it into virtually every prize task; this is the kind of torture one can only inflict on one’s very oldest friends. Gilbert aside, however, Greg said last week that his favorite moments come when the contestants lose their minds.
“I like it when someone's brain appears to collapse in on itself,” Greg said. “And I mean that in terms of a task going wrong for them in terms of them misreading it, but also in terms of their creativity. Because often when we give an open creative task, they’ll come up with something insane.”
Citing as an example the unforgettable Series 1 moment when Romesh Ranganathan conceived the idea of a tree wizard, Greg explained how comedic sublimity resulted from Ranganathan’s desperation to be creative on the clock. “We all just accepted that there is such a thing as a tree wizard and that he lives his life in reverse,” Greg said. “Creative under pressure, it turns out, makes people weird. And I just love that.”
Contestants Are Still Turning on Alex
Anyone who’s seen even a few non-consecutive minutes of the show knows that part of the comedic frame of the show is that Greg is a sadist and Alex is a masochist, as Alex admitted when we spoke, “If (contestants) belittle me or abuse me in some ways, that’s always going to appeal to him.” And while sometimes a task video shows a contestant exaggerating their annoyance with Alex, sometimes it’s clear their frustration is very real. At one point, the serene-seeming Julian Clary admits his irritation that, during task shooting, Alex is the only person available for him to talk to, which Greg agrees is grim.
Then there’s this driving task, from the season’s penultimate episode:
As someone who also has no poker face, I felt Sam Campbell’s pain in the moment when his scowl became part of TV history. Joking around is fun, of course; true, barely repressed rage in the execution of such silly challenges is even funnier.
Education Is Being Treated With Appropriate Reverence
Those of us steeped in Greg lore know that before his comedy career, Greg was a teacher.
Occasionally, we’re reminded of this when a contestant needs a little extra attention from a stern yet caring authority figure.
But education has come up in a different context this season, via Susan Wokoma. While her fellow contestants all have careers in comedy, Wokoma is an actor — often in comic projects, but the distinction is there. There is also distinction in her credentials: Initially brought up as a self-deprecating joke, the £30,000 Wokoma spent attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts has become a runner through the season.
Study hard, kids, and you too could find yourself on TV, making the weirdest sausage anyone’s ever tried to eat.
Lucy Beaumont Must Be Seen to Be Believed
As soon as I knew I’d get the chance to talk to Greg and Alex about this season, it was very hard for me to resist preparing questions only revolving around Lucy Beaumont. Though Beaumont’s comedy has been well known to Britons for more than a decade, she has yet to break out in the U.S., so seeing her perform on Taskmaster has, for me, been jarring. It’s hard to tell whether she’s extremely good at acting daffy, or if she actually is extremely daffy.
Greg and Alex didn’t exactly straighten things out. “Lucy's no fool,” said Greg. “Think that Lucy is stupid at your peril; she's very clever. But there's no doubt that a lot of her oblique way of looking at the world is genuine for sure and fascinating as a result.”
Alex, who spent much more time with her on set, explained, “She's a fully functioning human. She's got a husband, she's got a child — both very healthy. But I can definitely reveal that when the task finished each time, she didn't snap into a different person. She went back to the little room, was very much like that over lunch. So I don’t think you can put on an act 24 hours a day.”
“No, but I also think if that’s 100 percent Lucy, that would be exhausting,” Greg added. “Maybe it is.”
“She definitely had an interesting childhood,” said Alex. “And I think when she does bring out the inevitable memoir, it’ll be a good read and you might learn more about why she is like she is then.”
In the meantime, we have Taskmaster to try to suss that out.