‘Taskmaster’ Greg Davies Is Not Pretending to Be Angry at Alex Horne

On the eve of Series 17, the Taskmaster and his Assistant tell us (among other things) which new contestant was most competitive, how patient Greg is about Alex’s episode-opening comedy bits, and what inspiration future tournaments may take from ‘The Hunger Games’
‘Taskmaster’ Greg Davies Is Not Pretending to Be Angry at Alex Horne

There’s a lot to love about Taskmaster, the U.K.’s most unhinged panel show. Paramount among them: the wait between seasons usually isn’t too long. 

It’s only been about four months since we saw off Series 16’s latest crop of actors and comics as they completed such tasks as “Learn pi to the most decimal places” and “Convince a child you’re asleep.” Tonight, U.K. viewers will get their first look at Series 17’s class — Joanne McNally, Nick Mohammed, Steve Pemberton, John Robins and Sophie Willan. Those viewers will then immediately start assessing which chose the most practical task costume and making educated guesses as to where they may each end up in the series’s final standings.

Perhaps you’d like to take a break from counting down the hours until the Series 17 premiere airs in the U.K. and subsequently lands on the show’s official YouTube channel? Read my interview with Taskmaster Greg Davies and Taskmaster’s Assistant (and series creator) Alex Horne, conducted just hours ahead of their sold-out live Series 17 premiere show in New York. How does Davies really feel about his in-studio duties, including simulating friendship with Horne? Which new contestant got closest to compromising Horne’s virtue? And does Davies feel a kinship with the Taskmasters from the show’s various international editions? All of this and more awaits you below.

Alex’s comedy bits in your episode-opening banter have been a feature for a while. Greg, do you remember when you decided to introduce your runner of trying to ruin Alex’s life by repeating things on air that he’s told you in confidence?

Davies: I don’t remember when I started to do that, but I think it was in response to the initial banter section, which I considered to be Alex’s conscious and deliberate attempt to annoy me.

Horne: Which, so untrue.

Davies: He’s deliberately trying to get me in character, and so, he says oblique things that have no possible route to laughs. And he does that to make me angry because he knows it will fuel the rest of the show. And I want to put this on record. I’m not pretending to be angry. And I mean that. I mean it.

Alex, would you like to respond?

Horne: I would like to respond. Thank you. I refute all that. I’m genuinely trying to make him and our lovely viewers laugh again and again, and I will keep trying.

Davies: He isn't

Horne: And occasionally I have made you laugh.

Davies: Twice.

Horne: Twice.

Davies: We’ve done 17 series, and I’ve laughed twice.

Horne: Yeah. So there’s hope. And I’ve got some good things lined up for future episodes.

Davies: I get kicked off by the producer, Tara. The producer or director always comes in my ear and goes, “Don’t do that thing where you say, ‘Oh, this is genuinely spontaneous, and he’s in charge of this.’ You don’t need to say that.” But I do need to say it because if I don’t say it, then the general public will think that this is a rehearsed comedy bit that we’re doing, and it’s never funny.

Horne: Very funny.

Davies: It’s just him saying something oblique without any potential path to humor. The guy’s a dick.

Alex has quite a lot to do between the series as they air. Greg, what do you do to prepare?

Horne: What do you do?

Davies: Press-ups. I work out. That’s my answer. I work out. In the wilderness. I do it in the wilderness.

So on a tree branch, for example?

Davies: For six months of the year, I live in a forest off-grid. I live off-grid, and I eat what nature provides. That’s what happens.

It’s working.

Davies: That’s what I do. And if you think that’s not as important as sitting in a hot tub and making up some things where someone has to push some ducks off a fence or whatever, then you’re mistaken.

don’t think that. I have quite a few process questions for Alex. How many tasks do you find contestants typically have to do before they get the hang of it?

Horne: One. We always have the same warm-up task for everybody, which maybe one day we’re going to release because they’ve all done the same thing. We keep it a secret, so they don’t know what it is. Do one warm-up task, and then they're in. I would say their day one performance is always different to their fifth day, but I enjoy that energy of the first day, of being slightly uncontrolled.

Davies: I don’t know why he’s being mysterious about it. The task is to roundhouse-kick a doll off a two-meter-high post. And they’re not allowed onto the show until they’ve done it. We may as well get it out there.

Horne: Ask me more questions about the process.

Do actors tend to have a different approach or attitude than comedians do?

Horne: I think they do. I think they don’t trust their instincts quite as much. Comics maybe go with their first thought more than actors and then actors quite often pull it off. Not always.

Davies: I don’t know about that. I don’t mean to contradict you, but I think that comedians are often looking for the laugh as an instinct.

Horne: That’s definitely true.

Davies: But I think that soon gets knocked out of them when they’re put under pressure. And it’s one of the things I like about the show. Actors are probably more open to showing their true natures, probably.

Horne: I would probably also say it depends on the actor. We’ve had lots of very different types — some people who really didn’t want to put themselves out and some who did. But yeah, maybe it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as one thing or the other. 

But Greg’s right. Stand-ups are desperate to be funny. And we really try to tell them, “Don’t try to be funny. You’ll be funny. You don’t need to try to.”

Davies: And part of the joy of Alex’s format is that it shows a different side to performers from all backgrounds. They have no choice but to reveal things they didn’t intend to reveal.

And non-performers sometimes, in the specials.

Davies: Yeah. Yeah. God, yeah. Some of them are so funny. 

Alex, do contestants ever ask your advice on their task costumes?

Horne: Sort of. They have free rein, and they send over a suggestion. Occasionally, I’ll say, “Yeah, someone wore that 10 series ago,” because we’ve been doing it for a while. But I definitely don’t make suggestions. I would only say we’ve had a lot of boiler suits. So no. And especially this series, you’ve probably seen what Nick Mohammed’s chosen to wear.

Oh, yes.

Horne: Yeah. Nothing to do with me. We just try to say yes to things. So I love that he’s dressed as Dracula. Because you forget after four minutes. It’s just, “Okay, that’s Nick.” 

Did he do his own makeup, or did he make the pros do it?

Horne: Well, he has done it in the past, but there was a makeup artist. He was pretty keen that it looked as good as possible. For no reason.

Davies: There was one actor who wanted to dress up as Kim Jong Un, and that seemed inappropriate. So if it’s defensive, we’ll say, “That’s not a good look. That’s not good optics.”

Have there been times when people show up and you just know this is going to be a problem? Fern Brady?

Horne: Yeah. It was a problem for her. That was a full commitment. And Phil Wang, I suppose as well. You could see a lot of Phil Wang. The sound man has problems with things, but no, I don’t. If I was doing it, I would just wear a very practical outfit.

Davies: Yeah.

Horne: I’d have a rucksack full of equipment.

Davies: No one thinks of that. It’s interesting. It brings out this self-flagellating side of people that they’ll often choose things that are going to make things more difficult for them. Nick Mohammed, in this most recent series, dresses in full Dracula costume and makeup, and that didn’t help him with the tasks. And I think he probably knew that would be the case,

But you have to admire the commitment.

Horne: You do.

Davies: Yeah.

Horne: And seeing him run across the field on a really hot day dressed as Dracula with horses all around—

His cape just billowing.

Horne: Yeah, exactly.

Greg, you will occasionally comment on the online reaction that you think one of your judgments is going to get. At the risk of inflaming your viewers, how closely do you actually pay attention to that chatter?

Davies: Not very closely, if I’m honest, but if I’ve really annoyed the Taskmaster community with the judgment, I know there’ll be a flurry. And when there’s enough @s, you can’t avoid them. It’s tricky for me because people don’t believe me when I say that I try to score it fairly. Not once in 17 series have I made a judgment because I think it’ll create something funny. I try and do it fairly, but sometimes I get it wrong because, despite all appearances, I’m just a human being.

Horne: Just a guy. 

Davies: I’m just a guy who works out.

I know you’re both doing Late Night With Seth Meyers this week, so I imagine you and he could talk about the jackals that love your show the most and are the most critical about it.

Horne: “The jackals.” What does he mean by “jackals”?

They have a segment that they do online called “Corrections,” based on their YouTube comments, and he has fondly termed all of the commenters jackals.

Horne: It’s good to embrace it, isn’t it?

Davies: Well, I love to annoy the jackals, but I’ve never done it deliberately.

We occasionally get show outtakes on your Instagram. How much longer are tapings than what we actually see?

Horne: A lot longer. They’re about two and a half hours. Some of that is just admin, but yeah, we try to leave it baggy so we can have fun with it.

Davies: There is definitely a Too Hot for TV DVD waiting to happen. There are some conversations we’ve had in the studio that, borderline, someone could be arrested for.

Horne: But we never cut out tasks. Everything they’ve done, we show. And we don’t fiddle with scoring or move things around. It’s just the chat and the back and forth.

Greg, when you find out that the live task on a given day will not require your active participation, how disappointed are you?

Davies: Not 1 percent.

Horne: That’s good to know that. Because I think, “Well, it’d be nice to get Greg involved,” but no? 

Davies: If anything, when Andy (Devonshire), the producer, comes backstage and says, “Oh, we need you to do a judgment in this,” my reaction will be, “(resigned) Oh, okay.”

Let’s go through the new cast. Tell our readers what they need to know about Joanne McNally.

Horne: Okay. Should we do one at a time? I’ll do Joanne.

Davies: Just one fact at a time?

Horne: Oh, I meant one person. 

Davies: You do Joanne. I might put some cocoa on the cappuccino afterwards.

Horne: Yeah, okay. Here’s the cappuccino: Joanne is the one contestant who tried to get me drunk on every other task after the wrap party. She missed her flight to Canada. She is an extraordinary force of nature, and I was quite scared of her.

Did she succeed in getting you drunk?

Horne: Yeah. At one point she straddled me and asked me how many sexual partners I’d had, but we didn’t include that in the show.

Greg, any cocoa?

Davies: I got to see it.

She seems at first like she’s going to be too cool, but it’s fun to see her start to care about doing well.

Horne: She’s not too cool. She’s very happy to be a fool and to put her dignity to one side. I really liked her. She’s great. I was scared of her, but—

Davies: She’s a force of nature. And if we were to be in the real world — me, Alex and Joanne McNally — Joanne McNally would be in charge. On the show, she had to fall into line. But absolutely, as soon as those cameras stopped rolling, I was no longer in charge of that situation. She’s the boss. She’s the lady boss. She’s this force of nature. He’s right. I’ve got no more cocoa for the top of this coffee.

John Robins.

Horne: So John Robins, he lives near me. We play sport together sometimes. He’s very competitive. He’s very funny, but he’s also very competitive and he couldn’t hide his competitiveness in the show.

That’s very clear.

Horne: He might be the most competitive person we’ve had on the show.

That’s a strong statement.

Davies: I think Ed Gamble.

Horne: They’re cut from a similar cloth, aren’t they? He just definitely represents the competitive young man that we sometimes have. But he’s also a tortured soul, and as you know, a big Queen fan. You can see that he dedicates everything to Freddie Mercury.

Davies: I’m always surprised when people are competitive on this show. It surprises me. It’s absolutely ridiculous, but it’s great. It’s great for us if people get all wound up about wanting to do well.

Horne: Yeah. There’s always someone who wants to actually win the tasks, and there’s often two or three who don’t.

Davies: It just surprises me. What, you want to be the best at knocking a duck off a pole, do you? Okay. But someone does have to take it seriously.

Horne: When we do the Champion of Champions, occasionally it feels a bit stressful because they all want to win.

Davies: They do. That’s when my authority is put under the most strain, during the Champion of Champions. I think the natural evolution of the Champion of Champions is for us to up the stakes and make it kind of a Hunger Games situation.

Horne: And they would do it.

Davies: They would sign up to that.

Now, when you say “kind of a Hunger Games situation”...?

Davies: Not necessarily killed.

But maybe.

Horne: Yeah.

Davies: Yeah. There’s got to be a level of jeopardy.

We already talked about Nick Mohammed’s costume. What else do we need to know about him?

Davies: He’s very inventive. And because he’s intrinsically quite a kind, gentle soul, I think that’s fair, I think that he’s quite wily in how he got his points. Because you would think that Nick wouldn’t be able to score highly and would be too empathetic and thoughtful, but in fact, he has found creative ways to score big on the show just by thinking about things in a slightly unconventional way. So I think he was, what’s the word? A dark horse.

Horne: Yeah.

Davies: He’s a surprise—

Horne: Package.

Davies: He’s a surprise package. That's what we’ll say.

Horne: He’s multi-talented as well. He’s a sort of triple threat. Does music, magic.

Davies: Based on the surface, you’d think, “Oh, who’s this gentle, quiet man?” But there’s stuff going on. The duck’s legs are paddling away like mad. 

Sophie Willan.

Davies: Sophie’s one of those people who’s just naturally hilarious. There’s never more than a few seconds between her making me laugh genuinely. She’s just someone who’s got it in her and got funny bones. And I often portrayed her on the show as being clueless and looking lost, but she was only clueless and lost within the context of the ridiculous task we’d asked her to do.

Horne: Not much artifice with her either. What you see is what you get. She’s just herself, which is brilliant.

Davies: Yeah. And if a task wasn’t good for Sophie, if it didn’t appeal to her, she just went, “Well, I’ve done that badly, and I don’t mind.” That’s quite a northern (England), pragmatic thing.

I had in my notes for the first episode that she was the early leader for biggest loon — that’s a compliment.

Davies: She’s often on her own agenda. And I always love it when someone’s on their own agenda and not fazed by how well they do. But my headline for Sophie Willan would be, she’s hilarious.

Horne: She might be the one that people didn’t know before, but remember the most.

Steve Pemberton.

Horne: He’s a proper comedy legend in the U.K. He’s done stuff since before we’d started, and also does mainstream stuff. He’s probably this elder statesman, but he’s a really silly little boy as well, which is great.

Davies: What I didn’t expect about him is for him to be quite so British and charming and mannered, because if you know Steve’s work, he’s played so many grotesques. He’s played so many terrifying, murderous characters, and characters that would chill you to the bone with their creepiness. And what you’re faced with is actually a very charming British gentleman who’s very clever and creative.

Horne: Very thoughtful with his prize task submissions, where he shone so well, because he really took his time and did things that no one else has ever done.

Davies: And often wrote beautiful prose and poetry as part of a response to a task, which no one’s expecting on this show.

Junior Taskmaster has wrapped its studio filming dates. I know this isn’t a show where either of you is on camera, but can you tell us anything else about it, Alex?

Horne: I was there for everything, and it’s very different to the main show. Rose Matafeo is her own version of a Taskmaster and isn’t trying to ape Greg in any way. And Mike (Wozniak, as the Taskmaster’s Assistant) is himself as well. And the two of them have a different relationship. They’re much sweeter with each other. She’s lovely. And the children are children, which is the best thing about it. You see kids, not on screens, interacting with each other. Sometimes they’re funny, but they’re not on purpose. They’re not stand-ups. There’s some really heartwarming moments. There are really funny moments. And it’s not a talent show. At the end, we do crown a child the winner, which means there’s 24 kids who’ve lost, but that’s fine. It’s not a Simon Cowell thing. They’ve really embraced the fact that only one person wins. Most of them look like fools at times, but I think it’s good.

Davies: A little Easter egg to your readers: One of the children dropped out last minute. We had to replace them with a 53-year-old cameraman.

Horne: Heavily made up.

Davies: And we did that with makeup. So just something for people to keep an eye out for.

Horne: But two or three foot taller than the others.

Davies: In the end, they put his shoes on his knees.

Horne: And that did work better than you thought it was going to. Have a look. If you can spot him, yeah, that’d be amazing.

There are now over a dozen international versions of the show. Has there ever been talk of a special in which the Taskmasters play as contestants?

Horne: There’s been a lot of talk on the internet.

But you would never do it.

Horne: I would love to be a contestant on the New Zealand version.

Davies: I wouldn’t. And I’ll tell you this, if I ever meet another Taskmaster, my attitude is very much “There can be only one.” And that isn’t going to end well. And I’d like to get that out into the press in case any of them try and reach out to me.

Horne: Whereas I’m very much the opposite and see them as my little friends.

Davies: I’ll tell you now, I will destroy anyone who comes near me claiming to be the Taskmaster. I will destroy them.

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