‘Rage, clumsiness and brains’: the joy of Taskmaster, TV's funniest show

Have you ever had to totally and utterly destroy someone’s dreams? Greg Davies has. As the Taskmaster, it was he who had to make the final judgment about whether Joe Wilkinson had broken the rules when tossing a potato into a golf hole. “My older brother still thinks you made a mistake,” says Alex Horne, Davies’s co-host, the creator of the show, and the brain behind the tasks themselves. “How can anyone doubt that decision?!” Davies argues indignantly. “The man broke the rules!”

Some context is probably needed. In each series of Taskmaster, a different group of five performers – Katherine Ryan, James Acaster and Sally Phillips are some of the many names to have taken part – undertake a series of daft parlour-game tasks, with Davies awarding points for how well each is deemed, by him, to have performed. At the end of the series, the points are totted up, and an overall champion is crowned. In the instance in question, a red-felt putting green had been laid outside the bungalow in west London where the majority of Taskmaster’s challenges are filmed, before being judged later by Davies. The brief? “Get this potato into the golf hole. You may not touch the red green. Fastest time wins.”

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As is the way with Taskmaster, some contestants chose to think laterally around the wording of the question, scrunching the green up using nearby objects and then simply dropping the spud from above: a perfectly legal strategy. Wilkinson, though, went for glory. His single shot from the edge of the green was a thing of beauty: clinical, smooth, slipping into the hole with the frictionless whoosh of a sword being sheathed. Watching it back, the studio audience erupted. Wilkinson’s fellow contestants gave him a standing ovation. It was his rock star moment. “I think that’s the best thing I’ve ever done!” he said, dabbing tears from his eyes, his delight utterly genuine. It was so spectacular, Davies suggested they see a replay.

A freeze-frame. A zoom. And there it was: Wilkinson’s toes, slightly yet unmistakably encroaching on felt. Wilkinson dropped to his knees. “Please, please don’t take this away from me!” The final decision fell to Davies. Wilkinson was disqualified.

“You know what, just to be serious – it is really stressful!!” says Davies, four years on from that notorious task. “I know that sounds ridiculous. [The contestants] really want to win, and they don’t like it if a judgment seems questionable. When you’ve got comics that you greatly admire, it’s very difficult to tell them they’re not going to get any points for balancing a jelly on a stepladder.”

Moments like these are commonplace, and have helped make Taskmaster a word-of-mouth hit for UKTV’s channel Dave. After a slow but steady start in 2015 (a scathing early review in the Guardian is brought up: “Did you write that?!” asks Davies), the programme has become Dave’s highest-rated original show with episodes regularly pulling in almost 1.5 million viewers (an impressive figure for something not on the traditional terrestrial channels). Three Baftas and an international Emmy nomination have followed; not bad for a series that Channel 4, possibly misdiagnosing it as merely another panel show, initially turned down. Now, after nine series, its 10th is finally landing on C4, where its already huge fanbase only looks set to swell.

Taskmaster was not even originally conceived as a TV show, but rather a way for Horne to entertain himself at home with his young child while his contemporaries were at the Edinburgh festival fringe. Horne noted how enthusiastically comics took to competing in the preposterous challenges he made up, and knew he was on to something. But there was a missing element. “It was always clear in my mind that I couldn’t host it, and I needed to be the figure that I am.” (Horne plays the sidekick as half put-upon manservant, half Richard Osman in Pointless.) “Greg was the only person that I thought could do it.”

Being a teacher in an old life gave Davies a number of transferable skills, and he happily accepted the role of crotchety ringmaster and authoritarian judge. “He just needed some grumpy old bloke involved,” Davies says. “I don’t ever want to be seen to be publicly nice to Alex, but the reason I said yes without knowing much about it was because it had come from his twisted little mind, and I knew it would be clever. That’s it: that’s the end of the compliments.”

“That can all be redacted,” suggests Horne.

New viewers might be initially befuddled by the sight of this series’s gaggle of comics – Katherine Parkinson, Johnny Vegas, Richard Herring, Mawaan Rizwan and Daisy May Cooper – rolling an egg down a drainpipe, or tying one to a bunch of helium balloons, and being genuinely distressed when it all, inevitably, ends in eggy tragedy. “It’s not a panel show,” Horne explains. “It’s a comedy gameshow where you see funny people being funny without a script.”

“And where their previous, hard-earned comedy personas don’t necessarily service them,” Davies adds, citing David Baddiel, who appeared in series nine, as a shining example of this. “At one point in the studio he looked at me – and he was absolutely serious – and he said: ‘I’m really clever!’ I think he actually said: ‘I’ve written books!’”

Horne nods: “There’s definitely a trait that, the cleverer you are … Paul Sinha, Mark Watson, David Baddiel all got firsts from Cambridge, or are national quiz champions, [and] have all been the stupidest people we’ve had. It’s really reassuring.”

This, in an eggshell, is the appeal of Taskmaster. Over the course of a series you will get to know each of the five comedians intimately: not by the extent to which they can yell over one another, or roll out snarky, pre-written bon mots, but by how they think around problems, how they react under real pressure, how they handle perceived injustices, and how competitive they actually are. You see their flaws as well as their strengths, warts and all. Kerry Godliman’s no-nonsense “bosh!” approach. Liza Tarbuck’s willingness to abandon tasks she deems unwinnable. Phil Wang’s gradual, dawning horror that the tight jumpsuit he’s chosen to wear throughout the series shows off more of his anatomy than he is perhaps comfortable with. (“I thought it was a very bold PR move on Phil’s part,” says Davies. “But he didn’t know there’d be quite as much, umm, ‘contouring’.”)

Noel Fielding surprised himself,” says Horne. “It brought out this weird competitive streak that he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager playing football. He was desperate to win. He almost showed a side of himself that he didn’t entirely like. I quite enjoy that. Seeing people get tetchy.”

Have people got genuinely annoyed? “I’ll tell you now,” hoots Davies, “definitely they have!”

“Furious,” says Horne. “For the prize category [the first task of each episode where contestants must bring in an object from home based on a given theme, which Davies then awards points for, based on how impressed he is], Mark Watson brought in this 5,000-piece jigsaw of Greg’s face. He’d spent about 10 hours the night before trying to make it. And he got one point for that. Mark was so furious that he’d wasted all that time.”

Anger, though, is by no means the pervading vibe of Taskmaster, which offers some of the chummiest comic gang larks of the past decade. “This isn’t a show where we’re attempting to humiliate,” assures Davies. “It’s a genuinely joyful atmosphere, and we want everyone to do well. I just play a slightly inflated lunatic who’s shouting at people.” And, as many judgments are subjective, Davies is open to persuasion: “It depends how they argue. As soon as they get uppity I think: ‘Nah, you’re going last.’”

Despite Covid distancing measures removing the live audience from the studio segments, long-time fans will be relieved to hear that the show has made its sashay to terrestrial TV unscathed, as most of the tasks had already been filmed. “Channel 4 haven’t messed with it in the slightest,” says Horne. “The only difference is that people are spaced apart.”

So, the set is the same, the grand prize – a gold statue of Greg’s head that “clearly doesn’t look like anyone”, according to Davies – is the same. One of the only updates is the leering portrait of Davies in the Taskmaster house. “That’s not because we’ve moved to Channel 4. That’s because my face is crumbling! And you know who was really pushing for it to change? My mother. On numerous occasions she’s rung me up and said: ‘You’ve got to accept you look different now.’ She saw it as a real priority. She thought the public were gonna be angry that I was trying to pass myself off as a younger man. She’s a powerful puppet master. Just the worst critic. A forensic monster.”

“She has quite a big say in a lot of the things we do,” Horne offers.

“I always thought it would be, to some degree, hidden away; a cult fanbase,” says Davies, still a little baffled by the show’s success.

“Luckily it piqued people’s curiosity,” Horne adds. “I think people saw we put a lot of love into it, and it’s not as throwaway as it appears.”

With a new home, an established format, a dedicated fanbase and the palpable sense that everyone involved loves making this strange little show in which comedians are lining up to be given instructions like “Make the most exotic sandwich”, talk turns to the future. “I really want Jack Dee to do it,” says Horne. “We ask him every year … or Sarah Silverman.”

“I’d like to see Frankie Boyle on it,” says Davies. “I think he’d bring a very different energy.”

What would they say to those who have never seen Taskmaster and are wondering what all the fuss is about? “It’s an opportunity to see sides of a comedian’s character that they didn’t even know about,” says Davies.

“You get to see both genius and mental breakdowns in the same show,” adds Horne. “Rage, helpless laughter, clumsiness and brains.”

“Fury, vulnerability,” says Davies. “The full gamut!”

Taskmaster begins Thursday 15 October, 9pm, Channel 4