Among the thriving ecosystem of panel shows in the United Kingdom, one reigns supreme across the pond: Taskmaster. The uproariously silly and witheringly hilarious show pits groups of comedians and other celebrities against each other in a series of ridiculous tasks that range from the straightforward (don’t let the flame on this candle go out) to the completely outrageous (interview a stranger and write them a love song). By completing these tasks, the contestants all vie for the favor of the stern Taskmaster, Greg Davies, who doles out points accordingly.
The show is created by Alex Horne, who serves as the Taskmaster’s assistant on the show, running the tasks and keeping score. The program has exploded in popularity in the U.S. over the past few years, thanks to a strong YouTube presence, even stronger word-of-mouth support, and the sheer quality of the comedy.
Series 16 is one of the funniest yet, with an incredible collection of comedians who each bring their own distinct brand of humor to the show. That series is airing now, with new episodes each Friday on the Taskmaster YouTube channel. It’s been a delightful, unusual season, with a very fun group of contestants who have seemingly decided it’s better to work together than against each other.
Polygon sat down with Davies and Horne on a Zoom call to talk about the show’s international success, how they’d describe the various series 16 contestants, how the show has changed over the years, and which American might be a good fit to join a future season.
[Ed. note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
Polygon: Do you have any theories as to why, of all the British panel shows out there, Taskmaster is the one that’s most successfully crossed over to an American audience?
Alex Horne: Good question. Well, I mean, we can talk about the fact that we tried to make an American version, which didn’t really work. So it is curious that just the English one has done the job, you know what I mean? We haven’t thought about any other audience, except for what we do here in the U.K. So maybe that’s something to it, that it’s just a peculiar British show that’s quite different to any other show here, I suppose. I think my theory is people are people, and find other people funny. And our show, it’s not about scripts, or prewritten stuff. It’s just people being themselves. So maybe that just cuts through somehow; it’s genuine and silly. I wish I knew otherwise, [then] I could do it again.
Greg Davies: Well, I guess I would say that one of my comfort watches in life is Seinfeld, and now that Seinfeld is on Netflix, I’m revisiting it all. Having watched it all many years ago, I’m now revisiting all nine seasons. And I think that I just want to be part of their gang. I just want to be there talking about sardines, or whatever whimsy they’re knocking about in any given episode. And I think at its heart, our show is a gang show — and I hope inclusive. It’s no surprise to us both, I don’t think, that teams of contestants form new friendships and stay in touch. And that’s because of the nature of the show. It’s a gang show, it’s a silly gang show. And I think, ultimately, we all want to be in a gang, right? [Alex nods, sagely.] However dysfunctional that gang may be, we all want to belong. And I think what I think is, even if you don’t know the comedians, the nature of the show means you quickly get to like them, and get to know them. And I like to think that people just want to come and hang out with us. That’s my theory.
AH: Good theory.
Polygon: I agree. I think your relationship on the show is a big part of it as well. I think that’s something different that isn’t found in a lot of other television. Alex, you were talking about how you don’t really think about the international audience when it comes to the creative process of the show. Does that include casting? You’ve brought in people from other countries to the show.
AH: No, it’s only about the show, not about international audiences. And actually, the people we’ve had from, say, Canada, or Australia tend to be people who live in England. We’ve only had people from Ireland who’ve had to sort of fly over to do it. But having said that, we have talked about having Amy Schumer or someone — having an American come over would be really fascinating. But we’ve not quite done that leap. And I don’t know who that would be for. I think it would still be for us, rather than any cynical attempt to get more viewers. But I think it would be interesting. But having said that, one good thing about the show is, these five comedians tend to have rubbed up against each other in England before, because the comedy circuit is pretty tight. And it does help sometimes that they’ve got a relationship. But not exclusively — there’s plenty of times we’ve had people who’ve not met other people before. So yeah, I’d be well open to flying a comic over if they were right for it. I don’t know — who would you recommend, Pete? Who should we tap up?
Polygon: Whew. What a question! Wow. I mean, I think just right off the top of my head, Sarah Sherman on SNL comes to mind, because she’s very funny. She’s one of the new cast members there. And I’ve been watching the Chucky television series, and she just got killed very dramatically in that show, which was fun.
GD: I think one of the many things that I really love about the show is your status within the world of comedy doesn’t really matter. And I think that’s why it translates to an audience that doesn’t know some of the characters in it, because it’s a great leveler, the fact that they’re all expected to do the same silly tasks, and they all exist within this structured world that’s been created. And so seniority or profile doesn’t really count for much in the show. I think that’s one of the joys of the show. And often the bits that people remember the most will be the bits from someone that they perhaps had not come across before.
Polygon: Absolutely, and I think to that point, that’s shown even more with some noncomedians on the show. I think of Sir Mo Farah, and other people you’ve brought onto the show that aren’t coming from a comedic background. That’s very fun.
AH: We feel the same.
GD: Because you expect comedians to be funny, but you don’t expect a world-class long-distance runner to be funny.
AH: But also really funny that you, an American, is watching someone like Adrian Chiles, who I imagine you’ve never heard of. He was one of the funniest people we’ve ever had.
Polygon: It’s funny you say that, because his column headlines make it viral here sometimes.
Both: Oh, really???
Polygon: So I was familiar with him through that, but it was really fun to see him on the show.
AH: So, I don’t know if Sir Mo Farah would sustain over 10 episodes. But having one is such a special thing for us. And he was so happy to win!
GD: The same level of glee he demonstrated at winning Taskmaster as he did smashing world records, so we were delighted.
Polygon: Well, they’re equal accomplishments. Greg, you brought up the gang aspect of Taskmaster. This series’ contestants are much more cooperative than competitive, compared to other seasons.
Polygon: Did that catch you by surprise? Do you prefer it when they’re more competitive? Or this or is it just a different flavor?
GD: I think it certainly wrong-footed me a little bit that they all got on so well, and that they were all quite so courteous, and No, no, you take the points. And I think it was really enjoyable just to see this tight knit group who formed this mutual appreciation society. I’d be lying if I said I’d want that to happen every time. I like seeing some conflict, and I like testy relations. But for this one, it was just a novelty really, like, Oh, God, you guys should all go and live together in a big house like monkeys.
AH: Yeah, it was a strange thing. I mean, it helped. I’d say Sue [Perkins] and Susan [Wokoma] were really best buddies. And luckily, Julian [Clary] had disdain for me and the show at all times. And I think we needed that. If they’d all been that friendly... you need somebody to be cross. So yeah, but it was a shock. And they teamed up against me all the time. That’s what I would do.
Polygon: You do invite that, Alex. I’d like to do a really quick word association with you. I’m going to run through each contestant and I want to hear the first word that comes to mind.
GD: Does it have to be one word?
Polygon: You can improvise, I think we can allow a little flexibility.
GD: I like rules.
Polygon: You like rules? Okay, then we can keep it to one word. First up: Julian Clary.
GD: I guess indifferent is the word that springs to mind, but I would have to put caveats. I would have to sneakily put the word “willfully” before indifferent because I think Julian really invested in the show and was funny but decided what his angle was going to be, and it was one of contempt and indifference. I absolutely love that. It wouldn’t work if everyone said, “This show’s a waste of my precious time.” But it really worked. That’s what he did. And it really helped with my dynamic that he turned most of his aggression on Alex.
GD: You know, if he’d been like that with me, it wouldn’t have worked so well. So he played it very cleverly.
AH: He did, he did.
GD: My word is indifferent.
Polygon: Alright, Lucy Beaumont, another fun one.
AH: I’m going enigmatic. She’s pretty extraordinary.
GD: I was always fascinated with Lucy, and I still don’t know the answer to it: What was her actual personality? What was her toying with us? I think she’s very, very skillful at blurring that line. I also flip flopped between thinking this woman is a genius, and this woman is an actual village idiot.
AH: Yeah, I spent a lot of time with her obviously, doing the tasks, and I don’t know either. Not all of it was deliberate, I know that. She’s extraordinary.
Polygon: Next — Sam Campbell.
AH: Hilarious. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve worked with for a long time. Comedy is all about the unexpected. And he says things that you’re not expecting anyone to say. And as a comedian, you quite often see how people’s brains are working. I don’t know how his brain’s working.
GD: No, I don’t know. And in a few interviews over the years, I’ve refuted the existence of funny bones. And I largely would stand by that, that I don’t think there’s such a thing as funny bones. I think it’s all learned behavior. I could rant about this for quite some time. But I might make an exception for Sam Campbell. I just think it’s in him to be funny. And he frequently wrong-footed me. When you’ve been in comedy for a while, you see the mechanisms. Right? You often see the cogs turning in even very clever comedians. But he frequently wrong-footed both of us didn’t he?
AH: Yeah. When he had any question to ask you, and he asked if you were a child of divorce. That caught everyone really wrong-footed, the audience and all the contestants. It’s hard to pin why that’s funny, but it’s just funny.
GD: He opens one of the tasks once, a silly studio task. He was asked to read the task out. And he opened it and said, “Defeat Vladimir Putin?!?!”
Polygon: Next up, Sue Perkins.
AH: I’m thinking of a slightly banal word, but: lovely. She’s such a legend in telly over here, and she’s such a professional. She’s also funny and all these other things, but she’s really lovely.
GD: She’s lovely but she’s also very funny. And she’s a proper pro, isn’t she? She gives you what you need.
AH: She gives you what you need.
GD: That’s it. I’m going to break the rules and say Sue Perkins gives you what you need.
Polygon: Last one, Susan Wokoma.
AH: Well, I’d go with two words, because I want to go with unhinged, but I’m gonna go slightly unhinged, because she’s not fully mad. She’s slightly different from the others. She’s not a comedian. She’s more of an actor and a writer as well. But yeah, I saw glimpses of her unhingedness throughout.
GD: There’s an incredulity to her. She’s someone who did something that we see from time to time, which is to appear genuinely surprised by what she was being asked to do. As if it were unreasonable, or you know, a preposterous proposition. And I often thought, Well, Susan, you do know what you signed up for. Do you know what the show is? But again, she was absolutely charming and great at her job and we loved her.
Polygon: Greg, I’m surprised you didn’t go with RADA [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where Susan studied, and a frequent joke by the Taskmaster on the series].
GD: RADA, of course, RADA.
AH: We didn’t do this as well as you did, Pete.
Polygon: Well, I had more time to think about it. I’m gonna turn your attention on each other for a second. I’d love to hear your favorite thing that the other did this series.
GD: I don’t know what it was because I’m so old, but we have these little banter sections that sometimes make it, sometimes don’t make it into the edit. They are always led by Alex, and Alex has always, in my mind, designed something that he knows will actually genuinely irritate me on television, because he has an oblique sense of humor. And I can’t give you an example. But he definitely wrong-footed me a couple of times where I actually did find what he said funny.
AH: Clever, isn’t it? I’ve led you on for 15 series with you thinking I’m not funny, and then, occasionally...
GD: That happens once a series or so. And he’s a very funny man, obviously. But in that section, he’s frequently willfully unfunny. And there were a couple of times where he got me. And that’s when I soften. It’s difficult to maintain our dynamic when he genuinely charms me.
AH: I don’t think I’ve got a specific example either, sorry. But what we try to do with the studio tasks is make sure that Greg, as often as possible, has some involvement. Because otherwise, he’s just watching and then asking what the points are. And I think this series has quite a few really good ones [where] Greg was an active participant in the studio task, and it raises it so much. A good series for Greg in the studio tasks is my slightly disappointing answer.
Polygon: Greg, I’m curious about your portrayal of the Taskmaster over time. Sixteen series in, what has changed for you and how have you tried to adapt this role?
GD: The genesis of the “character” is that we discussed a dynamic before we started the show, and the dynamic is that my natural pomposity and false air of authority be exploited, and Alex’s more, sort of, diligent worker side be exploited. So I think if you watched earlier episodes, you’ll probably see me being a little bit grumpier and Alex being a little bit more servile. And as we’ve gone along, it’s probably [lessened] a little bit so that we don’t quite have to play up the pantomime quite so much. So I think we know what our roles are. But I’ll frequently lose any sense of authority and have people turn on me, and Alex will frequently get the upper hand. And I just think we roll with the punches a bit, set safe in the knowledge that the rules of the game are well established.
AH: Yeah, I’d agree with all that. We’re slightly more ourselves now.
GD: We’re just like tennis players who have played long enough now to try different shots out. Does that work?
AH: Yeah, that’s what they do. They’ll try a backhand after about 15 years? Well, I would say Greg has asked me to judge a task maybe twice. And I absolutely hate it. And, you know, we couldn’t swap roles in the slightest. Like — those roles are completely embedded in ourselves.
GD: Here’s the thing. I absolutely hate it as well. I find it’s such a stress, because I want to do right by everyone. And of course, if you’ve spoken to any comedians, we’re all desperate to be liked. It’s often my job not to be liked. It’s a battle.
Polygon: I’m glad you brought up previous seasons, Greg, because I’ve been rewatching some of them. With regards to the task creation, Alex, I’m curious how your attitude toward loopholes has changed.
AH: Me too.
Polygon: There’s a lot more instruction, it feels like, in terms of limiting some of the shenanigans that people have been up to.
AH: I wish there weren’t so many loopholes, and often it’s the same loophole, which is: You can’t move the finish line. It’s just that once someone has exploited a loophole on a previous series, they will just do it again. And that’s boring for the viewer. But my favorite tasks are the three-line ones. It’s: Do this thing, Fastest wins, Your time starts now. That’s the dream. That’s the dream.
Polygon: My favorite task of Series 16 is “Make mischief.”
AH: Yeah. And sometimes I think of one, and I think, Oh, great, we’ve got another two-liner, perfect. And actually, what we can do occasionally — this is sort of behind the curtain — there might be a task where there is an obvious loophole, but we tell people, Don’t do that, because that won’t be entertaining. But the trouble is, if you do that, the viewers will all say, Well, why didn’t they just do that loophole? So I think it’s just the curse of a long-running show.
GD: Alex frequently designs the things to shut down loopholes now. And you’ll notice in more recent series that contestants who are fans of the show will often look underneath tables and check [for] shortcuts. And I think you must be aware of that in the design of the tasks, right?
AH: Yeah, yeah. But we also really want people to find ways around things, but just not necessarily the ways that have been found before. So we also put in things where there will be another way of doing it hidden somewhere. But we try to encourage lateral thinking, but it’s not all about that either.
Polygon: Well, I noticed you have notorious loophole finder [and series 1 contestant] Tim Key as a task consultant. Is that his job?
AH: Tim Key’s job is never to be revealed, exactly. But what it mainly involves is me going out for a pint with him and not feeling guilty that I’m plundering his brain. That’s all it is. He tends to know all the comedians, and he knows what’s funny, so I’ll say, Look, this isn’t an idea. Could you tell me what you think of it? And that’s it. He’s not a loophole man. He’s a funny man. That’s his role.
Polygon: Thank you both for the time, it’s been a pleasure. Alex, I thought of another answer to your question about which American you might want to invite on the show: former NFL star Marshawn Lynch. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him.
AH: I’m not!
Polygon: He’s very funny, and he was on the improv murder mystery show Murderville.
Both: Oh, yeah! Yeah.
GD: Well, let’s go, Marshawn. If you see this, we’re ready, let’s make it happen. Let’s do it.
You can watch all of Taskmaster on YouTube.