Filed under: Top Fives
If you're unfamiliar with the brilliant British comedy television show Taskmaster, which debuted in 2015, then you're welcome for the joy that is about to enter your life. You'll almost certainly want to start binging the show from the beginning. For those who have followed along since 2015, or caught up like I did when the show began posting full episodes and seasons on their official YouTube page early in the pandemic, this will serve as a reminder of some of the tasks most representative of how hilarious and endearing the show can be.
Taskmaster has found a way to nearly perfect the already-great tradition of UK comedy panel shows, amping up both the competition and the silliness. If you haven't already seen the show, a quick primer: Taskmaster was created by "assistant" Alex Horne and is hosted by Greg Davies (aka "The Taskmaster"), and begins with pre-recording tasks (some simple, some incredibly convoluted) by that season's 5 contestants over the course of several months in and around the Taskmaster House. Once gathered in studio for each weekly episode, several tasks are shown (along with an opening prize task and a closing in-studio task) where the contestants' results go up against each other, often decided by Davies. Unlike most panel shows or celebrity game shows, the points do seem to matter, as many of the competitors really, really want to win.
One of the show's strengths is letting its characters flourish. Part of this is the interactions and playfulness between Davies and Horne – who Davies always refers to as "Little Alex Horne" in a high-pitched voice. Their relationship is sort of like a needy son and indifferent father (Horne has said many times on the show that he wishes Davies – only 9 years his senior – was his father), but there's also a layer of sexual tension that has lead to some bizarre fan fiction in some circles of the internet. In any case: it works wonderfully. Taskmaster also keeps the same contestants for an entire season (ranging from 5 to the now-standard 10 episodes), which allows audiences to not only really get to know the personalities, but for the contestants' relationships between each other and the hosts to really develop. In the earlier seasons, most of the contestants were comedians that Davies and Horne were already friends or frequent colleagues with, which had an instant ease built in. But in more recent seasons, it's been fascinating to see Davies and Horne's interactions with comics and actors who they have no prior relationships with.
The unpredictability of Taskmaster – both in how contestants will attempt their various tasks and in how Davies will ultimately judge them for points – has kept things fresh and rolling through 12 full seasons and a number of one-offs. Season 13 will debut this spring, but in the meantime, I present to you my very subjective top five moments from the last 6 years of one of the genuinely best shows on television.
This doesn't quite make the "best moments" list, but I wanted to include a task from one of the more recent seasons, and there frankly aren't that many from Seasons 9 through 12 posted on the Taskmaster YouTube page. There are countless amazing moments from all 4 of these seasons, but this is a good representation of the type of task the show does really well, as well as the characters of the stellar Season 9. It was the first pre-recorded task shown that season, with every contestant taking quite a different approach, and you can tell right from the beginning how seriously some comics take being on the show (and how much they want to win).
Throughout the show, Greg Davies verbally abuses Little Alex Horne any chance he gets, even as Horne grovels for his approval. It just shows that Horne is willing to be the brunt of the joke to make great television. He's actually willing to do whatever it takes to be funny, and knowing the person behind the show isn't above being the brunt of the joke likely goes a long way to making the contestants feel comfortable making themselves vulnerable and potentially looking foolish. In so many tasks over the years, Horne has almost masochistically put himself in harm's way eating strange concoctions or doing other humiliating things, and this task exemplifies that to great effect. Some of the results are genuinely surprising – especially courtesy of Sian Gibson and the always-unpredictable Lou Sanders – and all of them are very funny.
This is the first of many long-term tasks the show has done over the years, where the contestants get a number of weeks or months to complete the task and show the results during the in-studio portion of the show. While many of these tasks through the seasons have been fun, nothing has surpassed what Josh Widdicombe did for his £20 gift for Greg Davies in the first season. You can see in the thumbnail for the video below how surprised and pleased Davies is with the end results! Taskmaster doesn't have its long and successful run if Season 1 doesn't work, and this was one of the moments that proved that with full buy-in from the contestants, it could be a hit.
This task combines so many things at once: a random non-famous guest, original music, redemption from some less-than-stellar contestants (Nish Kumar, despite being one of the funniest comics around, was notoriously awful at tasks), and even some braving of the elements for one of the teams. After capturing different facts about the same woman (Rosalind), the results couldn't have been more different. The team of Bob Mortimer, Sally Phillips, and Aisling Bea go the off-the-walls route, throwing in some insults to the face of this woman they don't know, while Nish Kumar and Mark Watson showed off actual musical instrument-playing abilities in writing an actual (and quite lovely) song about Rosalind. Both are entertaining for different reasons: one hilarious in the subject matter and awful performance, the other genuinely impressive. Letting the contestants get creative is almost always a win with Taskmaster, and this was one of the best examples of that.
Prior to his most recent comedy special (Cold Lasagne I Hate Myself 1999) and the podcasts he's hosted or co-hosted the past few years (Perfect Sounds, Off Menu), James Acaster's persona in both his stand-up and on panel shows was aloof, sarcastic, and generally a couple degrees removed from reality. He was hilarious, but was essentially playing a character. So it was a joy to see several moments during his time on Season 7 of Taskmaster where he couldn't hide behind the stage version of himself, even if that joy for us was usually due to hilarious suffering and struggle he was going through on the show. Nothing during Acaster's time on Taskmaster was more of a struggle than this team task alongside Phil Wang and Rhod Gilbert. It's hilarious how badly it appeared to go during filming, but even more so once Acaster observes for the first time in studio how things actually went down. His anger for Rhod Gilbert is palpable; who knew watching a breakdown could be so fun? (Bonus points also for the other team of Kerry Godliman and Jessica Knappett, who delightfully showed off their great teamwork in this task!)
This task was from early on in the show's run, going all the way back to Season 2, and features another comic who usually plays a bit of a caricature in his comedy, Joe Wilkinson. But when the competition takes over and things turn sideways, the results perfectly exemplify what Taskmaster is all about: something ultimately meaningless taken seriously by a group of really funny people, all judged and decided upon in a sometimes arbitrary and divisive way by a ruling tyrant. In and of itself, this might not be the most funny or silly task of all time, but taken as a whole, it's art.
The opening task for every episode is the Prize Task, where contestants are asked to bring in something that fits whatever that show's category is ("Most Unusual Item", "Least Appropriate Accessory for a Wedding"), which are presented to Davies for judgement. The winner of each episode "wins" all 5 of the first round prizes, whatever that actually ends up meaning. None of the prize tasks from the show have been isolated in individual videos, but Taskmaster has put together compilations of the best and worst prizes from over the years. It's a good sense of both what the vibe of this task generally is, as well as how Davies reacts to what the contestants have brought in thinking they're going to win him over. The best of all time (which you can see in the first video) is probably Bob Mortimer's entry for "Best Thing They've Made Themselves", in which he brings in his homemade sausage presentation unit!
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found putting on and promoting music and comedy events with The Purple Room in Winnipeg, or co-producing the live comedy game shows Pants on Fire and The Great Patio Showdown. (@comedygeek)