The pandemic has yielded several surprise TV hits from “The Last Dance” to “Mrs. America.” But the weirdest one of all — even more than “Tiger King” — is the British comedy panel show coming to The CW this Sunday: “Taskmaster.”
In the UK, “Taskmaster” has spent the past five years becoming one of the nation’s most popular panel shows; but the pandemic has helped it grow in ways that its creators never expected or even planned. Back in November, after “Taskmaster” was picked up by a new network, the show’s YouTube channel started posting weekly reruns of the entire series for free. Four months later, with the world stuck at home, “Taskmaster” began to gain an online, international cult following through those reruns, particularly in the States.
The premise is simple enough. Five comedians are taken to an eccentric little house in West London, where they are given tasks to complete in wax-sealed slips of paper. Their performance is judged by the show’s stern host Greg Davies, with show creator Alex Horne playing Davies’ put-upon assistant who administers all the tasks. The comedians play each week for bizarre, often worthless prizes they bring themselves (e.g.: a reindeer skull), and the one with the most points at the end of the season wins a trophy resembling Davies’ head.
Where the show shines is in the tasks themselves, which can best be described as finely-tuned improv designed to put the comedians up a creek without a paddle. No, really, that actually was a task, with the additional instruction that the contestants had to get their paddle-less boats back to dry land in less than 20 minutes and to do so “as elegantly as possible.” Forcing quick thinking with such little time has led many of the participants to fail in the most spectacular ways possible.
“We ridicule them, but we do it with love,” Davies told TheWrap with a grin. “It’s stunning sometimes because I know some of these comedians before they come on the show and they’re very smart people. But once put under pressure they just totally collapse! No one is safe. No one can consistently do every task perfectly.”
But plenty of TV shows demonstrate humanity’s capacity for stupidity. “Taskmaster” also shows our capacity for creativity and ingenuity too. In one task, the comedians were given a plush camel and tasked to “get this camel through the smallest gap.” While some comedians chopped up the plushie and tried to squeeze all the stuffing through hook holes on cutting boards, former “Great British Bake-Off” host Mel Giedroyc had a different plan: She took the camel to a Baby Gap store. Davies declared her the winner of the task.
“The lateral thinking that we’ve seen on the show has been amazing. There’s been times where they totally outsmart us and complete the task in a way we never thought of,” Horne said. “We had one task where we had a yoga mat on a big hill and told them to get three yoga balls at the bottom of the hill onto the mat. We didn’t think that one of them would bring the yoga mat down to where the balls were, so that was a reminder that sometimes these comedians can be smarter than us.”
That outside-the-box thinking has spilled over to the show’s fans. During the pandemic, Horne and Davies have kept fans engaged by creating tasks they can do at home and encouraging them to send videos of their results. To their surprise, thousands of videos poured in — many of them from Americans — and the creativity has blown them away. Horne said that one task they gave fans was to reenact a historical event, and one video saw a family turn their house into a bus to recreate Rosa Parks’ famous segregation protest. For Horne’s kids, it was the first time they had learned about the Montgomery bus boycotts.
“We try to narrow it down to a top 10 and I can’t tell you how hard that is,” Davies said. “They’re so imaginative, sometimes even better than the comedians. I’ve never seen a bathroom turned into an opium den!”
The CW will air reruns of seasons 8 and 9 of “Taskmaster,” and a 10th season is being filmed as well. While most of the tasks were completed prior to the pandemic, Horne said that they have had to film the studio portion of the show without an audience and with everyone seated six feet apart. The new lineup includes BAFTA winner Daisy May Cooper (“This Country”) and “The IT Crowd” alum Katherine Parkinson.
“The chemistry with this new group is amazing, even with the strange conditions we’ve had to film in,” Horne says. “This lot didn’t know each other before the show but they’ve really bonded. They’re five unique characters but they’ve come together as survivors of some odd experience.”
But when the pandemic ends, could “Taskmaster” get a full American adaptation on The CW? Horne previously attempted to bring the show to the U.S. with a half-hour version hosted by Reggie Watts on Comedy Central, but the show didn’t get off the ground. Horne said he’d love another chance to try out “Taskmaster” with American comedians and the full, hour-long format.
So who would he love to give a task? “It would be amazing if we got someone like Sarah Silverman on the show, not having a script and just being herself. That’s the best part of doing this show: just having funny people being funny.”