“It’s really hard not to see CNN+ as anything other than a tremendous display of hubris,” one of the many newsletters I subscribe to about the state of online culture stated early last week.
Ha, I thought, flush with the schadenfreude* of a freelance TV critic who’s covered her fair share of goofily named streaming boondoggles, hilarious because it’s true!!!
And then I pivoted into the rest of my workday, closing out that tab and navigating to the raw transcript of this Zoom interview I had conducted a few days previous with Taskmaster’s own Alex Horne and Greg Davies. Charming men, the pair of them. Sharp, too. And so generous with both their anecdotes and time. That they’d chosen to make space for Paste on their current press tour was genuinely the highlight of my week.
On that note: Taskmaster SuperMax+, which launched in early March and will eventually be the home of every series of Taskmaster that ever has been or will be created, is now available to Taskmaster fans worldwide. Included in its catalog are not just the original British series—notably the long-fabled Series 9, which American audiences have been unable to watch on YouTube since the season aired—but also the various international adaptations that have begun cropping up over the last few years.
For the uninitiated, the idea of not just a genre- but series-specific subscription platform might sound like the entire streaming industry taking a massive leap over the proverbial shark. For anyone who’s watched even ten minutes of the multiple BAFTA-winning program, though, the move should make complete sense. As we (specifically: I) have explained at length elsewhere in Paste’s Comedy annals, Taskmaster was, for better part of the first two years of the pandemic, the only show I wanted to watch. Originally created as a one-off by Horne for the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the series’ basic premise is this: Five (usually) comedians are tapped to compete, individually and in small groups, in a series of inane and utterly pointless (but mostly family-friendly) tasks. The filming of these tasks takes place over the course of several months, at the end of which all five competitors convene in the opulently appointed Taskmaster studio to spend between five and ten hour-long episodes both reviewing the tape and performing a couple more in-studio bonus tasks. After the tape from each task has been presented, Davies, playing host as the series’ in-studio “Taskmaster,” dispenses points. His rule is both merciless and easily biased—a combination he clearly relishes.
And when I say the tasks Taskmaster’s competitors are asked to do are “inane” and “utterly pointless,” I’m not exaggerating. Think: “Draw the biggest circle.” Think: “Dispose of this cake in the most creative way.” Think: “Do the most surprising thing with this chickpea.” Think: “Choreograph and perform a dance to one of these classic ringtones.”
Think, that is to say, of every possible way a room full of very clever writers could get a studio full of very funny people to make truly the most enormous fools of themselves.
In other words, Taskmaster is a show that’s pretty much built for not just binge, but repeat viewing—a fact that will be doubly true now that every season (or, in the British vernacular, “series”) will be made available to non-UK audiences on a platform whose closed captioning isn’t garbled AI nonsense. (Sorry, YouTube; it’s just true.)
Not to be outdone by their own industry-breaking platform announcement, Horne and Davies are also back *this week* with the newest series of Taskmaster (Series 13), which is set to feature Ardal O’Hanlon, Bridget Christie, Chris Ramsey, Judi Love, and Sophie Duker. But as excited as we are at Paste to spend the next couple months watching these contestants crack (or not!) under the pressure-cooker that is Davies’ iron stare, we used our limited Zoom time with the series’ hosts to talk, well… what might just be funny enough to transcend the fate of being known solely as “a tremendous display of hubris.”
*Freelance TV critic’s note: In light of the looming death knell sounding over CNN+ at the time of publication, I’d like to underscore that this schadenfreude is *solely* for the the corporate hubris, and not for any of the staffers who are about to be flung unjustly back into the unfeeling maws of a dying digital media industry.
Note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Paste Magazine: So how long has the idea of a Taskmaster-centric streaming platform been kicking around your heads? (And then relatedly, how much of that time was it a joke, and how much of that time was it serious?)
Alex Horne: I think it’s still a joke, Alexis.
Paste: Ha! Well, okay then.
Horne: I will say—so Greg and I do the show, but we’re not very involved in what happens to the show. We’re [more] sort of interested spectators. But the production company are very proactive, which is good. So the man who had the idea, a couple of years ago—I think it was literally, an email came through from Vimeo saying, You know, you could buy your own platform for this much money. And he just thought, well, this could be a laugh. I never thought it was really going to happen, but it seemed like a fun, interesting idea. And if more people can watch [Taskmaster], and it’s all in one place? I don’t think you can do any harm, I suppose.
Greg Davies: It’s interesting, the version of events that Alex would give you in this interview. Because for me, for months, he’s been saying that he wants to make Taskmaster bigger than Apple. That’s the thing he keeps whispering in my ear before the cameras roll. He keeps saying, I want to dominate all platforms. That’s my goal. And then the cameras roll and it’s, ohh, I’m silly little Alex Horne! But beneath it: A ruthless businessman.
Horne: Yep, he’s got me.
Paste: Who came up with the idea of “Taskmaster SuperMax+”?
Horne: The name itself?
Paste: Yes, the name itself. Which does feel like a joke!
Horne: I think it was kicked around in a meeting in a pub. We were thinking, we need to make sure we’re taking the mick out of ourselves slightly, we’re not taking this seriously. And indicating, it’s like Disney+, but bigger.
Paste: Of course.
Horne: I guess what I’d say is, with Taskmaster, each time we do something else—like a book, or a board game—we do try to make it good quality, but also still funny. So that’s what we’ve gone for—something that’s a bit ridiculous, but still says what it is.
Paste: Well, I appreciate it. In the work I do, I kind of split my time between criticism and service journalism—you know, lists and streaming guides. So I’ve done a lot of time in the streaming platform trenches, many of which do have that + appended in a way that just doesn’t mean anything. So I really appreciate the tongue-in-cheek nature of yours! And beyond that, even just logging onto the platform when I got access yesterday, it was like—oh, this is already much better presented, much better laid out, has way more content—
Davies: Than Apple and Disney+.
Paste: Yeah, than Apple and Disney+ combined, actually.
Davies: Well! Then we’ve achieved our goal.
Paste: So one of the things I really love about Taskmaster, from a structural standpoint, is that each episode is so well balanced, like, between the types of tasks and the order they’re shown in. I’m curious to hear you guys talk a little bit about what that process is like, from an editorial standpoint.
Davies: Well, that’s one for Alex really, but they’re filmed at random, aren’t they—they’re not grouped together until the [live episode].
Horne: Yeah, exactly. So then it’s a case of, well, whatever the order is that we film them in the studio, that can’t be changed. So we do put a lot of thought into which tasks go into which episode, and it’s done on instinct, really. We want to grab the audience at the beginning, so something that doesn’t immediately grab your attention you want to save for the end. And then we’ll think, well, that was a physical task, let’s go for something a bit more mental. So it’s not rocket science. I suppose; it’s instinct about what will feel right next to each other.
And then in terms of which comedians go with which comedians, it varies. Sometimes two comedians will have exactly the same approach—weirdly—and so we say, Well, let’s put them together, that’s quite fun. But other times we’ll stretch them to either side, you know, one to the beginning, one to the end, because it’s funny to think back to what the other person did. So it’s case by case, and done by feel.
Paste: Greg, you thought that was more of an Alex question, but I actually do have a related question for you, because within the telecasts themselves, I do feel like you have a particular skill of managing, on the patter level, to say things that feel just incredibly organic, off-the-cuff jokes, but which then immediately tie exactly into whatever the visual joke is of the next task that’s being shown to us. You’re so good at it that it feels like, oh, he must know a little bit about what’s coming to have been able to set this up.
Davies: Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil any, er, mystique about how much I know and how much I don’t. What I would say is, as the series have gone on, I’ve known less and less about what’s to come, as we become more comfortable as, you know, as a team—and as my power base becomes stronger and stronger. And that’s the best.
But, you know, there are some tasks where it would be preposterous for me to pretend I haven’t seen some things in advance. Because some tasks are so involved, and, you know, I’m already criticized for making bad judgment calls, so I do have to see some of the more involved things, to get my head around, and so inevitably something will pop up that amuses me enough that I’ll back-reference it. But the important thing is that, largely, those decisions are made in the room. More often than not, I am making the decision live and judging it based on not only what I see, but how people respond in the room. Certainly none of it is scripted.
Paste: Do you feel like you have a better ability to predict what the competitors will have done if you know them outside of the show? Like, if they’re someone you’ve spent time with and you’re like, well, I know how this person thinks.
Davies: Well, a good friend of mine, Rhod Gilbert, did the show, and I knew exactly how he would respond, and… he responded exactly as I anticipated throughout. I knew he was going to be a pain in my behind—and he was! [laughs]
But apart from that, I mean, Alex, you’ve probably had more mates on it than I have.
Horne: Yeah, I think so. And same with you and Rhod, when Tim Key did it, there was one [task] where they had to empty the bath as quick as possible. And I said, oh, he’s getting in the bath; there’s no doubt he’s getting in the bath. And he went straight in. So I think you can predict it. But equally, I think everyone can surprise us. And actually, the more [the show] goes on, the more they do surprise me.
Davies: Well, as a general rule, I would say everybody surprises you. I mean, Rhod didn’t surprise me, but other friends I’ve had on genuinely surprised me on multiple occasions. I think the show has a real knack of digging into parts of the performers’ personalities that they perhaps don’t want exposed…
Horne: Sometimes they surprise me by not thinking out the box, or thinking comedically. Sometimes they surprise me by being just rubbish.
Davies: At just doing the task! But yeah, that always surprises me, when a comedian has got an open goal to be silly, and sometimes they just… do the task efficiently. And then they’re all pleased with themselves. I find that always surprises me.
Paste: Yeah, well that was another one of my questions. I feel like when Richard Osman was on, in the second series, he always showed such surprising lateral thinking. Which was so new after Series 1! It was like, we’ve barely established what this show is, and here he’s showing that there’s this completely different way to approach it. But since then, there have been a lot of lateral thinkers. Have you guys talked about who you think is the best you’ve had on so far?
Davies: Richard Osman is a great example of someone who surprised us by being clever!
Horne: Yeah, yeah There’s some very specific examples, like, bringing those [yoga] mats down from the hill, instead of bringing the balls up. Yeah, [Osman] did change the rules.
Bob Mortimer is someone who’s interesting for me, because he’s someone who effortlessly won the show—sometimes he thought out the box, sometimes he was just a practical man—but he always added something.
Davies: I think someone like Bob comes at life from slightly different angles a lot of the time. He can appear absolutely normal, but he’s always coming in at an angle that you weren’t expecting. When you scratch the surface, he’s always surprising. And a lot of people are always surprising, for good and ill.
Paste: Is there anyone who you expected to be really good at the lateral thinking aspect, but was just absolute trash? Or rather, who was just, like, surprisingly practical. Let’s say it that way.
Horne: All the people who were on paper the cleverest—Mark Watson, Paul Sinha, David Baddiel. They were all useless, but have major degrees and novels.
Davies: Yea, Victoria Coren Micthell, more recently. These are people who are known, certainly in this country, as being cerebral and academic, who were very, very bad at practical things. And that, to me, is just… a joy.
Paste: Well, I know part of the reason that we’re talking is about Series 9, because that’s the one that hasn’t been available on the Taskmaster YouTube before. And one of the things about Series 9 that was unique is that it was the first series that had three female competitors, in terms of the balance of five. Has it been harder to book women in general, or were there other factors that played into that?
Horne: We were just worse at it, at the beginning. I think the comedy world has changed a lot in ten years. It was the norm to have one woman—which is awful now! It looks so mad. It’s so much better when there’s a good balance, obviously.
Davies: It was the norm in very recent years, to only have one woman, which is incredible. Incredible!
Horne: So yeah, looking back, it feels insane. So now we’ve got much better representation. And it’s not trying to tick any boxes—it’s just better. A better program. And actually, I don’t think Greg and I would even think about how many women or men are on nowadays. You just don’t.
Davies: Yea, it’s individuals who make the dynamic different every time. It doesn’t occur to me. And when we did have more women than men, it very quickly became entirely normal, you know, these are just funny people. So I think we’ve sort of moved on from that, and, you know, delighted to have representation.
Horne: It’s a slight shame I’m not a woman, but there we go.
Davies: I… I don’t really know what to make of that!
Horne: Well I guess what I mean is, there’s two men on posh thrones, casting judgment on these people.
Davies: Oh, I see. Okay, cool. I mean, cool either way!
Paste: I suppose one upside of having the ratio you did for so many of the early years is now that you’ve got to have just this massive bucket of funny people to possibly invite on.
Horne: What I would say is, I think statistically, the women do much better than the men overall. There’s lots of people on Reddit who do a lot of analysis of people’s performances. And maybe this is a cliché as well, but I think women are better at multitasking, and that pays off in the show.
Paste: So one of the other things that is unique about Series 9 is that Katie Wix had to be out for several weeks—
Paste: —and I really appreciated you bringing in previous winners [as her stand-ins]. What was that process like? How did the dynamic change?
Horne: Well, there was a lot of panic! We didn’t know what to do, we didn’t know whether we’d have to postpone the whole thing. But I think it [ended up] working fine.
Davies: Yeah, it’s interesting. Bringing people that we knew back and asking them to represent Katie just felt so natural, it felt like it just added an extra element of fun, really, that they were having to step up and represent someone else. And for me as the host, you know, they brought a whole new set of prejudices! I had past prejudices against those people. So it was nice for me to be angry on more than one level.
Horne: Yeah. And the viewers didn’t mind. But now we [always] have somebody on hand. Especially with COVID, we have things in place, just in case.
Paste: I thought it was really clever, because even though they ostensibly had to advocate for Katie, they sometimes went the other way. I remember in at least one instance it was like, oh, that was, no—I’m not advocating for that.
Horne: That was Kerry Godliman.
Davies: Oh, yeah, a treacherous stand-in was great.
Paste: On the subject of past winners, my parents specifically told me to ask about the next tournament of champions.
Horne: So we have filmed it. We know who’s won.
Davies: Yeah. It’s great.
Horne: But it hasn’t been out here yet, either. It comes out at the end of the next series, I think. So you can tell your parents it’s coming.
Davies: And you can tell them it was lots of fun. It won’t disappoint.
Horne: I think it’s better than the first one!
Paste: Well, we’re nearly out of time, and I didn’t even touch on the international versions that are going to be available on the new platform. I don’t know how much of a hand either of you have in them, or how much time you’ve had to watch them yourselves, but if you have thoughts…
Horne: I’ve occasionally looked into them! And it just makes me laugh so much. Particularly when there’s a language I don’t know at all. It just looks like you’re seeing somebody do a spoof on our show. It’s so weird.
Davies: I haven’t seen a lot and I do keep meaning to check them out, because I would find it fascinating. But my instinct as the original Taskmaster would be to destroy them all, of course. Which is probably why I’ve steered away.
Paste: Well, I don’t know what the cost of Taskmaster SuperMax+ is in the UK, but if you paid $5.99 a month in the US, you might be able to check them out. At least, that’s what I hear.
Horne: You know, I think that’s right. We’ll sign up!
Series 1-8 of Taskmaster are streaming now on Taskmaster SuperMax+, with new episodes from Series 9 dropping weekly on Fridays, and the remaining seasons (both UK and international) set to debut thereafter. New episodes of Series 13 of Taskmaster are currently airing (in the UK) on Channel 4 and ALL4 at 9pm on Thursday nights.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found at @AlexisKG.