Fall in Love With This British Comedy Before the U.S. Version Ruins It
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Taskmaster could be the next Whose Line Is It Anyway?
By James Watkins
You’re in an empty room — well, just you and the camera crew. On the table is an envelope sealed with a red wax stamp, Hogwarts-style. You open it and are told that as soon as you enter the next room, you will have 60 seconds to eat as much watermelon as possible. That’s all the information you have.
What do you do? Search for an implement to help you cut it open before opening the door, or presume it’s nicely presliced for you? Stride straight in confidently and smash the fruit with your hands?
After watching five stand-up comedians independently tackle this absurd task in the first episode of Season One, you’ll be laughing too hard to realize how bizarre this TV show is. “If you’re in any doubt about the tone of this show, there you go,” host Greg Davies chuckles afterward. This is Taskmaster, a ridiculous British parlor game show that airs as a U.S. adaptation in late April. The concept? In short, the Taskmaster makes “some accomplished, but needy comedians” do his bidding, Davies explains in the first show.
Completely empty this bathtub without pulling out the plug.
Since 2015, there have been five seasons plus two “champion of champions” specials, each episode featuring tasks more outrageous than the last. Completely empty this bathtub without pulling out the plug. Find out as much information as you can in 30 minutes from this Swedish person who doesn’t speak English. Get these three yoga balls to the top of that really steep hill.
The comic beauty of the show? Each of the five comedians completes their task in isolation, accompanied only by the Taskmaster’s subservient minion, Alex Horne, who enforces the rules (he’s also the show’s creator and theme tune composer). So when each of the attempts is played back to the Taskmaster and a live audience, it’s the first time each person sees how their fellow competitors tackled the task. The best ones are open to interpretation — “You have one hour to do something that will look most impressive when played backwards” — and so each of the five approaches will be totally different. And invariably hilarious.
Davies, who recently released a stand-up special on Netflix, chooses the winner, but there’s typically debate about whether a particular rule-bending constituted cheating or an ingenious loophole. The only prize is glory, but the participants do get really competitive — one even got a permanent tattoo of Davies’ name to win a task (trust me, you’re going to want to watch to the end of this next clip).
Comedy team panel shows are a staple of British TV — the equivalent of U.S. late-night talk shows — but Taskmaster was one of the most “significant new takes on the format in decades,” says British TV critic and Den of Geek contributor Wesley Mead. “This felt new, this felt exciting, this felt dangerous.” After Horne developed the concept at the famed annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival and unsuccessfully shopped it around to mainstream networks, it was eventually bought by Dave, an alternative channel aimed at young males. “It’s hard to underemphasize what a hit Taskmaster has been for Dave,” says Mark Boosey, editor of the British Comedy Guide.
The show has just been recommissioned for four additional seasons (a rarity in British TV), and the format has been replicated in Belgium and Sweden. And now, the United States — with host Reggie Watts, a stand-up comedian and musician on The Late Late Show With James Corden.
But U.S. adaptations of British comedy have a “checkered history,” says Mead. Some, like The Office, have done incredibly well, while the likes of The Inbetweeners died a quick death. But he has more hope for Taskmaster. After all, Whose Line Is It Anyway? — another British TV-comedy import — became an incredibly popular U.S. TV franchise, he notes.
My advice? Fall in love with the original in all of its awkward and absurd — and uniquely British — comic style before the U.S. version ruins it for good.
The U.S. adaptation of Taskmaster premieres on April 27 on Comedy Central.