As we’re submerged deeper and deeper into the COVID-induced content vacuum that has all but cleared upcoming fall television slates, there’s never been a better time for Taskmaster, one of Great Britain’s many hidden television gems, to finally make its way to the United States. Although comedy panel shows are practically a nonexistent genre in the US of A, they’re a dime a dozen on British television, but Taskmaster possesses its own unique, undefinable brand of insanity that has kept viewers coming back for nine series, soon to be ten. The show’s popularity in Britain is hardly a fluke. Since it began airing in 2015, it’s spawned international adaptations in Belgium, Sweden, Spain, Denmark, Norway, and Finland. However, no remake could ever hope to compare to the original, which is so successful that Channel 4 committed to six more seasons when it acquired the show from UKTV late last year.
Barring a short-lived American remake hosted by Reggie Watts — more on that below — Taskmaster hasn’t made much of a footprint in the U.S., but that stands to change this Sunday, when the CW begins airing the show in its full British glory. If you’re one of the many hapless Americans who have yet to discover the off-the-wall glory of Taskmaster, here’s the full rundown on what you need to know about the show before series eight and nine begin airing in America.
What is Taskmaster?
Although a Google search will yield mixed results (especially because the show shares its name with a Marvel comic-book villain), Taskmaster relies on a fairly simple premise: Five stand-up comedians use their quick wits to complete “tasks” of varying degrees of ridiculousness in an attempt to please the Taskmaster (comedian Greg Davies) and win a golden bust of his head.
Wait, the Taskmaster is a real person?
Yes and no. Greg Davies, the “Taskmaster,” is a British stand-up comedian and actor, and while he plays the role of the Taskmaster, it’s a mix of his actual personality and a cold, demanding character invented for the show. By his side is the subservient doormat of a man named Alex Horne, who acts as his assistant but is also playing a role — because in reality, Horne is the director and executive producer of the show, as well as its creator.
But it’s a game show, right?
Again, yes and no. It is a game show in the sense that it features a group of contestants competing for a prize, but it isn’t a game show because the contestants are all already famous (in Britain at least — most of them will be less familiar to U.S. audiences, who should consider this an opportunity to expand their comedic horizons), and the prize is a golden bust of the Taskmaster’s head. The driving force behind the show isn’t competition for a cash prize, it’s the effortless and often off-kilter humor that results from the contestants attempting to complete the tasks.
Okay, but what do you mean by “tasks”?
Presented by Alex Horne but ostensibly set up by the Taskmaster, the tasks vary wildly in content, but always require out-of-the-box thinking and a willingness on the part of the contestants to make an utter mockery of themselves. There are a few tasks that are consistent from week to week: the first task of the episode is always a prize task, in which a contestant brings in one of their own possessions, and the winner of the episode gets to take all of the possessions home.
It would be a fool’s errand to try and connect the dots between the rest of the tasks, but the easiest way to explain the chaos is by giving examples. Previous tasks have included everything from orders like “make the best noise” to “impress this mayor” to “get the best gift for the Taskmaster,” the last of which was won by comedian Josh Widdicombe, who tattooed the Taskmaster’s name on his leg permanently — that’s how far contestants are willing to go to win what is essentially bragging rights.
You said there was already an American version, so what’s airing on Sunday?
It’s true, there was at one point an attempt to create an American spinoff of Taskmaster. The show aired on Comedy Central for a single season, which should tell you everything you need to know about how well-received it was. Although Alex Horne stayed on as the Taskmaster’s assistant, this time the Taskmaster was played by Reggie Watts.
Despite Horne and Watts’s best attempts, the new host and cast (which included a random mix of American celebrities, many of whom weren’t even comedians) couldn’t recreate the magic of the original, and the show was axed. What’s airing on the CW is the original show, part of a spate of international productions coming to American networks to help fill out lineups ravaged by the coronavirus’s effects on production.
Why should I watch?
Trying to describe the appeal of Taskmaster is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle — it’s nearly impossible, and it’s the kind of thing that needs to be seen to be believed. There’s no comparable American series — no, not even the short-lived Comedy Central one — and it seems unlikely there ever could be. The only way to truly understand its magic is by checking it out for yourself.