In February during a long phone call with a close friend, she blurted out, moments before we said our goodbyes, “Wait, don’t you watch British stuff? You have to watch Taskmaster.” I brushed it off for a week or so—I was beyond that! I was rewatching The Sopranos!—before diving in. From minute three, I was hooked.
I spent my college years watching British panel shows on YouTube to pass the hours between classes. I was living in an un-air conditioned house without a TV (to prove something … still no idea what) and when the thirst for content grew intense, I would find edited compilations of comedians I’d never heard of telling anecdotes on various quiz and panel shows. They were a perfect mid-afternoon treat: What British panel shows provided was both incredibly mindless and mindful. Unlike the American talk show circuit, there was little to plug. If there were appeals to vanity, I couldn’t spot them. Unlike the game show circuit, there wasn’t a strict adherence to point distribution. Through Never Mind the Buzzcocks (a comedy-music quiz show) I learned about bands I’d never heard of, and through Mock the Week (a comedy-political quiz show) I learned about geopolitics (just kidding—I still know nothing about this). As I aged and TV became more accessible and more quote unquote prestigious, I grew out of panel shows and into the greater Sharp Objects–verse of all media.
Taskmaster comes from the mind of comedian Alex Horne and pits five comedians (actors, writers, panel show regulars, etc.) against each other over a handful of episodes. The tasks are by nature absurdist. A representative sample: painting a rainbow in the dark, building the tallest lemon tower, eating as many peas as possible in a minute, making marmite from scratch, trying to squeeze a stuffed llama through the smallest possible gap, talking to a Swedish person for five minutes.
The points are doled out more or less arbitrarily by the Taskmaster, the perfectly tyrannical Greg Davies. Each episode begins with a prize task—a show and tell session where each contestant brings an unusual item from home, the lot of which the winner gets to take home—and ends with a live task. The middle section shows highlights from pre-taped tasks performed on the Taskmaster grounds. There, Horne hands the contestants wax-sealed envelopes that explain the task at hand, and then moderates the comedians’ attempts, though the point distribution is all Davies, who witnesses the footage along with the audience.
Though no story exists, Taskmaster is not without narrative. This is essentially sports for people who played Assassin on their college campuses. There are arcs: ones of unexpected victories and horrible losses. A handful of jelly is triumphantly tossed into a bucket several meters away. A balloon intended to be blown up and wrapped in gift wrap pops seconds before a timer runs out. Contestants who, in a panic, misread a task and leave it incomplete? No points whatsoever.
Taskmaster indulges in the inane and the useless, the tchotchke and the party trick. It appeals to almost any demographic, as family friendly as something with relentless cussing can be. I write knowing that British TV—especially the panel shows—often feels drenched in vernacular and cultural references unknown to American audiences, but Taskmaster is just about tasks. There are no points for witticisms when contestants struggle to dress up a coconut like a businessman or identify various deep-fried items (not all of them edible). It’s funny, sure, obviously, but not in a snide, deliberate way. It’s funny in the way Wipeout never ceases to draw me in when I catch it on TV. Contestants who try to complete their tasks in a cheeky sort of way often get dinged, whereas the ones who stumble across ingenuity or fail upwards are rewarded for risk-taking or sheer persistence.
For a complete panel show neophyte, perhaps the most approachable season—or dare I say, series—to start with is the fourth one, which features Bake Off hosts Mel Giedroyc and Noel Fielding, as well as Shrill’s Lolly Adefope. From there, the sky’s the limit. Series five gives you lunatics Bob Mortimer and Sally Phillips, Series seven gives you James Acaster (of “started it, had a breakdown, bon appetit” Bake Off fame). There’s a joy, too, in discovering new kooks through the show, witnessing their agonizing but hilarious meltdowns as they sweat, drool, yell, and eventually complete each task.
There is a moment in the most recent season of Taskmaster when Greg Davies zeroes in on contestant Mike Wozniak, one of the show’s enduring sweeties (who was actually a part of the show’s original run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival over a decade ago), about his lack of stress over a pending task that requires them to blow up a balloon, wrap it in gift wrap, then eat three pappadums, all while saying “metronome” aloud with each click of a metronome. “I don’t think there’s anything in life that fazes you,” Davies says.
“I just like to be told what to do,” Wozniak says. “Even if it’s wrapping up a balloon and eating some pappadums, I’m like, for the next five minutes, it’s easy streets. I’m just obedient.”
The flirty lilt in Wozniak’s delivery is undeniably funny, but the sentiment rings true. Even as banal or stupid or humiliating as a task may be, there’s relief in finding a purpose for a brief period of time. An objective and an outcome. It’s an aspect of the show that, even beyond the comedy of it, gets at why I find Taskmaster so compelling and relatable.
My brain was broken before the pandemic, and it’ll be broken after, suffering from all the usual millennial ailments, but most pointedly an addiction to tasks. Little jobs to do. Laziness, though wonderful in theory, doesn’t appeal to me, and in moments of quiet, I have to rearrange something on a countertop or build some IKEA furniture. I have always been this way—I refuse to self-diagnose—but when I see a pithy meme about completing “little tasks,” I feel a warm sense of peace.
This, I think, is contagious in a good way. Work feels useless; it always did but [tweet voice] now more than ever. Writing an email may as well be trying to get only three of several dogs to sit on a mat. It often feels that way! And the more I fell into the world of Taskmaster, the more its world—already reflective of my natural tendencies—began to overlay on mine. I powered through two seasons of it at home with my mother who steadily and lovingly rooted for every older contestant—we spent more of my visit home talking about tasks than we did our respective jobs. And my roommate, once passing through our living room to top up on seltzer, pointed at the TV and said, “That’s not how I’d do that.” Oh, really? You wouldn’t? I wished I could pass him a wax-sealed envelope and let him know his time started now.