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The Brilliant Absurdity of ‘Taskmaster’

British panel shows are something that I love binging on when I should be sleeping. From 8 out of 10 Cats to Would I Lie To You?, these shows are always weird and I can’t get enough of them. But there’s one that works so well that no matter what, I find myself rewatching clips over and over again. That show is Taskmaster. Hosted by Greg Davies and Alex Horne, Taskmaster is the weirdest concept for a panel show, and yet, every episode works. It should be a disaster. Nothing is scripted and if the panellists don’t come to play, things will not work out. But that just isn’t the case, with every season, Taskmaster just gets better and better.

But what is Taskmaster

Debuting as a two-hour comedy show at the 2010’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Taskmaster came from the mind of comedian Alex Horne. Over the course of a year, he sent different tasks to a few comedians he was friends with. He then presented their performances during the stage show and by the end, crowned a winner based on their performances. A year later, at 2011’s festival, he did the same thing once again. Because of the success of the two shows, Horne proceeded to adapt the idea for television. The show debuted on Dave, but after nine seasons and a special Champions of Champions season, Taskmaster moved to Channel 4 where it airs today.

The concept of Taskmaster is pretty simple. Five contestants have to complete a series of absurd tasks in front of the Taskmaster’s assistant (Horne). During the live shows, the Taskmaster (Davies) awards them points based on his preference and how well they complete the tasks. By the end of the series, the person with the most points wins. It’s fairly simple, but because all of the tasks are filmed at the same time, the series can decide which ones to show when and create storylines with them. The perfect example relates to Season 5 contestant Nish Kumar. Throughout the show, Nish often found himself last in tasks, with his efforts often made fun of. But the show was able to give him an arc. He might suck at everything, but he succeeded at one challenge and the show made a big deal of it. So when it came to his moment, it felt earned and his success was a big thing.

Being unscripted, Taskmaster could have been a disaster. And at times it is. But then something brilliant happens and you understand why it works. This show is pure chaos but also somehow controlled. Put seven comedians in a room and chaos will ensue, always. It’s when the tasks go off the rails that the show truly shines. How can we forget Potato Gate, my personal favourite moment in Taskmaster, and the chaos that Joe Wilkinson brought on the show? Personality plays a big part in the series, but it is also about how the comedians respond to the tasks. Some do better than others, some choose the practical route while others just wing it. The winging is when Taskmaster really soars.

Comedy is subjective. What I find funny, the person next to me might not. Some might think a bunch of comedians running around and doing silly tasks is stupid. But that stupidity and absurdity are what makes Taskmaster special. Where else will you see a grown man roll around in the grass in order to not take a step so he can open the door to a microwave? Or how could you enjoy a woman calling her family in order to make the biggest mess possible? The absurdity in itself comes from the tasks and how we interpret them. By making them broad and vague the show opens itself up to so many possibilities. There is no right way to do a task. Everyone approaches them differently and that is where the beauty of the show lies.

The tasks are so arbitrary and vague that at times, they decide to have some fun with them. And by them, I mean the producers, not the guests. Every so often, Taskmaster decides to give a task only to one person, or adds something during a task for only one person. An individual task if you will. No points or rewards are given — it’s just pure insanity and fun for Davies, who always relishes these moments. These tasks exist solely to annoy the guest and create even more chaos because. For months, they can be led to believe that these were real and yet,only to learn that they’re pointless nonsense. But they showcase just how far Taskmaster is willing to go in order to mess with its subjects for our amusement.

Of course, panel shows are nothing without their hosts. Greg Davies as the Taskmaster and Horne as his assistant are fantastic in their roles. Davies is charming and cruel at the same time, but it’s the double act that shines. Davies and Horne’s chemistry is relied on a lot during the live shows, especially when things go wrong. This is where the show understands that it doesn’t need to make sense. If Davies watches something that he doesn’t like, he can decide to simply give the least points to that. It’s so arbitrary that it brings a whole level of craziness to it all. Again, go back and watch the Potato Gate just to understand how cruel this show can be. He never minces his words and often goes back to make fun of the guests’ attempts at solving their tasks. His role is the one that brings everything together because he gets to tell us how we should feel about everyone’s attempt, and we can make our own decision on whether or not he is right. But in the end, his opinion is the only one that matters. Horne, on the other hand, plays his straight man, the one who is supposed to be pragmatic and yet, isn’t. Do guests have questions during the tasks? Well too bad, all the information is on the task. He is also Davies’ favourite punching bag, the one that he loves to see suffer.

There’s something to be said about a show that doesn’t take itself seriously but also does in so many ways. Taskmaster found the niche little corner that works for them and will continue to stay because, quite frankly, it might just be perfect.

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