Over the last 10 seasons, Taskmaster has become one of the weirdest, most wonderfully strange institutions in the world of British TV panel shows. The show’s premise is deceptively simple: Brit comedians subject themselves to several months’ worth of bizarre lateral thinking assignments—ranging from “Hide and seek for as long as you can” to “Draw a picture by walking with a GPS tracker that’s illustrating your every move”—and then are forced to defend their (sometimes ridiculous, sometimes ridiculously clever) solutions to host Greg Davies in front of a live audience. Now the show is being imported to the U.S. (via The CW) with its eighth season, featuring comedians Iain Stirling, Sian Gibson, Lou Sanders, Paul Sinha, and Joe Thomas, debuting on Sunday, August 2.
But while Davies is the titular Taskmaster—passing out sarcastic judgments to his hapless subjects—it’s “sidekick” Alex Horne who’s the show’s true mastermind. The series’ creator, Horne is also the one who designs and oversees the tasks themselves, running comedians through a gauntlet of increasingly absurd assignments for his, Davies’, and the audience’s amusement. We talked to Horne about the show’s (second) U.S. debut, the “HomeTaskings” assignments he gave viewers to help them kill time during the lockdowns this summer, and our very own Taskmaster-approved task for our readers to fulfill. (Warning: You’re going to need a lot of eggs.)
The A.V. Club: Let’s start with the big, dumb, philosophical question: If you were going to describe, in one sentence, what Taskmaster is about, what would it be?
Alex Horne: Yeah… It’s the sort of question you should have an answer to! I think, what it is, in one sentence: It’s allowing grownups to do the things they did when they were kids again. And luckily, those grown-ups are comedians, so it’ll be entertaining for the audience.
I really do feel that. When they can make a mess, or tear down a wall, or throw an egg, it’s all those things that you don’t do when you’re a grown-up.
AVC: How does that philosophy influence the ways you design the tasks?
AH: At first, it was just instinct. I would write the thing, and then think, “Oh, I’d like to see a comedian doing that.” And then you realize, more and more, that you need people to be able to approach it in different ways. So it needs to be quite open-ended. We don’t produce it at all. When they open the task, they just do it. We don’t tell them to do anything at all. So it needs to provide enough variety to make it interesting.
But also, if I’m honest, it’s still based mainly on instinct, in that I will know if I’ve had an idea that will work straight away. Like, one of them, very early, was just “Eat an egg, fastest wins.” And I knew that the comedians won’t do the same thing. Some will crack it open, some will cook it, some will refuse. I think you’ve got to trust that the five different comedians have such different brains. And we’re all so different. That was a very long-winded, not-very-good answer. But there’s no scientific formula.
AVC: Do you have rules that you’ve figured out about what definitely won’t work?
AH: Nope. There’s a sort of unwritten rule that the more elaborate the task is, the less likely it is to work. If we spend a lot of money on a big prop, it almost certainly won’t make it. But there are definitely exceptions to that.
AVC: You’ve talked in other interviews about a bubble wrap task that you’ve filmed several times but never included. What percentage of tasks don’t make it on the show?
AH: About two. We’re pretty good—without sounding boastful—we’re on our 10th series here now, so we pretty much know what will work. And if a task doesn’t work, we can see why, and then do it in the next series in a different way. We don’t test it on people any more. The first series, we had a comedian, and we tested them on him. But we realized it was pointless, because we don’t know what people are going to do. Because if two people do it badly, and three people do it the same, that’s still interesting. So, most things make it.
AVC: Do you have an example of a task you fixed or refined like that?
AH: A good example would be, there was a task we did in a very early series, it was a very simple task, which was, “Don’t blink. First person to blink loses.” And we did it as a throwaway thing. We do tiebreakers, in case there’s a draw, we film some very quick ones. So, it was just looking at a camera and not blinking. But we realized that, actually, if you let it go a bit longer, people will go to more extreme lengths to not blink. So when we did it first, it was quite funny, but not funny enough. But when we did it the next time, people were gaffer taping their eyes open, and just being far more ridiculous. So it was definitely a progression, I suppose, from saying “You’ve got 20 seconds” to “Do whatever you want.”
That was actually a good example, in terms of kids’ logic. I told my kids about that task, and my middle son, straight away, said he would just shut his eyes, and then you couldn’t blink. But none of the grown-ups thought of that.
AVC: One of the appeals of the show is sitting at home and thinking, “Oh, I know how I’d do that.” Do you have a favorite of the HomeTaskings you assigned to viewers over the summer?
AH: It’s interesting, because I’ve always wanted to do a public version of the show with normal people, because I think normal people are often far funnier than comedians, because they’re not trying to be funny. So it was a really nice side effect of this whole situation to be able to let people join in. I suppose anything where they turned their house upside down—because I felt like I was throwing a hand grenade in. There were things like “Convert your bathroom into somewhere you would want to go for an evening out.” And the things people did were so extreme. That’s what I really love, thinking that they’ve done all this effort just so people could see it on the internet. And they they’d have to be either clear it up, or live with it for a couple of months.
AVC: At what point did you know the show was coming to The CW?
AH: During lockdown! It was very strange. You know, I’m not involved in any of these negotiations or chats. But it felt to me like, there was interest, and then lockdown happened, so maybe people weren’t making as many shows. But also, we did this HomeTasking thing, and it really took off in America. We get the stats for people submitting things, and watching on YouTube, and we couldn’t understand why all these people from North America were watching it, and Australia as well. So I think that really helped convince the channel that it might work in America.
AVC: This isn’t the first time the show has come to the U.S. What did you take away from doing the Comedy Central season of Taskmaster?
AH: It was very interesting. We learned a lot, and I have to say, I had a brilliant time. Comedy Central was great, the comedians were really good, and they understood the concept straight away. There was no cultural difference. And Reggie [Watts, who hosted] is a hero of mine, and working with him was brilliant.
I would say, in hindsight, that I probably wish that we hadn’t changed the show so much. We shrunk it down to fit into the half-hour format. And they showed two episodes a night, so it was over in a blink of the eye. It was on for four weeks, and that was that. Whereas here, with 10 episodes, you’ve got longer to get to know everyone… So, yeah: In retrospect, I would have stuck to my guns more, and said, “It’s got to be twice as long.”
AVC: What’s the most surprising thing that’s ever happened while filming an episode?
AH: In season one, there’s a guy called Frank Skinner, who’s a huge name here. When he agreed to do the show, that was when I thought the program had a chance of making it. And one of the first tasks was, they opened up the garage, and there’s this big boulder in it, and it was “Get this boulder as far away from the house as possible in one hour.” And with the show, it’s all real. So he took it out and got it to a train station, and we got on a train. But because it was real, we weren’t allowed to film on a train. So it was just me, and Frank, and a huge boulder, on a train. And people were asking what was going on. And no one was filming it.
So it felt really fun, and really stupid. Because if we’d organized it properly, we would have paused and got permission. But I think it’s more funny like this. And I really remember going home on the train that day and thinking, “This was a really special thing.” The authenticity of it is what I really enjoy.
AVC: Along those same lines, do you have a favorite solution you’ve ever seen someone come up with?
AH: There’s one quite early—it was sort of a puzzle, where [TV presenter Richard Osman] solved it in a way that I hadn’t seen coming. They were at the bottom of a hill, with three big exercise balls. And at the top of the hill, there was a yoga mat. And it was “Get these three balls onto the yoga mat as quick as possible.” And you can’t carry all three, and the hill is on a slope, so if you leave them there, they might roll down. But the last contestant ran up the hill, brought the yoga mat down, and put the balls on it on the bottom of the hill. And it maybe seems obvious now, but I hadn’t seen that coming. And he’s doing it, and I’m thinking, “Is that allowed? Yeah, he’s done it!” So that was a really perfect moment. Because all the other contestants were furious that they hadn’t thought of it.
AVC: Do you have a go-to segment you use to show people what Taskmaster is?
AH: That one would be up there. The one people often mention here, because it was in the first episode, was “Paint a picture of a horse while riding a horse.” But I don’t actually like that one. Because they couldn’t pick the horse. They were just doing what we told them. The one where they had to write and sing a song about a stranger in 20 minutes, I really like that one. Because they walk into the room, and there’s a stranger there. So there’s a lot going on to try to meet that person, and get stuff out of them, and then they’ve got to come up with a full song. So you start with nothing, and you end up with a performance piece that would normally take you weeks. And I think they’re really funny.
AVC: The show has a lot of team tasks, and back-and-forth between the contestants. How involved are you in the casting of a season?
AH: It’s a funny process, the casting. The main rule is that they’ve all got to be nice. And they’ve all got to be able to let go of their egos. One bad apple could ruin it. All the contestants we’ve had have been nice, and they’re all really funny.
But we try not to make it formulaic. So we don’t think, “We’ve got one weirdo, one old person, one young buck.” But we do start with one booking, one person we really want. And then we build it around them. So we build it, bit-by-bit, and the channel’ll want certain things, and we’ll want certain things, but we can say no to anyone, and they can say no to anyone. So it’s pretty democratic.
It’s quite unscientific. We know all the comedians very well. It’s a very small community here, of comedians. We’ve all worked together from when we were starting out. It’s like school, really. Luckily, the more we’ve done it, the more we’ve had people asking to do it. Which is so much easier. Trying to convince the first people that this was a good idea was hard.
AVC: Is the prize task, where comedians are asked to bring in items to serve as that week’s prize, real? Do they take those items home?
AH: First of all: Yes. Legally, in the U.K., if it’s a game show, the winner owns those things. And we’re all mostly friends, or we know each other. So someone’s got something on their wall, and they’ve got a story of why they’ve got Romesh Ranganathan’s wedding ring framed on their wall.
We’re also nice, so if someone says, “Actually, I need that back”—it’s up to them if they give it back. But the show wouldn’t work if the audience didn’t believe it, to some level. And often, they don’t want the thing. Romesh gave away his car. And Josh Widdicombe won it, and he didn’t want it. It’s an awful car.
AVC: Let’s put you on the spot. Can you come up with an at-home task for our readers?
AH: Of course! I get asked, on a sort of daily basis, “It’s my wife’s 30th birthday, can you set her a task?”
I would do two. One quick, one long. I quite like the ones where you have to plan it, and you have to film yourself. So I’d like your readers to perform the best street dance routine to some classical music, please. Because I like it when people have to put themselves out of their comfort zone.
But also: Putting the most eggs in a balloon.
AH: We’ve never done that one. And the other night, I did something over Zoom, and it was “Put one egg in a balloon, fastest wins.” But that won’t work if you’ve got lots of readers. So it’s got to be “Who can put the most in?” I don’t think I mind if they break or not. But just the most eggs in one balloon.
Fifty, I reckon? You could get a lot, I think.
AVC: Do all the pieces of the shell have to be in the balloon?
AH: Yeah. All the egg has got to be in the balloon. But it’s up to you how you do that.
You can get some pretty big balloons nowadays, and some small eggs. So that’s it, if you don’t want to dance.