The rise of Taskmaster has been an astonishing thing to witness. From its humble beginnings at the Edinburgh festival, to its television debut on the relatively lowly wilds of Dave, the show has a habit of winning audiences through word of mouth alone.
Since Channel 4 acquired the series two years ago, Taskmaster’s mix of inventive games and comedian contestants who can flick from jolly to competitive in the blink of an eye has seen it edge closer and closer to national treasure status – a fact reflected in its recent British Comedy award win for best comedy entertainment show.
The award, in fact, almost threatens to derail our interview before it even begins. I’m due to talk to the show’s creator, Alex Horne, and its executive producer, Jon Thoday, the morning after their win, but word comes through that I have to call them as late as I possibly can, because they’ve spent the previous night celebrating in the pub.
“It was a very nice night,” recalls Horne hesitantly when we do finally speak. And his head today? “Well, I’m currently in a field with a dog,” he offers unconvincingly.
We have convened to discuss the latest step in Taskmaster’s ongoing global domination. Not content with becoming a genuinely beloved institution that – thanks to All 4’s censored version – the whole family can watch together, Taskmaster has taken the unprecedented step of becoming its own streaming platform.
Taskmaster Supermax+, a worldwide subscription-based streaming service, has just launched. For £5.99 a month, subscribers will get every episode of Taskmaster ever made, ad free. And while that might not sound like that great a deal for British viewers, who can already watch every episode of Taskmaster for free on All 4 (and will continue to get new episodes on Channel 4), for fans worldwide who struggle to see full shows, it might just be a godsend. So how did it come about?
“I don’t think I necessarily know the answer,” struggles Horne. “Except that it’s just something we’ve talked about for a long time as a sort of exciting experiment and no one else seemed to do it.” He pauses, floundering.
“Should I answer the question, Alex?” asks Thoday, calmly.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea, Jon,” agrees Horne.
Thoday explains that, for a long time, Taskmaster has wobbled on the brink of breaking America. “We tried a couple of times to launch the show in the US,” he says. “We tried doing a US version on Comedy Central, and to be frank it didn’t really work. And we’d also licensed the show to one of the networks, but they pulled it after one night.”
Despite all this apparent failure, though, there was one sign that Americans were starting to fall in love with Taskmaster. “I just noticed by looking at our YouTube numbers that more and more Americans were watching the actual classic UK show online,” Thoday says. “So maybe trying to do a new version isn’t the right thing to do.
“We should just try and build the British version up in the US. So we decided to have a go, launch our own SVOD [subscription video on demand], largely to make it available to places in the world where anybody can get it if they want it.”
“That’s a much better answer than mine, Jon,” says Horne. “I learned a lot there.”
The pair claim this is the first time a TV show has effectively taken the step of becoming its own Netflix, which is a huge gamble. Is it likely to work? “We have absolutely no idea,” replies Thoday.
“We don’t really mind, either,” adds Horne. “It’s sort of just an experiment. We’re not taking it off YouTube or anything like that. This will sit alongside it. But I also like the idea that everything is in one place and we can do what we want with it. So we can put episodes up from other countries, and we can do some extra bits just for this. But we do like the idea of having the complete collection in one place, I suppose, because we’ve built up a weird little world.”
It seems like a nice, if somewhat niche, way of keeping control of the show. As Thoday has already explained, the 2018 American remake wasn’t much of a success, despite boasting talents like Reggie Watts, Kate Berlant and Ron Funches, and despite shipping Horne over to replicate his British role. In hindsight, the pair put this misstep down to an overwillingness to make creative compromises.
“First of all, it had nothing to do with the American comedians,” explains Horne. “But, for instance, we were told that we had to make it half the length.” Thoday points out that the other international versions, which have basically mimicked the formula to the letter, have had much more success. In Sweden, Horne giddily reveals, the show has become such a runaway hit that an opposing channel had to relent and move its version of Strictly Come Dancing to another slot.
Among some Taskmaster fans there is a small but important concern. The show depends, more than anything else, on two things. First, this is a series that blasts through 10 high-profile comedians a year, and there have been some jitters about how deep the well is.
Second, almost every task on the show comes from the mind of Alex Horne. So far, he has been breathtakingly inexhaustible in coming up with ideas that walk the line between simple and fantastical, but no man is a machine. What if, one day, this well runs dry too?
The success of the international Taskmasters should go some way to assuaging both these fears. I ask Horne if, thanks to all the remakes, he has effectively been granted a pipeline of new ideas.
“It’s a very funny process,” he replies. “I’ve got a version of me in Sweden called David Sundin, and the version of me in New Zealand is called Paul Williams. We’ve got quite similar brains and we do share ideas. And if they’ve got a task that they’re really excited about, they will tell me first. Not because they have to, but because it’s sort of our hobby. It’s a weird little pool of taskmakers. There are probably only about five of us across the world, but it’s quite a nice resource.”
As for the contestants, there are still plenty of options left. Horne says he’s considering bringing in some comedians from the international versions, which seems sensible given that someone like Berlant has the potential to burn the whole place down. The annual New Year Treat specials have also proved that, if chosen judiciously, non-comedians can make perfectly entertaining contestants. Plus, it seems as if Horne had secretly treated the previous night as something of a reconnaissance mission.
“It was funny looking around the room yesterday at the comedy awards,” he says. “Tom Allen mentioned the fact that, amazingly, he’s not been involved yet. And when Meera Syal got up to present an award, I said, ‘Why have we not asked her?’ So there are many more.”
And then, on top of all this, we have a new British series on the horizon. Starting at some point next month, Taskmaster’s 13 series will bring together Ardal O’Hanlon, Bridget Christie, Chris Ramsay, Judi Love and Sophie Duker. It’s an exciting lineup, and one that Horne thinks is very well balanced.
“They’re all very different, but they feel very different to the previous series as well. As long as they’re coming from slightly different angles. Sometimes it’s nice if two of them are friends, and sometimes it’s nice if they’ve never met before. A lot of the show is done on instinct, the ‘feeling right’, I suppose.”
The world arguably needs some of Taskmaster’s escapist whimsy more than ever right now. As we wrap up, I ask Horne if there are any big standout moments from series 13 that we should be looking out for.
“People get so cross with me when I say things,” he sighs. “Definitely I don’t want to highlight one comedian in particular, but I would say Judi Love. Ed Gamble is the host of our Taskmaster podcast, and he’s watched all the new episodes, and he just texted me the words ‘Judi Love’ and I knew exactly what he meant. So she’s phenomenal. And I think that’s all I need to say. Judi Love will steal quite a few of the episodes.”