Taskmaster is one of the funniest, most imaginative shows on TV at the moment. It's simultaneously such a simple "why didn't I think of that?" idea, while at the same time being so unique in both tone and inventiveness to be almost impossible to recreate.
Series creator and co-star Alex Horne recently gave a Royal Television Society Futures talk to explain how the series got started and give some behind-the-scenes gossip. Here's what we learned...
1. Taskmaster made its first appearance at Edinburgh
Alex didn't attend the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009 due to the arrival of his son. When his friend Tim Key came home with the coveted Edinburgh Comedy Award, to get his own back Alex set up his own awards. He emailed 20 of his comedian friends and asked them if they'd mind taking part in his competition - 12 tasks over 12 months. Originally, he emailed the tasks over; but when he challenged participants to "find a hedgehog" and got a reply within 8 minutes simply saying "got one", it occurred to him that maybe this was more of a visual idea. As a result, a grand finale stage show was arranged to take place during Edinburgh 2010.
2. It was a surprisingly tough sell for TV
Of course, with the power of hindsight, it seems an obvious hit. But Alex approached many different channels to try and get the show commissioned (he even made a PowerPoint presentation for them. With swooping effects and everything). It took a while until finally UKTV and Dave saw the potential.
One of the difficulties was that you could never pilot the concept. The nature of the show means if you've gone to all the trouble of getting the celebs in a house, you may as well film the whole series.
That said, they did pilot the part filmed in front of a studio audience, and, well, it worked.
3. Alex never wanted to be the Taskmaster
Despite inventing the show, from the get-go Alex had no intention of being the Taskmaster. That would have involved a certain detachment from the process of actually organising the tasks, being there when the contestants complete them and so on, which he wanted to be involved with.
Before Taskmaster, Alex and Greg Davies sort of knew each other from the stand-up circuit, but had never worked together. That meant that they found their chemistry naturally over the life of the show. Alex puts a lot of the success down to the fact that he likes to have material ready, whereas Greg is fantastic off-the-cuff.
4. It was a bit of a fight to get the same contestants for the whole series
Initially UKTV were hesitant to have the same contestants each week for the whole series. After all, panel shows mix it up with each episode, so shouldn't they?
But Alex was adamant. He wanted the show to have a different feel from a panel show. In fact, he described it as being far less of a panel show, and more of a sitcom - you see the same characters over a number of weeks, developing in jokes, callbacks, running gags and so on.
Then, when it was agreed, UKTV wouldn't let them shoot the show in order for Series 1. They were keen to be able to re-edit the show so that they could put the funniest episode first (which of course makes sense from a commissioning angle, but changes the nature of the show completely).
But, as with all such things, when they saw that it worked the way it was, they were happy to let it go.
5. Choosing the cast for each series is the longest part of the process
Getting the first cast was always going to be the toughest. It was an untested show which relied on the comedic talents of the contestants (and for them to put themselves 'out there' a fair bit).
The pieces all fell into place when Alex met Frank Skinner for lunch. When he said 'yes', it became much easier to get more people onboard too. By the time they started filming, everyone was super excited to be involved. After all, there was no prep for them, no need to be topical, and a lot of fun to be had.
Casting is the longest, most challenging part of making the show, and it's pretty much the only part which UKTV has any influence on. Everyone wants to get a good balance of different personalities to make sure there are surprising results, so they all work together to make that happen.
Although it's a little easier finding people now that they have people petitioning to be on the show.
6. There were some changes from what they first planned
The house is an iconic element of the Taskmaster we know and love, so you can't imagine the show without it. But originally Alex intended to go to the guests' houses to record their contributions.
Plus they had planned that, after each task, they were going to show Alex completing it the "right" way. But the more they thought about it, the less sense this made as it supposed there was a right way... which isn't what they wanted at all.
In fact, Alex believes the best tasks are the ones where you're sat at home thinking, "here's how I'd do it..." rather than them having a solution. And that means they need minimal special equipment.
(Oh, and he loves it when people send him their own videos of them trying the tasks for themselves. Just in case you were considering it...)
7. All tasks come from Alex (well, mostly)
Like a lot of writers, Alex has his best ideas when he goes for long walks (although that didn't stop him from using "the creative process" as a valid excuse to hire a hot tub for a week recently).
He described coming up with a task as being "a bit like writing a joke, only you write the set-up and get five better comedians to write their punchlines."
They haven't shown every task ever filmed, but only a few have been kept back. They'd probably hold back a task if four comedians did the same thing, but that's not happened so far...
8. Favourite tasks
A task Alex has a soft spot for (and which he uses as shorthand to describe the show now) is "paint a horse while riding a horse". But that's not his favourite.
He is normally keen to give all the challenges a go himself, but his favourite one he has no such desire. Which was it? Well, at an event, he once met his local mayor, so he challenged the contestants to "impress the mayor".
Simple enough. But he said the excitement of seeing Joe Wilkinson just sprint out of the building, having no idea where he was going, what he was planning, and seeing him come back with 42 Calypos and 8 cans of strong lager was just perfect.
9. Least favourite task
The task that he likes least looking back was "high-five a 55 year-old". It was in series 1, and they hadn't yet worked out exactly what the show was or how it worked. Because this task involved members of the public it felt more hidden-camera show than what they were hoping and just a bit, well, "awkward".
So don't expect to see the celebs in a shopping centre near you any time soon.
10. The task that doesn't work
There's one task they tried in Series 1, 2 and 3, but it's never made it to air. The task? "Burst an entire roll of bubble wrap".
Well, that's what they thought. Back when they thought Alex would show the best way to do the tasks, they had images of him on a steamroller. Job done.
But, well, bubble wrap is surprisingly good at protecting stuff, and doesn't like to pop. And watching someone sit and individually burst several metres of bubble wrap does not make for good television.
Still, that's not as bad as one task they had on the Swedish version of the show: "Make a train hoot its horn". The contestants (plural) ended up standing on the tracks in front of moving trains until they pulled the horn. Don't be expecting that one on our screens any time soon...
Want to make a show of your own? Here are some bonus tips on how to do it that were shared at the RTS Futures event by the Taskmaster team:
- One idea you're passionate about is better than 10 ideas you can take or leave
- If your opening is "We'll have Greg Davies as the host, plus Jimmy Carr will be in it" - great, but do you actually know these people? If not, best leave them out and rely on the strength of your concept, rather than the big names you can only dream of.
- Don't worry about someone stealing your idea, there's a solid paper trail of everyone who sees it. There has to be or no one would ever send anything (and they really want people to send ideas in).
- And you'd better believe that commissioners are desperate for the next big idea, wherever it comes from. In fact, The Weakest Link was an idea that some random person sent in, and that seemed to go pretty well.
Taskmaster Masterclass: Get your idea on TV was an RTS Futures event. For more information on RTS Futures and their upcoming activities visit rts.org.uk
Published: Sunday 10th December 2017