Alex Horne of ‘Taskmaster’ Is Always Thinking Up Tasks
A chat with the mastermind behind Britain's funniest export
Welcome to Gawker’s How to Be Funny week, a celebration of people and things who are making us laugh and teaching us how to laugh more.
Allow me to introduce you to Taskmaster, a British reality show that has made me laugh harder for the past few years than every single streaming service no-laughs comedy combined (you know the ones I mean). The premise is simple: five comedians are assigned tasks to complete – ranging from the foolishly simplistic (“Destroy this cake. Most beautiful destruction wins. You have five minutes.”) to the bizarrely complex (contestants had to unknowingly buy themselves time before being instructed to hold gallons of milk up in the air as long as possible). There are tasks for a live studio audience as well, that range from prize tasks (the contestants bring in, say, the most “jaw-dropping” object they own) to other live tasks like painting a unicorn with a brush affixed to their forehead.
These tasks are judged by the titular Taskmaster, comedian Greg Davies, whose wanton bullying and harsh rule dictates the law of the land, but the ideas come from the mind of his “assistant” and show creator Alex Horne. Horne, a successful comedian in his own right, is the leader of comedy band The Horne Section, featured in a new series that’s airing currently across the pond, as it were. He sat down with Gawker to discuss task generation and the magic of montage.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you tell me about the way Taskmaster began at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, its lo-fi version, and the technical elements of how you compiled that footage to show on stage.
The Edinburgh Fringe is such a brilliant place to come and muck about for a month with loads of other comedians, and in front of the industry, and newspapers and stuff. So I'd been going for maybe seven or eight years already, so I knew lots of comics. I had this idea of involving 20 comics in a big sort of stupid night. So for a year, I sent them these tasks, one a month. I was just gathering bits of paper or things they sent me. There was the odd video clip. I used to do a lot of comedy with PowerPoint. So it was more PowerPoint than telly. It was me chucking the stuff together in a ramshackle way, in the same way as I used to do my regular Edinburgh shows, and relying on other people, as I still do, to join in and make it funny. This was what a lot of Edinburgh is about: having an idea one year, and saying, right, we'll do that next year. That show was a one off, only a one or two hour show. We really had no ambitions, except for "this could be fun," and “if it's fun, we'll do it again next year,” which we did. It was quite a mammoth operation for an hour, but the point of Edinburgh is to do stupid things.
What do you think makes a good task? How has your understanding of a “good” task or successful task changed over the past decade?
They need to involve things that everyone at home has got. It shouldn't involve special equipment. It's got to be simple, ideally two or three sentences, and it's got to open avenues for variety, as in, there's got to be more than one way of doing the thing. So today I had the idea: there's a big sandcastle outside. The task is: “Get this sandcastle on the table in the lab. You've got five minutes. The castle that looks the most like this castle wins.” So maybe you're packaging it so you don't destroy it, or trying to pick it up. But maybe we’ll have hidden all the trays. Or it's making it solid somehow. But there are clear results. Someone's castle will be completely ruined. Someone will somehow do it. There's lots of different types of tasks, but it's mainly instinct. It shouldn't be too funny when you read; it shouldn't be a joke. But it should allow people to be funny doing it.
I view the show's success across three elements, which is that there's the tasks themselves, then there's the live show components, but then there's a lot that comes through in just the editing and montage work. To what degree are you conscious of both wanting to construct narratives within the edit, but also like not futzing with it too much?
It was always apparent, even at the Edinburgh show, that the funniest things were always the juxtaposition of one person and the next person. It's always funny when someone does it one way and says, "imagine not doing it this way!" then you cut to somebody else, doing it a different way. During the tasks, I'm at the house, and I see someone doing the task, say it's the sandcastle task and someone will come in and do it. And you think, okay, that's fine. But you don't know if it's a good task until then the next person comes and does it. But then actually, you don't know until the fifth person does it, what the narrative is there. It's often the fifth person doing the task who will seal the deal. I give notes, but I'm not the editor, but it gets pretty instinctive to say, "Okay, let's put these two people together. And then let's have this person by themselves. And then these two, and so on." In the first few series, we agonized over that, but now we know what we're doing slightly.
What do you think is so funny about montage as a form?
You can just heighten everything. So if a bit is dull, you can make it really dull. And if it's exciting, you can make it really exciting. It's the juxtaposition of two things, or it's being able to cut quickly from one thing to another. It's a bit of “show, not tell.” We quite often film with someone for an hour, or five people for an hour each, and then condense that to four minutes. So often it's just a really good way of picking the best bits. Simple as that.
Do individual comedian arcs emerge in the filming of the tasks? Can you tell who's kind of nailing it throughout? The scoring feels so subjective, but...
Sometimes we can predict who's going to win. There's a current series airing in England where there's someone who's pretty strong throughout. In terms of narratives, we often notice tics and behavior patterns, but we don't try to egg it on. We just try to notice it, I suppose, to be authentic. The comedians sometimes say to me after day one, "Are you happy with that? Do you always do anything different?" And we always say, "Don't worry about us. Just carry on."
A lot of the laughs on the show come from the earnest attempt to do something in a not-funny way which winds up being far funnier than, you know, messing it up on purpose.
We do tell people not to try to be funny. In the initial series, people's instinct was to tell jokes the whole time. And we said, "Cut that right out. No jokes." People trying to be funny are sometimes the least funny. We've never had a task which is, you know, "do the best comedy sketch" or "do the best bit of stand up," because I think that would be horrible.
I think one of the funniest aspects of the show is your commitment to your character of Alex Horne in the Taskmaster world. And then, it becomes even funnier if and when the audience sees you break, in the background of a task. How often is that happening compared to how often we're seeing it happen as the audience?
I get told that I'm laughing more and more. And I don't know if that's me being less professional, or finding it funnier. At the beginning, I didn't really know what I was doing. You know, Greg [Davies] and I were finding these characters. We didn't have a meeting to say, "you won't laugh." In terms of fully committing to my role, I always know that if someone suggests dressing me up in a funny way and spraying me with water, it's going to benefit me more by being funny than do me harm by being painful. I'm happy to do anything anyone ever says. Because also, I'm in the edit, so I'm not going to put it out if it's horrific. But I always know it's gonna be good for the show. I'm always quite grateful when someone takes me and abuses me. [laughs]
A friend of mine said that you're the only guy who can make abjection sweet and wholesome. [As if on cue: Horne's dog comes to join us in the interview. She is really cute.] On that topic, is there a cruelest task that comes to mind, or one where you've come away feeling bad for having put everyone through it?
In the first series, we did two or three tasks involving the public so it was a bit more like Impractical Jokers. So we did one which was there in a shopping center, and the task was: "High-five a 55 year-old. Fastest wins."
It didn't feel right, because suddenly you've got this level of discomfort, because they thought they were embarrassing other people. So we got rid of that pretty quick. But it's never meant to feel cruel. The rest of the time, we always say to people, "we're not going to put you in embarrassing situations, but you may put yourself in an embarrassing situation." It's up to them how much they want to win it.
What about tasks like in the most recent series, where there were no points given?
That's happened a few times. I think it's the strength of the show that we can embrace that. If a task doesn't work, as long as it's funny, we still put it in, because Greg can always have a go at me, because everyone knows that I've been planning them. The fact that we've got five people, and we split them into teams of three and two means the whole thing is flawed from the start.
I'd like to talk a little bit about The Horne Section, as well. Both the new show and the band. What do you feel like sort of this jump into narrative television allows you to do that the panel and live format doesn't have space for?
We've got so many songs that we love that you can't do live, because to do a song live, it has to be really funny. It's got to really make you laugh. And it's really hard for a song to make you laugh, because you're listening to it. It's very easy to make you clap at the end of a song, but very hard to make you laugh during it. Whereas in a narrative show, you can have a funny song that doesn't make you laugh, but gets you from A to B in the story or it can be illustrated by a video which can make you laugh. The live shows have to be gag, gag, gag.
How much breathing room do you give yourself in writing the scripts to grant room for improvisation?
There's quite a bit of space for improv, although the improv is mainly done in rehearsals. We made sure that every episode when we cut to the rehearsal room, those are completely off-script, but because we did a pilot with none of that, and it was all scripted, we felt like we lost a bit of what we normally do, all that mucking about.
Was there a person or comedian who you found really funny when you were growing up that you tried to emulate?
Mine was a guy named Ardal O'Hanlon, who was in Father Ted. I actually knew him from his stand up rather than Father Ted. He was really whimsical and had a lovely Irish lilting voice. He ended up in Taskmaster in series 13. It's happened a lot in the show that I finally work with my heroes. I sounded like him for the first year, definitely, but I mean, there's plenty of other influences, like Monty Python, the Blues Brothers.
The theme of this package is how to be funny so: how do you be funny?
My first Edinburgh show was a scientific study on what made babies laugh. The key things were mild shock, or surprise, repetition, mild physical peril or somebody else being uncomfortable. I think surprise is the key, saying something unexpected that you hadn't thought of yourself. To be funny, you have to be a step ahead of everyone else. I always think the phrase "sense of humor" is quite good because you've got chefs who have a good sense of smell and taste and artists who have a good sense of what makes something visually appealing. I think comics have a strong sense of humor. We can smell a mile off if something's funny, but also you can really smell if somebody else's sense of humor is bad. We know instantly if someone's funny or not. We know people in our lives who are far funnier than us who aren't comics. You can have a good sense of humor and not be a comic. But comics have to have a really strong sense of who is funny and what is funny.
Is there anything that you felt was funny when you were starting out that now you don't care about as much or isn't as funny to you anymore.
I used to do a lot of one liners, a lot of puns and jokes. I don't anymore, but that's partly because my headspace has taken up with coming up with tasks.