The First Ever Taskmaster Was a Very Different Beast

No Greg Davies, 20 contestants, post-midnight… the original Taskmaster didn’t start out as the show it is now.

Taskmaster Greg Davies Alex Horne
Photo: Avalon

As Alex Horne tells it, Taskmaster was born out of professional jealousy. In 2009, he became a parent and so broke with almost a decade of tradition by not taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe. That same year, his friend and former flatmate Tim Key won the festival’s top comedy award, for which Horne had been nominated in 2003.

At home and envious, Horne sent out emails inviting 20 comedians – including Key – to take part in a new competition in which he would set them a different task each month for a year. The results would be shared in a live performance at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe called The Taskmaster.

The result was organised chaos. An overdraft of comedians (a Fringe-specific collective noun) plus a pianist joined Horne on stage to reveal the results, set tie-break tasks, and eventually crown a winner.

“So this is The Taskmaster,” Horne told the crowd, “It’s the climax of a year’s worth of work, it’s 12 months of creativity for one performance, one strange evening, tonight.” With a homemade logo, PowerPoint slides, a live piano soundtrack, and Horne dressed in jeans and trainers instead of his now-customary black suit (he has four identical ones apparently, like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly), The Taskmaster was born.

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That one strange evening became two, when Horne repeated the whole thing for the 2011 Fringe, and then those two strange evenings became 17 TV series-and-counting plus regular specials, a lockdown lifesaver, a Junior spin-off and multiple international remakes.

Taskmaster is now a twice-yearly TV fixture and a rite of passage for its comedian contestants, many of whom describe it as the best gig on TV. At that first Fringe though, it was a different beast…

Far Too Many Contestants

Just after midnight on Friday August 27th at Edinburgh’s Pleasance Dome, £7 bought audience members a 75-minute comedy show featuring, as Alex Horne put it on the night, “far too many people.” The Fringe 2010 programme listed 20 comedians as taking part, 12 of whom were there on the night (there were supposed to have been 13 but Mark Watson was ill).

The full line-up as advertised was: Dan Atkinson, Tom Basden, Jarred Christmas, James Dowdeswell, Rick Edwards, Tim Fitzhigham, Stuart Goldsmith, Steve Hall, Tim Key, Lloyd Langford, Josie Long, Guy Morgan, Al Pitcher, Mark Olver, Mark Watson, Henning Wehn, Joe Wilkinson, Lloyd Woolf, Mike Wozniak and Tom Wrigglesworth. On the night itself, Basden, Edwards, Goldsmith, Morgan, Pitcher, Olver and Woolf weren’t on stage. The second year featured many of the same names plus Bruce Dessau.

A few things stand out about that insanely full first line-up, the first being that at 19:1, the male to female comedian ratio is even worse than it was in the early days of the TV show, which had a serious Smurfette problem for its first few series. The second is that four of those original comedians – Tim Key, Joe Wilkinson, Mark Watson and Mike Wozniak – have since gone on to take part in the TV version.

And the third? No Greg Davies.

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Mike Wozniak is… the Taskmaster?

Unlike the TV version, the goal of the original Fringe shows was not to please ‘The Taskmaster’ but to crown one. At the end of the first live version, Alex Horne declared winner Mike Wozniak (who appeared on series 11 and will be the Taskmaster’s assistant on Junior Taskmaster) as “The Taskmaster 2010”. Alex judged entries and awarded the points without the whole appease-a-comedy-tyrant premise.

By the time the show was remodelled for TV, the character of The Taskmaster had been created, but not for Alex Horne.

As Horne told the Edinburgh International Television Festival in 2016, when Taskmaster was a stage show, he never ever thought that he’d get to host it on TV… and so it proved when the producers got Greg Davies in to do it. “I wasn’t allowed. I wasn’t famous enough,” Horne deadpanned. Davies had a bigger TV profile, with a recurring role in The Inbetweeners and appearances on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, while Horne was best known at the time as a live and radio comedian.

In a recent interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Alex and Greg were asked why, if this is started out as Alex’s show, Greg became the Taskmaster. “Because he’s a fundamentally weak human being,” joked Davies with the straightest of faces. “He’s right,” agreed Alex. “My personality is dreadful.”

The Tasks (Almost Certainly) Wouldn’t Be Allowed Now

There was a looseness to the original live show, in which Alex Horne was essentially setting tasks for his circle of comedy friends without the practical, legal, insurance, and health and safety concerns involved in making a TV show. The very first task he set, as described recently to Seth Meyers on Late Night, is unlikely to pass the current gameshow financial regulations:

“I had a – my wife, really – had a baby 15 years ago and I was at home thinking, what do we do now, we’ve got to pay for this baby? So I decided to set 20 comedians a task every month and the first one was ‘Put some money in my bank account. Most money wins’ and that paid for it.”

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While predicting headlines for The Sun newspaper and sending Horne large items through the post have legal and practicality constraints, health and safety would likely put paid to some of the original tasks. Taskmaster’s production team continually has to dissuade contestants from stunts that could endanger them. “They’re always trying to climb on the roof and they’re not allowed to because of the insurance,” Horne told Den of Geek in 2017. “We have to get crash mats even if somebody’s jumping from one metre.”

“Gain the most weight in a year” isn’t likely to get a repeat on the TV show for obvious health and sensitivity reasons. The 2011 live show’s tie-breaker, in which two comedians competed to see who could fit the most grapes in their mouth would almost certainly be judged a choking hazard now (Josie Long beat Stu Goldsmith to the crown with an impressive 18). The 2010 “Nod-Off” tie-breaker, in which Mike Wozniak and Tim Fitzhigham had to nod as many times as they could in a minute, also looks ripe for injury risk.

But It Was the Same Show at Heart

The stage version was untrammelled and overcrowded, but it established the joyful silliness of the Taskmaster TV show. There may be a more manageable number of comedians competing now, but the improvised interaction between them is still central to the fun of it all.

The absurdity of the original tasks (“Send Alex a picture of yourself with an egg. Fastest wins”) is still very much in evidence on TV, and comedians are still finding ingenious and funny ways to approach tasks their own way (when asked to send Alex something large through the post in 2010, Steve Hall mailed him 10 copies of Eddie Large’s biography over 10 consecutive days, setting a bar for creative interpretations that comedians continue to raise with each series). The gag of setting individual tasks for just one contestant started in those live shows too – in 2011, Bruce Dessau was the only comedian tasked with standing in the sea holding a copy of that day’s newspaper.

The TV show remains a brilliant translation of that initial flash of genius. The addition of Greg Davies’s tyrannical headmaster adds an organising principle that gives the whole thing shape as well as laughs. Corralling the action mostly inside the Taskmaster house and having a skilled team film and edit the tasks has created some of the most surprisingly gorgeous-looking TV in comedy and beyond.

17 series in, Taskmaster may now be slicker, better looking, and less liable to be sued than the show it once was, but its ramshackle chaos and silly fun has gone nowhere.

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Taskmaster series 17 airs on Thursdays on Channel 4.