Were a fan of Taskmaster?
I saw clips of it on YouTube and I thought it was funny but I didn’t understand how the show works. It’s an incredible personality test and you get to know these people in a way that you don’t on your average panel show and that’s what intrigued me. It also taught me a lot about Jo Brand. There is Jo Brand and then there is Jo Brand on Taskmaster. It’s worth looking up if you haven’t seen it.
Did you go in with any kind of strategy?
Maybe not a conscious one but there was a voice in my brain for every task I did that was my PE teacher from back in the day saying ‘Someone else is doing this task and they’re doing it a lot better than you, mate, because you’ve missed the point.’ So I’d try to be really clever with these tasks and I knew there would be a clever way out. I’d try to work around the task and sometimes that worked in my favour but other times it brought me to the realisation that I think I am a genius but I am not. The time pressure brings out parts of your personality you don’t want people to see.
Tell me about moments you let yourself down.
There was this one task that has been haunting me and it has been hard to sleep at night: I tried to make an egg fly by pumping helium into it. As I was doing it a tiny fraction of me went ‘I don’t think that is going to work.’
I genuinely don’t know what happened, I guess I was under pressure and excited and I got this helium can and pumped this egg and Greg has never let me forget that.
I take it the egg didn’t fly?
The egg didn’t fly. It burst, the yolk came out and it really did not work. Once you crack an egg there is no way to not let all of the helium out.
I would assume, given your day job, that you would be good at the creative tasks?
The problem is when you’ve made an identity out of something, there’s more pressure for you to be artistically great. So actually that has let me down because I go into a task thinking ‘I am going to nail this’ then I don’t.
Can you give us an example?
There was one task where we had to make a Greg portrait out of balloons: Art Attack was my favourite show growing up so I was sure I had that one in the bag. I got an A* in art GCSE two years before I was even meant to take it!
Some people let their GCSE results go but I hold on to those results every day of my life. Anyway, what happened was… sometimes with art the more you do, the less good it is. With 30 seconds to go I scrapped it and ended up doing something very mediocre.
How seriously did you take the competition? Were you genuinely heartbroken in those moments?
Yeah, I just heard my mum’s voice. She always used to say ‘be outrageous, be amazing, don’t ever be boring: that’s the worst thing you could be.’ Maybe that’s not the best way to set your child up for a balanced and stable life.
It always strikes me that doing this show is a bit like having therapy in terms of how much you learn about yourself.
Yes, but you don’t realise until you watch it back in the studio! Greg could definitely be a therapist. He’d be a very aggressive one but he finds that thing in your personality and then points it out and puts it on a large canvas for everyone to see and everyone goes ‘Yeah, you are like that!’. It’s quite something.
Did you have a strategy for dealing with Greg?
One of our tasks was buying something with £20 and I spent it on doing a course on how to deal with aggressive people at work. So that was good because I set some boundaries between me and Greg.
Did it work?
No. The main thing that happened was that I made loads of notes. Every time he did something aggressive I would refer to my notes but by the time I read them he was already being more aggressive.
Tell me about his relationship with Alex: how do you describe the dynamic between those two?
Unhealthy. Sometimes I feel like we are observing couple’s therapy without the therapist. In a weird way it kind of works, it’s like a car with uneven wheels and one of them is a pentagon shape but somehow it works and they drive the show.
How useful or not did you find Alex during the tasks?
I found him quite frustrating because sometimes he would be helpful and then other times you would ask a question and he would just reply with ‘okay.’ So I learned to lower my expectations with him early on.
In a way it was empowering because I knew at the end of the day I couldn’t rely on him for emotional support so I had to look inwards and I had to find my own radar for whether I was going in the right direction. Every now and again he would help you in his weird stone-cold way.
You’re allowed to ask for anything you like, within reason, to help with the tasks. Did you do anything huge?
My biggest regret is that I didn’t ask for outrageous things. In hindsight I should have got something flown in from Spain. I reckon there is something about being British that we are like ‘Oh, we’ll just get on with what we have. What’s that? A caravan and some chalk? Sure, we’ll make it work!’ But if I could do it all again I would be outrageous, I’d double the budget.
Did you know any of your fellow contestants beforehand?
No. The first time I met Katherine and Johnny we stepped onto the podium to do a task. So, there was a lot to work out: group dynamics, how to work as a team, how to win the task...
How competitive did it become between you all?
When we did the group tasks no one was being too competitive, it was all very polite. But when you’re in the studio and Greg is firing shots at your personality and character, it’s very interesting to see who gets fired up. Katherine kept saying to me ‘Of course, I don’t care about points’ and then you’d see her on the edge of her seat, itching to win.
I didn’t think I would care about points but then I did really want to win. It’s a source of validation. ‘Look dad, I hope you’re proud now’ - that’s what all comedians have based their lives on.
Usually on these shows the points system is so silly that no one cares but with this one, because it’s like a personality test, you do end up getting emotionally invested.
I didn’t necessarily want to win the prizes people brought in, though. In fact, if anything there were episodes where I actively didn’t want to win because I was not looking forward to winning someone’s orthodontic braces from when they were 15. Basically, the prizes were a great motivation not to win but the validation outweighed that.
Was there nothing worth winning?
Johnny had one thing I really wanted to win: a one-arm bandit. Johnny was giving it out because he owns it and is actually passionate about it whereas I wanted to win it because I’m a stupid hipster.
There was one controversial moment I want to talk to you about: Spaghettigate.
I can’t talk about that.
Tell me about the other contestants.
I’m a big fan of Daisy May Cooper. Her anger came out. As much as I love her it was so funny to watch, so satisfying. You know, some people when they rant, it’s like ‘Wow, you are born to be mad at someone’. I think she’s in her element when she is fired up. She got really angry at Richard during one of the tasks and I felt like the cool kid watching from the side lines who was going, ‘Ohhh are you gonna take that?’. It was total cowardice from me, but it was so joyous I couldn’t help it.
Taskmaster is going out to a whole new audience this series. Can you sell it to anyone who has never seen it?
Taskmaster is the only place where you see comedians reveal part of their personality that we could otherwise hide behind our jokes. I might be branded as a sneaky pasta thief after this. My PR team is going to have to work heavily day and night to undo the damage.
But there’s also a bonding that goes on. There are some genuinely vulnerable moments in this show and they’re never forced, they just come up sometimes and that is very beautiful. Plus, I have seen a side to Johnny Vegas that maybe I didn’t want to see but maybe I will cherish forever.
What’s next for you?
I just had a Sky show coming out called Two Weeks to Live with Maisie Williams which I think is still available. Other than that, watch this space because I have really got into gardening.