Why did you sign up to Taskmaster?
I’ve loved this show for ages. I’m a 53-year-old man and this is my job. It seems a bit weird to think I am making my living trying to pour water into a massive barrel but it’s great.
You’re known for your stand-up and podcasts but you don’t do that many panels shows on TV. Is that a deliberate decision?
I am a little bit selective about it. There’s so much competition to get on those shows so I’m sort of glad not to be asked too much. Ten years ago I did a bunch. If you’re not earning money in other ways it’s a nice way to keep your profile up a bit and top up the funds.
Since I moved online I built up my own audience there so you think, ‘I can do better on my own’ and you get more engaged people seeing it. My main podcast is getting those sorts of figures where it’s almost more high-profile than some of the TV you get.
But Taskmaster is special. There aren’t many opportunities to be a comedian on TV anymore, it’s a lot of panel shows. You don’t get much stand-up. This is somewhere nice in between: it’s a game show but it gives you a real chance to express yourself and show who you are, and find out who you are. You have no idea how you’re going to be in the tasks until you do them.
What did you learn about yourself?
I don’t like watching myself anyway, I find myself quite annoying to watch and I know other people do too!
I thought I would be a lot more wacky and inventive but I was sort of straight down the line, taking everything quite literally and trying to do it well. In the heat of the moment it’s very difficult. You’re trying to think, ‘How can I do this quickly?’ but you have to check every bit of the instructions to make sure the answer is not on the back.
When you watch it back you think you’ve done really well but it turns out you haven’t and so it’s quite brutal.
They’re very rude, both of them, but I find it incredibly funny. Greg takes no prisoners and he’s horrible to you but somehow it is usually quite charming. I’m surprised how smiley and creeping to Alex I am. Greg kept calling me a little schoolboy trying to please his dad.
Did you find they picked out bits of your personality that you weren’t even aware of?
Yes, they’re brilliant at it and they will find the most embarrassing thing. There’s a bit where my trousers are coming down and I didn’t really notice.
They’re very unpleasant about me but somehow - I can’t remember laughing that hysterically for a long time. I had tears in my eyes. I’m sure it has something to do with coming at the end of this period of being stuck indoors and then doing this wonderful, sociable thing. It was so cathartic. All of us really laughed our heads off. Laughter is this amazing and healing thing. Even though I was the butt of most of the jokes, I loved it.
You mentioned you have always loved this show. The life-long fans usually have a strategy but they find making the show is not what they expected. Was that your experience?
Yes, I guess. Sitting at home I imagined I would be ready for all of the surprises and they wouldn’t be able to trick me but they are so secretive so you really have no idea. There’s no second take, and the pressure of thinking, ‘I have to be funny and inventive and I have to win - it’s very easy to clam up. Sometimes you have an idea and you don’t shake it off for about five minutes and even though it’s wrong, you’ve committed so strongly to it that you have to see it through even when it’s not working.
You can’t prepare. There are some tasks that are just so humiliating, you feel so stupid afterwards. You film them all in a few days so by the end of the day you’re exhausted, and you can’t see what is likely right in front of your face. But of course they are the best ones to watch.
There was one that involved moving something across a distance and everyone failed but we all failed in an individually hilarious way. You have to forget your ego and just go with it. When you’re watching at home when someone does something stupid, you can laugh at them, but when it’s yourself you feel like you’re watching someone else.
Without an audience to sway him, were Greg’s decisions more arbitrary than ever?
A little. Everyone tried to influence him a bit themselves. He was a bit harder than usual on rule breaking.
I played it very honestly, I think. There was some subterfuge and elastication of what the task was. That’s a risk because you might get nothing but there is a good chance you could also get five. As it moved on we all got a little cheekier about trying to scupper the others.
What tasks did you do well at?
I thought I’d be bad at the tasks where you had to construct something and also at anything involving art but I’ve accidentally done well at those.
There was one in the studio where we had to say three and four letter words. I’m all about words but I couldn’t think of a sixth one and that really annoyed me: I screwed up on something that was absolutely my wheelhouse.
There again, I beat Johnny Vegas at an art thing which was insane, so it’s those kinds of surprises.
We did one where we had to throw something through a Christmas tree machine and technically I was the best one, but a few people did something a bit weird. I did argue about it but I was being the good boy in terms of obeying the rules and trying to do it properly, and there were others who are cleverer at spotting the sneaky way around.
Are you very competitive?
I guess I really threw myself into it. I was squeezing out my socks in the hope of getting even more water out. So I am very competitive, which I knew.
You want to win but you are aware that some of it is so arbitrary that it’s ridiculous to get upset. There was a moment when Daisy got five and I got zero when mine was better, so I was cross until I realised how arbitrary it is. I tried very hard. I hate it on game shows when people say they don’t care. It’s important to take it seriously.
Have you known Greg for a long time?
Yes, on the stand-up circuit. We’ve had drinks in Edinburgh and he’s been on my podcast twice. We’re nearly the same age and we’re both very silly men obsessed with childish nonsense. He’s one of my absolute favourite stand ups: he’s someone who has reams of stories and inventiveness. Greg’s a man who has so much stuff happen to him.
It feels to me like nothing Greg and Alex do is prepared, which for TV is not always the case. Bob Mortimer is the only other person who comes close in terms of being naturally funny and you can throw anything at them.
It’s always a delight to work with Greg and he knows me better than any one of the contestants, which is probably why he feels so comfortable laying into me. You can’t quite tell if he’s genuine or not, which is another way they play with your mind.
How would you describe Alex’s relationship with Greg?
I’m honestly not sure where the truth and the fiction lie. Alex is the brains behind the whole idea, having created it all. In reality he is the Taskmaster. Alex said he’s only been out socially three times with Greg throughout the entire run of these 10 series and I don’t know if that’s a joke. You sort of don’t want to know the truth.
Greg’s not the most patient man and obviously Alex’s role is to wind him up, but I think they love bouncing off each other. It’s a clever double act.
I’ve been on things where people are cruel and it will go too far and it makes you feel a bit sad, but that doesn’t happen here. There’s something very charming about these bright, funny men.
What did you think of your fellow contestants?
All of the people in this are great, they’re really nice people. They must make an effort to not put an asshole in the mix. Unless I am the asshole…
It stayed very amicable but every now and then someone got upset about coming last or messing up their go. There are no massive stand-outs who are better than anyone else. We’re all pretty inept, actually.
Daisy’s incredible and very good at this. She’s an affable personality, but equally she’d do something terrible and Greg would then lambast her.
I really like Mawaan and the way his brain works is so interesting: sometimes it’s genius and sometimes it’s the actual worst which is interesting.
That’s what’s interesting about this five; there isn’t one person who is consistently messing up. All of us have monumentally failed which will make a more interesting arc.
With the move to Channel 4, there will be brand new people coming to Taskmaster for the first time. How would you sum it up and why should people watch it?
I don’t think you need to have seen any of it before. The beauty of it is you jump in and you understand it straight away, and it’s magically funny.
I think just to see people very keenly trying to do something and being humiliated is an enjoyable thing. It doesn’t even matter if you know who the people are. The invention of it and the pleasure of it not being you when it goes wrong… as long as you don’t take part you can have a sense of superiority over other idiots doing it. Alex is genius at coming up with ways for people to prove their ineptitude.