Taskmaster is funny, silly, ridiculous – and, it turns out, a surprisingly complicated thing to make.
The immensely popular comedy show on Dave is about to begin its sixth series, where Russell Howard, Asim Chaudhry, Alice Levine, Tim Vine and Liza Tarbuck will be competing for that all-important gold bust of Greg Davies’ head.
Sadly these days, it’s off the rental market. “We move in and live here for the period of filming,” says Andy. “After series one I think they had some people come in and stay over the summer, but we de-Taskmaster it when we go away so it is very different.
Taskmaster – Series 6 – Liza Tarbuck (UKTV/Avalon/Andy Devonshire)
“There’s a different theme inspired by a specific artist every series [this year it’s Escher] so there’s obviously things that stay the same but we redecorate within the boundaries of that. When we leave it’s quite minimalist.”
He explains that from the outset, they wanted the house to be a character in the show as well. “I think it’s really important that it’s a characterful house and we were just the luckiest people in the world to stumble across this place because it’s very unusual and very unique.”
2. Are the comedians allowed on the roof?
Strange question – but one that has an answer. And no, they’re not. “Obviously it would be a bit inconvenient if we killed someone when we were making the show, whatever comedic value there is,” says Andy.
“We have a duty of care to them and us and obviously we have to be sensible. Some things that people come up with straight away we aren’t allowed to let them do, but I think we’re just protecting them from themselves!
“Aside from the very specific rules in each task, generally if it’s not excluded by those, it won’t kill anyone and it isn’t illegal, then we sort of try and facilitate people to do as much as their imagination wants.”
3. Are the comedians all at the Taskmaster house at the same time?
For the individual tasks, they’re not. And they’re often not at the house in the same month.“It’s very random, really,” he explains.
Taskmaster – Series 6 – Episode 1 – Tim Vine (UKTV/Avalon/Andy Devonshire)
“Obviously we have to work around their availability and our availability. We’ve had some people do it over the course of a few months. We have a handful of dates for each person and then it depends on their availability and our logistics. Vicky, our production manager, has this weird hotchpotch jigsaw of how people’s availability sits in with each other – and with us.
“Mel Giedroyc actually did hers in pretty much a week but Bob Mortimer did a big batch at the house at November and then we did his exterior location tasks in May or April. Quite a few flowers came out in the meantime.”
4. Where do the comedians go – and what do they do – between tasks?
“The process that they go through is they turn up at the house and they go to the green room,” explains Andy about the small side room in the house that comprises mainly of a table, desk and mirror. “It’s fundamentally rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a jar of sweets, they’ve got a fridge with water and soft drinks in, they have two sofas and sometimes they have make-up.
“We obviously talk to them and bring them cups of tea, but they sit and wait. Then we bring them out, they do a task, they go back in, they do their own thing for a little while. Essentially they are literally in the Taskmaster universe and I think that’s part of the secret to it – they enter into this strange world.”
5. How is Taskmaster cast?
You might think that putting together exactly the right mix of five celebrities and comedians for each series of Taskmaster is a complicated alchemy requiring lots of thought and planning.
Taskmaster Series 6 Episode 1 – (UKTV/Avalon/Andy Devonshire)
“It’s just people throwing ideas and we sort of chuck them on the table and see how it works,” laughs Andy. “Quite a few people have said no and there are a few people who we’ve been trying to get in for a while. But filming the show is quite a commitment and it is quite tricky to get some people because it’s a lump of time at the beginning and then a lump of time in the studio. Although it’s certainly a lot easier now because people can see that we haven’t killed anyone. Yet.”
6. Who tests out the tasks before the comedians are let loose on them?
Often, nobody. Andy explains that “very few” of the challenges are tried out before the celebrities open that wax-sealed envelope.“We always test the studio tasks, but the location tasks are the kind of things you can’t test, really,” he says.
“There’s always a shakedown and a ‘what are we going to get from this?’ because you can come up with tasks and the results can be so immeasurable that as long as it creates situations for the relationship with Greg Davies, Alex and the comedians then the task is worth a go.
“Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But mostly they work.”
7. Who thinks up the tasks?
Although the small team that work behind the scenes on the show (only around 15-20 people in total) come up with “a few”, it’s Alex Horne who thinks up the majority of the weird, wonderful and hilarious tasks.
Greg Davies and Alex Horne on Taskmaster (UKTV/Avalon/Andy Devonshire)UKTV
“Alex is basically a superhero in terms of his humour and wit,” says Andy. “And it’s about trust and it’s about trusting in Alex. As you go on, you sort of think [coming up with tasks] is finite and then something else comes along and there’s a new idea and you can develop it – and hopefully we can keep doing that.”
8. How does a typical filming day go?
“We put together a checklist of tasks we want to do over the course of a day,” says Andy. “We give them a soft entrance into the whole process and we try and give them a variety of creative vs. race challenges across the day.
Taskmaster – Series 6 – Asim Chaudhry (UKTV/Avalon/Andy Devonshire)
“We have our list of how many tasks we need to get through for the time that we have with them and then we hopscotch between indoors and outdoors – it’s a big, logistical thing but we also take into consideration how we want their minds to work so that they’re free enough to do the tasks the best they can, really.
“We wouldn’t put really creative ones first thing in the morning and we wouldn’t put really creative tasks back-to-back. Similarly, we wouldn’t have ones where they have to run around like crazy all day. The whole thing about the show is to give people as good a chance to do as well as possible. We make people look good, that’s our intent.”
9. Has anything ever gone wrong in filming the tasks?
Asked what the most challenging day of filming had been, Andy joked that there were “too many – they’re all scars on my soul!
“Although in series one when Romesh Ranganathan nearly choked on a watermelon,” Andy laughs. “It was our very first day filming and we thought we’d killed him. He wolfed it down with such ferocity that he nearly choked himself. He was throwing up and then eating the watermelon again. That stands out.”