In Taskmaster, which premieres Friday, April 27th at 11 pm ET/PT on Comedy Central, British actor Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel, The Good Doctor) inadvertently provides us with a perfect metaphor for American television’s latest attempt to adapt a U.K comedy game show. Tasked with getting a basketball through a basketball hoop without using his hands, Highmore turns to the crew and says, “Maybe I can use it as a football?” After accommodating his soccer skills to the ball’s weight and bounce, he promptly launches it square on the backboard in his first attempt.
Despite the gasps of host Reggie Watts, co-host and creator Alex Horne, Highmore’s fellow contestants (Dillon Francis, Lisa Lampanelli, Kate Berlant, and Ron Funches), and the audience, the basketball doesn’t go through the net. Yet that’s not where the “perfect metaphor” ends, for after a dozen more attempts, Highmore leaps into the swimming pool separating him from the goal, tips it over until the hoop and net are perpendicular to the ground, and gently kicks the ball in. He doesn’t win the round, as he used his hands to overturn the goal, but Highmore’s defiance proves my point — not everything works out as planned.
Aside from a few recent examples (like Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?), British game and comedy panel shows don’t always work in the United States. In fact, those that have are now nowhere near as successful as they were during the early 2000s. While the variety and talk show formats have all but taken over American television’s attention at the moment (see: Michelle Wolf and Hasan Minhaj joining the ranks of former The Daily Show correspondents getting their own series), however, it seems Comedy Central is going to try out another British import on its viewers.
Taskmaster is unlike anything American audiences have seen in recent memory. Across 10 episodes, host Watts and co-host Horne will require contestants Highmore, Francis, Lampanelli, Berlant, and Funches to do a wide variety of increasingly strange things for their and the viewers’ enjoyment. (They’re also competing for points and a trophy bust of Watts’ head. I’m not kidding.) With its odd mix of Whose Line‘s comedic setups and The Bachelorette rose ceremony-like gatherings, Taskmaster may prove clever enough to lower the goal post and kick the ball in.
Reggie, had you seen or heard of the original U.K. Taskmaster before getting involved?
Reggie Watts: No, not really. I knew Alex. I’d met Alex before and we were already friends. I definitely dug what he was doing. And from seeing him do his live shows and just interactive Horne based stuff. When I heard there was a project with him, I just thought whatever it is, I’m down to do it. That’s how it started.
How did you guys first meet?
Watts: We were both in the Melbourne Comedy Festival. From that festival on we kind of became friends. I was a guest on his festival show. I guess the show that he was doing while I was there was kind of a variety show. We kind of just hit it off. He’s just a really brilliant guy. That would have been maybe three years before Taskmaster. Maybe more.
Alex Horne: I think we met at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. I do a show with a band called “The Horne Section,” which is sort of a mix of jazz and comedy. I’ve got a jazz band and comedians come on and muck about with them. Reggie was probably the most perfect person we ever had. The idea is people improvise and muck around. He’s got the best improvisational skills and the best music skills. We just hit it off. We did another thing in Dublin a few years later. That was it really.
This was before or after you’d started doing the live Taskmaster show at Edinburgh?
Horne: I met with all of them before any of that I think. I’ve been doing Taskmaster… actually I did the road show about eight years ago. I think, or maybe it was about the same time as Reggie, but definitely before it was on TV. I don’t think I ever would have thought that I’d be working with him on it. On Comedy Central. It’s been a nice surprise.
How did that come about, you two connecting to work on an American adaptation?
Horne: In England, they’re very protective of letting people see the show overseas for some reason. I know Reggie hadn’t seen any of it. I think we sent him a tape and later we had a phone call. He said, “Is this how it looks?” As in, “Is there really no script and the people just do what they feel like?” I think that’s what won him over. I was just pleased after he said yes because he’s such a good boss.
Watts: I dug it immediately. They sent me clips of what it was what I’d be doing. I just liked it. It’s really smart. It’s a really smart idea and just absurd, silly fun. But it’s also easy, which made it even more fun. It was great. I just liked it right away.
Alex, did Comedy Central come to you, or did you go to them?
Horne: Three of us went over from England to pitch it. We brought with us M&M’s candies and boxing gloves. We met a few people at Comedy Central and demonstrated some of the tasks for the room. They had to wear boxing gloves and remove a blue M&M from a bowl completely filled with M&M’s. I think it was a good way of demonstrating what the idea for the show was. Then we showed them a tape. Comedy Central was very enthusiastic straight away, which was great. It all came together fairly quickly. They were very encouraging, and they never asked us to change anything significant. It felt too good to stay true to the original concept, and it may well be too good to be true, but we’ll find out shortly.
Right, because panel and game show-style comedy programming like this is extremely popular in the U.K., but not so much in the states. Or, at least previous attempts haven’t always worked out as well as other reality shows.
Watts: I know, and it’s kind of strange because it’s obviously related to reality TV. But we have talking heads shows. We have stuff like The Soup and The Chew. Those kinds of reactionary or morning talk show-style shows. I mean, the format does exist here to a degree, but not in the way that shows like Taskmaster are done. It all comes come down to whether something is interesting to watch. If people watch Cake Boss, I think they’ll get this. Most of the tasks, what we’re asking these people to do, are so ridiculous. And when see them try, you’re just with them, trying to see how they’re going to do. Then you’re seeing how each person’s personality, or how each person’s decision, is able to handle the tasks. It’s truly fascinating. So even on that level, I think people will find it interesting. Just to find out what is happening, and what might happen.
I hope this works, really. I hope people love it. I’d like to do another season. What happened with the U.K. version, especially the first one they made, was they had a hard time casting people because nobody knew what it was. People didn’t want to look silly or look bad. But when the first season happened, people really dug it and now everybody wants to be on the show. So I hope that happens with us. It will interesting to see who we get next season. That’s not to say our first cast isn’t great, because they’re wonderful. They’re all these awesome pioneer types. I think we got a really good cast.
Horne: I feel like it will either work or it won’t. We’ll find out. I haven’t given it too much thought because the story’s what it is. Comedians open an envelope, they’re given some instructions, and then they have to figure out how to follow them. And, obviously, me and Reggie are tossed into the mix. We’re not going to change anything, except for having Reggie at the head of the show instead of Greg Davies over in England. We’re not going to change anything because that’s what the show is. It will either work or it won’t. It’s the show I wanted to make. I kind of figured that if they got it back home, then there’s a chance American audiences will get it too. I guess the only other difference is that it’s shorter here. The original lasts an hour, but here it’s only half an hour. That’s a considerable difference. Hopefully, it doesn’t affect the show’s content.
I never really thought I would see anything with Lisa Lampanelli and Ron Funches competing with each other. It’s a fantastic mix, though.
Watts: Yeah, it was great. Ron and Kate Berlant were natural first picks for me, and the network helped us find a good mix of people. I was super down with everybody. I didn’t really know much about Lisa Lampanelli other than from the stand-up scene, and she ended up being one of the main ingredients of the show. It’s been a great way to learn more about her.
Horne: Everything that Ron Funches says is funny. He’s an amazing man.
What’s the writer’s room, or task-pitching process, like?
Horne: You’d be surprised how little preparation there is. The tasks they do, the gimmicks they do, are on location. We have this location, the Taskmaster house, where the comedians go one by one and do what we ask. Those are things that I think up and test on my children. I’ve got three kids. I test the tasks on them and that’s it. I’m still following my instincts. All I’m really doing there is coming up with a setup that I think the comedians will hopefully produce a good punch line for. It’s not putting them in a situation, It doesn’t require too much testing. I think if you test it out with members of the production team, it won’t work because they’re not comedians. They won’t do it the same way comics will. So we’re just following our gut with it and hoping the ideas work.
For the ones that we do in the studio in front of the audience, we do test them as a team. That’s always a really fun day at the office. We’ll have about 10 ideas, we’ll test them all out, and we’ll pick the five best one and do it all again the next day. That’s a really fun process. For that to work, you want the five participants in the show to really enjoy doing it. You want them all to do it in slightly different ways. You want to be there to witness it all in real-time. That does require a bit of rigorous experimenting.
Watts: Alex really designed all of these things, and in the pitch meetings, we just kind of presented them with a few options. We did a demonstration, we had people actually try a task, things like that. I thought it was really smart and awesome. It was just a lot of fun because it felt like we didn’t have anything to lose. They were just fun and silly. It’s not esoteric. Most of the people just have to experience it.
I don’t know the filming process is like for the U.K. version, but with the Survivor tribal council-esque gatherings done before a live audience, I imagine those took some time with folks like Funches and Lampanelli riffing between takes.
Watts: Surprisingly there was very little of that. There are probably little snips here and there, but for the most part, it’s pretty much what you see. I have yet to see an edited episode. I’m just waiting for it to premiere on Comedy Central to see it. Being there and taping it, we kind of moved along pretty quickly. There’s maybe like, I don’t know, 25 percent more than what the episode ends up being, lengthwise. But for the most part, everything was kept tight because it was run like it was in real time. Like it was all happening in real time. So a lot of that was kept in.
Horne: The audiences were very different. The audiences in England are much harder… I’m not accusing Americans of being tourists or anything, but English audiences are harder to make “whoop.” In America, at the very first show, for the very first task the cast had to get a basketball through a hoop without touching the basketball with their hands. The basketball net was above a swimming pool. If they missed, then they had to retrieve the ball. It’s a fairly standard task. It’s fun when you see them trying and failing. But when that ball went through the first time, the audience went crazy. In England, they would maybe applause politely, but probably not even that.
From The Late Late Show to Comedy Band! Bang!, your name is all over the place, Reggie. But this is you front and center. This is basically The Reggie Watts Show, to a degree. How does that feel?
Watts: I love it. What’s great about it for me is, it’s the perfect kind of show for me. I get to just kind of walk into it and be myself. That makes it super easy. It’s not like being a lead in a narrative or something like that. That would be incredibly stressful for me, unless it was my project. Something that I’d originally come up with. So this was perfect. I love that perception of it, that it’s my show. [laughs] Because it’s really the guy sitting next to me’s show. Alex is responsible for all of this. Which is really indicative of how power structures function in the first place. I’m more a figurehead. I didn’t really feel like someone who had to make any decisions. I see all sides of the fence. It was fun to bring that side out and, based on my whatever criteria were for the task, decide what I thought was best. It didn’t really matter anyways, as long as I went with my instincts.
The image of Alex sitting next to Greg Davis in the U.K. version is great for the size contrast, but I love the image of a white man sitting next to an African-American show host, doing his bidding.
Watts: [laughs] I know, that is so great, but it’s weird. I mean, it’s great in that I love it because Alex is such a brilliant guy. Andy Devonshire, the other showrunner, is also great. They’re two of the loveliest, nicest, and smartest guys I know in the business. That I’ve ever met, actually. The fact that they’re just so light-hearted and whimsical is a testament to their level of absurdity. I love that they saw me and thought, “Oh yeah, this is the guy for the American show.” They were very convinced about it, and quite adamant that Comedy Central cast me. So it was easy to sign up for this. There wasn’t really a calculation about it in terms of what you’re saying. But yeah, I get what you’re saying with the image. It’s a trip. The imagery of it is pretty ridiculous and funny
Horne: It’s a bit harder for Reggie, to be honest. Greg and I, we’re on season seven over in England. We’ve done it many times already, but when we started, we literally started from square one. We didn’t have a working relationship before that moment. We figured it all out on stage. With Reggie, he just hit the ground running. He’s a different sort of Taskmaster. He’s more mercurial and professorial. He’s less alpha male. I really enjoy it, I love his style. You don’t know what he’s going to say. I felt really comfortable sitting in the chair next to him.
All 10 episodes of the first season are done. Assuming this goes over well in the states, is Comedy Central’s Taskmaster something you’d both like to keep doing?
Horne: Absolutely. You know, I was in Los Angeles for five weeks shooting this batch of episodes, then stayed for another week. It was just so much fun. The weather’s good. The people are nice. I would absolutely be keen for more of that. I’m desperate to just do it one more time, first of all. I think that with every TV show, by the second time you’ve already learned so much from the first attempt. The people we did it with were brilliant. They didn’t know what this show was going to be and they just jumped straight in. If we got a second chance, I’d be over the moon.
Watts: I would love to. I had such a fun time. I think now that, having gone through a season of filming it, I’m much more comfortable. We kind of understand how we work together, and how I can loosen up a bit more. Because of the familiarity. So I really look forward to continuing it. It’s just a lot of fun for me, because I get to watch these really cool, talented people do the dumbest shit you can imagine. I’ll do as many seasons as they wanted.
Is there a particular task or moment from this first season that sticks out?
Watts: It’s a toss-up. The horse painting one is pretty crazy — painting a horse while riding a horse. I mean, that was just… Actually, you know what? I really liked the impressing a mayor bit. They’re just all so good. But yeah, I would say the riding the horse task is an example of how ridiculous this show gets, and why I loved doing it.
Horne: I couldn’t agree more. We did that on the very first season in England. It has since been done in quite a few different countries, in different adaptations. I’ve seen people in Belgium, Sweden, and Germany doing it. But seeing it done in America, on a proper ranch with the proper horses, all under the guidance of a proper cowboy… That was just so enchanting for me, to see my stupid idea come to life with these guys riding horses in what looked like the actual wild west. It was such a highlight and I will never forget it. Mainly because they did it so badly. [laughs] Poor ol’ Freddie Highmore. He didn’t get to ride a horse because he’s too delicate. He had to go on a little carriage.
The two-episode premiere of Taskmaster begins April 27th at 11 pm ET/PT on Comedy Central.