Our Joy Starts Here

There is a part of my soul that craves mischief, yearns for the chaos and whimsy to take me away for a moment. Remove from me the chains of responsibility tying me to this earth and let me float on in the exuberance of careful danger. Perhaps this is where my celebrated love of the Jackass series of TV/Cinema stems from, which I wrote about in the sadly lost to us Bitch Magazine way back when we had a Bitch Magazine. But there is another source of comfort I hold dear to me that I cannot help but want to share with so many.

The British comedy panel show Taskmaster.

Taskmaster, hosted by Greg Davies and show creator Alex Horne, is a show where a panel of comedians undertake a series of tasks in order to accrue points over the series of episodes in order to win a bronze statue in the shape of Davies’s head. The tasks cover a range of difficulty in terms of mind, body, and spirit. Bring in the best thing the contestant below you in the alphabet would like. Tell the Taskmaster you love him in the most meaningful way — you have 30 minutes. Catapult this shoe into a bathtub using a homemade catapult. Conceal this pineapple on your body, no part of the pineapple may be thrown away.

Tasks are written in cards sealed in wax and delivered by Horne who plays the hapless sidekick, straight man and on-the-ground judge. Each card carefully explains the rules and barriers of a task, giving room for people to bend and stretch the bounds in an effort to gain victory. Action commences when four simple words are spoken by the contestants: Your time starts now.

It’s insidious and beautiful, challenging the fortitude and creativity of the comedians tasked with going through ever-challenging motions to complete the tasks ahead. Contestants are just as liable to cry out at the pain of the cruel and twisted fate that has led them here as they are to run with such joy in their hearts that their feet stumble under them. It is chaos, it is joy, it is everything.

I found Taskmaster right when the pandemic first started, if you can imagine such a time in our collective history existed. My partner and I sat at our kitchen table, staring through each other at empty walls and wondering how long we could keep this going, mugs of coffee repeating the motions of keeping us alert for nothing. And then, a stray tweet led to an article in the AV Club talking about the show and the highlight of the season that featured both Noel Fielding and Mel Giedroyc, who we knew as being on two sides of the dividing line between eras of the Great British Baking Show. Intrigue set in, we said well let’s try one out, and found a YouTube link to an episode.

There’s just a gap of two days of our lives where we laid in bed like John and Yoko watching Taskmaster. Laughing, crying, sleeping. Coffee. It was joyous and wonderful. It scratched that itch I have where I like to see people put themselves in varying degrees of harm in order to gain absolutely nothing of consequence. Pushing themselves, their minds and bodies, to such limits just to see if they can. Perhaps I am just a scholar of the human condition, and there is nothing more real and honest and human than that. How far will you go to gain nothing and how hard will you push to win it all anyway?

There’s a game I play at home, I think a lot of us do, where the minute I find a piece of media I enjoy — TV, cinema, video game, et al — I google the name of the thing and the word trans. Time was I used to write all of the word transphobic, but I’ve learned a hack which is that just writing trans usually brings up links to the episode of a show where someone is extremely weird about a trans person. Like the episode of Bones where they find the pelvic bone and breast implant of a dead trans woman and proceed to wax poetic about whether she deserved to be treated like a human. It’s a fun game with simple rules that will always make you feel bad. Unless, of course, you’re watching Taskmaster.

Googling “Taskmaster trans” led me to the following: Series 7 contestant James Acaster’s stand up about Ricky Gervais’s jokes about trans people , Series 4 contestant and queer icon Joe Lycett standing up for trans people in the British press, Series 5 contestant Nish Kumar speaking out against the likes of Ricky Gervais. The list can actually go on, and I am choosing to stop it there.

But that’s it — no contestant caught on extended rants about trans people, no awkward support of rich white ladies who live in castles. The show has featured its share of queer comedians and never has it been the focus of derision. Men playfully flirt with each other with a rare ease of comfort, and there are enough women in suits and Converse that my phone is sick of asking if every woman on this show is gay.

You know how rare it is to find a show that is about chaos and destruction and whimsy and pushing the limit that also isn’t riddled with a bunch of reactionary centrists yelling about cancel culture and the just asking questions of it all? In Britain? The mind boggles, it teeters back and forth but stays firm and steadfast. Somehow, we have found the place, found where joy and excitement and humor live, and it’s not the Great British Baking Show or any number of panel shows: It’s Taskmaster.

There is a popular theory amongst the cancel culture set that removing the personal from politics and choosing not to punch down or insult people in their hearts scoops the soul from humor. Taskmaster, bless its little heart, proves otherwise. I have never laughed as hard or as freely as I have watching contestants eat a watermelon as fast as they can, or Johnny Vegas falling in an attempt to make his “catapult” (see: a rake and a ladder) work.

The reason I loved something like Jackass so much is because there is a magic to be held in working so hard to see just what you are capable of without pretense and without shame. True art is created when someone is so willing to give of themselves that they may cut their very heart open and spill out onto the canvas, and here on Taskmaster true art is created time and again. Like Noel Fielding creating the most exotic sandwich not knowing the follow-up task was to eat it. I will not spoil for you what the sandwich he made was — that my dear reader is for you to discover.

It’s a show I want to sing about from the top of a hill, having worked every bone in my body and every synapse of my mind in an effort to get three blue yoga balls to the top of, but I want to describe it in such a way that it leaves your imagination open to adventure and unspoiled at the results. But it’s a show of intense joy, steadfast competition, and spirited community. The contestants working together against the show and each other and themselves all in a quest for something of consequential value. But it is not the journey or the destination that matters so much as the spirit of adventure that spurns you onward.

We all go to the ground someday, to be buried in dirt and spoken about in a hushed and somber past tense. We make our mark by choosing how we live in all the minutes and seconds we spend on our feet above ground. The zealous fury with which the contestants on Taskmaster approach the show, throwing their very real bodies full force into the tasks just to see what they are made of is pure joy. It is charming, tender, and hilarious, the balm to a weary heart when I need it. It is enough for me now, having watched and re-watched the show every time I am tired, to simply think of the title of a task to conjure a smile from my face. Dress this coconut up like a businessman, you have ten minutes to plan this and ten minutes to complete the task.

Your time starts now.


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Niko Stratis

Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Xtra, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. 

She wrote that piece about Jackass that you liked and also the Gin Blossoms one. 

She is also the creator and host of V/A Club, a podcast about movie soundtracks.

Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.

Niko has written 41 articles for us.

52 Comments

  1. Yes! I love Taskmaster SO much, and this article does such an amazing job of articulating why it’s so wonderful. (I’ve also always felt like it was a kind of queer show without really knowing why!) Thank you, Niko!

    • another point for NZ!

      I love the episode on Series 7 where he talks to, I think Jessica Knappett? and says that he knows her dad says he isn’t fair about scoring with women and then proceeds to say something akin to “well your dad’s not going to like this”

  2. I never quite understood why or how the US series didn’t take off. I’m very lucky in that I started watching this, on a channel famous here for syndication, from its very first series, and it’s been a staple ever since. It’s been a wonderful vehicle propelling unknown minority comedians into the non-comedy circuit General Public (so pretty much everyone) and bridging gaps between generations *successfully* like few shows before it.

    Do I still make an air horn noise like Jessica Knappett? Do I stare at watermelons brought home and just think of Romesh Ranganathan? Do I repeat “without… Moving… The…fishbowls” when I’ve had to pick up any medium or large glass object? Always. Without fail.

    • wasn’t the US series hosted by Ron Funches too? It feels like a no-brainer! I wonder if they tried to make it too….American? In the reality show way of enforced drama even when the stakes are low. I hope they try again, because I would watch every second of it!

      Jessica’s airhorn sound is an everyday thing for me now, I DIED when I saw that for the first time.

      • It was Reggie Watts and I feel he was a bit too nice to the contestants? Like he played the Taskmaster really cool, but you need a Taskmaster who will properly read the contestants especially when they fuck up. Honestly, Bob the Drag Queen should do it lmao. Think that could be an incredible dynamic taking into account Alex’s coyness and awkwardness too!

        I wish they did a Taskmaster All Stars (much like Champion of Champions) and Jessica could come back for more because she gave one of the most iconic series wide, series long performances.

      • It was only a half hour long, which was a GIANT MISTAKE. Plus, Lisa Lampanelli was on it and her negative vibe didn’t fit with the positivity of the show. It had a lot of problems. From what I can tell, Alex Horne learned a lot from that process and won’t make the same mistakes again. But, there will never be another US version.

        • You’re right. I watched it when it first came out and not since and had missed some key parts. The half hour length destroyed any chance it had, you’re right. I’ve just started listening to the podcast (this article actually prompted me to revisit my TM habit) and was more gutted for how badly it went for Alex tbh.

  3. I love this show so much and yes, part of the reason why it’s one I watch again and again is that I don’t think there’s a single joke where queer or trans people are the punchline. I love how easily the straight and queer men on the show flirt (for anyone in the comments section of this post, the YouTube video ‘greg davies being flagrantly bi for 9 minutes’ may be of interest to you). It’s just brilliant, and both my girlfriend and I can quote swathes of it.

  4. I love Taskmaster so much! It’s such a ridiculous and good-natured show. I’m thinking I’d like to do a Taskmaster party for my 30th. Of course, the creative tasks (like “Film Something That Will Look Impressive in Reverse”) don’t exactly lend themselves to a day-of competition, and those are always my favorite tasks to watch. But I still think it would still be fun to choose some of the live tasks and enlist friends to compete.

    • I will tell you this as someone who, 10 years ago, had an epic 30th birthday party. Lean in to making the day as timeless as possible.

      You should ABSOLUTELY do a Taskmaster themed party, but do some tasks ahead of for screening at the party, some tasks the live on stage ones, AND a “bring a _____” tasks for people. Have a trophy. PLEASE let me know how it all goes!

      • UGH I have wanted to do a taskmaster party soooo much… but I don’t have enough friends, and the ones I do have aren’t game for that kind of thing.

        But every episode I’m like, “here’s what I WOULD HAVE DONE” and I’m sure I would have failed miserably like everyone else lol

  5. I love Taskmaster so so much, and almost posted a lengthy comment on the recent article here about autistic representation to talk about Fern Brady on the last series. She has an amazing Instagram quote about how her joyous participation in Taskmaster is a different sort of autistic representation than you get in most other media. And she’s bi! Then I thought, “is Taskmaster queer enough to recommend on Autostraddle?” and didn’t post. I’m so happy to see the Taskmaster love being shared around here.

    In line with the fact that there is no transphobia, biphobia, etc. to be found in Taskmaster, I’ve also found that if you can get a family member or two interested in the show, it becomes the perfect safe conversation topic for folks you might otherwise have a fraught time conversing with at family gatherings. My relationship with my brother has definitely improved significantly over the last two years of us watching and discussing an episode every week.

    I also know people who after seeing how amazing Fern, Sophie, Urzula (Taskmaster NZ), Mawaan, Joe, and others are on the show, have expanded their comedy horizon beyond “straight white guys in t-shirts.”

  6. I watched one episode of Taskmaster a while ago and found it meh. After reading this article I will definitely give it another try!

    Thank you, Nico, for sharing the joy you’ve found in this show — it spills off the page!

    • Update — Taskmaster is now my favorite thing in the world and it’s all Niko’s fault. My productivity has suffered greatly, but I regret nothing.

      Also, I have found the most beautiful woman in the world: Charlotte from Season 11! Truly, Taskmaster is the gift that keeps on giving.

  7. Taskmaster is truly a balm for the soul. Series 2 of Taskmaster NZ is the best of the NZ version, and is up there for me even against the original. Google “Laura Daniel best stolen thing” for my favourite prize task entry period – the amount of effort she put in is next level, and it’s delightfully queer and chaotic

  8. FUCKING YES.
    I started in through Taskmaster NZ, then it (gently, warmly, joyously, chaotically) ate my brain. I love this show (as much as I can while understanding everything is created by fallible humans that can disappoint at any moment).

  9. This is one of my favourite shows! It’s so silly and so funny and there’s a bunch of scenes I’d love to be able to see for the first time once again.

    And I’m always wondering how serious Greg is about his flirting with other men. I’m getting bi vibes, and I’m curious.

    Afaik Rose Matafeo is not part of our people, but my gods, I wish she was. Her hair is magnificent.

  10. Even as a lesbian, I am very happy in the knowledge that I am in love with Joe Lycett. My god, what a human.

    Come for the ridiculous silliness, stay for the gorgeous queer people you’ll fall in love with (and some of the straight ones too. I wish Bob Mortimer was my uncle)

  11. I adore Taskamaster, and I even used to go rowing when I was at uni next door to the Taskmaster house!

    As a trans women and lesbian it is as you say lovely to have something to watch that is hilarious and also never makes me worry that I’ll suddenly be the butt of some cheap attack.

    However Taskmaster has caused something of a crisis in my sexuality. After most of my life pretty much only being attracted to women I’ve found that each series of TM I develop a crush on at least one contestant and they haven’t always been female! Clearly something about the format is just endearing, and Nish was a proper dreamboat in that outfit (you know the one I mean…)

    Anyway here’s my list my series by series crushes that no one asked for!
    1- Tim
    2- Doc
    3- Sarah
    4- Mel
    5- Nish, Mark, and Sally but especially Sally
    6- Alice
    7- Jessica
    8- Lou
    9- Rose!!!
    10- Daisy
    11- Mike
    12- Morgana
    13- Bridget and Judy
    14- Fern

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