The recently concluded series 15 welcomed Frankie Boyle, Ivo Graham, Jenny Éclair, Kiell Smith-Bynoe and Mae Martin, a finely calibrated sitcom family in which something was always happening. Jenny made the perfect eccentric mum, Frankie, whose impression of not caring about success or failure gave him status over the others, was the aloof dad, and the younger comedians took the roles of their squabbling kids.
The worst kind of Taskmaster cast is one that only interacts with Greg and Alex, and the comedians don’t bounce off each other (see series six). There was no fear of that in series 15, where the bickering started early and strong. Was Mae’s throw a throw? Were Frankie’s yellow shoes gold? Ivo made some heated points about ducks, and there was the eternal question: are all words metaphors for the thing they represent, thereby proving the hypothesis that a drawing of a pineapple is in fact, a pineapple?
But bickering and explosive rants aren’t enough to entertain on their own. (The contestant who provided the most – series eight’s Iain Stirling – is one of the least popular among Taskmaster fans. Real anger feels too harmful to this silly set-up, like revving a chainsaw in a Toys R Us.) When a Taskmaster cast really works, it’s when relationships and storylines start to form between the comedians.
Pairing Frankie and Ivo for team tasks, for instance, was a golden move, quickly seized upon for its father/son comedic potential. A gruff, sarcastic, working class dad with a neurotic, posh, expensively educated boy? It’s Frasier, but with Marty and Dr Crane collecting spoons using a magnet while blindfolded. Viewers could feel the tension of Ivo’s natural politeness arresting his natural desire to succeed. We felt the burn of familial shame when Frankie’s approval was sought but not given. It gave the studio recordings in which comedians are confronted with video of their own (often misremembered) performances, an extra frisson.
Putting Jenny with Mae and Kiell created an instant ‘taking mum out for her birthday’ vibe. The younger two indulged her while trying to run things, and she had marvellous fun doing exactly what she wanted regardless.
When all five contestants were put together, as in the final live studio task of each show, there was either the cheery vibe of a celebratory Christmas Day lunch, or the tetchy atmosphere of a family breaking an overlong car journey around a service station picnic table. Either way, it was a scene straight out of sitcom family life. Like the world of professional wrestling, Taskmaster audiences want to invest in these sitcom-like comedic relationships and interpersonal storylines while understanding that they’re only for show.