We all need structure in our lockdown lives. Some start every day with a light jog and a macrobiotic breakfast before hitting the gin at 9am sharp. Others set strict time aside to cower in the shed from their partners for an hour, or end every evening by scratching another date off the wall calendar with their bloodied fingernails.
For me, Taskmaster is the rock I cling to during COVID. No matter how tough a day of banana-breading or failing to get excited by livestreams I’ve had, the knowledge that, at 11pm every weeknight on the otherwise life-draining Dave, Greg Davies would be barracking comedians like a 20-stone Caligula always got me through. Series by series, week by week, the parades of comedians failing at ludicrous tasks repeated; night by night I got jacked up on Wine Gums and sunk into a show it’s provably impossible to over-binge. When, nine series in, Dave ran out of episodes and pressed ‘loop’, I watched them all again. I fashioned myself a tiny golden throne and scoured Amazon for a Bruce Lee jumpsuit. This was my life now.
There was a memorability to Taskmaster which made it the perfect lockdown lifeline, helping weeks fly by. When you start watching series one you know that, at some point in the coming weeks, you’ve got the familiar joys of watching Joe Wilkinson have his potato-lobbing triumph cruelly stripped from him, Sally Phillips shag a water cooler and Bob Mortimer bellow “Rosalind’s a fucking nightmare!” to Rosalind’s actual own face, in song. Before you know it you’re marking off the pandemic in Taskmaster series rather than months. As far as I’m concerned, lockdown one started when Al Murray took a carpet-wrapped pea to Slough and ended when Jo Brand scored a goal with a steamroller.
While sitcoms live and die by nothing ever fundamentally changing and every other comedy panel show seems to play cheaply on its fixed format, Taskmaster’s shifting cast list and ever-changing content evolved TV comedy to become a cult watch. Its structure – basically push ‘em off a cliff and see if they can fly – also cut through the faux-spontaneity of the panel shows (ever spotted the Mock The Week panellist checking their notes?) to allow the raw comic personalities of the likes of Noel Fielding, James Acaster and Lou “Mummy!” Sanders to shine through under pressure. This wasn’t a bunch of comedians doing comedy, it was a bunch of comedians being comedy.
Last October, when series 10 arrived just as I’d decided never to do anything constructive with my life again, it seemed to me a get-out-of-realism-free card. Yet the show’s socially distanced shift to Channel 4 felt like an anti-climax. The cast were a little lacklustre and uncommitted, and Taskmaster’s greatest thrill is in commitment to the cause, personified by “Little” Alex Horne’s willingness to become a human anal water feature, drink saliva cocktails or take a cake up the arse for the lols.
So it was with immense relief that I welcomed Taskmaster saviour Mike Wozniak into my lockdown routine. Against stiff competition in Lee Mack, Jamali Maddix and Charlotte Ritchie, Wozniak – quasi-famous largely for being the moustache guy in Greg Davies’ sitcom Man Down – is the instant star of season 11, which airs its third episode this week. In the first instalment alone he opened with a deadpan song about cannibal prawns (in the studio task), played the theme tune one-handed under a table on a balalaika, lurked menacingly in a bush to trap a mechanical rat and was the only contestant game enough to try carrying a stack of plates across an airport on a hoverboard, through a rainstorm.
By embracing the sheer ludicrousness of his situation and throwing himself into tasks in the lunatic spirit they were designed for, Wozniak promises to make season 11 the most essential yet. And with eight more weeks to go, each show repeated ad infinitum across C4’s sister channels, my lockdown is essentially over. When my vaccine’s ready, I’ll be in the caravan.