Taskmaster Theology

Sara Kyoungah White

The popular British comedy show Taskmaster, created by comedian and musician Alex Horne, just completed its 16th season. My husband and I—two Americans living on the other side of the ocean—have watched every single episode.

The premise is simple: five comedians and celebrities participate in various absurd challenges, mostly in isolation, with points awarded based on their performances. The contestants do things like filling an egg cup with their own tears, creating a stop-motion film using a potato, and declaring their love for the Taskmaster in the most meaningful way.

But the titular “Taskmaster” in the show, who awards all the points, is not Horne. Rather, it is fellow comedian Greg Davies. Sitting on his throne beside a golden bust of his head—the prize that the contestants are vying for—Davies plays the part of royalty (standing at six feet eight inches tall, his massive height adds to the effect). Meanwhile, Horne, in a smaller chair beside him, is his rather serious, obedient assistant.

Believers who watch Taskmaster—or any comedy today, really—must inevitably wrestle with the sometimes raunchy and irreverent humor that surfaces on shows like this one, especially as it seems to run counter to the presumably somber nature of the Christian faith. Certainly, discretion is needed. I would not, for instance, recommend watching Taskmaster with your children.

But to dismiss worldly humor entirely is to miss an opportunity for deepened faith. Reinhold Niebuhr, for one, has written compellingly in Discerning the Signs of the Times that humor is “a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer.”

We live in an absurd world; both humor and faith deal with this reality. Humor is concerned with the immediately obvious irrationalities. A show like Taskmaster succeeds in eliciting laughter because it highlights just how pointless many of our real-life tasks can be. Painting a picture of a horse while riding a horse is hilarious because it is, in the words of Niebuhr, a “juxtaposition of things which do not fit together.”

But there’s a far greater farce: man’s very position in the universe is one of incongruity. This is a situation that can only be resolved in the realm of faith, which can feel even more absurd. Faith tells us we are both the crown of creation and a speck in the universe; both finite and eternal; tiny beings making tiny pictures on the back of a tiny planet, beloved by an infinite God.

Part of the appeal of Taskmaster is its ability to draw humor from not just the immediate incongruities but also the existential ones. One YouTube video essay compares the show to Existential philosophers Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Camus. Moving water from one bucket to another provided only with a collection of useless tools like a sieve, says the video, encapsulates humankind’s existential dilemmas.

The existential moments in Taskmaster are only humorous because, in the end, there is the greater congruity of our shared experience. We, like Sisyphus and Mel Giedroyc, know too well the frustrations of endless drudgery, and so we laugh as Mel attempts to push the giant beach ball over the wall again and again.

Part of the appeal of Taskmaster is its ability to draw humor from not just the immediate incongruities but also the existential ones.

Davies and Horne are excellent hosts of the show because of how aptly and quickly they can turn these absurdities into comedy, parrying with contestants and each other. Their roles as Taskmaster and assistant require, in actuality, what Niebuhr calls “a high form of wisdom;” they need a gut-level familiarity with the context, the audience, and the timing, so that they can meet the various disappointments, unexpected turns, frustrations, and irrationalities of the show with the improv genius’ ability to make the room laugh.

The best and funniest contestants on Taskmaster, like Davies and Horne themselves, are those who are able to keep from taking themselves too seriously. Niebuhr says that the ability to laugh at oneself is “the prelude to the sense of contrition.” Even though it cannot deal with the problem of sin directly, laughter can serve as “a vestibule to the temple of confession.” Comedians, for example, often use a heightened sense of self-awareness to their advantage, spinning their foibles and shortcomings into comedic gold.

But the gift and the limitation of comedy is this: it can only bring us to the brink, to what Niebuhr calls the “no-man’s land” between faith and despair. Laughing at absurdity can become foolishness if it does not lead us to cry out for the Truth. And if humor is all we have in the face of the larger incongruities of life, our laughter becomes an expression of meaninglessness. We can be left sorting our rubber ducks and socks in the face of the existential void.

For the believer, however, laughing with shows like Taskmaster can help lead us to see our position in the universe as opportunities for prayer and praise: We can be assured that our laughter will not dissipate into bitterness but bloom into prayer. And in our laughter, we can be drawn to praise the One in whom all incongruities meet—the Holy One who died for sinners, the King who came to us as a baby. Is there anything more absurd or wonderful than that?

Topics: TV