'It’s like trying to impress a stern stepdad who you kind of resent' | Taskmaster day! Meet Johnny Vegas

'It’s like trying to impress a stern stepdad who you kind of resent'

Taskmaster day! Meet Johnny Vegas

Why did you sign up for Taskmaster?

My very good friend Sian Gibson did it, and she said it was really good fun. She said I would love doing it. I can be quite fastidious so doing things under a time pressure is something I’m not good at. But honestly, hand on heart, especially coming out of lockdown, it was the funniest thing I’ve done in ages. When you can laugh at your own ineptitude, that’s good. There were two occasions where I literally cried laughing.

Sian’s such a gossip and she was messaging asking me what was going on but honestly, everyone was so lovely. There was not a single person you wouldn’t want to win. 

How competitive did it get?

Very quietly competitive. Very. Who doesn’t want to win a bust of Greg Davies that doesn’t really look like Greg Davies? I have two busts that are made of me. One is a very bad one from [BBC Three sitcom] Ideal which is huge and it looks like it should be on a terrible version of It’s A Knockout, and the other is from an episode of Ideal where I got my head cut off and that one’s very realistic. So, I want to win Greg’s head just to put it In Between my two heads.

Actually, I would probably bolt it to my fence. You know you get those signs with dogs that say, ‘Dogs live here’ - I think Greg’s head would be scarier. It would keep the riffraff out. Maybe we could hook it up so that he says random insults to people as they walk past.

What was your relationship like with Greg?

It’s like trying to impress a stern stepdad who you kind of resent but you still want him to like you. The way he judges things is almost like a 70s dad where he’s either had a good day at the office or a bad day at the office. The worst sort of mood is when he’s the sort of dad who comes home and says, ‘Just make me a gin and tonic and let me read the paper in peace’. But hand on heart, even when he’s being cruel to you, it’s hilarious. I think by episode five in the studio we’d learned to fight back a bit and debate the points. 

He’d pick up on bits from the tasks that make you go, ‘Did I honestly say that?’ It really haunts you. You’ll be walking along the road all happy then you’ll suddenly remember a task and go, ‘Why did I opt to use the rake instead of the rope?’ and it ruins your day and you fall to your knees in a public park and start crying. 

What tasks were you bad at?

There was one in the studio where they read out which task they were about to play,  and my head just fell in my hands. It’s the closest I’ve come to a breakdown. I felt like texting my agent and going, ‘Can you make up an excuse and get me out of here?’ It was a problem-solving thing to do with keys and numbers. There was a very scary voice on the phone which I mistook as a death threat.

 Fundamentally what I’ve learned is: you know those Escape Rooms? Don’t take me. I’ll only hold you back and I’ll only make you cry.

Were you good at the creative tasks?

I won’t lie, there was one task down to artistic interpretation and it’s so sad that a man that’s about to turn 50 could be so pleased when Greg said, ‘That’s lovely’. I don’t know how quickly he managed to be in charge of my emotions. ‘Did I do good, Daddy, did I?’

Did you learn anything about yourself?

I hated sports day at school, was never very competitive, but it turns out I am so competitive. With my art background, I love problem solving. I think I went in there with an ego of, ‘Get ready to shine’, but that immediately got knocked out of me. 

It’s the variation in tasks. For some of them you start off with an idea, but with the clock running you reach the point where you go, ‘I’ve made a huge mistake but it’s too late to back out’. It’s probably very funny for people watching but it’s devastating to realise you’ve gone down a cul-de-sac. It properly teaches you how you are under pressure. Normally if you ask me a question I’ll process it for three days then give you an answer. Without the benefit of time on my side, I go into meltdown so easily.

You used to be famous for your angry rants. Did that come into play with this?

No. Any anger was only directed towards myself. I talked to myself a lot more than I expected. It was more just an overriding need to please Alex. 

There’s no point coming on and going into a routine and delivering soundbites. All the humour comes out of how invested you are in the task.

What was more important to you: being funny or winning a task?

I genuinely rang Sian on the first day and went, ‘I’m mortified, I don’t think I’m being funny’. I don’t multi-task very well. If I’m concentrating on something I’m not going, ‘Oh and here’s a funny story’. But she went, ‘Everyone goes through that - in a couple of days you’ll stop thinking about what you’re meant to be doing and you’ll just start having fun with it. You might fail miserably but hopefully it’ll be funny’. 

What were the other contestants like?

Richard and I did stand-up back in the day, and I’d done a show with Katherine. Everyone else was brand new. Daisy is very clever. She’d come up with something ingenious. She hides her light under a bushel. She’d make you think, ‘I wish I thought of that’.

What was your relationship like with Alex?

I learned to use him, and I learned to get over the resentment. Some of the time he’d try to help you and you’d be going, ‘Don’t you think I know that?’

There were a couple of tasks where he absolutely saved me. Sometimes you’re in a world of hell and he’s gently trying to nudge you and it’s awful how resentful you become. I really wanted to savage the hand that was feeding me.

How do you describe Greg and Alex’s relationship?

Like a tender episode of Top Gear, with some bullying but a lot of love. That sounds like I’m promoting domestic abuse but I’m not. Anyone who has ever taken a partner to a party and they’re loud and over-bearing, knows what I mean.

How competitive did it get?

There was a cheat, everyone knows who it was. That’s the closest I came to kicking off. 

But the brilliant thing about the tasks is there are different interpretations of the rules. Some people are very literal, some are a bit cheeky with it. There are moments where you go, ‘Fair enough - you nailed that’.

What do your kids think of Taskmaster?

Well the five-year-old is a bit small but Michael, I don’t know. He’s 17. There’s the odd thing I do that he’ll watch and really enjoy. He likes the Murder On… shows. But I don’t know about this because everything I do right now embarrasses him. On Taskmaster it’s one embarrassment after another after another so I’ll have to get back to you on that one. He’s very much at that, ‘You can drop me off here, don’t come to the door’, phase.

What are you up to next?

I’ve signed up for a very interesting indie film. But obviously schedules are being moved because of Covid. There’s another Murder On… that we’re looking to do this year.

Obviously all the stand-up has been postponed which is fine. I don’t want to play to a quarter-full room and I certainly don’t want to endanger anybody by trying to get back to work too quickly. Says someone who hasn’t written his show yet!

Financially people think if you’re on TV you’re loaded: I’m not. But there’s little I can do at the moment so I’m not going to get worked up over it. I’m trying to find other things to do. If work kicks in safely, great. If it doesn’t, I’ll muddle through until it does.

I’ve fallen back in love with fishing which has been very good for my mental health. I’ve done an art project. Then at home I got all the family photos out and I’ve been framing and mounting. Because I work away so much, the house looks a bit like a show house. It’s very unfinished, there’s no personality in it. So now I’ve put up all these photos in a corridor I call ‘Memory Lane’ and it’s all the retro photographs of my mum, my dad, my family. I lost both my parents over the last few years and it’s been a tough time. So that’s been a practical reconciliation project of getting the memories up on the wall.

And then I’ve finally started building an outhouse for my kiln. I’m a hoarder but for my birthday I realised I’ve got too much stuff so my family all put money in my account so I could build these out-house and now they can be really invested in the stuff I make.

I’ve got all this art in my studio which I’ve been framing and putting up on my walls and making space for it and that’s been really good. I’m determined to find the time for a day or two a week in the studio for my ceramics.

Do you think grief has made you become more productive?

Not initially. I went through an odd period where I couldn’t look at photos. And I think there was a resentment they were gone, which obviously wasn’t their fault. So, I think getting their photos on the walls was a kind of coming to terms, and forgiveness for them not being here any more. Over time, the good stuff does replace the bad stuff. That would be my advice to people. It doesn’t feel at first as if it will. But then memories do creep back in that give you a reason to smile rather than whittle away at the sad stuff. 

There again there are times where you realise you’ve just made a sandwich with nine different kinds of cheese and you realise you’re not quite there yet.

• Taskmaster starts at 9pm  tonight on Channel 4.  Interview courtesy Channel 4 Press.

Published: 15 Oct 2020

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