I Have to Talk About Why I Love Taskmaster

My time starts now.

This week — in between bouts of overwhelming panic and anxiety, of course — I’ve been watching episodes of the British game show-like series “Taskmaster,” and it’s quickly become my new favorite thing.

I’d started to say that I’m late to the party, but that’s not really accurate. It’s more that I’ve checked into the party several times over the past few years, but it’s never seemed like something I’d be that interested in. There are plenty of clips available on YouTube — and if you ever watch any British game shows like “8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown” or “Would I Lie To You?,” YouTube will recommend them to you — but the clips don’t really get across what makes the show special.

The premise: each series assembles a cast of five comedians, actors, or presenters, from the same set of two dozen or so British celebrities that seem to appear on every single TV production in the UK. Over the course of ten episodes, Taskmaster Greg Davies assigns the contestants a series of tasks that they must carry out, under the supervision of his assistant, Little Alex Horne.1Who is the actual creator of the show and all of its tasks. Each episode, they assemble in a studio to watch a video recap of the tasks, and Davies awards points based on how well they succeeded.

Some example tasks: cheer up a depressive traffic warden within 20 minutes, destroy a cake as beautifully as possible, get into an elevator with a disguise kit and change your appearance as much as possible by the time it reaches the bottom floor, or make the best noise.

It’s a clever idea, but what elevates it to genius is the tone and the presentation. The whole thing has the aesthetic of a surreal spy series, reminiscent of The Avengers or The Prisoner. Most of the tasks are carried out in an odd cottage at an undisclosed location in England. Paintings and other artwork of the Taskmaster hang all over the house, sternly observing everything that happens within.

Tasks are assigned in plain white envelopes, sealed with a special Taskmaster wax seal, the instructions typed by Davies in the opening credits of each episode. The music played during the opening and ending credits2And performed by Alex Horne’s band has the feel of an early 60s spy series. The music played during the interstitials is a creepy few bars relying on a stringed instrument I can’t recognize, which somehow makes me think of John le Carré novel covers.

The tasks themselves are fun, like watching an escape room being played by people who are just naturally funny, even when they’re not being particularly clever. Mercifully, it seems that the contestants are either coached not to try to be deliberately funny, but instead just take the task as straightforward and let the humor come naturally and spontaneously.

Or possibly, the awkward bits of comedians trying to be funny are edited out, because the editing on this series is next-level perfect. Full of dry humor, understanding exactly when to cut to a reaction shot from Alex, understanding exactly the right quotes to include and when. The editing and direction seems to derive as much satisfaction in showing a clever success as it does a hilarious failure.

But the tasks themselves are only part of it, and watching just clips of those would be like watching just the movie segments of Mystery Science Theater 3000. You’d get the idea, but all the details that make the series magic would be lost. So much great stuff happens watching the contestants in the studio reacting to the video of their past selves, sometimes recorded months earlier. And of course, trying to justify themselves to the Taskmaster, who doesn’t hesitate to make judgments that vary from “that was shit, wasn’t it?” to “that was genuinely amazing.” Nobody’s taking it that seriously, but unlike other panel shows, they’re all taking it just seriously enough.

It’s that combination of sincerity and silliness that makes the magic of the show. Funny people taking absurd tasks as if they were absolutely straightforward and serious, and then getting together to laugh at themselves for it afterwards. Some of the clip compilations are pretty good, but if you’re like me and have tried watching before but couldn’t get into it, I recommend digging in to a whole episode.

What Do You Want?

(Language warning in the video, in case you’re watching around kids or other sensitive people. But I think it’s warranted).

Corey Forrester, a Georgia comedian who sometimes goes by his alternate identity “The Buttercream Dream” says exactly what I’ve been feeling for the past three days (at least), in one tweet, two minutes, and fourteen seconds.

This country has given you so much. We’ve wasted so much time trying to empathize or even understand you. What exactly is it that you want?

Standing By

Watching the five-year-long car-wreck as my country acts like an increasingly grotesque parody of itself, until its inevitably tragic conclusion

Alexandra Petri usually uses her column in The Washington Post for satire or parody, but her entry on January 7, “We Love You. You’re Very Special. Go Home” takes the only tone possible for anyone reacting to the riot of January 6th: sad, angry, still trying to process the simultaneous absurdity and horror that is the culmination of the last five years of absurdity and horror.

It’s a wonderful essay, because it seems to express the feeling of baffled disgust and disappointment I’ve had daily since November of 2016: none of this can possibly be happening, but everybody else sees it, too, so it must be happening. I particularly love Petri’s description of seeing people vandalizing Speaker Pelosi’s office, scaling the walls of the Capitol building, or walking through the halls waving Confederate flags: “Like most things in the age of Trump, this had all the visible markings of a cruel parody but was the thing itself.”

There was so much focus on the absurd pictures coming from the scene that it was easy to think this was just a bunch of the usual comically incompetent chucklefucks playing dress-up, instead of violent insurrection. In fact, the reprehensible, traitorous, lying shitstains are even now, as the toll sits at five people dead because of a desperately pathetic, complete lie, trying to spin it as a bunch of rowdy good ol’ boys who let their patriotism get them carried away and took it a little bit too far. For a while, they were even trying to spread the bullshit lie about their favorite boogedy-boo-bad-guys, even on the fucking floor of the House of Representatives which their goons had just shat in, and said that it was Antifa’s fault. Five years of lying so brazenly, so shamelessly, so absurdly, that you can’t believe it’s real, and so it’s easy to stop seeing it as real. At least, for those of us who want to hold onto our sanity.

Continue reading “Standing By”

Tuesday Tune Two-fer: You-know-where on my You-know-what

Two tunes from Georgia!

Since my home state of Georgia is in the news so much lately, both for the crucial Senate run-offs today against two of the most crassly, disgracefully, and blatantly corrupt and unqualified Republicans ever to run for public office; and because of a blatantly corrupt attempt to shake down the Secretary of State to subvert the democratic process and steal the Presidential election: today is two tunes from bands from Georgia.

Specifically, Athens, Georgia, which is where I went to college. First up is “McIntosh” by Chickasaw Mudd Puppies, who were one of my favorite bands while I was in college but never seemed to make much of an impression outside Athens (despite having Michael Stipe as a producer). I saw them perform twice at the Georgia Theater, and they were some of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever seen. One of the guys would play guitar, and the other sat in a rocking chair and would stomp on a box with a microphone under it. (They also had a drummer for their live shows).

Second is “Love Shack” by The B-52’s, since the first concert I saw in Athens was the band doing their Cosmic Thing tour. It’s definitely not my favorite song from the album — even before it got so overplayed — but it does mention the Atlanta Highway at the beginning. That’s the road out of Athens that I used to drive every weekend to my retail job in college, a frustratingly long, two-laned, tree-lined road that would pass places like Peanut’s Redneck Bar-be-que. There are several Athens references throughout Cosmic Thing, so being in town while there was so much hype around the band and the album was a neat feeling, like being at the center of something.

I was debating whether to include “Love Shack” or “The Rooster” by Outkast, which is my favorite song from Speakerboxxx, and which I like 99.9% as much as the more popular “Hey Ya” from The Love Below. But I felt like a poseur for naming it, because I didn’t even hear about Outkast until long after I’d already moved out of Georgia.

I hope everybody who’s eligible to vote in Georgia has already voted in the run-offs, or has a plan to before the polls close tonight! It’s crucial to get the corrupt Republicans out of the way before we can even start to make things better.

Should Auld Eyebags Be Forgot

I keep getting older and I keep taking pictures of it.

The last of the New Year’s traditions that I forgot about: for the past couple years, I’ve been taking a picture of myself every day and compiling them into a timelapse. I didn’t get every day of 2020, because 2020 was awful and there were a few months I didn’t feel like indulging in something so stupid.

But, like I’ve said elsewhere: time just keeps happening, even after you want it to stop, so it’d be a waste not to watch it happen.

It’s amusing to think that before I shaved my head back in May, I was a little “worried” that it wouldn’t grow back at all, or that it’d grow in solid white like my beard has. (I say “worried” just because I want to try the novelty of being one of those aging hippies with a pony tail or braid at least once in my life. I actually enjoyed being bald, and I’m kind of looking forward to white hair).

Turns out that I didn’t need to worry about that at all; not only has it grown back with a vengeance, I’ve learned that all the money I’ve spent on haircuts over the years was wasted, since my hair in a state of nature just gravitates towards late-1980s Game Show Host.

New Decade’s Resolutions

Starting a plan for a Better Chuck By 2031

As lousy as 2020 was, I’ve been very fortunate in that I was minimally affected by the pandemic and the stay-at-home order(s). Apart from having to spend the holidays apart from my family for the first time in my life, the rest has actually been a much-appreciated chance to reset. Since I’ve been forced out of my daily routine, I’ve also been forced to think about what I actually want to be doing.

I don’t really believe in yearly resolutions, but as the start of a new decade, it seems like a good opportunity to set an overall course for myself. Over the last seven years — measured from the end of my last contract as a freelancer — have resulted in me becoming more insular, anxious, forgoing social engagement with the online substitute, and devoting most of my time to the familiar. A new decade seems like a good opportunity to make a change.

So here’s a list of things I’m hoping to do at some point during the upcoming decade:

Visit Edinburgh for Hogmanay

I hadn’t heard of Hogmanay before seeing these videos of drone presentations around Edinburgh.1Technically, around the Highlands and then superimposed on footage of Edinburgh, but it’s still a good effect. Scottish YouTuber Shaun has a video talking about the various celebrations that take place around the city in non-pandemic years, and while looking at huge crowds of celebrants in Times Square or Bourbon Street always make me think Never in a million years would I want to be in the middle of that, seeing it in Edinburgh actually seems like a lot of fun.

Continue reading “New Decade’s Resolutions”

Os-ecch!-i

In praise of pork, salt, and sugar

For the past few years, we’ve been able to take advantage of our friends’ hospitality and enjoy some fantastic Hawaiian-inspired osechi on New Year’s Day.

Since that’s impossible this year, I decided to stumble my way through making spam musubi, which although not traditionally part of the Japanese osechi, is always my favorite part of the spread and also one of my favorite parts of being a human on the planet Earth.

I even bought my own musubi rice mold to be able to make it whenever I wanted. Who would’ve thought that combining pork with lots of salt and sugar would be so good?

Today’s attempt started out with a lot of 2020 energy. There wasn’t enough nori left for more than three pieces, which I hadn’t realized until I’d already fried five. I’d put too much seasoned vinegar in the sushi rice, so it was overly sweet and tart — I haven’t had a sense of smell since I was little, but for some reason heated vinegar is one of the only things I can smell, so whenever I use it, I tend to get carried away. And I put a little too much sugar in the musubi sauce, so it ended up less “caramelized” and more “like burnt caramel.”

So I improvised and turned the remainder into a spam musubi bowl with an over-easy egg on top. (It’s probably safe, but I still don’t trust sunny side eggs in the US). It ended up tasting like bacon with burnt, salted caramel, with a sweet and tart under taste from the rice.

And I can’t say I’m mad about it, even a little bit. This was unplanned, excessive, and the result of a series of minor mistakes, but it was more delicious than anything I cook has a right to be.

So I’m taking this as the first good omen of 2021. Here’s to a year of continuing to fail upward!

A Few Good Things from my 2020

Choosing a few bright spots from a miserable year

As I’ve already said hundreds of times privately and a few times on this blog, this has been the worst year of my life, and I won’t be sad to leave 2020 behind and hope for a better 2021.

But built into that whole idea of the years changing is the idea that stuff just keeps happening, whether you want it to or not. Throughout this shitty year, occasional joyful moments popped up. In the past, I would’ve thought it’s petty, simple-minded, or tone-deaf to try and acknowledge mundane happy things in a time that was otherwise profoundly sad. But now, I think it’s even more important to acknowledge the things that bring you joy.

These are some of the things that made my 2020 suck slightly less. I’ve mentioned several of them already, but I think they deserve another round.

Dirty Projectors

I was trying to get to sleep one night, and YouTube recommended the silly, weird, happy video for “Break-Thru,” from a band I’d never heard of. For me, this was a bigger deal than just discovering a band I liked. It helped knock me out of a funk and get re-inspired about the whole artistic process, in a way that reminded me of seeing St Vincent on Austin City Limits for the first time, or seeing Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense for the first time, or seeing the B-52’s video for “Legal Tender.”

I think it helps that I don’t understand music at all, so I don’t have to turn off the part of my brain that tries to over-analyze and pick apart everything. I know that there’s something deeper and more interesting going on with this music, even if I couldn’t hope to explain what it was.

It also set me off on a quest to seek out more music I hadn’t heard before. That hasn’t really resulted in any other New Favorite Band Evers, but it has pushed me to hear some interesting stuff I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

Piranesi

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is such a wonderful book, and any description of it is going to be criminally reductionistic. For me, it was especially valuable this year because of its sad but hopeful tone — it was a celebration of wonder, faith, and naïveté that was neither cynical, nor blind to the genuine sadness and cruelty of the world.

The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse

I’ve already been a fan of the Mickey Mouse shorts for the past few years — it’s odd to realize that they’re no longer “new” — and so I would’ve thought The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse on Disney+ was a confusing and unnecessary re-branding. But there does seem to be a subtle shift in this new series. They seem more “dense” than the earlier shorts, packed with more gags and references than most viewers will catch in one viewing. One short will use Robin Hood and The Black Cauldron character designs when referencing The Brave Little Tailor; another one will be an extended cross between Xanadu and Mousercise crossed with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

They’re also hilarious. There have been some fantastic moments in the shorts up until now, but the new series seems to have a dozen laugh-out-loud bits in every short.

Rise of the Resistance

It seems like a lifetime ago, but we did actually get to go to Disneyland in February and rise the Rise of the Resistance twice. It’s a really impressive attraction, and I think the only reason I wasn’t more blown away is because I’d gone in expecting a 15 and it “only” delivered an 11 on a scale of 1-10.

We also got to tour Galaxy’s Edge with our friends Polly and Dan, back when seeing friends in person was a thing. I hope that makes a comeback this year. I usually get too much anxiety over having to schedule and make sure everyone in the group is getting to do what they want to do, that in the past I’ve just opted to skip meeting up with anyone during trips. If nothing else, I’ve learned to stop taking that for granted and make more of an effort to see friends.

The Mandalorian Season 2

I’ve already commented more than enough on my love for The Mandalorian, but it’s done such an amazing job of doing two completely separate and opposite things. On the one hand, it’s taken me back more effectively than anything else to the feeling of being a Star Wars-obsessed kid in the 80s, and being rewarded with these huge shared cultural moments with the release of the new movies. At the same time, though, it’s gotten me interested in Star Wars as an ongoing thing, instead of simply regurgitating, recombining, and re-celebrating the things I used to love.

Ditching Facebook, Mostly

I’m not bringing it up just to be petty; deactivating my Facebook account has genuinely felt like a weight’s been lifted. I’d be happier if I could delete my account entirely, but Oculus and Messenger are still too useful. I’m still on Instagram more than I should be, but “the magic is gone,” and I don’t feel as compelled to broadcast every single thing that happens to me. (Which, granted, is easier in a year when nothing is happening to me, but I hope I can keep it up going forward).

It also means I’m not at all compelled to dye my beard as a dumb New Year’s Eve stunt, so it’s already paying dividends.

Seeing Georgians Vote Democrat

I think the whole “red state/blue state” idea is not only simple-minded, but horrible for our entire democratic process. That said, until we can get rid of the electoral college altogether, it’s been encouraging to see a majority of people in my home state reject the wave of hateful, bigoted, obstructionist, selfish bullshit that has taken over the past couple of decades.

The entire country voted overwhelmingly for Biden — whether it was a vote for the Biden/Harris campaign, or a vote against the past four years, it has the same end result — and it’s important to remember that the Fair Fight and similar campaigns didn’t just create new Democrats, but instead energized the people who’ve always been there. We need to stop letting people convince us that the country is more homogenous and less diverse than it actually is.

I never thought I’d see my home state vote for a Democratic president again in my lifetime, so even though it’s entirely symbolic, and even though I know the Democratic party isn’t going to magically fix everything, just seeing the state “turn blue” has given me hope for the future.

Tuesday Tune Two-fer: Next Year

Two songs hoping for a better next year

Until I did a search for year-end appropriate songs, I’d never heard of Two Door Cinema Club, or their song from 2013 “Next Year.”

It’s a pleasant song about making plans for later we can’t carry out today, which seems extremely appropriate for the long-awaited end of 2020. Most remarkable to me, though, is how much the beginning of the track reminds me of the Apple Loops-provided backbeat in my friend Graham’s legendary video “We Sing the Forest Electric.”

I’m hoping that in 2021, we all have more of the uninhibited forest dancing, and much less of the implied killing.

There’s also “Next Year” by the Foo Fighters, which had a video of the gang going to the moon and, impressively, choosing not to wear fat suits for comedic effect. I’m impressed they pulled it off! And I hope next year is better for everyone reading this, and even some of the people who aren’t.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Royal Blood

You really can’t go wrong with straightforward rock music from someone who knows how to write a good hook.

“Trouble’s Coming” by Royal Blood was another good choice by the YouTube algorithm, since it was exactly the kind of song I was in the mood to hear. Solid, straightforward, slickly-produced, rock music. It’s just a good song, kind of reminding me of the first time I heard the White Stripes, but without even their level of gimmickry and pretense.1Which some would call “showmanship,” and fair enough.

The thing I keep reading about Royal Blood is that they were making demos before their first album, and they surprised themselves by how big a sound they could achieve with just a bass and a drum set. Is that true, or the kind of thing record labels push in interviews to give a band a memorable hook? I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s just good to see bands led by good-looking young men making catchy music finally able to get a break.

I need a hook to get me invested, though, and with Royal Blood it’s their video to “How Did We Get So Dark?” from 2017, which I love more than I can effectively describe. In case there were any doubt, it makes it clear that they’re having a ton of fun with all of this.