Hello Alex! First of all, thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us ahead of the Horne Section’s tour and the release of Taskmaster Champion of Champions.
You studied Classics at Cambridge University, did you know straight away that comedy was what you wanted to do, or did you have an alternative career path in mind?
I’m still not sure it’s what I want to do – I’m going on a wood carving course next year – in fact, I don’t think you ever really need to be sure. After Cambridge I did a postgraduate Broadcast Journalism course at Goldsmiths. At that point I was pretty sure I wanted to be a journalist… Comedy should happen by accident, I think, not a career decision.
How did you get onto the comedy scene?
I always liked comedy and thought there was a chance I might be funny when I made my family laugh on a car journey to Taunton in 1987. At school I made two guys laugh just before my A-levels. So whilst at university I did a couple of spots at the Footlights open mic nights then booked 5 minutes in a new acts club in London. When I got three laughs there, I was hooked. I booked more spots, eventually bagged an agent who made sure I got paid (often double figures) for future spots, and just 12 years later, I was a full time comedian.
Did you/ have you ever suffered from stage fright and, if so, how did you overcome it?
I did the semi-final of So You Think You’re Funny in 1999 and was so nervous I vomited twenty seconds before going on stage. It was such a bad way to start a gig, I never did it again. Gradually the fright subsides. Now I see the stage as my safe place. You’ve just got to keep on doing it.
You obviously started out as a stand-up comic; did the formation of the Horne Section seem like a natural progression or was it the result of a sudden epiphany that this type of music and comedy would work well together on stage?
It was, like most things, luck. Stand up was going ok. Their jazz careers were going ok. We booked a slot at the Fringe for a laugh and bang! It worked immediately and we’ve not looked back. So, no plan, but the willingness to do something different and potentially awful and embarrassing.
How much of the show is scripted and how much is improvised?
A very hefty chunk is improvised. It’s crucial to the show; if we are having a good time, the audience, we hope, will have a good time. So every night I make the band do things that they’ve never done before with no warning. I think it’s clear from the performance that these bits aren’t rehearsed, but if not, people must think it’s a very strange show.
Do you prefer collaborating and touring with other people as opposed to on your own? Do you have a solo tour planned for the future?
Good question – right now, I’m only performing with the band. It’s always fun; if it goes well we share the fun, if it goes badly, we share the pain. But one day I’m sure I’ll do something else by myself. It can be lonely though. But equally, getting five musicians to the same place at the same time can be a nightmare. So it’s that age-old choice, have a nightmare or be lonely?
I have to ask about Taskmaster because, and I think I speak for everyone, it is the highlight of the televisual year. Why do you think Taskmaster has been such a hit and how long do you foresee the format lasting for?
Ah, that’s very kind. Thank you. Personally, it’s just a lot of fun to make because we are asking great comedians to do silly things, without any prep or pressure (except for the pressure of the game, obviously). The tasks themselves come from a comedian’s brain so the contestants trust that they won’t be compromised, and then everything else comes from them; we get to see what these funny brains come up with, it’s all real, and the competitiveness is genuine. That, I realise, is a sprawling answer. The other thing is that Greg Davies is a very, very funny man and it’s an honour and a pleasure to sit next to him with my little iPad.
Do you have a favourite task that you’ve set for the contestants?
“Impress this Mayor. You have twenty minutes. Your time starts now.” I love that task and I love that mayor and I love that Joe Wilkinson brought him 42 Calippos and 8 cans of strong lager.
There is going to be a US version of Taskmaster, so is there a noticeable difference between the ways that the British comics compared to the US comics approach the tasks?
There really isn’t, which was a massive relief. It’s still the same principle; five funny people doing their best to do pointless but doable things. Sometimes they were brilliant, often they were idiotic, always, I hope, they were entertaining.
Taskmaster is currently available for catch-up on UKTV Play. The Horne Section is on tour from Dec 14 2017 to Oct 3 2018. For tickets and further info please visit: www.thehornesection.com