STICK TO REEFER MADNESS
All right, let’s get it out of the way: today is April 20, or 4/20 in the States, and it’s universally known that 420 is the weed number, making it the second funniest number in existence. I don’t want to upset our more delicate readers’ sensibilities with the first.
I don’t mess with marijuana. I used to, name a former English major who didn’t, but I would surmise that 95% of my lifetime’s weed ingestion was done between the ages of 19-22, and anything that’s happened since then is like me and Little Caesar’s: once every few years, to remind myself why I don’t do it more often.
I never got the hang of weed. My peers could smoke a joint and then be, like, productive. Couple hits in me and you might as well pour me in front of a television — any channel will do — for the rest of the night. And conversation, lord, no telling what’s going to come out of my mouth if I have to try to talk to people who are in a clearer state of mind.
But more power to those of you who do partake, today or any other day. It’s not for me, but neither is KPop, and only Kim Jong-Un and Joni Ernst would even consider making that illegal. The arguments against its legalization are somewhere between bogus and racist, and utterly unfounded in science.
One argument that has fallen out of favor by prohibitionists is the long-discredited “gateway drug” claim, which suggests that marijuana will only lead to harder drug use, which is sort of like a vegetarian suggesting that fried chicken will only push you closer to cannibalism.
The gateway argument is nonsense — at least in that order.
I am not a scientist and I would never advocate reckless self-medication, but anecdotally I do know of people for whom marijuana/THC has been an effective gateway away from harder drugs, or beginning much riskier pain medication treatment. Research strongly suggests cannabinoids are far better for patients than opioids, and it’s both shameful and unsurprising that our legal system is so slow in adjusting to that reality.
In a perfect world, I could snap my fingers and marijuana would be produced and taxed legally across the country, and we could end the inhumane practice of incarcerating nonviolent offenders of marijuana laws. Putting people like that in prison only helps American companies who still have a taste for labor paid at slave wages. And then once those problems are fixed, monkeys would once again fly out of Wayne Campbell’s butt.
But it’s important for all of us to understand that these laws are wrong and backwards, they have significant human costs at every turn, and the sooner they’re abolished the better. I’m not suggesting you all become one-issue voters, but I do think that marijuana legalization should fit squarely into a modern moralistic approach to politics, and I do think your voting decisions should reflect your morality.
Anyway, this went much longer than I expected, but it’s all to say happy 4/20 to those of you who partake, abolish marijuana laws, and none for me, thanks.
STICK TO GAME SHOWS
Back in 2018, Comedy Central aired one season of a show called Taskmaster, hosted by Reggie Watts and featuring five actors and/or comedians performing strange tasks in an expansive LA mansion. It got light ratings and critical regard in its eight-episode run on the channel, and wasn’t picked up for another run.
If it seems like this could have been much funnier than it was, yes — Taskmaster is originally a British show, and the British version is a goddamn gem.
Originally airing in 2014 and currently on its 11th season across the pond, the one true Taskmaster is weird, chaotic, chicanerous (new word alert) and shriekingly hilarious. Founder and writer Alex Horne hides in plain sight as the ultra-obedient referee/second-in-command, while host Greg Davies (all 6’8” of him) commands the studio show with a borderline despotic presence.
For reasons I can’t quite figure out, starting in late October, the YouTube account “Taskmaster” (which may or may not be official?) put nearly the entire run of the show online, free of charge for Americans to watch for the first time ever*.
*Kind of ever. We’ll get to that.
As in the American knockoff, contestants are given tasks with simple instructions and bizarre intentions, and the wording of the tasks is as important for what it doesn’t say as what it does.
Yes, that’s Noel Fielding and Mel Giedroyc of The Great British Bake Off, although every one of Season 4’s (or “Series 4’s”) participants is a delight in their own way.
Of course, any time rules are up for interpretation, they’re up for breaking, and the infamous two buckets from Season 3 are a prime example. Watch as moral foundations and expectations are shaken to the core by a simple task of carrying water from one bucket to another:
There’s a heart to the show, though, and it’s carried in equal measure through the earnest ingenuity of the participants, the banter between segments as contestants are forced to make sense of their actions in front of a live studio audience, and the moments of sheer madness when one participant decides to etch his or her name in history (often at Alex Horne’s expense). Witness the quick-change task from Season 7, which runs the gamut of the Taskmaster experience in about 11 minutes:
(NOTE: mild male nudity so maybe don’t watch at work?)
Indeed, the shortcomings of the US show are laid more bare when seeing what the UK version had accomplished, and chief among them is as simple as runtime. The US version runs in a half-hour time slot, which is pretty well par for the course on a channel like Comedy Central, but the hour Taskmaster gets in the UK means the tasks can be given suspense, pacing and a pleasant ebb and flow between recorded chaos and studio banter. The UK version places the viewer in the room or at the task with the comedians in a way that our version just didn’t have a chance to do. It’s a shame; that familiarity, not the chaos, is the glue that holds each season together.
You’re witnessing the pinnacle of game show comedy, the least you could do is send it to a friend. After all, it’s taking great amounts of grace for me to not be mad at any of you who already knew this show existed and never once told me about it. Be the change you want to see in the world.
You know how sometimes when people recommend a show, they say things like “you just have to get through the first season/first three episodes/death of this one unlikable character and then it’s GREAT” and all you’re hearing is “brace yourself for a show you won’t like”?
Not here. Series 1, Episode 1. Click it. Check it out as soon as you have 45 minutes. It’s fantastic. YouTube’s recommendations will guide you from there.
I mentioned earlier that this YouTube channel, which somehow hasn’t been shut down yet?!, is us Yankees’ first exposure to this pearl of a show. That’s mostly true. There was one attempt to get the British version of Taskmaster on American television (presumably the concurrent Season 10), when the CW picked the show up in October 2020. It lasted all of one episode on the CW before being canceled to dismal ratings, replaced by reruns of Supernatural, which I’m devastated to report is not, I repeat NOT a show about the hit 1999 Carlos Santana album that brought us the Grammy-winning single “Smooth,” featuring Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20.
Again, this is not what the CW show is about, so that’s two strikes against the CW.
I still maintain, deep in my heart of hearts, that this show can work in America. I realize that’s probably impossible since Comedy Central bought the rights and parlayed them into a forgettable venture (I didn’t even know that show had happened until I started writing this post, to say nothing of the CW’s aborted foray), but please indulge me.
Alex Horne is the straight-man workhorse of the show, and his deadpan demeanor is the necessary straight-man counterweight to the chaos of the tasks in progress. Also, like, it’s his show. He would have to stay. That’s about all the American version got right.
As mentioned before, it needs to have an hour timeslot. The vibrant colors and sunshine of Los Angeles are right out; New York is the obvious solution here, although if there were more of a broadcast presence in Chicago I’d go there. Just that little oomph more of unpleasant weather, gray skies and malaise.
And look, I like Reggie Watts as a performer. I do. I don’t think he was dealt a winning hand with this show. But if you’re going to do this show, and do it right, with an eye on something fun, sustainable and profitable, the host needs to be A Name.
The closest American approximation of Greg Davies that I can think of is Keith Olbermann. Please let me finish. For sheer bombast, physical presence and quick wit, he’s as close as we’re going to get, and anyone of any political lean can agree that he needs to be kept as far away from politics and things of actual import as possible. This is all sports-ish, it’s in his wheelhouse. That’s what I would say.
Please don’t delete this email yet.
But American adaptations of British media don’t succeed by being as true to the source material as possible. Remember the first season or two of The Office where Steve Carell was just doing a Ricky Gervais impression and was thoroughly unlikeable? That show got its heart when Carell did, and it grew bigger and better as an American vehicle than its original could have ever aspired to. We have to know our audience here.
And I think there is someone out there who fits who we’d want an American Taskmaster to be (I’m sorry, Reggie). Someone with game show hosting experience, who can navigate and play to studio reactions with ease, a stalwart in the comedy community with the ability to banter laughs out of anybody, and whose value judgments are as tried-and-true as anybody in America.
The American Taskmaster should be Jon Stewart.
(Coincidentally, my ultimate stuntcasting of the host would be Barack Obama, but I think we’ve had enough of Presidents and game show hosting going hand-in-hand.)
The fact of the matter is, there’s just a lot more, well, dickishness you can get away with if you’ve got a British accent, and if you don’t have that you’ve got to earn your authority and presence a different way. Stewart has those in spades; who in comedy wouldn’t want to make him laugh or impress him?
Similarly, with respect to the likes of Lisa Lampanelli and Ron Funches, American viewers would want casually recognizable names among the contestants to draw eyeballs. Kate Berlant won the one season of American Taskmaster; I genuinely do not know who she is.
So as long as I’m rewriting history, I don’t think it would be unrealistic in these parameters to think a five-contestant panel of Andy Richter, Tiffany Haddish, Jason Mantzoukas, Daniel Levy and Cameron Esposito would be asking too much. And again, if we’re really really fantasy-casting, I’m calling Patton Oswalt, Leslie Jones, Nick Offerman, Tracy Morgan and Amy Poehler.
COMMENT PROMPT! Who’s your fantasy booking for this fictional version of Taskmaster?
But that’s all idle thought and wishing. You don’t need to imagine great television; it’s literally all on YouTube — except for Season 9, for reasons unexplained, save this one delightfully daffy task:
I mean it. Just start at S1E1, and you’ll be hooked. S2E1 runs the entire gamut of drama and human emotion in just one task, and you’ll thank me later for not spoiling it. The first two seasons (serieseses) are only 11 episodes combined, but at 45 minutes apiece, it can still turn into a dangerous binge* timewise.
*The ultimate dangerous binge? MARIJUANA.
But I’m telling you this, and I wouldn’t say this lightly: it is my favorite game show I have ever seen, and I want to share it with as many people as possible. I really hope you all enjoy it too.
STICK TO AFFIRMATIONS
Thanks for joining me today. We’ll always end on a kind word.
Baseball season is upon us, the pastoral pastime that celebrates our fleeting months of evening sunshine and summer breezes. It’ll be the first time since 2019 for most of us that baseball parks are open for fans to take in a game, and I hope you get the opportunity to do that this season; everyone deserves two bags of peanuts and a frosty malt at least once.
But even if you don’t like baseball, there’s plenty we can learn from it about what “success” is. Baseball’s by far the longest slog of a season, and the vast majority of teams (if not all) are going to end up winning at least 60 games and losing at least 60 games every year; it’s the 42 in-between that make the difference. These are the most competitive, talented players on earth, and they take dozens upon dozens of Ls per year. 29 of the 30 teams will end their season without a World Series trophy. And even the best hitters in the entire game are likely to walk away from the plate empty-handed more often than not.
Odds are if you’re reading this, you’re not a professional baseball player — not a professional athlete of any kind! — and your daily performance doesn’t show up in a box score in everyone’s newspaper or web browsers or apps every morning. So if guys like Mike Trout and Juan Soto can make room for losses and bad days at the plate as a matter of routine, with as much as they have on the line, certainly you can make room for your shortcomings alongside your successes too, just as readily as you make room for them in others.
It’s not just baseball, it’s life. So we might as well swing away.
Looking forward to your blog post where the A-Block is entitled; "Stick to 'Smooth' by Carlos Santana ft. Rob Thomas"