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7 May 2023

In the gym, lifting weights, I am enthralled by how far a teabag can be thrown

In between sets a gym bro approached me and asked what I was laughing at so audibly. The answer: Taskmaster.

By Pippa Bailey

If you’re the kind of woman who likes to lift more than 4kg in the gym, chances are that every now and again a man – the kind who checks himself out in the mirrors, and might be 95 per cent steroids – will ask you if you need help. The free-weights room is a man’s world, after all (I counted, on one recent visit, 18 men to two women), and occasionally a helpless woman stumbles in from the treadmills, lost and in danger. I’m being facetious, of course, but it was with a sinking sense of impending mansplaining that I removed a headphone as a gym bro approached me on Friday, in a break between sets. I needn’t have worried; he simply wanted to know what I was laughing at – more audibly, apparently, than I had realised.

The answer: Frankie Boyle encouraging a blindfolded Ivo Graham to collect spoons with a magnet on a string, speaking to him exclusively in a high-pitched voice. “Are you blind, Ivo? Don’t worry I have you,” he squeaked, a little Dickensian. “Now, Ivo, I’m going to guide you into a situation of some danger.” I did not explain the details to Gym Bro, so as not to seem too mad. Instead, I answered: Taskmaster.

For fans of the show, there are moments so iconic that only a few words need be spoken to bring it to mind: “watermelon”, “the potato hole”, “Josh’s tattoo”, “that noise”. I often pause while watching an episode to have long and involved conversations with my sofa-mate about how exactly we would go about a task. And then there’s the accompanying podcast, available immediately after each episode airs, so you can relive its events with host Ed Gamble (series nine winner) and his guest.

My love for Taskmaster, while pure and unwavering, is not particularly original. I am in danger of sounding, I realise, like one of the many thousands of men on dating apps who think that their favourite TV show being the US Office amounts to a personality. Nor am I bringing word of a brilliant new show you’ve never heard of: the series currently airing on Channel 4 is number 15. But for the unversed, Taskmaster is a TV show where five comedians attempt tasks of varying degrees of ridiculousness – set by the taskmaster’s assistant, Alex Horne – in the hope of being awarded points by the taskmaster, Greg Davies. He – for me and my questionable taste in men, at least – is one of the show’s main draws, all 6ft 8in of him. I just want him to tell me what to do and judge my efforts. He used to date the Labour MP Liz Kendall, so I figure we at least share some politics…

But, really, the brilliance of Taskmaster is that none of it matters. The stakes are barely visible to the human eye. There is no real-world importance to how far a person can throw a teabag or how inspired is their music video for a nursery rhyme. It’s simply funny. I may be the silliest person in my household – as recently voted by a thumbs up/down poll of the children – but you watch Jenny Eclair having the time of her life trying to catch potatoes in the upended top hat she is wearing, and tell me it’s not.

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Gym Bro, on the slim chance you’re a New Statesman reader, I’m sorry for thinking you wanted anything from me other than to join in with the joke.

[See also: Now that I have cancer, how should I live?]

Earlier this year, in my desperate search to remind myself of how blood works – GCSE biology was a long time ago – I came across the Ologies podcast, on which a scientist speaks in geeky, joyful detail about their specialism. Think: delphinology (dolphins), or corvid thanatology (crow funerals). Do you know what a prostate does? Or that a man’s urethra is five times longer than a woman’s? Or that there is no evidence that peeing after sex prevents UTIs? I did not. (As may be clear, all these questions are answered in one episode, on urology.)

In a chance bit of scheduling, the latest episode, on stem cells, landed in my podcast app on the same day that my brother was in hospital, hooked up to an apheresis machine to harvest his stem cells for the transplant that will hopefully save our father’s life. There seemed a curious disconnect between how huge the procedure’s potential consequences are and the straightforward, non-invasive process. The greatest inconvenience – urology again – was that he could not use the toilet for the duration.

After my brother was informed that they had managed to collect more than enough cells in a single sitting, I’m told he enjoyed a celebratory wee.

[See also: My life flashed before me. Hang on: where were the good bits?]

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?