“Musical comedy is a weird one, isn’t it?”: Taskmaster’s Alex Horne on global fame, Ferraris and trying to write funny songs with “GarageBand and a really crap microphone”

Alex Horne
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“Yes, I am the leader of The Horne Section,” admits Alex Horne with an uncomfortable lift of the eyebrows. “Nominally, I am the leader or the frontman or whatever you want to call it. Unfortunately, that gives people the impression that I’m at the centre of everything we do and every song we write. It gives people the impression that I’m a talented musician.

“Can I scotch those rumours here and now,” he adds. “If I would ever think of calling myself a musician, it would be a pretty rubbish one. When it comes to Horne Section songs, the bulk are written by the band and I get far too much credit. On the other hand, my main job on Taskmaster is taking my clothes off and looking like an idiot. Now, that’s something I am good at!”

Over the course of 14 very strange years, Alex Horne has become one of the most successful names in British comedy. What started out as a bizarre idea for the Edinburgh Fringe - Horne getting his comedian mates to perform surreal tasks - was eventually picked up by the comedy-heavy digital channel, Dave, in 2015. Sitting somewhere between a panel show and a sitcom, Taskmaster was an instant hit, with nominations for the TV Baftas and International Emmys.

Although some suggested that a big money move to Channel 4 in 2020 could have damaged the show’s “cult” cache, those awards and nominations just kept on coming. International versions were springing up all over the place: Australia, Croatia, Germany, Norway, Sweden and the US. There’s a board game, a video game... there was even Home Tasking during the Covid Pandemic.

As co-host - with the genial giant, Greg Davies - and creator, Horne is justly proud of what’s been achieved but flashes an ironic grin when I ask if his worldwide fame has made him a multi-millionaire with a fleet of Ferraris in the garage.

“That’s right. I’ve actually got 12 Ferraris and I live in a castle at the top of a mountain.”

Does he get recognised more these days?

“Obviously, we’re all pleased at how well the show has done, but we’re not Strictly... we’re not Doctor Who. The international thing was a nice surprise. I had people coming up to me when I was on holiday in Canada and Greg got stopped in New Zealand. I was in a bar in Portugal last year and the Portuguese version was being shown on telly. That was very odd because I was beaming like a proud father, but nobody had the faintest idea who I was.”

Alongside Taskmaster, Horne’s parallel career as “frontman” of the aforementioned musical comedy band, Horne Section, has blossomed. The band’s impressive list of musical collaborators includes Noel Gallagher, Robbie Williams, Florence and the Machine, Jessie Ware and James Bond composer, David Arnold. There have been sold-out tours, TV specials, guest spots during the 2021 Euros and a ludicrously successful podcast series.

“Musical comedy is a weird one, isn’t it?” muses Horne. “If your mate rings you up and asks if you want to go and see a comedy band, there is that moment when you... shudder. Hmm, funny songs. With comedy song titles.”

Time, then, to find out how Horne balances those two disciplines...

You’ve talked about Monty Python and Blackadder being your early comedy influences, but who were your musical comedy heroes?

“My mum loved Flanders & Swann and she used to play them all the time, but the whole idea of ‘musical comedy’ used to be much more... well, it was different in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“I suppose the person who really opened my eyes to what you could achieve was Bill Bailey. Even if you look at some of the very early shows, he was seamlessly blending music and comedy. It never felt forced because the songs were as funny as the jokes.

“Harry Hill often added musical elements, then there was Flight of the Conchords, of course. And Ken Dodd. Yes, he was primarily a joke man, but there were always musical sections in his live shows. Some songs were funny, some were rather wistful and heartfelt. Light and shade. I’m a huge Ken Dodd fan and he was my chosen subject when I went on Mastermind.”

Is musical comedy harder than either music or comedy on its own?

“Yes and no. With a comedian, you’ve got joke, joke, joke... bang, bang, bang. Obviously, the jokes still have to be funny. If you watch your favourite band, they play the hits and everybody goes home happy. If you’re doing musical comedy and you play your best-known songs, people already know the funny bits. Are the songs still funny? You still have to put as much effort into crafting those songs as a regular band does, but then you’ve also got to make them funny. Properly funny... you’re trying to make people laugh.”

How do the songs actually get written?

“With the Taskmaster tasks, I sometimes dream them. I literally wake up in the morning and think, ‘Yes, that’s a brilliant idea’. The songs take a lot more work. Yes, I do occasionally have a vaguely funny idea that won’t fit on Taskmaster and it isn’t quite a joke. Could it be a song? I might bash that around at home with my copy of GarageBand and a really crap microphone. I might even get it to a point where I think, ‘That could work’. But, like I said earlier, the rest of the band are the ones who add the magic.

“They are incredible musicians and they make me look much better than I am. If I had an idea about doing something with a vintage French jazz feel, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. They’re the ones who bring it to life. Take our most well-known - and inappropriate - song, Grandaddy. That was created entirely without me, and I think that speaks volumes.”

The Horne Section are about to go out on tour for most of 2024. What can people expect?

“I’m supposed to say, ‘Expect the unexpected’, which is a complete cliché, but... it’s the truth.”

And do people sing along? Even to the inappropriate bits of Grandaddy? “Grandaddy checks the A-ness. So, you can taste the pea-ness?”

“Oh, God, yes! The crowd know the songs better than we do!”

The Horne Section’s UK tour begins on March 6 in Cambridge