Iain Stirling Loves Love Island, Taskmaster, and American Television

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Iain Stirling Loves <i>Love Island</i>, <i>Taskmaster</i>, and American Television

Peacock’s Love Island USA—a cheeky, streaming-first revamp of the CBS adaptation that premiered in 2019 and ran for three seasons before handing American rights over to Peacock for a two-season order earlier this year—launches its first season this week. Featuring a contractually obligatory bevy of hot international singles and hosted by Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland, the Peacock version of one of the goofiest shows to take American audiences by pandemic-storm promises to hew much closer to the UK original than the previous broadcast version. For one thing, life on a streaming platform offers a lot more, uh, flexibility (to speak in euphemism) than life on a broadcast network like CBS does. More importantly, though, Peacock has picked up on one of the elements that makes the UK original stand out not just to international audiences, but to fans of comedy.

That’s right: Love Island USA is bringing back Scottish comedian Iain Stirling as the series’ quippy, disembodied narrator.

Paste got on the phone with Stirling in advance of Love Island USA’s big streaming relaunch to talk about the process of adapting the series’ signature lexicon and tongue-in-cheek tone for an American audience, adjusting to post-pandemic notoriety, and, of course, Taskmaster.

Note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Paste: So I’m coming from what feels like an increasingly rare position: I actually have no background at all with Love Island! But when Peacock reached out to Paste about getting on the phone with you, I was like, well, I loved Iain on Taskmaster, and I loved his recent stand-up special, so yeah, let’s go!

Iain Stirling: Oh no way! This is great. This is great news. Yeah, Taskmaster and Love Island are definitely the two things I’m the most proud of in terms of, like, television stuff. This is so good.

Paste: And the dog puppet.

Stirling: Hacker’s also up there! I thought that would have been a reference too far for an American, but clearly not, clearly you’re all over it.

Paste: Well, I’ve done my reading. Okay, so I’m going to back up a little bit, because I’m trying to get myself in the habit of asking this question at the beginning of interviews: How would you like to be identified? So pronouns, of course, but then also, how do you refer to yourself? As a comedian? A writer? A stand-up?

Stirling: Yes, he/him, thank you! And probably comedian, but I’m not particularly precious. I’ve been called worse.

Paste: So both for me and any other American readers who might be coming to Love Island completely fresh, can you give a quick rundown of how you came to the project?

Stirling: I’d done stand-up at university, stand-up comedy, and someone from Children’s BBC saw me and asked me to be a kids’ TV presenter. So I started in kids’ TV, and one of the first shows I did was doing voiceover for a show called 12 Again, where celebrities talk about their life when they were twelve, a talking-heads sort of thing. And then about four years later, an episode of that show got sent to ITV, who make Love Island, and they gave me the [Love Island voiceover] job off the back of that show, basically. That’s the skinny!

Paste: You had a joke in your special about being pitched to do The Bachelor: Scotland, which put into relief how silly it would be to try to remove that franchise from its original American context. That’s probably the biggest one we’ve got going right now, but there have always been just so many dating shows in the US—how are they perceived on the other side of the ocean?

Stirling: The American ones, or dating shows in general?

Paste: The American ones. Or at least, the American approach to the genre.

Stirling: They’ve got like a cult viewing, but I think they’re just sort of culturally there. Like, I don’t imagine there’ll be many British people who wouldn’t know what The Bachelor is, for example. A lot of them are like cultural touchstones. But I don’t know that [many British people] actually watch them. It’s probably very similar to how Love Island is watched in America, like it’s got that sort of cult-y following with certain people.

Paste: So at the beginning of the second season of Ted Lasso, Jamie Tartt finds his way onto Lust Conquers All, which even to someone like me who hadn’t watched Love Island previously, was easily parsable as a Love Island send-up. What did you think of their take on your guys’ show? Especially because Love Island is already sort of a send-up of itself.

Stirling: Yeah, I love Ted Lasso! I know a lot of guys and girls that write on that, and am really good friends with Brett Goldstein. They were [actually] writing that [scene] as I was working on Love Island.

And yeah, I thought it was really well done. And it’s sort of what you were saying—I found it really funny, obviously, but also quite flattering, because their send-up of it was the tone that I take with the show.

Paste: That’s cool. So I read that. Well, let me back up a little bit. So Love Island it got started in 2015, so it’s been around for like seven years?

Stirling: There was [actually] an original show called Celebrity Love Island that was even earlier than that. It had only gone like two series, but again, it had a sort of cult status about it, so then it was revived in 2015. But yeah, the revised version is so much more watched than what the original was.

Paste: Okay, so the revised version has been around for like seven years, but then it didn’t really hit American audiences until the start of the pandemic.

Stirling: Which I think is quite funny! Because in the UK, we all went mad for Married at First Sight: Australia [when the pandemic started]. So in the UK, everyone became obsessed with Married at First Sight: Australia around the same time. Not quite *literally* everyone was watching that, and I’m not saying not everyone in America is watching Love Island, but it was around the same time that some of me and my wife’s friends from New York were getting into Love Island UK as we were watching Married at First Sight: Australia.

Paste: So as you point out in your special (Failing Upwards, streaming now on Prime Video), because your role in Love Island is as the disembodied narrator, you’ve got such a recognizable voice, but not necessarily a recognizable face. What was your experience like as the show got bigger during the pandemic? Like, did that wave of popularity hit you from the US?

Stirling: I’ve definitely got more messages being like, Oh, can you come here to do a gig in the US? And then the last time I was on holiday in the US—and I was there for a long time—I had like maybe two or three people recognize my voice, which is mad, over in America! Also I think as well because, for an American, the accent must be harder to place, so they gamble at “the Scottish guy from Love Island is randomly in New York or whatever!” So yeah, I’ve definitely noticed that more people are into it. [But] it’s more really cool things like people that I really look up to and respect [are watching it]. Like, I saw that Amy Schumer was talking about it loads. Stuff like that’s absolutely wild. Not necessarily me, individually, but the show in general. So stuff like that’s really cool.

Paste: What was the process like bringing Love Island over to the US for this new adaptation?I know CBS had done an American spin-off before, but it didn’t really last. So what was the process like, at least from your end, getting the format moved over to Peacock, for American audiences?

Stirling: So they’d done the series previously with CBS, and it actually was brilliant! I think the problem was—and I’m not massively up on these sorts of things—but on network television, I think it’s very hard to sort of show the raunchier side of dating and reality. So I think it was more a case of getting [the show] onto a streaming service and then trying to get closer to the UK version in terms of, you know, the raunchy side of things. Not that there’s anything, on the UK side, there’s nothing raunchy in terms of, like… there’s no nudity, you don’t see anyone doing anything, you know what I mean? And even every series, whenever the contestants are talking about any sort of sexual relations, they always have to come up with a sort of ridiculously stretched metaphor to deal with it. Like, “dinner servings” is one, I think it’s a “salon” this time, like, “what treatments have you got at the salon?” Like that sort of thing. So yeah, [moving to Peacock] is just getting closer to that.

Paste: Yeah, American TV can be… weirdly prudish in a way that is, like, actively harmful to comprehension.

Stirling: Yeah, and it’s sort of funny to me as well, because obviously my main connection to America is through stand-up, where I feel like stand-up in America still pushes things more than UK stand up does—at least, generally speaking. So yeah, this is a thing I’m really excited about getting my head around, because I’ve never done any American television or anything. Basically, I know Netflix, and that’s it. So I’m still trying to watch everything that I can.

Paste: Were there any kind of adjustments that you had to make to, like, the way you would say things or frame things, either for the American audience that you were writing for, or even to suit Peacock’s American executives?

Stirling: Well, there’s always the language and stuff, but not even necessarily, like, the all the basic stuff we all [already] know, like, that we call it “aubergine” and you call it “eggplant,” etc, etc. But it’s more that Love Island has got its own, like, lexicon around it isn’t. Like, if you’ve dumped someone or ignored someone we call it “mugging them off,” and then “grafting” means when you try to flirt with somebody. So there’s all these terms that are, like, ingrained into the show, that the American version doesn’t have yet. But I’m sure they’ll eventually come up with their own, because these have been made literally by contestants saying those things, and then it just becomes part of [the national lexicon]. A lot of those words, like “grafting” and “mugged off,” are pretty much universally used in the UK.

So there’s those little things we don’t quite know [yet]. And then because when we do the voiceover, we’ve only got two lines, really, to do a joke and set something up, those little idioms are really helpful. They save us so many words! So we’ll have to get our heads around that sort of thing as well, which is interesting.

Paste: Have you found it challenging, to force your brain to work around that?

Stirling: So we’ve done a couple of basically practice episodes, just in my basement, and so far it’s been a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. But then when this season starts—and of course I would say “series” there!—but when the season starts proper, we’ll see how we get on. But I think it should be okay. But it is funny how the show does have this language bit that isn’t [fully formed] in America yet. But maybe it’ll come! That’d be cool.

Paste: Do you have American writers working with you guys for those?

Stirling: We don’t, actually. We’ve got another Scottish guy, and an Australian guy, but the Australian guy wrote on the first three series of Love Island [on CBS], so I think he gets it. And also, I was saying this to my friend before, but because America is so massive, culturally, across the world—like, if you go on the BBC News website, half of it is, like, the US election—

Paste: I am so sorry about that.

Stirling: No, there you go! I mean, there’s a lot to talk about and unpack, isn’t there? But yeah, apart from maybe sport, pretty much everything from America makes it over here. Television, culture, food, it all bleeds in, really, so I know the basics, just by osmosis.

Paste: Did you guys do any adjustments to the formula for the Peacock adaptation, or is it pretty much going to be what people expect?

Stirling: I think they’re going to try and stick as true to the original format as possible, because there is a sort of general vibe that the British one has that’s landed in the US, to an extent—because we are so similar, the Brits and the Americans, in so many ways. Obviously we’re gonna spice up this stuff a little bit interesting for America, but I think they’re gonna try and keep it as close to the original.

And then, obviously, the idea is that it runs and runs and then you can add your own little flavor and stuff.

Paste: We have time for just a couple more questions, so I’m going to jump ship for a second and ask you about your time on Taskmaster, which is a Paste favorite. So I’m curious, now that it’s been a couple of years since you’ve been on and so have presumably had some time to think about it, what was your most memorable task? Or even if you have a standout memory that’s not attached to a specific task.

Stirling: Well, my favorite task, definitely, was when we had to get across the train tracks to Alex without him seeing us. That was just so epic and fun, and it was one of the few tasks we didn’t do in the house, so it felt special.

But then my most memorable moment was—so, I lived with, for a long time, the comedian Phil Wang, we’re really close friends and we go back, we go way back, we did our first Edinburgh Fringe Festival together. And he’d done it a year or two before me, so when I signed on [to my series] he was like, Oh, you’re really going to find out about yourself on this show! And I thought he was being sort of London-y about it. And then I actually went on it, and yeah, it’s actually quite an insight into your soul!

So yeah, I like 90% love that show, and then… well, also it’s hard to explain to America, but in the UK, I’m not, like, a “panel show comedian.” I don’t go on those live comedy panel shows and stuff; I’ve never done one before, really. So I sort of made a few decisions that I thought would be quite funny, and I look back now and I wish I’d been more, just, myself on it. But [at the same time] it’s so genuinely one of my proudest moments. I love that show so much. And I think the reason I sometimes get in my own head about it is because I love it so much. And weirdly, the nature of that show is that, once you’ve been on it, that’s it! Normally you go on a TV comedy show and go, Oh, well, I’ll pull back and another time I can do it a bit differently. But [with Taskmaster], that’s it, I’ve done it now! But it was fantastic. And that trainyard task was definitely the most memorable.

Paste: Okay, to jump back into Love Island USA once more, is there anything else that I didn’t ask that you’re excited about?

Stirling: No, I mean, only that it genuinely just blows my mind that people in America want to talk to me! I think I hadn’t fully understood—not that it’s, like, huge or anything—but I didn’t realize that people in America liked the British version [so much] and it’s sort of taken off the way it has. I’m just genuinely really flattered to be making telly in America. Because that’s the pinnacle, innit? America’s the big one!

Paste: We have very few things going for us but that’s among them, I guess.

Stirling: Yeah, your TV, your TV is absolutely excellent. So congratulations on that.

Paste: Thanks, thanks. Real monkey’s paw situation with that.

Stirling: Well, I don’t know how much makes it over there, but we’re not much better in the UK at the moment. So I wouldn’t worry too much!

Love Island USA is streaming now on Peacock, with new episodes dropping six days a week.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.