Chi-Town Rising Host Matt Iseman: Exclusive Interview

Hey Matt, thanks for taking the time to meet with us. Can you start us off with some background information about yourself and what it is that you do? 

“I’m best known as the host of American Ninja Warrior and the new spinoff Teen Ninja Warrior, which debuts in January on the Esquire channel. So that’s what I’m best known for now, but I’m also a stand-up comedian. I’ve toured around the world and done shows for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before that, I used to be a doctor, so I went to medical school, got my M.D. and then gave all of that up to do entertainment.

As a doctor, comedian, host, and actor – you’re obviously a very talented guy. What caused you to make the move from practicing medicine on a daily basis to a life of comedy and acting? 

“I think I’ve always been a creative guy. I know I’ve always liked making people laugh, but I never really considered it as a serious career option until I got into my residency. My heart just wasn’t in it as much as I was hoping it would be or as much as I felt it should be. I decided to take some time off to clear my mind and reevaluate what I wanted to do in life, and really, to see where I was going to focus in medicine. I didn’t think I was going to leave. My brother had done a ski bum year where he went and skied in Jackson Hole and I thought – I’d done stand-up a couple times – so I thought I’d just take a year, move out to L.A., do stand-up comedy and clear my mind.”

“So it just came down to me not feeling like I was passionate about what I was doing, and I was trying to discover my passion. I ended up finding out that I just loved performing. I love being in front of crowds. I love making people laugh. I love being in front of the camera, so rather than saving lives I’m telling jokes and talking about ninjas. And I’m very happy with it.”

You’ve won an Emmy, you’re the face of American Ninja Warrior, and you’ve given countless keynote presentations for doctors around the country. What part of your career has been the most fulfilling thus far? 

“That’s a good question. I love working, and so really anything I’m working on I really enjoy. Ninja Warrior has been amazing in that it’s a show that has grown from a cable show to a primetime network show. To be at almost 40 hours of primetime programming during the summer – it’s been kind of a home run.”

“But I think I love doing the thing that first brought me out here. Performing live & doing stand-up in front of a crowd. There’s something so immediate about being up there on stage with just a microphone and a crowd, just telling jokes. I think the best shows I’ve ever had have been those that I’ve done for the troops overseas. We’re in some forward operating base with 80 people – when the internet was bad and they didn’t have much. Doing shows for people who are putting their lives on the line was probably the most fulfilling thing I was able to do. These people are putting their lives on the line so that we can be free here to do something so ridiculous as talking about ninjas for a living.”

“It puts things in perspective. In this town, you focus on your career. You focus on yourself a lot. It kind of leads to a somewhat self-centered existence. I think you can get caught up a lot if you have a bad show. Comedians say, ‘we bombed, we died out there,’ and then you go and you’re around the troops where you really realize that things aren’t so bad.

Did you ever have an “I made it” moment? If so, what was that like?

“It’s funny. I think you realize it’s such an ephemeral business. Things don’t really last, so to say you’ve made it – you always feel like it could end tomorrow – and then you haven’t made it. So you’re a little superstitious and a little wary of feeling like you can relax or rest on your laurels. There’s a kind of hunger you feel in this business to always be working and getting better, and I think that makes you a better performer.”

“But there have definitely been some moments where – just today I was on set at the Hallmark Show and Geena Davis, Oscar winner, is there and we’re playing a game of Heads Up. Then I’m brewing beer in the kitchen for Eddie Money. So you get these moments where you’re getting to hang out with these people and see them in a different light.”

“And then to have people know Ninja Warrior. One of the great moments I had this year was when I hosted a fantasy sports conference. It was the first of its kind, people went out to Vegas and we had about 1,000 people come from all around the country to learn more about fantasy sports. We had a bunch of former NFL players there. Guys like Kyle Orton and Terrell Davis, two-time Super Bowl winner and coach Mike Shanahan. All of these players were there that I’ve been watching and a lot of them were coming up to me asking for photos and saying their kids are huge fans of American Ninja Warrior. I got such a kick out of it that at this point now, people may not know me, but they know the show. I just thought, wow, this is cool. This is just amazing to be a part of something – it’s the first project that when I say it, people know it. People have heard of it. People with kids especially. It’s been nice. My friends from college are like ‘oh, finally we actually see you doing something.’”

It says on your website you’ve attempted the American Ninja Warrior course. How far did you get?

“Well, there’s a preview of it. Just before the finale, they had a fan event. 1,500 people came out to watch the finale, and we did a huge preview. We set up a course with just three obstacles on it. At the end of the night, I was announcing and I said, ‘you know what? I’m going for it.’ I got through the Piston Road to the Devil Steps, which is essentially like climbing the underside of a set of stairs with just your hands. Adrenaline was coursing, and I got to the first step and instantly thought, ‘I’m in trouble.’ But I got up to the top of the obstacles, like ten steps. I’m doing pull ups, getting all the way up – and then my gas tank was empty. I fell and just tried not to injure myself. So one-and-a-half obstacles is my record right now.”

“Honestly, it was better than I thought I was going to do. I’ll be the first to admit it’s very easy to sit up in the tower and criticize people down on the course, saying what they should have done. I’ll admit, I cannot do what they do. It’s much easier to talk about what people should do than actually do it. People may say, ‘oh, that guy failed.’ You don’t fail. The reality is – until this year – nobody had ever completed it. You don’t fail, you just go out at different points.”

“One of the cool things about the show this year, we really started to understand and embrace people succeeding in their own way. We had this 21-year-old kid who described himself as severely autistic, and he said he’s come out of his shell training for American Ninja Warrior. He came out – and he wasn’t a tremendous athlete – they asked him if he was worried about failing and he said, ‘I can’t fail. Just by showing up and getting on this course, I’ve already won.’ What a great sentiment that really sums out how I view people who come on the show. People all have their stories and win different ways. You see people fall or go out earlier than they wanted to, but it just makes it that much better when they come back the next year and go a little further.”

“It’s a fun show to be a part of and see this community come together from nothing. The way that people support each other – it’s unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of.”

Isaac Caldiero was the first American to win the $1 million prize last year on the show. Watching it, we couldn’t help but get goose bumps as he neared the end. What was it like to experience that in person?

“Every year we’ve known we’ve had people capable of winning, but you realize the difficulty and difference between being capable and then actually doing it. You have to complete three stages in a night, back to back, when the lights are at their brightest, thousands of people are watching live, millions are watching at home, and millions of dollars are on the line. It was just amazing. Caldiero, we had a sense that this guy was amazing. When he got through stage three we thought he had a chance, and then Geoff Britten gets there as well.”

“One guy, a thirty-four-year-old family man with a full-time job, and Isaac Caldiero, the professional climber who lives out of his van. They have such different backgrounds and you see how they both turn in these incredible performances. It was amazing to watch Geoff do it, and then to see Isaac do it faster. We didn’t think either of them could physically get up that fast – we thought they were too exhausted. And then we see them both do it. It was just incredible.”

“And of course, I grew up as an athlete. I’ve seen a lot of great moments. You think of the Miracle on Ice, and for me, the Broncos winning the Super Bowl. To see someone do something that no American has ever done before – you’re witnessing history. It was so amazing to be there and feel like you’re a part of something – getting to call it. What’s great is, Akbar and I, we get to be fans. We don’t have to be partial. We’re pulling for everyone. You get to know them and their stories. It was such a cool moment to get to say, ‘We have our first American Ninja Warrior.’”

On to the main event then, you’re co-hosting Chi-Town Rising this year with Mario Lopez. Can you tell us a little bit about the event and why you chose to take part in it?

“What an exciting event. I was actually scheduled to do stand-up comedy in Denver, and I’m getting to the age now where I love a New Year’s Eve party, but I’d probably have more fun performing – and less of a hangover. But they called and said the Central Time Zone didn’t get to watch the New Year’s Eve ball drop at midnight. They wanted to do something special and do it in Chicago. I’ve been to Chicago a few times and I just love the city. I love the energy, and every time I go there I end up staying up late and having a blast. The people are friendly, and I think the colder it gets the warmer they find a way to stay.”

“I thought, if you’re going to do it outside of New York, Chicago is a great place to get these people together and get a whole bunch of people in the streets all having a good time together. What I love is – when you host these events – you feel like you’re throwing a party for all of these people. So, I’m excited to throw a party for all of Chicago and let everyone else in the Central Time Zone watch.”

“I’m excited to hang with Mario Lopez, A.C. Slater on stage. I’m hoping it’s cold enough that he keeps his shirt on because I have not been doing sit-ups.”

Can you give us a breakdown of some of the more exciting things that we can expect to see?

“We’re still learning, but it sounds like we’re going to have different venues. There’s going to be a Corona Party House. Mario is going to be at Millennium Park. I’m going to be at one of the hotels – they’re going to have a great set up there. And we’re going to be bouncing around. They’re going to have different acts, different talent hanging around. If you want to party indoors the Corona House is going to have a meal there, some DJs. If you want to go out and listen to Chicago the band or American Authors playing, you can go and hang out with Mario or with me at the hotel. We’re going to be talking to some veterans and some other folks. If you just want to come hang out and take part in a big party, it sounds like this is going to be the thing to do in Chicago.”

“Chicago has a hearty stock of people, so I think no matter how cold it is, people are going to show up. They might have a little liquid something to keep them warm, and we’re going to have a very good time together.”

I’m sure this event isn’t going to be the first time you’ve come to Chicago by any means. Do you have any special memories of the Windy City that you’d like to share with us?

“I played baseball growing up, so going to Wrigley Field and sitting in the bleachers was amazing. It’s one of the cradles of the history of baseball. So doing that was amazing.”

“I’ve been to Chicago for some Notre Dame games where we would go to South Bend, which doesn’t exactly have a thriving nightlife, so we’d come back to Chicago. My cousin lived here for a while. I went out in Wrigleyville a few times. I thought that people were really friendly and really fun. I’ve never had a bad time out on the town in Chicago.”

“I’ve performed here a few times doing some stand-up and loved the vibe – loved the comedy. So I’m really looking forward to doing New Year’s Eve here.”

On that note, any New Year’s Resolutions?

“Well… it’s not gonna be to eat less!” [laughing]

“Maybe to make New Year’s in Chicago a new tradition. That’s my resolution.”

That would be great! What does the future hold for you?

“Ninja Warrior is coming back for season eight, and we’ve got the spinoff show that’s coming out in January. I’m doing Hallmark and other than that I really don’t know. It’s one of those things where you don’t really know what the next opportunity is, but I’m looking forward to it and having a blast. I’m looking forward to hanging out with Mario Lopez and getting in a bunch of Saved by the Bell references until he threatens to punch me in the mouth. I’m looking forward to having a good time and seeing what’s next. I have no idea what it’s going to be though.”

So Matt, I’ve got to ask you, who built you such an awesome website?

Youtech & Associates and Wilbur You. The website is awesome, but the best part is the timeliness of the updates. I’ve dealt with a lot of web people in the past who have operated on their own schedule. The thing I love – the creativity is great – but the professionalism is unparalleled, so Wilbur crushed it.”

 

You can find out more about Matt, American Ninja Warrior, and his upcoming schedule at mattiseman.com.

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