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‘American Ninja Warrior’ host Matt Iseman brings upbeat humor to Off the Hook

ON THE MOST SOMBER, RAINIEST OF DAYS, Matt Iseman would boast about that tiny ray of sunshine peeking through the storm clouds. Such is life for the standup comedian and charismatic co-host of “American Ninja Warrior,” who performs at Off the Hook Comedy Club in Naples Aug. 24-26.

Known for his super-upbeat personality on television, Mr. Iseman draws from a number of medical-related experiences to explain his sunny attitude as well as his brand of humor.

“I’ve always been a fairly optimistic guy,” he said of his larger-than-life persona on-screen. “Having been a doctor, seeing what real life and death situations truly are … I realize at the end of the day this is all silliness, but it really is a good time.”

That’s right. Mr. Iseman left a career in medicine to pursue his passion in standup comedy — after completing medical school at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City and a residency in internal medicine in his hometown of Denver, Colo.

“Standup is my first love,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “The immediacy of standing on stage, the crowd letting you know when it’s funny. When it’s going well, riding the wave, feeling such a rush, there’s nothing like it.”

He concedes his timing could’ve been better as far as his career decision-making was concerned, but he thinks it’s never too late to take a shot at something you love.

“Deep down, a lot of us can feel that itch. My advice: Take a shot, especially when you’re young. Even if you fall flat on your face, get back up. You just learned a lesson.”

No laughing matter

On paper, medicine seemed like the perfect career path for Mr. Iseman. “I always loved math and science, and I actually really enjoyed studying,” he said. But as Dr. Iseman, he never felt like he was helping people as much as he could. And he suffered immense guilt not being fully invested in the profession.

“Honestly, it came down to the fact that my heart wasn’t in it,” he said. “There are a lot of jobs you can do halfway, punch a time clock, go home. But medicine is a calling; people give you this sacred trust of placing their lives in your hands.”

When he decided to give up medicine and pursue standup, some people called him crazy. “My friends who knew me said, ‘You’re not that funny. What are you doing? You’re walking away from a career!’” he recalled.

He’s grateful that his parents — even his M.D. father — supported his life-changing decision. But still, “It would have been a lot easier to quit med school before I graduated.”

Within three weeks of moving to L.A., he knew he’d never go back to a life of scrubs and medical charts.

Now he spends his time on the road doing standup and hosting “American Ninja Warrior.”

It’s not about winning

Mr. Iseman co-hosts a unique show in “ANW.” The program began on the little-known G4 network. Although the network failed, the show survived to start a run on NBC that continues four years later. It has achieved a cult-like following across the country, with competitors of all ages trying their best to get through an obstacle course that can feel daunting even for viewers sitting at home on the couch.

The salmon ladder is one of the more iconic challenges in the regional qualifying rounds: The Ninja hangs from a horizontal bar 20-30 feet over an icy pool and must leap (along with the bar) up a series of four to six pegs to advance to the next obstacle.

Each obstacle pushes the limits of strength, balance and coordination. Ninjas who successfully complete the finals course in their region move on to the national finals in Las Vegas, where they face the vaunted four-stage course, Mount Midoriyama, which was designed in Japan.

The winner takes home $1 million.

Only one Ninja has done it in eight years, and yet, the number of competitors continues to skyrocket in the United States.

“The most amazing thing is unlike any other competitive show, it’s not about having one winner,” Mr. Iseman said, adding Ninjas “have victorious runs in so many different ways,” even when they don’t complete a challenge.

“Sometimes they don’t hit the buzzer, but they’re better for pushing themselves, taking a shot,” he said. “Their lives changed just by seeing what they can do. I love seeing people come out and say they were on the couch a year ago, and here they are competing in front of millions of viewers.”

Helping hand

In addition to becoming host of a hit TV show and carving out a niche as a standup comic in the years since he stopped making doctor’s rounds, Mr. Iseman has raised a lot of money for a cause very dear to his heart. And hands.

The former physician also happens to be reigning champion of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” having used that platform to raise nearly $1 million for the Arthritis Foundation, which he got involved in after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 31. Now 46, his experiences with the ailment and as a doctor inform his comedic leanings and allow him to help those who were diagnosed before revolutionary drugs came out to treat RA.

“I was lucky to respond to this new class of drugs that came out in 1998, right before I was diagnosed,” he said, adding treatment for RA “was the Wild West” before those drugs. “I know that my life right now is in large part due to groups like the Arthritis Foundation that put the money out there to fund the research to discover these drugs.

“I would love someday to hear this illness is something of the past, something we found the cure for.”

Taping of “The Celebrity Apprentice” wrapped up in early 2016, just as show host Donald Trump was starting to gain attention in the race for president. Mr. Iseman was disheartened by the political cloud that hung over the reality show by the time it aired almost a year later.

“Nobody even gave (Trump) a thought,” he recalled of the filming. “Arnold Schwarzenegger was the boss. It was in Los Angeles instead of New York … The show got politicized, which is unfortunate. In the end, it raised a few million dollars on behalf of some awesome charities. It was disappointing because we worked so hard on the show and then (politics) overshadowed it a little bit.”

Despite the distractions, he’s grateful for the experience of being part of “The Celebrity Apprentice.” He got to meet one of his biggest idols in Mr. Schwarzenegger, along with stepping into the pressure cooker that every athlete on “American Ninja Warrior” endures.

“With ‘Ninja,’ I risk nothing … I’m the host. ‘Apprentice’ was the total opposite. Every second I was on camera being scrutinized. It’s a reminder of what ‘Ninja’ athletes go through,” he said. “Most of them didn’t play sports at a high level … They’re leading normal lives, and here they are competing in front of thousands and millions at home.”

The twists and turns of his career don’t get lost on Mr. Iseman. He recalled a birthday party he went to recently for his new friend, Mr. Schwarzenegger. He sat at a table with the guest of honor, actor Tom Arnold, and legendary film director James Cameron, among other iconic film actors and celebrities.

“I get to go on stage for 45 minutes and tell jokes,” he said. “I talk about Ninjas. It’s ridiculous!” ¦

Matt Iseman

>> Who: Co-host of “American Ninja Warrior”

>> When: Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 24-26

>> Where: Off the Hook Comedy Club, 2500 Vanderbilt Beach Road, Naples

>> Also coming up: Philadelphia Plowden, Aug. 31 (one night only); Ralphie May, Sept. 7-9; and Marlon Wayans, Sept. 13-15

Matt Iseman
Matt Iseman
I'm the host of American Ninja Warrior and I'm squaring off against 15 other celebrities, all representing their favorite charities while vying for the title of “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
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