Since season two of American Ninja Warrior, there have been over 100 episodes. That means over an estimated 4000 Ninjas have stepped up to the starting line since that early season. Ninja Warrior has changed style, networks and fan audience size drastically in that time.
Why are we talking about season two? Because that’s when JR Osborne joined the crew of the show. In his role, that has developed from a production assistant to second assistant director, JR has become a bit of a legend on the set.
“Ever since we started doing it in Venice, I've put every single Ninja on the starting line.”
Each and every nervous rookie, adrenaline filled veteran and even those celebrity guest Ninjas have had to go through JR. On the nights of taping, Ninjas are sent to JR after they’re pulled from the “holding pen.” He gives them their last words of encouragement before signaling them to make their epic walk up the stairs to the starting line, taking the first, or next step in their Ninja careers in front of a national audience.
JR joined the crew when A. Smith and Co. came on as the show’s production company. With his laid back attitude and sense of humor, he’s a staple on set, but makes sure to never distract from the Ninjas. In fact, when we first asked him for an interview, JR turned us down flat. It took a some prodding from executive producers to get JR to agree to have a little attention on himself.
We finally managed to wrangle JR onto a phone call to talk with him about what it’s been like to watch American Ninja Warrior grow almost from the very beginning.
Responses are lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you describe your role to us? What are your tasks as a second AD?
JO: As the second AD, I do everything the first ADs do really. Which is getting cameras where they need to be, helping out with scheduling. Basically I move all the Ninjas around, and help put them where they need to be. And then kind of give them a pep talk on the line before they go.
What's your career path been like to get to this role?
JO: Honestly? I got into this career because of nepotism, I can thank my dad for it. I started PA-ing in high school because my dad wouldn't give me an allowance. So PA-ing on the weekends was a job, like music videos and stuff. Then got lucky and got the call for that job (Ninja Warrior), and I've hung on, tightly.
My dad is an AD. He kind of does the same things I do, just charges a lot more. He used to do videos back in the day. He did movies. He did "Bad Grandpa." He's worked with the “Jackass” guys. I have pictures with Tupac when I was a little kid because he used to work with him a lot. He's just been around the production block.
This is a high school weekend job that turned into a career. I enjoy all aspects of it. So whoever calls, if I'm available, I'm pretty game to jump on anything. Any production. There's no goal in mind, just kind of taking everything as it comes in.
What has it been like to watch American Ninja Warrior grow from a small show to a huge hit?
JO: It's been rad. I remember the first couple seasons, we were kind of wondering if it would stick, or if it would even come back. Then it turned into traveling, which was a pretty big step. And now, every little kid in the world knows all about it. It's kind of cool because we saw it from its infancy. Even looking back at what the obstacles were to what they are now, it's kind of fun to see.
Have you tried any of the obstacles?
JO: No. I like to pretend and tell people I do. Everybody laughs and kind of sees right through that.
You're famous on the set for escorting Ninjas to the start. Tell us more about what it means to "walk the Ninjas to the start line."
JO: I kind of thought that was the smallest part of my job, just because it's one of those mundane things I tried to make interesting. You see like 120-130 people a night who go through (the course), so you try to mix it up. Try to make it fun.
Basically I just tell them where to stand for the cameras and when to start. We count them in so they know when to start. But with the lights and the crowd, competitors start to get nervous, they forget it's all about having fun. I remind them that it's about having fun. You've waited a whole year for this, don't mess it up.
Do you have any memorable stories from Ninjas on the starting line?
JO: Well you know I've been doing it for so long, you see some of the same kids back over and over. Flip Rodriguez, Brent Steffensen. You start to build relationships with them. So some of them, we kind of have things that we do every time. I don't know. It's kind of hokey, but fake handshakes or something like that.
One time in Vegas, I don't want to say his name in case it embarrasses him, but a Ninja kind of had a little panic attack on the start line. Kind of freaked out. I had to pull him down, walk him off, and give him a little pep talk. Just be like, "Alright dude, get up there." That was kind of cool. He still comes around all the time. I still see him a lot.
Are you familiar with the contestant's back stories as you’re walking them to the start line?
JO: Honestly, no. I'm not familiar with any of their back stories. All I know about them in general is what I've gathered from meeting them, and then watching some of the shows on TV.
But if they're new, or I haven't met them before, I don't know their back story. But I try to treat them all the same. They're all here to do the same thing. You just gotta be that last smiling face before they hit the course.
Do you wish you knew their backstories?
JO: Sometimes I do. In one instance, when the night gets late, and you're kind of getting frustrated and you’re hustling to get all these things done, sometimes I can be short with them. In that case, I kind of regret it because, for me, I'm there to do a job. They're there to have a good time.
But usually I don't really want to know. They're just people wanting to run the course. That's all I need to know.
I don't find out the backstory until the show. I like to keep it that way so they're all just cool Ninjas to me.
How have you seen the contestants change over the years?
JO: It's gotten a lot younger. The kids have gotten a lot younger. Maybe I've just gotten older. But the competition, they're all just hungry kids who can do more things than we thought were possible back in the day.
Like Kevin Bull doing that backflip and landing it. That was one of the greatest things I've ever seen.
The first time we went to Stage Three with Brent (Steffensen) was pretty fun. That was a pretty memorable one. Brent i is always a cool guy, so everyone likes cheering for him.
Do you have any favorites since you've seen these Ninjas over and over for years?
JO: I don't think we're supposed to, but yeah. You've been doing this for so long, for so many years. You see the Ninjas a couple times a year, you build relationships. So I wouldn't call them favorites, I try to treat all the Ninjas the same, but there are some you yell a little louder for.
What are your predictions on where Ninja Warrior could go in the next few seasons?
JO: Oh, I'd hate to do that because all my predictions from the first few seasons have far been outreached. I don't know. It would be cool to see this thing go year round. Maybe do it live, but I don't know. Maybe that's too far ahead.
What's your dream job?
JO: Let's do Ninja Warrior live, year round! Full time. I would do it full time, year round. Being on Ninja Warrior is rad. The crew, you know how it is. We have a good time.
Traveling with American Ninja Warrior is like traveling with a 200 person circus. You go and erect a huge obstacle course, hundreds of people come, you play for a week, pack it up and head to the next city. It's rad. It becomes a 200 person family.
You see the same people in every city and have a beer with them when the sun comes up when you wrap.
When we get home from Vegas, I can't speak for everybody, but I'm going to say most people probably sit in the shower for like a day and a half and then probably sleep for like a week.
Patrick McManus, one year, after we wrapped in Vegas, and everyone was drinking by the pool at our hotel, he made up a freestyle rap about the whole crew. It was pretty hilarious. And if you know Patrick McManus, his name and rapping in the same sentence is quite funny all by itself.
What do you personally like about American Ninja Warrior?
JO: I could just listen to that show and find it funny because I think Matt and Akbar are hilarious. For me, the dopest takeaway from the show is watching the show and learning some of their stories.
Some of the stuff that people battle that you don't even really think about. Not that you should. But to realize what people are going through and still smiling and having the best times of their lives, you're like wow, takes a stronger person than I gave them credit for.
That whole Ninja community is a lot stronger than people may realize.
JR seemed a bit reserved about the role he plays in motivating the competitors. So we asked long time Ninja Warrior Brent Steffensen to give us his thoughts on what JR brings to the show experience.
BS: JR is a badass. He is definitely one of my favorite members of the Ninja Warrior crew/family. I’ve known JR from the beginning. We’ve become great friends over the years. Having JR give me my last words of encouragement before I get on the starting block really helps calm my pre-run jitters and puts me in the zone.
I can tell that he genuinely believes in me and wants me to crush the course. He’s got my back. I can even hear him cheering me on throughout my run. Makes me feel right at home. Aside from working with JR on set, I can tell you that he’s the life of the party. He literally lets his larger than life hair down, which gets larger and larger every season, and his style and charisma set the tone.