When I recently started sharing some of my favorite memories from traveling with American Ninja Warrior, I knew I wanted to share some behind-the-scenes perspective on the hosts. Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbajabiamila are beloved by the fans and the Ninjas for their genuine excitement for every competitor. It’s not just an over-caffeinated act for the cameras. Those two LOVE Ninja Warrior, and they love the crew that makes it possible. Last season, they even brought in massage therapists for the hard-working crew in Las Vegas on their own dimes.
There are so many little things that make working with them such a joy. Here are just a couple of the tiny moments that have stuck with me.
American Ninja Warrior Nation’s first fans
When American Ninja Warrior Nation was first green-lit, no one really understood what it was. The site wasn’t even live yet when I was traveling for season eight. This meant that I needed to explain this vague new project to Ninjas and crew members over and over, trying to convince them to trust me with interviews and information. I got a lot of confused looks. But Akbar and Matt both dove right into the idea. Together, they filmed a welcome video for the site’s first day live. On set, they each would frequently pull me over, pointing out something that they thought should be included in an article, or introducing me to someone new. They even brought me into their host tower one night so I could see things from their perspective. Fun fact: There are some runs from season eight were I’m actually sitting on a chair behind Matt and Akbar.
You can sit with us
Starting a new job can totally feel like the first day of high school, especially the lunch room. During my first season on set, walking into the packed crew lunch tent, with the various groups of producers, camera operators, and production assistants broken into groups, was a little terrifying. Being the new kid on the block, there was generally extra room at my table. Matt and Akbar would sit with me and discuss ideas for the brand new site and ask me how everything was going. I deeply doubt they knew they were helping me find my footing, but having the crew see them talking with me helped nudge along their acceptance of me.
Tacos for Tweets
Don’t ever doubt Matt and Akbar’s true love for their show. Case in point, Matt opens his house to the Ninjas and crew multiple times a year for live-tweet sessions. During premieres, finales, or just whenever he feels like it, Matt rallies us all together at his personal home to watch the show. We tweet, we talk about what the night was like, and there are tacos. What greater sign of love is there than providing a catered taco spread? And Matt has the uncanny ability to remember every guest at his gatherings. When he wants a group photo, he commands the role call. I’ve left the room before before because I’m a bit camera-shy. But even hiding in the living room, I’ll hear Matt’s booming voice from the backyard. “Nikki! Nikki! GET IN THE PHOTO!”
We’ve all become familiar with Akbar’s pretty incredible pun-game on the show. But his sense of humor doesn’t end there. He loves to laugh. Once, I called Akbar to conduct an interview on his efforts fundraising for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. It was the first time I was calling him. Usually, we did these things in person or he called from an office number. So I set up my recorder, opened my interview notes, and carefully dialed the number. After a few rings, it was picked up. The person on the other end started jabbering away in French. I froze. They paused. I stared at the number I had dialed in panic. The French conversation started up again. I think I said something along the lines of, “Oh... Hello. I’m sorry... I think I have the wrong number.”
Laughter. That unmistakable rumbling Akbar laugh. I’ll always be able to say I was punk-ed by Akbar. Who knew he could speak French? Also, if Akbar ever asks you what his name is, it’s a trap! Just trust me.
Too hot? Too cold?
American Ninja Warrior is filmed outdoors and overnight. The show is at the mercy of Mother Nature, as the competing Ninjas know all too well. Tornados, rain, SNOW. It can, and has, happened. (Yup. Once in Oklahoma City, we had to evacuate because we could see a tornado way too close to set for comfort.) As the hosts of the show, Matt and Akbar have a team looking after them personally, making sure they have what they need to deal with the elements. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care about the rest of us.
During a rain storm in Philadelphia, Matt stopped as he was being led back to his trailer to ask me if I was okay and had a place to go (I did). In Vegas, we dealt with the opposite weather; heat. As Akbar was heading into set to get ready for the night, he stopped to ask if I’d been holding up okay and if I was staying hydrated (I was). If in either situation I had needed anything, I have no doubt that they would have done everything in their power to make sure I got it.
Cheers to the best hosts around!