Up for two awards at the Emmys this weekend is a show whose enduring success has largely been a surprise: American Ninja Warrior. The game show, which requires contestants to exhibit Olympic-level athleticism to navigate increasingly difficult obstacle courses, just completed its 11th season and has been cohosted for the past nine years by Matt Iseman ’93. With a booming voice and high energy, Iseman appears born for the role. But his path to the world of television was far from predictable.
“When I was in college, I graduated thinking I would become a doctor,” Iseman says. He earned his medical degree at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and went on to a residency at the University of Colorado Hospital. But Iseman soon began to doubt his career decision.
“It was the perfect job for me on paper, but I came to realize you don’t live your life on paper,” he says.
After a moment of reflection, Iseman left the medical field and moved to Los Angeles. “It wasn’t as though I knew I was going to become a comedian, but I knew I had to take a break from medicine to reevaluate where I was going and what I was doing,” he says.
For his friends and family, the decision was shocking. “I’d never done anything creative,” Iseman says. “Never did entertainment, never did plays — never did anything to lead me to believe I would be doing stand-up comedy and hosting TV.”
But Iseman had begun to take an interest in stand-up when a friend convinced him to attend an open mic. Iseman started pursuing comedy in LA and soon began making a name for himself in the local scene.
After several years of performing at small venues, Iseman was offered a job hosting a game show on the E! Network called Scream Play. The show was short-lived, but the opportunity gave Iseman exposure and led to other hosting opportunities.
Following the cancellation of Scream Play in 2004, Iseman became a regular cast member on the home makeover show Clean House on the Esquire Network. In 2010, Iseman was brought on as a host on American Ninja Warrior, which now airs on NBC. “We didn’t know if it would last more than a season, let alone become a sport and really a movement and a community,” Iseman says.
Iseman says his background in medicine has made his job as the host of American Ninja Warrior more fulfilling. “We see people transforming their lives, we see people getting healthier,” he says. “It’s nice obviously having left medicine to now be in entertainment and find that doing this I still have ways to impact people in a positive way.”
His time at Princeton also was fundamental to building his skills as a TV host, which Iseman believes hinges on the ability to be a good storyteller. “That was something I learned in writing my thesis and gravitating towards history,” he says. “I think that was something that Princeton helped me hone.”
Now nearing his 20th year working in entertainment, Iseman reflects on the unique challenges the industry presents. “One of the toughest things about Hollywood is that it’s a business of ‘no,’” he says. “What really gets tested isn’t necessarily your skill, it’s your perseverance and your ability to withstand the onslaught of negativity.”
Still, Iseman’s advice for those considering a career change is simple: “Go for it.”