Fire and Ise: American Ninja Warrior’s Matt Iseman

The challenges of practicing medicine and stand-up comedy pale in comparison to those of golf—the ultimate obstacle course

It’s a sunny mid-March afternoon in Los Angeles—a day better suited to lounging in sand by the ocean than to hacking out of it on the local links—and Matt Iseman has slept through most of it. He finished taping American Ninja Warrior, the show he co-hosts, at 5 a.m. 

Iseman appears rested as he barely beats his scheduled tee time at Roosevelt Municipal Golf Course. He flashes a chiseled, made-for-Hollywood smile, his muscular frame giving the impression that his tee shots may travel to the deepest parts of the fairways. But today, finding the short grass at this relatively tame municipal course proves far more elusive than he or I expect during a fast-paced nine holes.

Sand, trees, rough —escaping trouble is the order of the day. Thanks to a lukewarm putter, par presents a challenge, though not nearly the one presented by the Spin Bridge, Warped Wall and dozens of other physics-defying obstacles on the set where Iseman recently spent eight hours. 

Iseman, who graduated from Cherry Creek High School in 1989, has hosted American Ninja Warrior for seven years. Before that, he received degrees from Princeton University and Columbia School of Medicine, did his residency at the University of Colorado Hospital and decided to trade in his stethoscope for a microphone more than 15 years ago, doing stand-up comedy and succeeding in the harsh world of entertainment. 

After his last putt sinks with the sun, Iseman leads a drive to Big Wangs—yes, Big Wangs—a sports bar in nearby Hollywood, where he readily confesses his golf game needs work. He counts an 88 at Park Hill as his personal best. But his passion for the game is no act. He orders a brew and begins to draw a parallel between golf and the endeavors that have led him to a career in entertainment.

“For me, having been a student my whole life, going to medical school, I realized I try to do things right and really try to study—which serves me well to a certain point. But then I can just get in my head,” he says. “That’s one of the things I found with comedy and hosting—sometimes I can get in my head.”

Golf, he says, serves as “a good metaphor. I’m always trying to figure it out instead of having a feel for it. What I really like about golf is, you’re trying to get to that swing moment where you stop thinking and just execute. It’s so damn hard and such a challenge for me. I only do it once or twice a round. But when you do it and when you feel it, it really makes a big difference. It’s hard, and that’s why it drives me nuts. I’m battling my mind, and most of the time I’m losing.

“It’s a such a mental game and I think the older I get, the more I realize the value of that. I also realize how bad I am at it. That’s why I’m working on it.”

Iseman’s hard work on American Ninja Warrior—the NBC/Esquire Network show where male and female ultra-athletes compete on the world’s most difficult obstacle course—recently paid off in the form of an Reality TV Awards nomination in the category of Host/Hostesses. The comedian/actor/show host’s name appeared among a list that included Ryan Seacrest (American Idol) and Tom Bergeron (Dancing With The Stars). In a field where so many people are hoping for a break that leads to stardom, he’s managed to achieve it.

“This isn’t life and death out here,” Iseman says. “This really is entertainment. But I love what I do. I love being on-set . . . I’m looking at this million-dollar production and I feel like I’m throwing a huge party. I’ve got a microphone and I get to be a little kid up there. It’s amazing. It makes me appreciate the roundabout path I took to get here, and makes me really glad that I took the chance to come here—and that it worked out.”

In the early 1990s, it appeared that Iseman was following the path set by his father, Michael Iseman, M.D., a world-renowned pulmonologist and tuberculosis expert who had gone to Princeton. Whereas Michael had started as running back for three years on the Tigers football team, Matt achieved Ivy League baseball immortality on March 31, 1993, when he combined with two other pitchers to throw a no-hitter in a 4-0 win against Manhattan College.

Then it was off to medical school—a decision Matt made not out of some burning passion for helping people, but “because I looked around, and I saw my dad loved medicine. He’s probably the person I respect the most. I thought it’d be a good career, and I thought it was what I was meant to do.

“I got into med school and I enjoyed the intellectual challenge. But it wasn’t until I was in residency that I started to realize people are putting their lives in my hands. I started asking myself, ‘Am I giving these people the kind of care that I would want to receive?’ More so than a lot of careers, medicine’s a calling where you really have to give a lot of yourself to it. I felt I wasn’t doing that.”

He also felt he had a greater passion for something different: comedy.

“Did you hear the one about the guy who gave up doctoring broken bones to tickle funny bones?”

Iseman recalls disclosing his feelings to his father and mother, Jan, at a Chinese restaurant: “The first words out of my dad’s mouth were, ‘Life is short. Do what makes you happy’—which I still can’t believe he said.” 

“It’s funny, because a lot of my friends—especially the friends in medicine—really thought that I would be crestfallen, be really distressed,” Dr. Iseman recalls. “I never had a bad minute about it. Matt had done so well in college, and he was absolutely at the top of his class at Columbia Medical School. I was really tickled when he chose to come to Colorado to continue his training. But you know how it is with people you’re close with, you kind of read them. I knew that it wasn’t really where he wanted to be.”

Matt “decided to take some time off.” During his self-imposed hiatus from medicine, he connected with his high-school friend, Brad Nieder. The duo once played the roles of Saturday Night Live sketch characters “Hans and Franz” to entertain classmates and the audience in attendance for their high school graduation ceremony.

“People still remember that skit,” says Nieder, an M.D. currently known on the speakers’ circuit as “The Healthy Humorist.”

When Nieder was giving stand-up comedy a try, while living in New York and making his own decisions about attending med school, Iseman went to a few open mic nights to support his friend. He soon felt an urge to go on stage himself. When the pair returned to Denver to ponder their futures, Nieder chose to start medical school. Iseman went to L.A.

“Matt went to L.A. with all the tools to succeed—the smarts, the talent, the looks and the charisma,” Nieder says. “To see him succeed in the industry . . . I won’t say it was expected because a lot of people go out there and wind up in porn, or waiting tables or something.”

Iseman had only performed at random open mics around town, most notably the New Talent nights at Comedy Works before moving to L.A. “I figured I’d do stand-up for a year and figure out what my life is all about,” Iseman says. “I didn’t think I would end up doing it. I thought it was like a ski bum year—you know, like when people move to Jackson Hole, bartend and then they figure out what they really want to do.

“I wasn’t funny. But within a few weeks I felt I was coming alive every time I hit the stage.”

He rapidly worked his way up from the ranks of a newcomer who gladly accepts a few minutes of stage time to a national headliner at comedy clubs across America.

“Walking away from something that was a respectable and solid career to go do comedy . . . I also felt an urgency. I couldn’t sit around and piss it away. If I’m going to do this, I’ve really got to have a fire under my ass to see if: one, I’m good, and two, if I am good, then try to make it and make something of it.”

Iseman’s comedy tour schedule has taken a backseat to his television work. In addition to American Ninja Warrior, he currently holds a role on Hallmark Channel’s Home & Family series. Past roles hosting E! Network’s Sports Soup and co-hosting Style Network’s Clean House appear among his many TV credits.

His one attempt to marry golf and entertainment ended rather comically, though that was hardly his intent.

“My friend had a son who passed away at two years old,” he recalls. “We decided to hold a memorial tournament at Tapatio Cliffs in Phoenix and raise some money for charity. I got this GoPro. I was going to hit some really cool shots and use them on the Home & Family Show, to show people they can be active by playing golf. I decided to get a cool shot of me hitting a monster drive and I put the GoPro about four feet from the ball, back and at an angle.

“Somehow, my horrible swing reaches back, hits the GoPro on the forward swing. I don’t know how I looped it—literally, there must’ve been a magnet in it. The case, the camera went about 25 yards. The GoPro—in a protective case—shattered into a million pieces. We didn’t even get footage of the driver hitting the GoPro.

“That’s why I tend not to bring the driver out of the bag. I overswing. There’s no subtlety. I know golf is about an easy swing, rhythm and tempo. And then I step to the ball, clench my butt cheeks, pop up on my toes and swing as hard as I can.”

But instead of taking much-needed golf lessons, he’s taking acting lessons with hopes of landing more TV and/or movie roles. “Part of being motivated, I think, is never being content,” Iseman says. “It’s so funny, having gone from regimented life of medicine, where you know exactly where you’re going to be for the next 20 years, to entertainment—where a lot of times I don’t know where I’m going to be tomorrow. I’m always trying to hustle and figure out what’s going to be the next thing. I love what I’m doing.

“I’m licensed as a general practitioner and I could practice medicine. I keep my license current in case everything goes to hell. But at this point it’s been 15½ years. I wouldn’t feel comfortable prescribing aspirin to someone.”

Iseman knows quite well that golf can provide its share of headaches. He keeps a few extra punch lines in his bag, which usually turns out to be the best cure.

“I don’t play enough to expect to be good,” he admits. “Golf is a reminder that if you want to be good at something, you’ve got to dedicate yourself to it.”


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