For many comedians, there was a time before comedy. Before they took the stage. Before they decided to make jokes for a living. Some were teachers; others worked part time. What they have in common are their scrappy attitudes that are put on display as they grace the stage. But only a handful of comics can say they were helping others before they helped themselves.
Matt Iseman used to be a doctor. But he felt his words could heal better than medicine (Iseman does not condone words over medicine. I just needed something clever to write). He decided to go full tilt into this comedy thing. Now Iseman can be seen all over television from hosting NBC’s American Ninja Warrior to being a medical correspondent for Hallmark’s Home & Family. Plus, he’s also an advocate for rheumatoid arthritis (which he had along with cancer) - working with Arthritis Foundation on various projects. And he’s partnered with Matt Rogers on an Instagram airing show called Don’t Embarrass Me that is making the rounds too. This guy stays pretty busy.
I had a chance to speak with Iseman about his comedy process and what makes the genre so good to have a discussion around it.
You are a really busy guy. How long have you been out of town?
Matt Iseman: According to my girlfriend, for the last three months I haven’t been home. I did the St. Louis Funny Bone. I was in Edmonton doing House of Comedy. I did the Mall of America. I did a private [event] in Terre Haute. We filmed Ninja vs Ninja in Burbank. And then I went to Denver to do Comedy Works – my home club – where I was staying with my parents. I just did San Antonio. Now I’m back in LA and go to New York this weekend to…I do some stuff with a pharmaceutical company that works with rheumatoid arthritis. But I’m also going to do the Anthony Cumia and Artie Lange podcast which is such a kick to be with two giants of radio and watch them do their thing.
You’ve been on the road for so many months. You’re often on the road for a very long time. How do you get a chance to write down all the comedy?
Iseman: I find so much of it comes from paying attention. I remember Bill Burr saying that. Bill Burr took up flying helicopter and people were like “Why are you learning how to do this?” He’s like “I need to experience things in life to have things to talk about!” What’s cool is I’m not on the road doing full time doing comedy between Ninja Warrior or for the charity stuff I do, I’m doing all kinds of different things. The best tool I’ve found is my phone. I love dictating things because I found one of the things is you can just write notes. I realized I write so differently than I speak, particularly how I speak on stage. It’s so great now with voice dictation even if you’re in the car or wherever you are to just be able to talk and talk a topic through.
To me, as a comic, I think the way we get better is by saying a joke; talking a bit through. Some people write it, they craft it. I enjoy that part of it but I realize I’m much more creative when I’m saying it out loud. I find the comedy traveling. I’ve been talking a lot about traveling lately because it absolutely disgusts me. I’ve been traveling so much and hating it so much. I find…you always talk about the stuff that piss you off or make you laugh are the stuff that stick with you and he stuff you keep hearing about. It’s really just having my phone with me and when I get pissed about something. You know what? I was just helping my parents and I just had to deal with my mom’s internet. Again, you see these topics where you’re like “They’re not always the most original.” As comedians, you’re always looking for an original topic. Sometimes something is just personal and you find your own take on it. I find having a phone and talking about things that make me feel strongly in any way. That’s how I find my material.
You say you hate traveling but now you’ve suddenly found an interest in airports with Don’t Embarrass Me and being able to make an ass of yourself.
Iseman: [laughs] Yes! That was one of the coolest things about it. Matt Rogers is one of my dear friends. Whenever we’re together, we’re constantly two brothers. Busting balls trying to make each other laugh; trying to embarrass each other. One of the cool things with technology is he’s in Nashville, he’s flying a lot; I’m in LA, I’m flying a lot. But with now Instagram they allow these conversations where you can have two people on. We had the idea “This is what we would be doing if we were together. Why not do this to make the time go by, to just embarrass each other, and have fun?” It’s one of those things where when you try to come up with something clever or you try to come up with a nice idea – when people say “How do you come up with the show?” – I’m like “Do something you want to do that makes you laugh.” I don’t care if nobody watches us. Him making me do ridiculous things and vice versa…I’m having a blast! Whether anyone’s watching or not, it’s a great way to pass the time.
Then I’m at my shows- One of the things I had to yell out [during the game] was “dilly dilly.” He was like “You gotta yell out “dilly dilly” to ten people and get them to respond.” So at the show, people started yelling out “dilly dilly” to me. I was like “People actually watch this stuff!” It’s amazing to me as I look at it. Social media is such a tool for comedians. You can lose your job with it but, at the same time, you can be so creative where you can reach your crowd in ways that were never possible before. Obviously with billions of people on it, it’s hard to stand out. But at the same time, it’s also where you can get so much experience.
So often in comedy, we’re fighting for stage time; we’re fighting for an audience. You can go online to Facebook and have an audience at four in the morning. It might be three people but you’re performing. I was talking to one of my buddies we were in San Antonio. I was tired. We’d been doing press all day. I’d just jumped on Facebook right before the show. It’s that sense of people are watching and you’re performing. It got me into that space. We talk about you want to go on stage and you want to be in that space. That space where you are your best self; your funniest self; your most creative self where you have something you want to say. It’s a fun way to be able to use this technology to reach people and at the same time get you into your state where you’re like “I’m ready to take the stage and have a blast.”
It’s funny you’re talking about reaching people. Since you host so many things – you have your hand in so many pots – you kind of already have this huge, eclectic built in audience that comes form NBC, Hallmark, old fans of Sports Soup and everything like that.
Iseman: The reality is…most people don’t even know I’m a comedian. They don’t know I’m a doctor. They don’t know so many things. They know you from where they see you. Ninja Warrior has been fantastic but the ninjas are the star; the course is the star. People think of me as the guy who says “American Ninja Warrior” in a really loud voice. One of the challenges has been letting people know I do comedy. My social media has been the tool where…this is how I’m trying to take an audience that might know me from Hallmark, from Ninja (where we tend to be more earnest) and say “There’s a whole other side about me. Come out to my comedy show and see me.”
It’s one of these battles where if you’re always looking to build an audience and to let them know what you can do. Even for getting a job. I know in the business a lot of people who would potentially hire me don’t know my comedic side, don’t know the medical background or they don’t even know I was [Celebrity] Apprentice and won. So you realize these things you think that are obvious and are a part of you, a lot of people don’t know. You’re trying to tell your story and say “This is who I believe I can be and what I want to do.”
You came into my purview when I used to work at an [NBC] news station in Atlanta. I would hear all this American Ninja Warrior stuff. But, you were on Never Not Funny the podcast. And you were able to stand out and make yourself known as a very funny comedian guy.
Iseman: I appreciate that. The other thing is I say yes to everything. I’m a huge believer in taking opportunities and any chance where I can interact. I’ve known Jimmy Pardo forever. I was a fan of his podcast. For you, when you reached out to me, it’s a chance to talk comedy and hopefully reach somebody. I’d love for it to be all of a sudden, I have a Netflix special and millions of people know my name. If not, I’m happy to go one person at a time. One person from Hallmark. One person from a podcast. I believe, over time, you try to take these opportunities and be funny. For me to go on with Anthony Cumia and Artie Lange- I get it. I do Ninja Warrior; I’m on Hallmark. My comedy tends to be clean. These guys, no holds barred. Complete opposites. But that’s what I love about comedy. To me, they make me laugh, I go on there. I’m still going to be me. But it’s a great opportunity to reach a different audience where people might say “This dork from the Hallmark Channel, the guy who yells ‘Ninja?’ Maybe we want to see him the next time he comes to our town.”
I love a chance to meet new people; to meet a new audience. I love talking comedy with people and hearing other ideas on what’s funny or who is t he comedian they enjoy as well. I think comedy’s so personal and yet so great right now. It’s also a scary time too as we look at people who make a living with words right now. How words can get so twisted and taken out of context so you can lose your job. I’m PG at the most. But I love listening to guys like Doug Stanhope or Jim Norton or Artie Lange. Some of these comics who really push the envelope. I think that’s so important to comedy. That’s why I want to fight for them to be able to do that.
I’m like South Park where I think everything’s fair game or nothing’s fair game. Comedy is such an important way for us to expand our minds and have a discussion, hear different viewpoints in a way that sometimes can actually change minds but at the same time make you laugh. I love comedy of all different strips. One of the cool things is being in LA or when I get to go to New York to see some of the best comedians. To see these comedians where you’re like “Nobody knows this person and this is one of the funniest people I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait for them to get discovered.” I remember seeing Anthony Jeselnik just before he was doing the [Comedy Central Roast] and well before he got his show and being like “This guy’s a beast. It’s just a matter of time.” It’s fun when you see comic success.
It’s really gratifying when you see people discover and like them because so often you feel this business is subjective. And people are bitter. Or people resent Dane Cook or Larry the Cable Guy. Anytime a comedian does well, it’s gooed for comedy as a whole because it makes people hungry for more comedy. I’m always happy to see somebody do well. Like Tiffany Haddish - who is a beast and is hilarious. I’m loving watching her blow up right now. People discover her. It’s cool when you see that happening. You see someone who’s really ready for it. Someone who’s just kicked the door down and makes people take notice.
One thing I noticed about you when I was watching clips is that you’re able to take yourself and mold yourself into any project. When you get back up on stage, you’re just a regular guy who’s a bit let loose. Has stand up influenced your hosting ability at all? Vice versa?
Iseman: Without a doubt. I consider myself a standup comedian. That’s what brought me. I left medicine to do standup comedy. I go around and do standup comedy. I’m not going to lie: Thursday night, I had 14 people in the crowd. [laughs] Not everyone knows I’m a standup comedian! Clearly! Yet there’s something about the immediacy of it. Having done standup for almost 20 years and having done it for 14 people and having had jokes bomb, there’s no situation in hosting where I’m going to be uncomfortable. Hosting has helped me learn how to tell stories or learn how to guide traffic.
I’ve done improv and acting. I look at it as cross training. I believe it all helps. It helps your mind work quickly. I love improv where it’s going out there without a net. That’s really helped hosting too. Even though on Home & Family there’ll be times there’s a doctor on talking about the latest melanoma treatments – or, personally, I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis and I’ve had cancer – but when I talk about it, I’m always going to put humor in it because that’s how I’ve always felt was the best way for me to communicate. I love these different projects.
At the end of the day, that guy on stage…I’m a child. I’m a guy who was a doctor and left because I didn’t feel passionate enough to be that man saving lives. I wanted to be the guy telling jokes. I wanted to be the guy talking about ninjas. I don’t regret going to med school but I sure as Hell don’t regret leaving it. It’s amazing. I make my living talking at Ninja, doing standup comedy, doing corporate gigs, [and] being on the Hallmark Channel. It’s been a blast of a ride. What’s cool is I do feel comedy and having that sense of humor has been the key to everything in it.
Yeah, rheumatoid arthritis is no fun – having a serious disease. Having cancer was no fun. But I believe comedy is one of those things that helps us deal with shitty times. When it’s like “too soon, too soon” I’m like “It’s never too soon for a joke.” Patrice O’Neal’s joke. I remember Dave Attell said “Holy shit! We’re going to need a giant purple suit and a casket the size of a piano!” Then he died and that was his friend and [Dave’s] like “This is what Patrice would have wanted said. Laugh, man.” That’s what I would do too. I haven’t even been funny! I’m trying to be funny here and I’m being so serious about this! I really think comedy is what gets me through the day and what’s kept me employed for 18 years in Hollywood.
You mentioned a lot of standups you like to recognize. Are there any hosts that you modeled your career after or that you looked up to?
Iseman: I always think hosting’s like standup where the good ones make it look easy. Tom Bergeron is a guy [I like] actually…Bergeron is subversively funny, incredibly clever, quick on his feet. Big fan of him. Joel McHale. I don’t even know if I’d consider him a host with The Soup. He’s just so funny. I love watching hosts because I think good hosts bring their personality to it. Cat Deely on So You Think You Can Dance is someone who I’m just like “This is one of the most charismatic, electric people.” And I think she’s a phenomenal host in terms of running a show. A lot of times, people see you as a traffic cop but I think a good host will bring good energy to a show and make it more enjoyable.
You have this joke about having a 50/50 chance for becoming president. Would you ever see yourself running for president just because you were on Celebrity Apprentice?
Iseman: God no! It’s funny. Literally Donald Trump a year and a half ago was hosting a reality show on NBC. That’s my resume. No. I wouldn’t want to leave my job hosting a reality show at NBC. I have no political aspirations as far as I’m concerned. Although, I will say after I won Apprentice, I got a call from D.C. I thought – because Trump was still an executive producer on the show – I thought for a second he was calling to congratulate me. Turns out it was a spam call. But I though “Holy shit! What if the president actually knows my name now?”