An interview with Phil Keoghan of "The Amazing Race"
Last Friday, Phil Keoghan, host of "The Amazing Race," did a book and DVD signing at the Borders book store on State Street. I'll have an upcoming post about that event, but first, here's a transcript of the interview I did with Keoghan after his marathon meet-and-greet with "TAR" fans.
Does it ever surprise you how much fans are invested in the show?
Keoghan: “It always surprises me, because to imagine that I would be in a Borders in Chicago with 150 people... . I would never have imagined in the beginning that I’d be in a bookstore selling the first season of “The Amazing Race” with “Amazing Race 8” on the way, and talking to people about the history of the race and their passion for the race. It’s sort of, like, ‘How’d that happen?’”
What did you think when you heard they were going to do a family edition? Were you into the idea?
Keoghan: “I wasn’t nervous, because I knew or felt that after seven seasons it would be good to do something a little different, just to mix it up a little bit. We’ve made some adjustments along the way, like the [changes to] the roadblock rule, the [addition of the] yield. It just seemed appropriate after seven seasons to change it up. And the reality is that the biggest fans of the show are families, so why not let them run the race?”
It doesn’t seem as though families with younger kids are doing any worse on the race, in fact, sometimes they seem to do better.
Keoghan: “It’s so cool to see them run this race. I think people have a genuine concern with these kids [running the race], but if anything, it’s the adults having to deal with crushed egos is the problem. That’s the issue.”
Does it feel like it’s different from other races?
Keoghan: “It’s the race that we have all come to love. The format is the same, the difference is, it’s four people, so we’ve had to make some adjustments, and there are kids.”
Do you think that makes it better?
Keoghan: “I don’t think that makes it better, I think that makes it different. And I think it’s an opportunity for us to speak to that core audience who love our show, the family, and maybe to bring on some new people, who are attracted by the idea of [a] family [edition]. I don’t think we’re going to put off people who love the race. They’re still getting their race. It’s just that I think maybe we’ve broadened the appeal. I think it was a smart move, especially right now, there’s a lot of talk of family [in the culture].”
Is it a chance to show off North America, too?
Keoghan: “Part of that was just to throw off the teams, because the teams are just expecting that they’re going to be on a plane going overseas. That was another thing we put in there. We’re always trying to change it.”
But the teams travel less mileage overall, right?
Keoghan: “I think in terms of the miles of the race, it might be less than the average is. But it’s not about how far they travel, it’s about what they do. Some people thought that it was just [travel within] America, it’s not just America. It’s an international show still. It’s the race. you have to have that. We’ve just mixed it up a bit.”
Were you surprised they put the first season of “The Amazing Race” out on DVD -- it’s been four years since it premiered.
Keoghan: “No. I think it was inevitable. We were at the tipping point with the show [in terms of popularity], but there were still so many people that hadn’t seen [the first seasons]. It’s such a long time ago, and when we came out, the ratings were nothing like what they are now. I don’t know if there’s another show that has grown like our show. It doesn’t happen.”
There were quite a few nerve-wracking moments for fans in the early days, when fans thought it might not come back.
Keoghan: “I can’t speak for anyone at CBS or anybody else in production, but from my point of view, I was like, ‘We need an award, or we need [something to help the show].’ Because at the end of the day, there’s a certain math that has to take place. You’ve got to have a certain number of people who watch the show to keep the show going. The show got good ratings, but they were by no means great ratings, and now we are getting great ratings.
“And a lot of that is attributable to who’s attached to the project, [Jerry] Bruckheimer’s attached to the project, and a lot of that is attributable to these [Emmy] awards.
"And then to me, the tipping point was Season 5. That was the season with Charla and Mirna, Chip and Kim. Over that summer, suddenly we became watercooler talk. Instead of people coming up to me and saying, ‘Aren’t you that guy from “The Great Race”?’ people would come up to me and say, ‘You’re from “The Amazing Race!”'
“The difference with people recognizing me on the street was night and day. … We’ve actually got to the point now where it’s appointment viewing.”
And once people start watching the show, they’re hooked.
Keoghan: “That’s what I say to people. Just watch it once. If I had a dollar for every person who’s said to me, ‘I don’t watch reality television, but I watch ‘The Amazing Race,’ I would be a gazillionaire. I would venture to say I cannot remember the last day where someone didn’t say that to me.”
I asked Phil what have been the most memorable moments for him from the past seven seasons of “The Amazing Race”:
- Charla and Mirna carrying meat in Season 5: “I’m sorry, it just doesn’t get much better than that.”
- Emily and Nancy trying to find a clue in an Indian marketplace in Season 1: “It was just such an amazing example of culture shock, which to me, the audience connects with, because they understand, ‘If I were there, I would be so out of my element.’”
- The head shaving with Uchenna and Joyce in Season 7: “It’s extremely touching. Part of what makes that so powerful is that when Brandon and Nicole were faced with the same fast-forward, they decided not to do it, and they didn’t win ‘The Amazing Race.’ I asked Brandon and Nicole, ‘What would you do for a million dollars?’ They looked at me, and I said, ‘Would you shave off your hair for a million dollars?’ They realized what I was asking them, and I said, ‘Well, clearly you wouldn’t, because you don’t know if you just gave up a million dollars.’” Speaking Uchenna and Joyce, Phil said, “I don’t think we’ve ever had more popular winners. Same with Chip and Kim.”
- The challenge in New Zealand, when racers rolled down a hill in a giant ball called a Zorb: “That’s a friend of mine, that’s my friend’s farm. I drove about 500 miles to find that location; they’d never taken the Zorb off-site before, so I tested it with my friend, down this hill. I just remember screaming, ‘We’ve got to get that in the show!’”
- In Season 5, when the Bowling Moms were doing the rock-climbing challenge, Phil wished that Christie had done that challenge instead of Colin: “That’s when I wished there had been the rule about [teammates having to do an even number of] roadblocks. Colin was doing most of the roadblocks, and I would have loved to have seen Christie go head to head with Karen [of the Bowling Moms].”
- John of the team John Vito and Jill eating the cheese in Season 3: “It was just funny.”
- Uchenna and Joyce at the orphanage in South Africa.
- In Season 6, Gus and Hera at the Goure Island in Africa, where slaves were shipped to the New World: “To me it’s one of the greatest moments, where the show really slowed down and was breathing. The whole show slowed down. It was extraordinary.”
Do you still keep in touch with ex-racers?
Keoghan: “Yeah, I’m meeting up with one tomorrow. I get e-mails from them all the time.”
The online community is another huge source of “Amazing Race” fandom.
Keoghan: “They’re an essential part of the support for the show. They’ve stuck with the show from the beginning. They know the show inside and out. They have just been there and stayed there. They’re certainly very opinionated about what they like and don’t like, but I really believe that they have had a major impact on keeping the show alive.”
Would the producers ever license the concept to producers in other countries? Are there other versions in other countries?
Keoghan: “There are other countries that are apparently planning to make their own versions. I don’t know the details of that, I’m not involved in that. To make an international version, when I go overseas, I get bombarded with people saying, ‘How come Canadians can’t be in it? How come Australians can’t be in it?’ [The show is quite popular in both countries, Phil says]. This is CBS’ show, though, so the show is made for America; it just so happens that it sells overseas.”
Finally, a burning question prompted by years of watching the show: Does the show pre-book seats for contestants on various flights?
Keoghan: “We do, as production [staff]; we have to cover [flights for] ourselves for production. But with teams, unless we actually tell them, ‘You have three choices: You must choose between this flight and this flight,’ where we’ve said, ‘There are three flights, the first one leaves at [such and so time, etc.],’ then we’ve pre-booked the flights. Otherwise, we’re not holding any seats for them.”
So, flights may be full, and that’s that.
Keoghan: “Well, that happens all the time. They have to get seats based on availability.”
By the way, at one point we were chatting about the possibility of an all-star version of “The Amazing Race,” but from what Phil said, it didn’t seem like it would happen all that soon. As I recall (I didn’t get this part recorded), Phil said it was something the fans were talking about more than “Amazing Race” producers and CBS executives were. Still, it sounded like it could happen one day.
Finally, “TAR: Family Edition’s” Godlewski sisters showed up at Borders but were under strict rules not to talk to the press, so they just waved, smiled and quickly backed away from me.