From his start in medicine, finding his groove in stand-up comedy and hosting the hit competition show, “American Ninja Warrior,” to raising millions of dollars for charity, Matt Iseman has connected with audiences through the gift of storytelling.
Matt Iseman is a natural storyteller. This is clear after watching him on television for just a few moments—either as host of “American Ninja Warrior,” or as a contestant (and winner) of the eighth and final season of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” or in one of his many televised comedy specials.
And it was clear to me when I sat down with Iseman at his leafy bungalow in West Hollywood, California, one perfect July day to talk about his health struggles, his illustrious career (from working as a doctor in Denver to getting his “big break” in entertainment in Los Angeles), and his charity work.
“Through sharing our stories, we bring people together,” says Iseman. “I think that’s how we start to really make a difference.” As someone who lives with rheumatoid arthritis (R.A.) and has survived cancer, Iseman has raised millions of dollars for charities like the Arthritis Foundation and American Cancer Society—and he does this by sharing stories. “People rarely give money to a disease, they rarely give money to a cause—they give money to a person,” he says. “And they do it when people tell their stories.”
Iseman’s success in Hollywood is very much tied to his storytelling ability, and on screen, he seems so much a natural that it’s hard to believe his career didn’t start in television. No, until Iseman was 28 years old, he was on the path to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor.
“I loved med school, I loved the intellectual challenge, [and] I loved the idea of helping people, [but] my heart wasn’t in it the way I needed it to be,” remembers Iseman. It was during his first year of residency that Iseman knew he needed a change. “I think medicine [is] a calling,” he says. “When people’s lives are in your hands, it’s this sacred trust, and it’s an awesome responsibility […] I found that was the part I didn’t feel that I was living up to. [So] I had to step away—not just for my patients, but for me.”
Iseman considered his options: He could travel the world for a year, or he could move to L.A., and try pursuing a career in something that, until now, had just been a hobby: stand-up comedy. Iseman’s first time performing comedy wasn’t until 1996, when he was 25, deep into his studies to be a doctor. Four years later, in 1999, he made the big move to Hollywood. “I wanted to try something different to clear my mind,” remembers Iseman. “Within a couple weeks, I thought, oh my god, this is amazing.”
After a handful of lucrative commercials, Iseman picked up hosting gigs—a home makeover show, a television doctor, a week-in-sports recap series—until finally, in 2010, he landed the role for which he is best known: the host of “American Ninja Warrior,” a competition show featuring “ordinary” people competing extraordinary feats of strength in a series of obstacle courses. “The producers [said] we want a guy who can talk sports but also has a sense of humor,” Iseman says.
And he delivered. Iseman’s ongoing stint hosting ANW has made him a household name, but it is his positive attitude that has kept him busy for the last 20 years in Hollywood. It’s no surprise that in 2017, Iseman was invited to be a contestant on the eighth and final installment of “The Celebrity Apprentice.” And he won, raising $573,329 for the Arthritis Foundation.
Iseman may have fallen in love with a life and career world’s away from being a doctor in his hometown of Denver, but it was his medical training that could have saved his life. Just a few years into his time in Hollywood, at 32 years old, Iseman was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, a chronic illness in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissue and results in painful swelling in the joint linings. “It took a year and a half to get a diagnosis,” Iseman says. “I’m a doctor, my dad’s a doctor, my friends are doctors, I have insurance. […] I was seeing all the right people, but sometimes your body doesn’t cooperate.” It wasn’t until Iseman had experienced debilitating symptoms for 18 months that his blood work reflected how he was feeling, he tested positive for R.A., and he finally got an answer. But there was a lesson in this, too.
“Nobody cares about your health as much as you do. You really do have to be your own best advocate,” he says. Which is why, five years later, when Iseman started experiencing chest pains, he booked an appointment with his doctor right away. He knew his R.A. medication was intense, known for weakening the immune system, so he was worried about an infection. A CAT scan of his lungs just barely revealed a mass in his kidney—it was renal cell carcinoma.
Through sharing our stories, we bring people together. I think that’s how we start to really make a difference.Matt Iseman
“Mine is a story of blind luck,” says Iseman. “I had the best case possible, where I’m told I have [cancer] and I’m told I’m likely cured in the same breath,” says Iseman. Surgery cleared Iseman of cancer, and after ten years of regular check-ups, his cancer risk is “back to normal.”
“I didn’t feel sick, […] I wasn’t having any symptoms,” says Iseman. “[My doctor said], if they hadn’t caught this, you probably would’ve come in five or six years when it had metastasized.” And at that point, Iseman’s survival rate would have dropped below 50 percent.
Iseman urges people to take their health seriously and trust themselves. “Nobody knows your body like you do, and if you feel something is wrong, keep searching for an answer,” he says. His experience as a doctor only affirms this—he views the doctor-patient relationship as a partnership. “Otherwise, you’re putting your health in someone else’s hands. […] Be a good patient and make the doctor be a good doctor.”
Oftentimes, patients are overwhelmed by the short time frame they have with their caregiver, and don’t demand the answers they need. That’s why Iseman takes every opportunity to share his story—of his tenacity in pushing for a diagnosis—and the stories of others like him as well, helping raise funds for organizations he believes in. It’s just one example of Iseman using his celebrity status for good.
“[I think to myself], ‘Hey, you really do have a big platform, millions of people are watching “Ninja Warrior,” so what do you do with that?’” he says. “It’s really nice to feel that even though I walked away from medicine, I didn’t necessarily walk away from trying to help people.”
It all comes back to sharing stories. “One of the most impressive things of our show is seeing how telling someone’s story can change the lives of so many other people,” begins Iseman. He recalls a moment from his time on “The Celebrity Apprentice”: One of the show’s editors had just recently been diagnosed with R.A., and she connected with Iseman over their shared diagnosis. “She just wanted to see somebody [who] was doing OK. [You] have these worst case scenarios [and] she just wanted to see another possible outcome.”
It’s a sentiment that has accompanied Iseman through his medical career, his start as a stand-up comic, and now in television. “I’ve just seen the power of telling stories, through ‘Ninja,’ through ‘Apprentice,’ through fundraising, [and] seeing how someone could be going through a difficult situation, feeling alone. [When you share] your story, then you can help that person keep fighting [cancer],” he says. “[It’s important] to know that you’re not alone when you’re in this fight.”
Cancer, no matter the severity of a prognosis, can be terrifying. “It’s a glimpse at mortality, it’s a glimpse at how quickly things can change in your life, and the fact that at any point cancer can rear its head,” Iseman begins. “My story does have a happy ending, [so] I think it’s great to raise awareness and raise hope. […] People should know this is a fight worth fighting, and it’s a fight we can win.”
After our talk at his kitchen table, we head outside for the photo shoot, hoping to take full advantage of Iseman’s distinctly L.A. backyard. This is where the house really shines: The back door opens to a wide patio complete with seating, a formidable looking grill, and a wooden bar. A hallway of sorts, surrounded on either side by all different varieties of succulents leads straight to the pool, aquamarine blue and almost painfully inviting in the July heat. Back here: more seating, more plants, an intricately tiled fountain. Iseman says it’s his favorite part of the house. Melrose Avenue is right off Iseman’s property, but the constant L.A. traffic has been reduced to a low and pleasant hum, thanks to the design of the yard. Dramatic stalks of bamboo reach up to the sky, and Iseman tells us that around midday, the bamboo blocks the harshest rays, allowing bathers to comfortably bask in the warm shade. It’s truly idyllic. A place for quiet reflection to escape the drama of Hollywood.
While Iseman gets comfortable on his outdoor sofa, I jokingly tell him, “I’m glad you didn’t utter the phrase ‘Laughter is the best medicine.’” Iseman smirks. “It’s not. Surgery worked a lot better for me.”
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