CELEBRITY DRIVE: MATT ISEMAN OF “AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR”
Quick Stats: Matt Iseman, comic/host/MD “American Ninja Warrior”
Daily Driver: 2008 Acura MDX (Matt’s rating: 8 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Favorite road trip: The American West
Car he learned to drive in: Oldsmobile 98
First car bought: 2008 Acura MDX
Since American Ninja Warrior host and comic Matt Iseman bought his 2008 Acura MDX, he’s been nothing but pleased with it. Although he’s had an eye out for other cars, nothing else has met this medical doctor’s criteria for a daily driver.
“I test-drove a lot of things when I was looking at [the MDX]—the Audi Q7, the Mercedes, the BMW X5. The thing I liked about the Acura—it was one of the best-handling SUVs. It handled like a car, which in L.A., as much driving as we do, I wanted something that handled well that didn’t feel big and boat-ish. As far as tech. I think the Acura is ahead of the curve, nailing it.”
When Iseman was growing up, his dad got one of the first Acuras that came out. That was when Iseman’s appreciation for the brand started, although he admits it’s not the flashiest one out there.
“As I looked at the cars financially, value-wise, we’re talking $20,000 less than what you’d have to pay for the Audi, BMW, or Mercedes,” he says. “So price-wise it was a great deal. There’s still nothing 10 years in that really grabs me that would make me give this car up.”
Iseman lives vicariously through his dad when it comes to cars, so he doesn’t miss out. “My dad was the car fiend. He had the BMW 2002 and then a 3.0CSi, which was his baby. He loved this Beemer but just had issues with it,” Iseman says. “He went to a Datsun 310 GX—we called it the Silver Streak—and then he got the first two-door Acura, I think it was the Legend.”
His dad has also owned a Porsche Cayenne and a Lexus SC400. “The Cayenne I kind of enjoyed,” says Iseman, “but the thing you heard about Porsche in terms of maintenance and the cost of maintenance was prohibitive. The Acura’s been much more reasonable,” he says.
Iseman calls his Acura an “unbelievably reliable car.” Even 10 years in, he’s had very few issues with it. “I keep it clean: I wash it once a week, which is my big indulgence with the car,” Iseman says.
Iseman inherited several cars from his folks, so the Acura is the first car he bought for himself. At that point, although Iseman is a medical doctor, he was making money from doing standup comedy. He also hosted TV shows like Clean House and Sports Soup (the sports version of The Soup), which landed him his current gig at American Ninja Warrior. Iseman often shares about his rheumatoid arthritis and cancer battle with fans, and although he doesn’t practice medicine, he keeps his medical license current.
CAR HE LEARNED TO DRIVE IN
Iseman’s dad taught him to drive in Denver, where he grew up. Iseman often drove the whole family to get in more practice, and his older brother wasn’t much help. “I think my mom at that time had an Oldsmobile 98, this big boat of a car that I might’ve taken the driver’s test in,” Iseman says. “I was 15 and a half, I had the learner’s permit, and we’re turning. It was a double turn lane and I didn’t realize it, and I turned into the inside lane and cut somebody off. I was panicking, and my dad’s like, ‘All right, you’re in the wrong lane’ (imitating his dad’s voice), and my brother’s like, ‘Come on! You cut somebody off!'”
He recalls that time as one of those stressful moments of learning to drive. “You don’t need that pressure coming from the back seat, from your brother who thinks he’s better than you at everything, or how you nearly took out the entire family and another family because you didn’t quite understand the principle of a double turn lane,” Iseman says. “My brother was the one who ratcheted up the intensity of driving. But I’ve grown up playing video games. I was an athlete, I had decent hand-eye dexterity. I think the biggest thing as we learned that really did take a while was just trying to be responsible.”
It came time to be especially responsible when he turned 16 and inherited his grandmother’s 1973 Chevy Nova. His dad flew him out to Nebraska, where Iseman’s grandparents lived, to pick it up.
“This thing was pea green with a white top. When I got it, it must’ve been 1987. It had 9,000 miles on it, so I essentially got a brand-new ’73 Chevy Nova that had a 350-horsepower V-8 engine in it. I remember the drive back from Nebraska, which is all freeway, just getting the sense that, ‘Man, this 350 can really go!'” Iseman says, laughing. “You’re 16 years old and you’re in what is essentially an American muscle car. The thing I learned is the brakes were terrible and it didn’t handle very well. And a 16-year-old kid in a V-8 350 is going to make some bad decisions.”
There were numerous dents and bent axles and things that Iseman had to cover up with creative storytelling for his parents. The Nova was the car for a lot of “firsts” for Iseman, including his first kiss in a car and first date.
“The Nova was there for it all. My dad grew up in Nebraska and he loved hot rods, tricking cars out. He loved going fast, but this was stuff we found out later. My dad’s a doctor. I felt my dad was a very responsible guy—he was trying to teach us how to be responsible drivers. And the reason, despite having numerous accidents, he told me later, ‘Listen, I would’ve been hypocritical for coming after you,'” Iseman says, with a laugh.
One time Iseman bent the axle showing off to friends. He tried a movie stunt 180 turn and hit a curb. “My dad’s like, ‘What happened?’ ‘A dog ran out in the middle of the road,'” Iseman recalls. “My mom’s like, ‘Oh, was the dog OK?’ ‘Yeah, the dog’s fine, the car’s a little damaged.’ My mom walks out of the room, my dad looks at me and he goes, ‘Don’t bullshit a bullshitter. I’m letting you get away with this one, but you better slow down.’ I’m like, ‘Point taken, Dad!'”
It was time to retire the Nova when Iseman headed to medical school at Columbia University in the heart of New York City. “My parents realized, ‘We should get rid of this car while we have the chance,'” Iseman says, with a laugh. “They didn’t enjoy driving it the same way I did.”
His parents found a mechanic who worked at a garage a few miles from the Iseman house. “When I’d come home, periodically I’d see the car at this garage, and it’s like seeing your ex-girlfriend—you just hope she’s happy,” Iseman laughs. “I’ve got the photos, I’ve still got the license plate. The license plate’s sitting up in my room at home where my parents live. So I still have the memories.”
The car Iseman drove out to Los Angeles 19 years ago, armed with his medical degree to pursue what has now become a solid career in entertainment, was a white 1989 Ford Bronco. His mom had horses, so she moved up to a Chevy Suburban and handed the Bronco down to her son.
“So, I’m driving in L.A. in a white Ford Bronco, which of course is a pretty iconic car in L.A. I came out here to be a comedian, and I thought, how perfect is it to enter L.A. in that car?” Iseman says. “The reason I ended up getting rid of that car and buying the Acura is because I was driving it on Interstate 10 and the front wheel came off.”
Iseman had had some work done on the Bronco and his mechanic hadn’t tightened the lug nuts.
“I’m going 60, I watch the wheel go off, the axle is now grinding on the 10, and I see the wheel swing through three lanes of traffic, hit the center median, and the momentum carries it into oncoming traffic,” Iseman recalls. “I’m now sitting there going, ‘This wheel is going to kill somebody; I can end up responsible.’ Fortunately it just sideswiped a VW Bug and nobody was injured, but for a second I had that horrible feeling of something awful is going to happen and somehow I’ll be responsible. At that point, I knew the Bronco was gone, and I ended up getting the Acura.”
FAVORITE ROAD TRIP
“The best road trip I ever did was in the middle of med school. I had two weeks and left from Denver and just drove all throughout the Southwestern U.S. I hit Moab, Bryce, Zion, hit all the national parks, Grand Canyon, ended up going to Las Vegas for the very first time,” Iseman says.
He drove down to San Diego, then up to San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway and back to Denver.
“The best way to see America is from a car. I’ve traveled around the world, and you sometimes forget we have the most beautiful terrain right here in America,” Iseman says.
Just getting in a car and driving can be a tonic for life. “We’re so busy now and we spend so much time focusing in short attention spans. It’s great to just be in a car and have a 10-hour drive ahead of you and just be out on the open road,” Iseman says. “I feel like it clears your brain, and this trip was just seeing some of the great sites, seeing America.”
He also met friends all along the way, like his med school roommate who joined him for a couple of days on the stretch from San Francisco to Denver.
“It was one of those great road trips that you can do in your 20s that I’m so glad I got to do. It’s still one of the greatest trips I’ve ever done,” Iseman says. “All the parks I did myself—I had my bike at the same time. I would just ride through Moab and ride through these parks. My parents let me use the Bronco for the road trip. I just loved it—there’s something special about seeing America in a car.”
AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR AND AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR JUNIOR
For those who watched the season finale of American Ninja Warrior last week and are already hankering for more, you’ll get your chance next month in the form of a new spin-off show.
American Ninja Warrior is so successful, American Ninja Warrior Junior premieres Oct. 13 on Universal Kids and will feature kids aged 9 to 14.
“The coolest thing about American Ninja Warrior has been seeing that this has gone from a show to more than a show, more than a sport, to a community,” Iseman says. “This thing is now truly worldwide, or certainly throughout all of America. And doing a kids’ version now, especially for someone who’s involved in health care as a doctor, and who’s had health issues, it’s great to see the positive impact this show has, because so many of the people who come on the show, for them it’s not about hitting a buzzer.”
Iseman says for many contestants, it’s about the obstacles they overcame in their life, such as a man whose child was born with a congenital nephrotic syndrome but got a kidney from someone watching the show who wanted to see if they were a match. When the child’s father returned to the show for the national finals, he wore a shirt asking for a kidney donation for another child, to try to pay it forward.
“It’s amazing to be a part of a show that not only has incredible athletic feats, but more important, has these incredible stories and actually has a real-life impact. As someone who thought my life was going to be spent helping people as a doctor, you end up doing something that’s a little more self-centered in entertainment. It’s nice to be part of something that you know makes a difference and that gets people healthy and that can help share these stories that give people hope and actually make a difference in their lives. So it’s been really awesome to be a part of Ninja Warrior.”
Although a million dollars are at stake on the show, Iseman says they’ve only given it away once. “For most of them, there’s nothing—it’s just sharing their stories and competing.”