'Amazing Race's' Phil Keoghan on Close Calls, Superfan Encounters and How the Show Stays Fresh
"We've really been blessed that every season has been something unique and exciting, and what works about the show in general, and the format, is that it allows for something fresh every season."
Phil Keoghan has racked up countless frequent-flier miles as host of The Amazing Race.
"I've been to around 120 countries or so," he tells The Hollywood Reporter during a recent break in the action while filming season 29 of CBS' Emmy-winning series (it's been named best unscripted competition 10 times since the category's inception in 2003).
And yet he says that, after 16 years, every season is still a new adventure for both him and the contestants — as well as the viewers.
"There is an inherent freshness that comes from behind a show that isn't studio-based," he says. "I think it would be a lot more difficult to keep the format fresh when you're going back to the same place and same stage, whereas we've never had do [do that]. We're never in the same place, and the show is never repeating itself."
Speaking by phone from Brazil, just a few days into production, Keoghan was hesitant to spoil too many details about the upcoming season but he did open up about some of risks involved in filming a show like this, encounters with superfans all around the world and why the series has endured for so long.
What can you reveal about the upcoming season?
I can't say too much about it, other than to say we're already two legs in right now and it's extremely exciting. There's already been a lot of drama, and I haven't slept much since we started going only 48 hours ago. We finished two shows, and it's already mayhem.
How does it compare so far to seasons past?
Well, I think that we've really been blessed that every season has been something unique and exciting, and what works about the show in general, and the format, is that it allows for something fresh every season. It feels different from anything [else]. We're just two episodes in, but we're off to a good start. I'm feeling very confident we have something special. It's usually episode 6 where I start feeling a little calmer; the beginning is always panic and craziness.
How do you keep the show fresh season after season?
It comes from having an amazing group of people. Producers put so much work into new ideas and locations and all that. And on top of it all, there is an inherent freshness that comes from behind a show that isn't studio-based. I think it would be a lot more difficult to keep the format fresh when you're going back to the same place and same stage, whereas we've never had do [do that]. We're never in the same place, and the show is never repeating itself. The only time it repeats itself is if we do a challenge again from something in the past that fans loved, but even then it's new teams and a new setup. If you remember the cheese rolling down the hill, we repeated that but it was a different location and then we had new contestants, and new reactions, and a slightly different setup.
How do you keep your stamina up?
Mixed nuts are always good; I'm eating mixed nuts right now (laughs). Lots of water. And I have to admit I do rely a little bit on caffeine to keep my energy up. I just hosted The Price Is Right [in a primetime special featuring past Amazing Race contestants], and the energy there is so infectious. I jokingly said it would be fun to have an audience travel around the world with us and greet the teams at 3 in the morning when everybody is half dead from jet lag and exhaustion.
Why do you think the show has endured for so long?
It goes back to what said, that it never feels like it's repeating itself. We're 16 years into The Amazing Race, and we just never know what's going to happen next. The unpredictability comes from the fact that we are shooting the show on a global scale. It always feels big and bold and unpredictable, and there is a certain amount of risk involved in getting around the world. It's just so different from so many other shows, in terms of logistics. Already we've had delayed flights, and we were out on the road yesterday and they were using explosives on one side of the road. And we got caught in a massive storm yesterday, which basically stopped everything from moving. You can't drive in a tropical rainstorm. So it's just those things you never think about when you're shooting in a Hollywood studio. Or if our cameras get wet or a piece of equipment is damaged in the middle of the jungle. Or having to think about protecting people from mosquito bites, or malaria, or the zika virus. There are so many variables and logistical aspects to the show. If you're just shooting a show in a studio, that's one thing, but we're trying to do it in the real world, operating on other people's timetables and flight schedules.
Have you ever had any near close calls on the production side?
Just this morning, I was trying to get ahead of the teams. It was a very tight race, and I was trying to get ahead to the pit stop, and this bread company was handing out bread on the street. It was a big party celebration on the street. Meanwhile, I was getting texts [from producers] saying that the teams were actually likely to beat me to the pit stop. There is a whole other layer, which makes it extremely exciting, and the excitement and unpredictability come through on the screen.
Did you make it in time?
I did, by 10 minutes.
Any other instances?
I remember once, in India, we were trying to take a shortcut, so we drove one street over, and we got caught behind a huge elephant. We couldn't get away from some huge celebration [in the streets]. Some of these things you can deal with, but you can't do anything about that. I embrace it, and that's part of what I love about it.
How many countries have you visited?
I've been to around 120 or so. Before Amazing Race, I'd been to something like 60, and now I've been to about 120. I think China is our most-visited country now — we're up to about 16 times — and we could go back there many, many times, and still not be repeating ourselves.
What makes for a good contestant on the show?
It's hard to define what makes a perfect racer; it's different than what makes for an entertaining racing team. Sometimes teams can be very good but not as dynamic to watch as teams that have flaws. Most people have flaws, and the audience connects with ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations, rather than extraordinary people in ordinary situations. The more ordinary the person and the more extraordinary the situation you put them in, in general, that's what makes the best show. One of the great things about the show is, being on for so long, there are these young people who, all their childhood, wanted to be on and have been waiting to apply. It's cool when I meet somebody who is a superfan and has wanted to be on the show since they were 10.
Do you encounter fans all over the world?
We had superfans turn up today in Brazil. There was about 12 of them, and they all turned out with T-shirts and knew everything about the show. They are such big fans, they wanted to be a part of it. And they also don't want to reveal spoilers. People do love to give away where we are [filming], and we embrace the fact that technology exists; you can't live in a vacuum, like when we started [16 years ago]. But these fans made a point of saying, "We don't want to ruin anything for other fans by divulging who came in where or what happened." I'm not sure a lot of peope know how big the show is around the world. I believe it's in 140 countries; [it's big in] Canada, Singapore, Australia. And the format has been made in many countries. So wherever we go in the world, people know us straightaway. And we embrace that.
What else would you like to add?
I think the key for us is just that we keep the show relevant. We were honored the other day at Realscreen with an award for the best reality show, and we don't take that lightly, after 16 years, that we can compete with best of reality shows out there and still be relevant and keep finding new audiences. The material is evergreen, and so fans of the show who weren't even born when it started are binge-watching season after season and becoming part of the Race culture. The fact that we get 16-year-olds coming up [to us] saying how much they love watching the show with their friends, the fact that we are still relevant to that young audience and to families in general, that's one of the things I like the most about the show. What I hear the most about the show is that it's one show that families can sit down and watch together, and it's true. There are lots of popular shows out there, but few that facilitate family viewing where people can sit down together – grandparents, parents and kids — everybody can enjoy it.