Phil Keoghan explains why The Amazing Race has 'a new lease on life'
Perhaps no show was logistically rocked more by the onset of the Covid pandemic than The Amazing Race. The globe-trotting CBS reality competition series had just finished its third leg of season 33 in Glasgow, Scotland on Feb. 28, 2020 when the world went haywire, causing production to hit pause on filming — a pause that would end up lasting 19 months.
Season 33 was finally able to pick back up with new safety measures in places, but it was fair to wonder how the show would be able to continue long-term in a new Covid world. However, with people once again embracing getting back out in the world, the Race is actually experiencing something of a renaissance, according to its host.
"I think the timing of what's going on right now, with the end of the pandemic and people having a chance to travel overseas again, it's given us a new lease of life, to be honest with you," says Phil Keoghan. "I think it's inspired all of us to go out and continue to do something unique. Because it was taken away from us, and travel was taken away from so many people, I think we needed it back. We all wanted to be back."
And the show is back, with The Amazing Race returning for its 34th season tonight on CBS. We spoke to Keoghan about some of the new (celebrity) teams, new locations, and new twists (no more non-elimination legs!), along with making it all the way to 400 episodes and counting.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, 400 episodes. What would you have said at the starting line for season 1 if I had told you then that you were going to cross the 400-episode mark 21 years later?
PHIL KEOGHAN: I was starting to think about the amount of my life that I've spent overseas working on The Amazing Race, and just with the pit stops alone, more than a year of my life has been at some of the most magical places on the planet. And so if you'd said that to me, I would have thought you were crazy. Because that season 1, we didn't really know what we were getting into. It was kind of a mystery. And I can't quite believe that we're this deep into it. And, in a way, it doesn't sound like a lot, when you say 400. In other ways, it's monumental. It's like, "What? How did we do that?"
Especially because Race, Big Brother, and Survivor have all been along a long time, but the way Race kept being moved to all the different nights and different time slots, and different times of the year. Often, you never knew when it was coming back. So the fact that it's still here 21 years later is pretty amazing — no pun intended.
It's true. And you're right, we've been through a lot, right from the beginning, right from the launch in 2001, just around 9/11. So that knocked us around. And yeah, we've moved around different time slots. I guess the one thing that is a fact is that Amazing Race, no matter when you put it on, it will always bring a solid audience. No matter where you put it, no matter how you put it on, it will always bring a number. And it's done that consistently for two decades.
What was it like starting the race outside of the U.S. for the first time ever, over in Munich?
Well, a lot of times when you're building up in the United States, we've done it so many times — 33 times, to be precise — and so you know what to expect. You know how you're going to get into the start of the show. We have the start line here, but then you leave straight away and you get on a plane and you go somewhere overseas.
This was different, because we're still working with the charter plane. And so everybody got transported to the starting line, and right out of the gate, being in a different place, it just had a totally different feel. It felt very fresh and different. And that ride coming into the middle of Munich was just a wild ride to the start line. We're trying to do things differently, trying to keep things fresh.
I was going to ask you about your favorite location for the season, but I'm assuming it's Jordan.
Jordan was my favorite. There's one scene that was set up that looks like something out of a movie. I won't give it away, other than to say it involves a lot of big moving pieces and has very much a Lawrence of Arabia feel to it. There were some really exciting moments.
And the thing about Jordan, what's so weird is when you go there, you realize you've seen it many times before, but you're not quite sure where. It's sort of etched in the back of your mind. And then you start to think back on all the different movies that have been shot there over the years, and you realize that it is a familiar landscape. We've never been there on Amazing Race, and it is such a contrast from anything we've done before. It is like a movie set, everywhere you go. It really is spectacular.
The big headline for me is no non-elimination legs this season.
Again, just trying to do some things new and different. I think some people have enjoyed them over the years. They like that you don't know when people come in. But I think, again, just to mix it up and make it different and more cutthroat. If you remember last season, Arun and Natalia got quite a few saves with non-eliminations, and also getting a second chance to come back. So yeah, no more second chances. It's just another way to give people another reason to tune in. New locations, and also just highly competitive, and no second chances. It's just another way for us to hook the viewers in.
I've watched a lot of football in my time, and there aren't many bigger personalities out there than Rex Ryan, so I've got to know what it was like having that guy on the race.
He is absolutely as you would imagine him. He is a huge personality. He definitely makes himself known physically. You can't help but notice him physically, but also a big booming voice and a big presence. I mean, you know when he walks into the room. He's definitely makes himself known. We really pride ourselves in having really different people on the show, and he's just a personality and a type that we haven't had before, somebody who is really larger than life. He just commands attention. You can't help but notice him. And so yeah, right from the beginning, at the starting line, he definitely makes his presence known.
He's hysterical and teamed up with Tim as team T-Rex, as they're calling themselves. And Tim is no joke either. He's a power lifter and very competitive. So they've come into the race very confident about their abilities, and certainly not lacking in a competitive spirit. I love teams that are really competitive. I want people to really be fighting to be on the show and never, ever give up. It's a trait that I think is essential to be chosen. We want people to really, really care about getting to the finish line and wanting to do the next leg. Not just about winning, but just to make sure that they don't get eliminated so they can keep on racing.
You've had lots of people from Big Brother and Survivor on the show before. Is it different at all when you get someone like Derek and Claire in terms of a pair who have been through the reality TV ringer before?
It's different, for sure. There's a savviness that I guess comes from going on a television show. There's an innocence about having people who have never had any exposure to television at all, where they don't know any of the vernacular. They don't know the pace at which television is shot or the requirements of television.
To me, I love watching people come into that world and they know nothing. I just love watching that journey. I think people are always surprised at just how much work it takes to make a television show. So definitely, when you've got somebody who's come from another show, they've seen the inner workings of it, they are just more savvy.
I think CBS has made the decision that audiences like to watch people who have come from other shows, and that's the decision that they have made. And I think you're always going to have some people who love that, and then there's always going to be other people who would prefer to see somebody who has never done any television shows. So I get both sides of the argument, but I think we have enough of a mix there that you're getting both.
What about Derek and Claire, specifically?
I think they wouldn't flinch if I used the word maybe a little cocky, coming into it. Like, "We've done this before. We've competed on television shows before. We know what this is all about." But then I think maybe once they got into the race, they kind of realized that it was a little more than they thought it was. In a good way. And in a humbling way. And I think they would be the first to admit that it was a little bit more than they thought it was.
It's very easy to look from the outside. It's quite different when you get out, like most things, right? We look from the outside. We watch sports on TV and we yell at the screen, "What an idiot! Why did they throw the ball there?" But very different when you're in the thick of it.
And very different than when you're on Big Brother, where you're sitting in a house and all your challenges are in a square footage of about 10 feet. You're not running through a city.
Yeah, it's very different. And more taxing. You're not getting as much rest. And you're experiencing a lot of things that you just don't experience on a lot of shows. Even shows that go to one place, everybody gets into that time zone and then you're not traveling, right? But this thing is, we're constantly moving. It certainly has been easier in recent seasons with the charter in terms of the travel logistics and how hard it is on all of us.
The charter has definitely changed things. We're getting way more sleep than we've ever had. So it's a lot easier on the contestants than it has been in the past, and on us, making the show. A little more of a routine, I guess you could say. Not as random. When you're relying on commercial, you're sort of randomly jumping on this flight or that flight. "Will we make that connection? Oh, that got canceled. Let's jump on the other one." Whereas with the charter, it's sort of like everybody comes together, leaves together, arrives together. It's a very different race. But, that said, it's still difficult.
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Phil Keoghan hosts the globe-trotting adventure series.