Interview: 'The Amazing Race' host Phil Keoghan discusses adding blind dating to The Race
I didn't mean to make "The Amazing Race" host Phil Keoghan self-conscious, but I also couldn't help but notice that one of his first words at the Season 26 Starting Line was to ask the assembled teams, "Did anybody get like a tingly feeling?"
And that seemed liked a very different thing for Phil Keoghan to say at the start of an "Amazing Race" season.
This is, of course, an "Amazing Race" season like none that has come before. This season's 11 teams include six established couples in various stages of relationships, but also five teams of 10 singles paired around semi-arbitrary criteria, turning the Emmy-winning series into half of a very ambitious dating show.
So I mentioned the "tingly feeling" line to Phil in our discussion and that made him a bit self-conscious about tingly feelings.
"The Amazing Race" premieres on Wednesday (February 25) night at 9:30 after the "Survivor" premiere (before returning to Fridays two days later) and it feels entirely recognizable as "The Amazing Race," with poor Detour choices, stupid transportation mistakes and desperate searches for English-speakers in a foreign land. But there's no doubt that the blind dating aspect of things produces some entirely new dynamics to the action and leads to some unpredictable results. It's way too early to know if that'll be good or bad for the season, but it's different.
In our latest conversation -- I like to note that Phil disagrees amiably with almost everything I ever suggest -- the veteran host talks about that difference and why the show is still the same. He discusses whether this season's challenges were tailored to the relationship twist and whether he went along on the newly added Date Night Rewards.
Click through for the full Q&A with Phil Keoghan to see if you get a tingly feeling about the new season.
HitFix: I just watched the premiere and here’s the thing: The first words you say in the episode almost are, "Did anybody get a tingly feeling?" What was your reaction to finding yourself saying those words on "The Amazing Race"?
Phil Keoghan: You know, I did not write those words. I was off-script at that point. I mean, I do write the scripts so it was a spontaneous thing that I said in the moment. I apologize if it sounded a bit weird to you. I can’t blame anybody but myself. It’s not like somebody put those words in my mouth that said, you know, "You must say these words." I think when that moment happened I was looking at them looking at each other and it was my way of asking the question, like when you meet somebody you get like that butterfly – maybe I should have said butterflies. But you know when you first meet somebody that you really like -- and hopefully it doesn’t happen too much in your life -- but somebody special you get kind of butterflies or you get what I said was like a tingly feeling.
HitFix: It was less that it sounded weird and more that it sounded weird for you to be saying it on "The Amazing Race," I think.
Phil Keoghan: You know what? I apologize then. I can’t blame anybody. I take full responsibility for my poor word choice.
HitFix: Not poor at all. It’s just funny for you to be in the position of, to some degree, playing the Chris Harrison role or however you want to describe it. Was it fun for you to get to step into a different kind of hosting position for this season?
Phil Keoghan: Well, you know, I’m a big fan of human dynamics. Nothing fascinates me more than really interesting people and human dynamics. It’s how I sort of set my career up. Based on my whole philosophy, I wrote a list of all the things I love in life. I love travel, I love people, I love new experiences, like taking a five-star chef to the top of an erupting volcano and doing something different. Or I putted a golf ball across Scotland once just because I thought it would be an interesting way to meet people and I knew that people would react to me doing something different like [he goes into a Scottish accent], “What are you doing?” And I'm like, "I’m putting a golf ball across Scotland!" I love putting myself in a really interesting situation. So, for me this was really interesting. It’s like it’s a human experiment. This is what happens when you take people who don’t know each other and you get them to meet at the starting line of this well-established race around the world and you set it up so there’s potential love and you beg the question: Is it possible to fall in love on a 35,000 mile race around the world? Is that actually possible? And theoretically this is -- and correct me if you think there’s a more extreme blind date -- but this is theoretically the most extreme blind date ever. It’s probably the most talked about thing that we all talk about -- our relationships, dates, who’s with who, you know, "My ex-girlfriend..." this, "My..." that. It probably occupies more time in conversation than anything on the planet -- relationships, love, sex, your ex this and your whatever, that hot girl, that hot guy, "Did you see that football player? Man what a good looking guy." Whatever it is, we talk about relationships all the time.
So this was a human experiment that we set up on "The Amazing Race." It really is the antithesis of any existing dating show. You mentioned "The Bachelor." It’s like the antithesis of that because this isn’t, "Put on your nicest dress, put on some nice perfume, put some makeup on, go and have dinner and a candlelit dinner with beautiful music and the sound of the ocean in the background." This is, "Wear whatever you want to wear. Shovel this manure. Don’t smell too good. You’ll be jet-lagged, tired, grumpy." It’s like the antithesis from a point of view that you’re showing yourself at your worst rather than putting yourself forward at what you want to be your best. You are thinking less about your behavior to just impress the person because the most pressing thing going on in that moment is that you’ve got to make a flight or you’ve got to finish building a mud wall with manure and straw. This is a totally different concept. It’s not like any dating show. It’s not a perfect situation for love. This is not the way you would normally choose to find love. But, you know, over the years our fans have said to us, "We love the preexisting relationships but we’re single and we want to meet somebody and could you pair us up with somebody?" This is not like something that just came up a little while ago. You look at fan forums and this has been around for a decade, the whole idea of singles being brought together at the starting line So it’s not like we all sat down and had some genius moment or some moment, some epiphany like, "Ah, I know what we’ll do. We’ll bring singles together at the starting line." No, this is something the fans have been discussing online for a very long time.
And some fans panicked when they first heard this because they thought, "Oh my God, 'Amazing Race' is becoming a dating show." We’re not making a dating show. This is "The Amazing Race" as you know it. There’s no format change. It’s not like we’re getting rid of Detours and Roadblocks and the structure of the show. It’s everything that you know about "The Amazing Race." All we’ve done is we’ve incorporated this experiment of what happens when you bring 10 single people to the starting line who meet each other for the first time, who are all looking for love, who are going on what we believe is the most extreme blind date ever, who will finish this first Leg in 18 hours having run through mud, traveled across the world’s largest ocean, gone all the way to Japan, done a whole bunch of challenges and find themselves at the mat. They’ve gone through that experience together and 18 hours ago they stared into each other’s eyes for the first time and maybe did or didn’t get that tingly feeling.
HitFix: What would you tell people who say, "Okay, what you just described sounds like a lot of fun. It sounds like good TV but it is not 'The Amazing Race.'"
Phil Keoghan: Well how is it not "The Amazing Race"?
HitFix: Because "The Amazing Race" is about relationships put under the stress of the experience that you just said. But it is and it has been about *established* relationships being put under those stresses as opposed to this, which seems very much the opposite at least to some degree.
Phil Keoghan: Yeah and hence the reasons that we have six couples who were in existing relationships. You know that’s not what makes "The Amazing Race" all it is. "The Amazing Race," you know, I say at the beginning "The world is waiting for you, you’re gonna travel 35,000 miles around the world. You’ll be going to the most extreme places. You’ll be going from the furnace to the freezer. You’ll be going doing all these different challenges." Our show has always been a relationship show. From Day 1 it’s been about relationships. Some of those relationships have been solid relationships. Some of those have been marginal. Right in the beginning in Season 1, if you remember Frank and Margarita, they were actually a separated couple. So yes there have been existing relationships but that’s only one part of the bigger picture of what "Amazing Race" is. And so what we did was we listened to our fans as we have done over the years and one of the things that they said was, "We know what happens with the existing couples. We love that. But what would happen if you actually brought some singles into it?" And we thought, "Hey, 26 seasons, let’s try this. Let’s see what happens." And I can assure you some interesting things happen. And some people have asked, "Well, is it advantageous to be in an existing relationship?" Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the fact that the couples are being so nice to each other because they’ve just got to know each other and they’re going through that sort of honeymoon period where they’re trying to put their best foot forward and they’re trying to be on their best behavior. Sometimes that works for them, sometimes that will work against them.
I think we’ve always had transformations with relationships on "Amazing Race." If you look at a couple from the beginning to the end there is some transformation. With singles we have a dramatic transformation. You put couples together. If you look at the way they are from the possible tingly feeling to the end of the Race, there’s a real transformation in the relationship. And at the end of it there’s an existing relationship. You know what’s the definition of existing relationship? People can fall in love very quickly. Certainly at the starting line it’s not an existing relationship but I can assure you that at the end of it there’s definitely some relationship going on between these two people.
HitFix: Were there any differences in Race architecture and challenges in terms of either emphasizing tasks that required more teamwork or emphasizing tasks that couldn’t be just passed off onto the skill set of one person or another in a pair?
Phil Keoghan: We definitely made or created opportunities to speak to the idea that all the teams were now dating teams. We’ve never had an entire cast of people who are either looking for love or in love. We’ve never done that before. So there was definitely an element of what you might call "People in Relationship" challenges. There were a couple of things there that definitely spoke to that. But then there were some things in there that were just what you would expect to see on "Amazing Race" where they were doing things and it was really about like we always have on "Amazing Race." How do these people cope with doing a particular challenge? But, you know, there’s a little bit of a theme. Again it’s not a format change. It’s that we themed this around relationships. Six existing relationships, five new relationships.
HitFix: I know that you like to handicap the teams at the starting line and make little predictions in your head. How did this twist impact your ability to do that at the starting line?
Phil Keoghan: Well I’ve never been able to make any accurate predictions. I think I’m may be the worst at it.
HitFix: But I know you try.
Phil Keoghan: I try. I try. I did get a pick. I got one team that I picked to go through to the end of the Race, so I had one pick. Last season I only had one pick as well. I had picked The Dentist to go through to the Final Three. I did not see the Sweet Scientist going through as far as they did. I had them out in about the third round at the third Leg. I suck at it and I think most people, if they’re honest, suck at it. And I think the reason that we suck at it is that it’s impossible to make predictions because the show is so unpredictable. It’s not like any other race. It’s not like being able to seed people. You can’t really look on paper to see how somebody’s gonna go. And that’s, to me, part of the success of the show. You would think any time a professional athlete enters "The Amazing Race" – and we have one team of those this season -- You would think that that is the shoe-in, like that’s the golden ticket to winning this Race. And we have had professional teams, many professional teams and professional sports players on our Race over many seasons. And we did have Bates and Anthony win one year. But we’ve also had a lot of professional athletes get eliminated very early and get beaten out by teams that are not fit, not that well-traveled and who, on paper theoretically, should have been absolutely blitzed by a professional team, a professional athlete team. So that’s really why the show works is it is unpredictable.
HitFix: What were you looking for from the teams, specifically the blind dating teams, in terms of body language, in terms of how they were interacting just for your own purposes interacting with the teams but also for your purposes as a fan of the show and a participant in the show behind the scenes?
Phil Keoghan: Well, what we were looking for really was starting with the question, "Is it possible to find love on a 35,000 mile race around the world?" The ideal story, the story that we want to have at the end of the season to answer your question about what we’re looking for, is a couple get tingly feeling at starting line, go on 21 day, 35,000 mile race around the world, fall madly in love, win "The Amazing Race," find love, win a million dollars, decide they want to get engaged, get married, have amazing babies and, you know, a year from now we’re talking about, "Yeah, can you believe that that couple met at the starting line, got a tingly feeling, fell in love, won a million dollars and now are having twins. Can you believe that?"
HitFix: If that happens will you personally as their Cupid feel a different sense of satisfaction looking back on the season?
Phil Keoghan: I would probably have to be the master of ceremonies at the wedding.
HitFix: Could you tell me a bit about the Date Night Reward twist and how that impacted things? And if you got to tag along on those.
Phil Keoghan: No. Three’s a crowd. That doesn’t work. The Date Night aspect is a prize, as opposed to a format change where, you know, date night becomes part of the format of the race. We certainly allude to it in the show. We let people know that it’s available and that they’re going to have this opportunity to actually slow down and go on a date. But it’s more of something outside the show that will live online and where people can go and see another element to the Race that we’re not dwelling on in the content. I mean on "Amazing Race" for us to slow down and show people sitting staring into each other’s eyes looking for that tingly feeling with the moonlight... It’s just not our show to come to a grinding halt and turn "Amazing Race," which is frenetic and frantic and they’re rushing from place to place, and just to come to a grinding halt and have them sitting on some date night.
HitFix: Given that even the established teams are couples, did you miss the friends? Did you miss the parents-and-children? And are you looking forward already to getting back to those relationships for the next season?
Phil Keoghan: Look, we’re blessed because we’ve had so many great casts over the years. We’ve had such riches in terms of great relationships. So for me it was just nice to change it up a wee bit. All the teams here are as interesting as any of the couples that we’ve had. I wouldn’t want to do this every single season just like I wouldn’t want us to stick with the same theme every single season. I think what’s worked about our show is we definitely pride ourselves on being the most diverse cast in reality television. We’re not singers or dancers or designers or builders or cooks. They couldn’t be more different. And even though these teams are in existing relationships and then singles, they also are still incredibly diverse. I mean you look at the photograph of the cast you see just how diverse they are, their backgrounds and where they come from. Some met in a truck stop and somebody else has been in one of the biggest boy bands around the world. So yeah, no again I wouldn’t want to do it every season but I’m really glad we tried it. I think you’ll see from the content that we got some really interesting moments.
Season 26 of "The Amazing Race" premieres on Wednesday, February 25 at 9:30. The season resumes in its regular time period on Friday, February 27.