Image Source: Getty / Tom Briglia / WireImage
You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who "sort of" likes The Challenge. The MTV series has earned a steadfast fan base over its 32 seasons on the air, thanks to death-defying stunts, clever twists, and an ever-growing cast of characters. No matter how many bizarre aerial challenges MTV's team comes up with, though, it's that last thing that keeps people coming back: the players. And among those champs is the crowned king, Johnny "Bananas" Devenanzio. Since making his debut on The Duel in 2006 — he memorably went home in the first episode — Bananas has appeared on 17 seasons, winning six of them.
Bananas is taking on a new endeavor as the latest host of NBC's late-night series, 1st Look, this Fall. The show airs every weekend after Saturday Night Live, and I got the chance to chat with him ahead of the premiere. And, well, I couldn't not ask about The Challenge, right? After all, Final Reckoning is in full swing! I had to know if he feared a certain someone from his past would return as his partner. How could I live with myself if I didn't get his honest opinion on Devin? What kind of journalist would I be if I didn't ask if he ever wanted to replace TJ Lavin as the host?!
Please enjoy this extra-long interview with Johnny Bananas, and catch him on 1st Look in September.
POPSUGAR: You've done some pretty uncomfortable challenges on MTV. Has there been anything you've had to do for 1st Look that really put you outside of your comfort zone?
Johnny Bananas: How about every single second I've shot so far? When I first got the job, they were like, "We're going to have difficulty finding segments to get you out of your comfort zone." And I was like, "You most likely are because I've pretty much done everything under the sun." Well, I didn't know that they had this group of crackpot, crazy people that were literally going to think so outside of the box and find ways and things to do to really put me outside of my comfort zone.
I had to dress in drag and strip and perform a whole burlesque act at a club in Hollywood. I had to go to a smell laboratory in Kansas City where they test deodorants, foot powders, that sort of thing, and I had to smell sweaty armpits and sweaty feet, yeah, to calibrate my nose. I got my ass handed to me by a bunch of NFL football players last week. I was in a haunted house. I didn't believe in ghosts before going in. I most certainly do now. I think one of the spirits followed me home. I just made the Rams' cheerleading squad the other day.
PS: You must get so many random opportunities coming your way: What made you say yes to this one?
JB: I actually pitched a very similar show idea to MTV a while ago. It was going to be me going around the world entering myself in crazy, zany, off-the-wall competitions and challenges and then competing in them. MTV obviously wasn't really hot on it, but then NBC comes along and they offered me this hosting job for essentially a show idea that is very similar to the one that I pitched. It's like a dream come true. I am working, but at the same time I'm getting to do what I love and I'm hanging out with some of the best athletes in the world. I got to go to Roswell, NM, and look for the crashed alien spaceship and interview abductees. I'm getting all these amazing experiences.
PS: We've been watching you on The Challenge for 17 seasons, and thinking that maybe eventually you'd be the host! Is that something that you'd ever hoped would happen?
JB: Absolutely, I've been letting them know for a while now that hosting is the next move I want to make. The thing is, TJ has become synonymous with The Challenge and as much as I think I would be possibly a great host for the show, that's TJ's thing. Now, if he ever moves on, retires, whatever, I would happily step into that role. The other issue I can imagine is — let's be real — over the 17 seasons, I've made a lot of enemies on the show. I don't know how the cast would react to me being the host. Even though I would have zero dogs in the fight, they would probably still think that there's conspiracies going around and I'm still trying to manipulate the game. Which . . . I probably would do.
PS: Can we expect any Johnny Bananas pranks on Final Reckoning?
JB: I had so much on my plate the entire season that there really was zero time for levity or jokes. Of all the seasons I've done, this was, from a mental standpoint, the most difficult thing I've ever experienced in my life. This one is brutal.
PS: Do you mean with the interpersonal relationships or with the challenges themselves?
"What a lot of people don't understand is this isn't something that happened overnight — it's taken 17 seasons, and 13 long years."
JB: Everything. The house dynamics, the relationships, the lack of relationships — at least in my opinion. I think there has been a disturbing trend over the past few seasons where I've gone from the guy no one really wanted to vibe with to the guy who is public enemy number one from day one. It's become me versus the entire house. That's the way that this season goes down, and it's going to be a pretty amazing thing to watch the house versus the immovable object.
PS: Some might say that that's a direct result of what you've done to castmates in the past. Do you think part of it is your actions, or do you think a lot of it is production whispering into their ears, "Hey, let's make this a vendetta?"
JB: No, it's not production at all. That's another misconception about The Challenge: [viewers] think that it's scripted, and it's not. Reality is stranger than fiction. You couldn't write the stuff that goes down. You just couldn't. It's all cast member animosity towards me. Some of it is stuff that I've created on my own with certain people, but then there's also envy and jealousy there, too. They see where I am, and who I am, and what I've become, and the brand that I've created, and the following that I have.
What a lot of people don't understand is this isn't something that happened overnight — it's taken 17 seasons, and 13 long years. I think a lot of people don't realize that it takes hard work, and it can't be taken from me. A lot of the young guys think, "Well, if we go head-to-head against Bananas, it's a guaranteed storyline and camera-time. It's upsetting that that's a route they can take now. I think, "OK. Yeah. You can spar against me, and get rid of me, but dimming my flame isn't going to make yours any brighter."
Image Source: Getty / Mike Coppola
PS: The problem becomes that we get a season full of people who aren't established personalities and aren't that interesting yet, who just think maybe it would be a good thing to get the big players off early. And then the season isn't as good.
JB: That's the thing. I guess maybe this is why I've been as successful as I have been, and why I'm not just a fan favorite, but a favorite with production: I know what's going to be good for the show. I put my producer's hat on, so it's almost like I'm a producer first and a cast member second. Even though I might dislike a person, I know what's good for television. For example, when me and CT had our rivalry, I thought, "God, I want to get him out of here." But at the same time, it's like, "But damn, he's so important to the show. And he's so important to our viewers. He's so important for ratings." I have to put my personal [issues] aside for the sake of it being a good episode. These [new] guys are all thinking in the moment. They're not thinking long-term. If you get rid of all of [the vets], no one's going to watch. And then what's going to happen? Ratings are going to suffer, and what happens if The Challenge isn't even renewed?
PS: One person who's been super polarizing is Devin. What are your feelings on him at this point?
JB: Devin is 100 percent an opportunist. He brings nothing to the show physically or strategically. Devin is not a player in the game, he is one of the pawns. The way he sees it is, "If I go after Bananas, and if I start this big Bananas-Devin rivalry, then I'm going to get a storyline," which is exactly what happened last season. Devin knows that without me, he doesn't exist. Devin's not the first one to come at me; there's been Jordan and even Tony. The difference, though, is he's doing it strictly for camera-time and to try and make a name for himself.
PS: Social media seems to have changed the game. Have you noticed that the show has been different since cast members have started picking fights off-screen?
JB: There's more drama off the show on social media than there is on the show. It's all the time, so the show never really ends. I keep my inner circle, because that's the problem you run into that transfers over on the show. I spend so much time with the cast members [onscreen], I just don't want to be friends with them off the show. The Challenge has come back in such a big way, and so many people want to be on the show now. It used to be just MTV franchises, but now you see people from Big Brother and The Bachelor. It's a lot of people wanting [to be] on the show, knowing that, "Hey, if I can start a rivalry via social media with whoever, this might increase my odds of being noticed and being cast on the show."
PS: How do you feel about MTV bringing in people from other networks?
JB: It's a double-edged sword. I can see both sides: I like the idea because it's bringing new eyeballs to The Challenge, but it's also diluting the show. The problem is, you don't have the same pool to choose from; there's no Road Rules, and Real World is off the air. They're going to need real people to bring in. How do they do that? It's above my pay grade. All I can do is just continue to be true to who I am and keep stirring the pot.
PS: Did any part of you think maybe your vendetta this season might be Sarah?
JB: Yeah. I did. Sarah went through my head, Wes went through my head, Tony obviously did. Devin was originally supposed to be my partner. That most certainly crossed my mind, but I guess Sarah has moved on.
PS: As far as you know, is she just done with the show entirely?
JB: Yeah. I think what happened with that money grab really affected her. I think she put a lot false blame on production for it happening. She was as responsible for that happening as anybody else. There's a lot of things she could have done differently in that final. She shouldn't have trusted me as much as she did. She really shouldn't have. She should have known that regardless of what I said and the way that I acted, I am who I am. It's almost like you can try as hard as you want to domesticate a wild animal, but you can't be shocked when they bite you because at the end of the day, this still is a wild animal.
She tried to say that production set her up, and then she tried to say that I cheated and all this other stuff. So I think there's a lot of that going on as well where she's just kind of still, I don't know. I think Sarah has a tremendous amount of animosity toward the entire franchise, so I honestly can't see Sarah ever coming back. I just really can't. I wish her the best of luck, but I think we've probably seen the last of her.
PS: Yeah. Is that a decision you would still stand by today?
JB: Oh, 100 percent. I've never once looked at my bank account and been like, you know what? I wish there was $275,000 less dollars in here. Yeah. I stand by it.