I met the cast of “Amazing Race” Season 23 in June before they’d faced a single Detour or Roadblock, before the teams had been allowed to say so much as a word to each other.
Still, the temptation to handicap the still-unknown pairings was irresistible. It’s irresistible for host Phil Keoghan as well and when we sat down, I spent a while trying to get Phil to make predictions on which teams he won’t be Philiminating this season.
The difficulties of predicting winners is something that Phil views as being one of the biggest strengths of “The Amazing Race.” In fact, nearly everything I brought up in our conversation tied into another of the show’s greatest strengths.
Just as his buddy Jeff Probst is, at heart, a huge fan of “Survivor,” Phil Keoghan is a huge fan of “The Amazing Race” and any concern that I raised about the show, he pivoted around into an asset.
Just as my interview with co-creator Elise Doganieri was like checking off boxes for the issues I like to harp on in my recaps, my chat with Phil was very much a State of “The Amazing Race” interview. We talked about equalizers, alliances and potential All-Star seasons.
The full Q&A is after the break…
HitFix: This is your 23rd season of doing this. At this point, how good are you at looking at the cast when they’re all standing together on the very first day and making predictions?
Phil Keoghan: I suck. [He laughs.] I wish that I was better, but I think the fact that I’m not good and there are so many others who are not good is part of the reason that the show works. Unlike other races where you can kind of assess the potential of a racer based on track record or what they look like on paper… You know, like if you look at a NASCAR race and they’re on the starting line, first of all, they’re in order based on how they raced getting there — who got pole position based on the fasted lap — and then they have a track record. These teams don’t have a track record to measure one team up against another and so you’re kinda guessing and you’re judging them by these arbitrary measurements. Like we have NFL players, but does that necessarily mean that guys who can go out and play with the elite-of-the-elite for 60 minutes on a football field are any stronger or going to do any better than our Afghanimals [Leo & Jamal]? Or better than a couple who are used to working in an ER for endless hours under a tremendous amount of pressure? Those are the unknowns that make predictions almost impossible and that make my ability to assess how well they’re going to do pretty useless.
HitFix: But do you still try?
Phil Keoghan: We try! Oh, we try!
HitFix: Who have been a couple teams that you’ve been able to predict?
Phil Keoghan: I’ve never picked the exact Final 3. I’ve managed to pick teams that have made it to the Final 3, but I’ve lost a lot of money. We have little dollar bets and I hope I continue to struggle with it, because that means that we’re getting something right with the casting, because it is unpredictable. That’s what I think makes the show work for the audience, because the audience can’t tell either. We’ve had the most unlikely people get into the Final 3 and win. Look at what happened with our goat farmers two seasons ago. They never won a Leg. But then they won the last one. I wouldn’t have seen them, before the Race started, doing well. And I didn’t see them doing well when the Race had started, because of their track record. And then they just pulled it out of the bag and they ended up winning.
HitFix: You kept almost sending them home on a weekly basis.
Phil Keoghan: I thought I had! And then Brent collapsed on the mat when we were in Bangladesh! Everything could indicate that they weren’t going to make it. And we’ve had that so many times. Go back to Season 3 with Flo & Zach and Flo giving up on the last Leg of the Race. She didn’t even want to go to the finish line. It’s a key factor in what makes the show a success is that it is unpredictable and that you can’t really assess it before it starts.
HitFix: For you as a fan of the show, which version of “Amazing Race” do you prefer? Do you prefer the Beekmans winning — having never won a Leg all season where it’s just out of nowhere — or do you prefer a team that’s clearly a strong team winning, a team that has won five or six or eight Legs?
Phil Keoghan: I have favorite teams based on me liking them on a personal level and then I have favorite teams based on me liking them because of how they do on the show. The final three teams that make it into that race to the finish line, I want those teams to not necessarily be my favorites, but the teams that I believe make for the best TV. And that might be a team that I love to hate and that the audience loves to hate. At the end of the day, it’s about telegenic, engaging, captivating characters that make us want to watch, whether we like them or not. So, to answer your question, it’s the team that is going to deliver the best content. If you think of the teams as writers, I write the scripts for all the pieces that go to put the show together, but ultimately the other content comes from how these teams react to what it is they’re doing and where they are. The more dynamic they are at what they’re doing, the better the content and so the better the show. So the team that I want to see win? The one that I feel is most deserving? It’s the one that has entertained us the most.
HitFix: How perplexed were you last season that not only did teams not decide to work against Bates & Anthony, but they actually helped them along every step of the way?
Phil Keoghan: I’m amazed that so many people who come on “The Amazing Race” will end up helping their biggest competition. It’s happened on a number of occasions, in particular with Bates & Anthony. I like fair competition and I like good sportsmanship, but I do think you should be making choices to win. It’s not about being nice when you’re in a competition like that. You want to strive to win and to do whatever it takes to win.
HitFix: “Survivor” was a show that built up from the very beginning with the concept of the “alliance” as being very central and for like 20 seasons, “Amazing Race” was almost totally immune to that. There really just weren’t alliances. But in the past couple seasons, alliances have played a bigger role. Have you been noticing that and does that concern you at all?
Phil Keoghan: No, I think alliances only work so much, because there’s only so much you can do. On “Survivor,” you can create an alliance to literally save somebody from being voted out. On “Amazing Race,” at the end of the day, no matter what kind of alliances there are, you still have to get yourself from one place to the other. There’s been times when teams have formed alliances and they haven’t even known that they’re at the back of the pack. They’re there helping the other team and they don’t even know… I just don’t think that ultimately on “Amazing Race,” I don’t think alliances are that big a deal. It’s not a major factor and certainly as you get towards the end, it really is about the individual’s achievement and what they’re doing, the cab they get in, how they do with the challenge. It’s never been a big factor on “Amazing Race.” I don’t think it ever will. We’ve certainly seen people want to try to help out the other teams, but it’s still miniscule. It’s not anywhere near what it is on “Survivor” and it never will be.
HitFix: Do you prefer when the vagaries and randomness of the game play itself out more? Or do you prefer when the challenge aspects take supremacy?
Phil Keoghan: I like the combination. I like that you can get in a cab and have a bad ride and that that can potentially throw you backwards. That’s one of the things that works about “Amazing Race” is the unpredictable aspect of the fact that we are not… Case in point with “Survivor,” say, on “Survivor” they create their own world. A lot of shows manufacture their own world to create a competition. When you go on a variety show on the stage and it’s 69 degrees in that studio and you tell everybody when lunch is and when to roll cameras and when to turn the lights on and when to bring the audience in, it’s controlled. You have your world and short of some outside influence disrupting your schedule, it’s your world. On “Amazing Race,” we just do not have that ability. We don’t shut down an island and control everything going in and out of that space. We don’t have a studio to control and shut down for our own benefit. We are spread out, sometimes over various countries, where people are on different planes in the air over different airspaces, where different people are going through different custom challenges, where people are on different cab rides — some cab rides where they’re leaving one country in Europe and then another one in another cab that’s in Africa. So the unpredictable aspect of what happens on “Amazing Race” is crucial to making it interesting because we are competing in the real world. We manufacture the course. We manufacture a lot of the aspects — “You must go here… You must do this challenge.” We control pieces of the Race, but then there are other pieces that we have absolutely no control over at all and combining both is what makes the show unique and what makes it difference.
HitFix: You obviously have as good a sense as anybody of the ridiculously ambitious production elements of the show and things where the production governs what the show is able to do or not able to do. Is there anything that you as a fan wish that the show could do that you as Phil Involved With The Show know will never be able to happen because of just the scope of the production?
Phil Keoghan: Like what sorts of things?
HitFix: Yeah, I know that was confusing. Like, for example, I know that a lot of equalizing has to happen because the production can only be separated by so much. Would you like for, hypothetically, teams to be able to get full days ahead of each other? For there to be genuine penalties for falling way behind? Or for there to be no Non-Elimination Legs? That kind of thing.
Phil Keoghan: Yeah, the Non-Elimination Legs are really just to do with numbers. If we had an elimination at the end of every single Leg, we’d have to have way more teams and I think that would be too many teams for an audience to get to know in a season. There are a lot of people that like the Non-Elimination aspect of it, because it has saved teams that have gone on to win, so that makes it less predictable, because they don’t know when the Elimination Legs are coming or the Non-Elimination Legs are coming, so I wouldn’t want to change that.
Equalizing is an inherent part of the Race. There are some places that we leave where there’s just one flight. We don’t control when planes take off or land or when trains leave or any of that stuff. Again, if we were manufacturing this Race from scratch and it wasn’t operating in the real world, then you would see less natural equalizing, because we would say, “Well, if a team’s ready to go, they can get on the plane and they can go.” But what happens is that they turn up and the flight leaves at 11 and one team gets there at 5:00 and then other team gets there at 9:00 and they’ve got a lead, but yeah it gets killed because, well, there’s only one flight and it leaves at 11. But that also, I think, as a viewer, it makes for a closer, more competitive race. The natural equalizers that occur along the racecourse naturally create more competitive racing. I think if you had teams that were out ahead by days because they could just get on a plane whenever they wanted and travel whenever they wanted, it’d be kinda like… “Oh well. I guess they’re ahead.” Tighter competition definitely comes from the fact that they have to adhere to the everyday challenges that exist.
I pester Phil to make predictions on Page 2…
HitFix: Going back to my first question. Day One. Looking at the people out here posing for their pictures and walking around. Give me your read on maybe three favorites.
Phil Keoghan: Well, I go to the auditions, so I get to see these teams early on and I get to get a good read on them and ask them questions and see where they’re at. If I had a prediction for a team to make it through to the Final 3, it would be the ER doctors right now. I just think they’re used to working under tremendous pressure, with sleep deprivation. They’re well-educated, well-traveled. They remind me a lot of Uchenna & Joyce from Season 7. I think they’re hardened physically and mentally and they’re smart. I can see them in the Final 3. I would be really surprised. But, again… I have seen teams that I thought would go to the Final 3 get eliminated in the first Leg. It’s happened. Right now? The way I’m looking at it, I see them going. The NFL players, who I love, I just worry that, from a physical standpoint, this is gonna be a lot for them. That’s a lot of mass to be moving around the world 24-7. You played in the NFL, you knocked people over and you’re 300-something pounds, you play for 60 intense minutes of playing time with lots of rest in-between, that’s very different. Mentally they’re tough, they’re competitive, but gee, racing around the world 24-7? Doing a lot of endurance things?
HitFix: How about just sitting on an airplane for 10 hours?
Phil Keoghan: At that size. I agree.
HitFix: I remember that the Globetrotters complained about that aspect. They were bigger, but…
Phil Keoghan: Exactly. I think a team like the Afghanimals — The Afghanis, they call themselves “The Afghanimals” — speaking five languages… I think they’ve got a lot to prove. I think they want to dispel a lot of myths about their background and who they are and I think a team like that could really come out and surprise and shock. I think some of the couples… The cheerleaders? The Ice Queens? Again, what makes the show work is that it’s impossible to judge a book by its cover. It’s impossible to say who’s going to do well and that’s what I like about it. We’ve got a lot of great potential energy.
HitFix: And are you ready for another All-Stars season? Or do you not want to go to that well too often?
Phil Keoghan: I’d like to see another All-Stars. I don’t know if they have necessarily done as well. I don’t know. I’d have to look at the numbers. But I think it’s kinda nice. I’d like to see us do a reunion show. After 12 years and 23 seasons, I’m constantly getting asked by fans, “Whatever happened to… ” I think we’re do for one. [He calls over the show’s publicist.] When are we doing a reunion show for “Amazing Race”? You do ’em for “Survivor.” What’s wrong? Are you giving favoritism to “Survivor” now?
HitFix: But you’d be up for an All-Stars season? You’re not opposed to that format?
Phil Keoghan: No, I’m not opposed. I’d like a Fan’s Favorite season, quite frankly. Let the fans pick who they want to see come back. Open it up to a vote and by popular demand? I have a feeling the Cowboys would be back.
HitFix: When Probst does his show, he just gets on one airplane and that’s it for his season. When you do this, you have to go from country to country to country twice a year. Does it get harder for you? Or is it just what you do?
Phil Keoghan: It doesn’t get harder. I look forward to it. But by the time I’m done, I’m just like, “Oh God. I don’t know if I can do that again.” Sometimes it’s so exhausting, but I definitely look forward to it and I enjoy it when it’s happening. But it does tap you out. When you get home, you’re pretty gone. By the time I get back, I’m definitely ready to take a rest. But it is a different show from a lot of shows. I think now, after 10 years, people are starting to realize just what is involved with the show. When I do my live-tweets I put “#12Shows21Days” and that’s one of the things that I think people are slowly starting to realize. Like, “12 shows in 21 days” and they sort of get a sense for just how brutal that must be for all of us to make that show. It’s not a lot of time. An entire season in 21 days? That’s a lot of miles. That’s a lot of continents. That’s a lot of countries. That’s a lot of hard work.
“The Amazing Race” returns on Sunday, September 29 at 8 p.m. on CBS.