'If It Were Easy, It Wouldn't Be Interesting,' Say 'Ninja Warrior' Producers The American Ninja Warrior obstacle course is so hard that, at first, no one managed to complete it. But the show's executive producers say that's OK: "It's not about winning," says Arthur Smith.

'If It Were Easy, It Wouldn't Be Interesting,' Say 'Ninja Warrior' Producers

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We had the Japanese obstacle course competition show "Sasuke" to thank for the surprise summer NBC hit "American Ninja Warrior." The American version has spawned now eight seasons of drama and athleticism as competitors scramble and hurl themselves through an obstacle course of stunts with names like the Jumping Spider, Ring Jump and the Rolling Logs.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And it wasn't just the new obstacles that caused problems. We've made minor alterations to some classic obstacles and created some major headaches - oh, oh.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: After like the fifth or sixth spin, just - I don't even know.

CORNISH: The courses are tough - so tough, nobody managed to actually win it until last season. I talked to two of the show's executive producers Anthony Storm and Arthur Smith, and Anthony told me where they get their ideas for obstacles.

ANTHONY STORM: Well, originally a lot of them were inspired by the Japanese show, but it's interesting that playgrounds and things like that are often - are the inspiration for the show, and we try to grow it into something that's going to challenge you beyond what you thought you may have been previously been able to do.

CORNISH: Arthur Smith, do you have an example?

ARTHUR SMITH: Well the Devil Steps are kind of like a version of, you know, what a monkey bar would be. It's just a, you know, a twisted monkey bar.

CORNISH: Wait; let's get into that. It's called the Devil Steps.

STORM: Yeah because they are devilish, and they punish you. And they torture you.

CORNISH: All right well, let's set the stage then. Monkey bars for me - when I think back to the kids playground, it's like there is a horizontal set of bars, right?

SMITH: Yeah.

CORNISH: And you basically reach from one to the other like a chimp or a monkey swinging from vine to vine, right? And you're - it's all stable. Nothing's moving. And maybe you go probably six feet - right? - before you...

SMITH: Right.

CORNISH: ...Jump down.

SMITH: Right.

CORNISH: Now how do you guys take it to the next level, to the point where you would call something Devil Steps?

STORM: Well, the Devil Steps themselves are interesting because if you - if you've ever seen a staircase, and we all have, there's an inside to a staircase. And if you were to climb up the backside of a staircase, you would be doing one half of the Devil Steps. And so it's sort of like climbing a ladder without rungs for your feet.

CORNISH: A lot of this seems to emphasize that kind of upper body strength. Like for those of us who never quite got a chin-up going, this is not the competition for us, right (laughter)?


SMITH: You know, upper body strength is definitely crucial, but there's other elements of being a great athlete that you need to complete "Ninja." And you know, we're always surprised because, you know, the ideal athlete for "Ninja Warrior" is probably someone who's 5-9, kind of lanky, 140. And that's pretty much it.

But then again, a few years ago, there was a woman who vaulted "Ninja Warrior" more into pop culture, and that was Kacy Catanzaro, who was only five feet and 98 pounds. And no one said she could do the Warped Wall, and she became the first woman to climb the Warped Wall. And it really broadened the show even more.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Will Kacy again make history?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes she will. She is such a strong competitor. There is no limit to what Kacy Catanzaro can do. I am convinced - just fantastic.

CORNISH: Arthur Smith, you spent some time in your career at the CBC in Canada and helped with their Olympics coverage. It feels Olympic, like the way you guys utilize music...

SMITH: Yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: ...And the way you focus on people's personal stories...

SMITH: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...It felt familiar.

SMITH: It wasn't an accident. Thank you for noticing. Ever since the beginning of the show, we decided that we were going to take an Olympic approach that, you know, we were going to tell great stories. We're going to make people care.

And we've had some remarkable, remarkable things happen and remarkable background stories - people who are overcoming cancer and people who are running for their sick wife and - or just people who have lost a few hundred pounds and they want to prove something. The other positive message about the show is that, you know, it's not about winning. It really isn't.

CORNISH: I was going to ask you about that. That is pretty much the opposite of most athletic dramas, right?


CORNISH: And like, where does winning fall into your worldview?

SMITH: Well, in the worldview or in my - in the "Ninja" view?

CORNISH: (Laughter).

SMITH: I mean, it's kind of - I mean, the show is kind of anti-American in a way because winners, you know - we always reward winners. And here, you know, the athletes root for each other.

I always think back to Kevin Bull, who was a walk-on. As you know, we always leave a number of spots for walk-ons. This year we had 70,000 applicants for "Ninja Warrior." Under a thousand of them actually get to run the course, but in every city that we go to, we always make sure that there's 20 to 25 walk-on spots.

And people will sleep out, you know, two and three weeks before to get a spot. And Kevin Bull, on that one night, waited, waited, waited, waited and got his time. And there was this one obstacle. What was the name of obstacle?

STORM: Cannonball Alley.

SMITH: Cannonball Alley. And everybody had failed at Cannonball Alley - I think we had like 20 - you know...

STORM: Fifteen consecutive...

SMITH: ...Fifteen consecutive failures. No one could get past it, and...

CORNISH: Can I ask quickly what's involved in getting past Cannonball Alley for those who can't see it?

STORM: Cannonball Alley, sure. It was four spheres hanging from above, and they covered about a 22-foot pool, so you had to swing from one sphere to the next to make your way across the pool without touching the ground or the water.

SMITH: So everybody was trying to do it the same way. This is Arthur. Everyone was trying to do it the same way, and they were using their hands and trying to use their grip strength to do it. And none of them were successful. And then Kevin Bull, this walk-on, comes on, and he starts with his - starts with a hand, and then he flips his legs around one of them...

STORM: Inverted, upside-down.

SMITH: ...Inverted, upside-down and flips over and completes the obstacle.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Look at this.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: He's hanging upside-down. I love it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: He's going to go for a dismount upside-down, and oh.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: This is what I'm talking about.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That's what I'm talking about. The first man to complete the Cannonball Alley cannonball.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Are you kidding me?

SMITH: I love the moment because when we cut to the fellow ninjas, many of which who had failed, they were cheering. They were so excited in what this walk-on can do, and that to me - in that moment, it summed up "American Ninja Warrior."

CORNISH: Anthony Storm, it seems like this is part of a broader fitness culture of our time, with the kind of tough-mudders and CrossFit and a lot of, like, things that actually don't even need a gym kind of exercising.

STORM: Yeah, you know, and I think it's sort of chicken and egg. I think that the show benefited from that, and I think that the show feeds that in that now people build ninja obstacles themselves. And they train outdoors in their yards and even in their homes, their basements, their garages. They have to convince their husbands and wives to let them convert rooms into ninja gyms.

CORNISH: What do you think that is though? I mean, what do you think people are sort of responding to or needing out of this particular kind of fitness approach?

STORM: Well, I think it's about self-improvement, and I think it's about people's desire to improve themselves in a way that - where they can see actual, tangible achievement.

CORNISH: But it's all - like, under the guise - these titles of fighting - warriors, ninjas, Spartans, right? Like, for people who are not soldiers...

STORM: Well, it's a competition.

CORNISH: ...It seems like a lot of us are playing at soldier.


SMITH: Well, it's fighting your own personal obstacles. It's fighting your own challenges.

CORNISH: In the end, do you hope that there is a winner, or do you kind of hope there isn't one (laughter)?

STORM: Well, we're good with it either way. We - you know, we're - you know, our course is never going to be easy, you know, especially the final, final course, the Mount Midoriyama course, but you know, if it was easy, it wouldn't be interesting. That's for sure.

CORNISH: Well, Arthur Smith, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SMITH: Our pleasure - my pleasure.

CORNISH: And Anthony Storm, thank you so much for sharing some of the secrets with us.

STORM: Sure, thanks for having us.

CORNISH: Arthur Smith and Anthony Storm, they're executive producers on the TV show "American Ninja Warrior."

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