The Interrogation Room: ‘Challenge’ G.O.A.T. Johnny Bananas tells it all
If MTV’s “The Real World’’ is truly the birthplace of all reality TV, meet the bad boy of the family — “The Challenge’s’’ Johnny Devenanzio, aka Johnny Bananas. And not only is it time for Bananas to be recognized as an elite athlete competing in “America’s Fifth Major Sport,’’ but it’s time for his legacy to go mainstream. ... Just ask him.
Long before the Kardashians were the queens of reality television, Johnny Devenanzio was drinking himself silly down in Key West on MTV’s “The Real World.’’
Years prior to contestants eating larva on “Naked and Afraid,’’ Devenanzio was chomping down cow testicles with a chaser of spoiled goat’s milk on “The Challenge,’’ all in the hopes of splitting $150,000 four ways with his teammates.
“Johnny who?’’ some of you may ask.
Alright, does Johnny Bananas ring a bell?
Devenanzio — aka Johnny Bananas — is coming off his record-setting seventh championship on MTV’s “The Challenge,’’ is the host for NBC’s late-night travel/adventure show “1st Look,’’ and is looking for members to join his “Call of Duty’’ squad on Campaign.TV, where Bananas, professional athletes, and other reality TV stars charge a fee to game with fans. Think of it as Cameo with a game controller and headphones.
He’s been involved in two of the more memorable reality TV moments ever, first being hoisted up — against his will of course — on the back of half-man/half-monster Chris [C.T.] Tamburello, only to be thrown into a metal barrel in humiliating fashion in one elimination challenge, and then in 2016 on “Rivals III: The Challenge,’’ he instantly became the bad boy of reality TV when a twist in the finale allowed a partner to steal the $275,000 prize money from the other partner. With Bananas assuring then-partner Sarah Rice the entire time he wouldn’t do it, when rubber hit the road he muttered the infamous “I’m going to go ahead and take the money and run,’’ as Rice slumped to her knees in tears of utter disbelief.
Bananas has gone from fun-loving drunk fraternity guy, to villain, and now to a sort of cult hero for “Challenge’’ fans since making his TV debut back in 2006.
But in his opinion he’s simply the G.O.A.T.
A seventh championship after a six-season dry spell that bordered on bad luck and the curse of betraying Rice, cements Bananas in not only show history, but sports history, as far as he’s concerned.
“For me, and now 20 seasons of doing this and doing challenges for 15 years, to have the longevity I’ve had physically, but also reinventing myself and bringing something new, and now at the end of the day to have more championships than Tom Brady and Michael Jordan, you would be hard-pressed to argue that we’re not athletes as well,’’ Bananas said to the Sun-Times this week.
The Ringer’s Bill Simmons has referred to “The Challenge’’ as “America’s fifth major sport,’’ but the 1.5 rating “The Challenge: Total Madness’’ pulled this season is actually that of an average ESPN Sunday night baseball game and much better than an average NHL game.
Fifth? That might even be a bit low.
So who better for the latest “Interrogation Room’’ than the man, the myth, the legend – Johnny Bananas?
JOE COWLEY: Shouldn’t “The Real World’’ be considered the birthplace of all reality TV?
JOHNNY BANANAS: “There’s not even any argument. ‘The Real World’ and ‘MTV’ were the birthplace of reality TV. Here’s the deal, dude, when I started reality television [in 2006], my season of ‘The Real World,’ we were pretty much the only game in town. You had ‘Survivor’ and ‘Big Brother,’ but ‘The Challenge’ spawned off ‘The Real World,’ and in my opinion will always be the most dynamic competition show out there. Because it combines everything that is amazing about reality television all into one. You have obviously the drama, the hook-ups and that aspect that everyone wants to see, but then you have the strategic part of the game, the physical and mental part of the game, which has obviously evolved exponentially over the years. Just being a part of that, dude, and I was a part of ‘The Real World’ and ‘The Challenge’ when it was in its infancy. Before the Kardashians, the ‘Jersey Shore,’ the whole Bravo Network. All these other ridiculous shows like ‘American Idol,’ ‘The Masked Singer,’ we were doing it longer, we were doing it harder than all of those shows. Again, I was on ‘The Real World’ before the advent of social media, so Twitter wasn’t around, Instagram wasn’t around. People were going on ‘The Challenge’ and ‘The Real World,’ competing for the love of the game and the love of the show, not to get Instagram followers. I feel like people go on TV now for different reasons than we used to. I feel like a lot of reality stars are a dime a dozen now, where I feel like back in the day in order to get cast for one of these shows … dude, my original season of ‘The Real World’ I was one of 200,000 applicants for Key West. So the casting process back in the day was insane in what you had to go through and what kind of personality you had to have to rise to the level of being cast. Now, it’s like, ‘Are you hot? Are you willing to hook up in a hot tub and get drunk? You’re cast.’ There is definitely some pride in it as far as being a part of it in its infancy days, and just being a part of that family. And even though we don’t get the recognition that we should when it comes to the Emmys and stuff. I mean shows like the ‘Masked Singer’ in their first season out are getting nominated, and it’s like, dude, we’ve been around, we’ve built this fan base, have a reputation that goes back 35 seasons. I would love to see if any of these shows that are nominated this season are going to be around longer than we have – two decades. It’s not going to happen. We don’t get the respect we deserve, but we get the respect from the people that matter.’’
JC: How much did competing against professional athletes and Olympians on “Champs vs. Pros’’ legitimize what you guys do on “The Challenge?’’
JB: “Of my 20 seasons on ‘The Challenge,’ and you know what, ‘Challenge’ aside. Of all the things I accomplished in my life, beating [Hall of Fame receiver] Terrell Owens handedly in tag, like smoked his ass, don’t even know what the score was … Listen, if we were on the football field, absolutely Terrell Owens is going to embarrass me and run circles around me, but the thing about ‘The Challenge’ is we have to be good at everything. When you talk about professional athletes, Olympians, NFL players, snowboarders, whatever they are, they are amazing, they are world class as their respective discipline, but you take them out of that, put them in a different domain where there are no Xs and Os, I mean what we do from day-to-day, we don’t know what sport, what event, what competition we’re going to be showing up for. We don’t have time to practice, we don’t have playbooks. We get one shot to do something we’ve never done before, and that can make or break your entire game. I’ve always said this, you have your people that show up for ‘The Challenge’ and they’re there just for the TV time. They don’t necessarily want to compete. They’re not athletic. But you do have the people that show up and they are. I would say that when you think of an athlete you think of some freak of nature that has a 40-inch vertical, sub 4.4-40 time, do all this crazy stuff physically, which I agree with, but while we might not stack up with professional athletes in the physical sense, when it comes to the mental sense and what we have to endure mentally, the pressure we have to perform under, the ability to adapt and adjust when the lights are the brightest and the pressure is the greatest, I think that’s the true hallmark of an athlete. An athlete is asked to perform and execute when the pressure is the greatest.’’
JC: Your face looked numb in the “Total Madness’’ finale when there was one last unexpected elimination added. That’s accurate?
JB: “Yeah, I was numb in the literal sense and the not literal sense. I mean we were standing on top of a [bleeping] glacier in Austria, and knew going into that when Cory [Wharton] won, I knew he was going to nominate me [for elimination]. As angry as I wanted to be at him I couldn’t fault him for making the move he did because it’s like I wouldn’t want me there if I was him, so he made the best move for him. But yeah, when the realization hit me that this entire season, everything I’ve gone through, the fact that I finally made it back to a final, the fact that I was finally in striking distance of winning my seventh, it’s all now going to hinge on who can run faster and jump in snow better than the other person. Again, that’s what is so crazy about ‘The Challenge.’ You can have the perfect season, right? And it could all be gone in one second, so yeah, I was numb and thinking, ‘OK, here we go again, another crazy twist.’ But as annoying as mind-numbing as that was, that’s what made this win so special.’’
JC: Did you know all along that you were going to backstab Sarah and take all the money back on “Rivals III,’’ and did you know you would instantly become the bad guy of reality TV?
JB: “The second [host] T.J. [Lavin] announced that twist I knew I was going to do it, and I knew that a lot of people would give me [bleep] for it, but mark my words, she would have done the exact same thing. She showed that a season earlier, which has been my whole point. People everywhere were like, ‘How could you do it?’ Listen, Sarah [bleeped] me over when we were best friends, were in an alliance all season. So you don’t think she would have done it again when our friendship has been fractured and it’s for twice as much money as she did it for the first time? It’s like c’mon. When T.J. made that announcement, and he said listen you are also competing against your partner and have the opportunity to steal the money from them. You look at the reaction from all three pairs, the other two when T.J. announced it they just started laughing like, ‘Cool, it’s never going to happen.’ Sarah and I both just stared at the ground because we both knew at that moment, ‘Holy [bleep], this is going to happen if given a chance.’ The only reason I told her throughout the show that I wouldn’t do that to her was first, to put her mind at ease so she wouldn’t throw the final, but also if miraculously if she ended up performing better than me in the final, I didn’t want her to know that I was going to take the money on the off chance that she wasn’t. I knew from right when T.J. made the announcement that I was going to do it. What I had to figure out was how was I going to justify it? Had I been like, ‘This is my revenge, I’m getting you back,’ it would have sounded salty. That’s why my explanation was, ‘Listen, there’s no ill-will here, I have nothing against you, but at the end of the day this is a game and we’re here to play for money. Sarah, all I’m doing is playing by the rules that you wrote by you turning on me in ‘The Battle of the Exes II.’ You basically null and voided our alliance, rewrote the rules of how we played the game. If this is strictly for money then I’m repaying the favor.’ Dude, I never felt more alone than standing on that mountain and having all the producers staring at me, even T.J., dude, the look T.J. gave me was a like a disappointed father. He was like, ‘How could you?’ But thinking about it as a producer, how lame would it have been if I didn’t take that money? Would we still be sitting here talking about that moment if I had split the money? Absolutely not. By me doing it I’ve gone down as one of the more infamous reality bad guys in history. MSN just did a story on the 18 most hated reality TV cast members and I was No. 7, so I take that as a badge of honor. At the end of the day I’m here to make money and make good TV. That’s what that was.’’
JC: But don’t you feel like you are starting to now become the good guy?
JB: “Absolutely, and I definitely feel like maturity plays into it. I’m going on and looking at guys acting the same way I used to behave, act like a 20-something idiot, drinking, hooking up, and I’m looking at these guys like, ‘Man, I just really have a different perspective on the game and life, and how I want to be viewed in the public eye.’ When you’re in your 20s, the things you think are cool … you reach your 30s and realize how immature and dumb. You gotta grow up at some point, and I think that is part of it. The other thing is from a production standpoint I don’t give them the ammunition I used to where they could edit me to look a certain way. I wanted this season to not have any blemishes on it. There was no reason to be cutthroat or make my life difficult. It’s the evolution, man, of who I am and who I’ve become. I’m not going to lie, I’ve had some really dark days on reality TV and I made some really bad decisions. There was an awful, dark version of me on TV. People let you know, and you either take peoples’ advice and learn from it or keep making mistakes. I do owe reality TV, ‘The Challenge,’ social media to a certain extent for a lot of my growth and a lot of my development because I had to watch myself make these mistakes and I didn’t even like this version of myself. I wanted to change that.’’
JC: OK, first answers that come to your mind - C.T. [Chris Tamburello] or T.O. who would you have taken in that one if it went to blows?
JB: “Oh man, that’s a tough one. I think I would have taken C.T. and here’s why. Terrell Owens didn’t know who C.T. was. He just saw some over-weight guy with his glasses and his Boston accent, his hat, and while C.T. was taking jabs at him he never puffed his chest out. I don’t think Terrell Owens would have been ready for what C.T. could become. He had no idea what kind of mutant C.T. can become.’’
JC: What is brought up to you the most on the street: The time C.T. made you his backpack or the backstab of Sarah?
JB: “It’s like 1A and 1B. When you hear about the most talked about things I’ve been involved in, those are the two. The difference in the two is the feeling about the backpack has not changed. Everyone is still like, ‘Oh my God.’ The Sarah thing, 99.9 percent of the people hated me for it, wanted me to die. Years later, it’s complete opposite. People are now like, ‘The greatest thing you’ve ever done.’ ‘’
JC: Mount Rushmore for “The Challenge?” First a men’s division and then a women’s division?
JB: “OK, myself, C.T., and I would have to say Wes, and I’d have to go Darrell [Taylor].’’
JC: No Jordan [Wiseley]? What about Derrick [Kosinski] or Kenny [Santucci]?
JB: “Nah, Jordan hasn’t met the longevity. He’s definitely got a high ceiling. I have to go with rich history. Derrick and Darrell are right there. Again, Kenny had a very high ceiling but never got close to what his potential could have been. He just wasn’t around long enough.’’
JC: Four women?
JB: “I’d have to go Laurel [Stucky], Emily Schromm, and while I hate to admit it, Camila [Nakagawa], only because her tenacity is unmatched, absolutely fearless. Too soon on Jenny [West], but you talk about a dynasty in the making. I don’t know how anyone will get close to her. But I’m going old school and saying Coral [Smith] is the fourth.’’
JC: Anyone on the cast you just can’t stand personally. Not character-driven, not in the story, just hate this person? Like a Paulie [Calafiore] or a Devin [Walker-Molaghan]?
JB: “You hit the nails right on the head. Absolutely. There have never been two more attention-seeking … when you talk about people that go on TV for the wrong reason and they’re just the most delusional human beings on planet earth, have zero ability to carry a storyline on their own so they have to try and basically have to siphon storylines off other people … I’m glad you said their names. It goes to show that opinion is shared widely.’’
JC: Pound-for-pound toughest competitor ever?
JB: “Derrick. Has to be, bro. I mean a guy for his size, what I’ve seen him to do guys way bigger … [that elimination with Joss [Mooney], I mean it went on for almost two hours. Joss did everything except pull out a shank and thrust it into [Derrick’s] chest. And the crazy thing was Derrick had no skin in the game. He was a mercenary, so he was leaving regardless. He got paid, but not enough to do what he did. I would have [bleeping] danced around for a few minutes and been out on the next plane out.’’
JC: Who is pound-for-pound the most underwhelming/underachiever?
JC: I was going to say Zach [Nichols].
JB: “Yeah, but Cory has had so many opportunities in finals and can’t finish the drill, man.’’
JC: An airplane of ‘The Challenge’ regulars goes down on an island – who is the first eaten and who comes out the last survivor?
JB: “First eaten would be Cohutta [Grindstaff] and I think C.T. would be the last one alive. I’ve seen him try and do that for real in the past, when he had that brawl with Adam [King] he tried to smash his head and eat it anyway, so he’s the only one to actually threaten cast members with consuming them.’’
JC: Eight championships now asking too much?
JB: “Asking for seven [championships] took nothing short but an act of God. What’s that saying: The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people he doesn’t exist? I had to do that with people knowing how dangerous I was. The stars aligned for me. It really is better to be lucky than good. That math equation in the final? I’m terrible at math. The fact that I solved a nine-part math equation in a blizzard using my ski pole and drawing the equation in the snow, that ended up being the difference between winning and losing that final. That still keeps me up at night. I’m 38 now, I’ve lost a step, and I’m competing with guys 12 years younger than me. Not only is the competition getting harder, but nobody, nobody, if I even sniff a final ever again MTV is going to have a sniper in the tree to take me out. I don’t even think they wanted me to win this one. House money from here on out.’’
JC: What’s more important to you, the seven championships or now having earned more prize money [$1.18 million] than Ashley [Mitchell’s $1.12 million]? Because to me there has been no flukier winner than Ashley. A person who stole the Bananas playbook, and condemned you for running those plays.
JB: “Exactly. Dude, how is winning just twice more impressive than what I’ve done? I was winning challenges when the grand prize was a $100,000 split between two people, so you were walking home with $50 grand before taxes. She had the easiest win in history, and the fact that she and her partner [Hunter Barfield] got to come in six challenges in and run the easiest final ever, yeah, I love having earned more money than her, but I would have traded the money I won this season for that seventh title. What that has now done has basically shut everyone up that believed I was cursed for turning on Sarah or trying to invalidate what I’ve accomplished. ‘Yeah, you won six but that will never happen again, you’re over the hill…’ Winning a seventh will now be untouched by anyone, but it has literally silenced everyone that was trying to invalidate what I’ve done. I could literally walk on water and my haters would say, ‘Yeah, you’re doing that because you can’t fly.’ ‘’
JC: Scarier in their prime, Abe [Boise] or C.T.?
JB: “Abe because you knew when C.T. was going to blow. Granted once he did it was like the Hulk, there was no stopping him, but you knew there had to be something to get him there. Abe on the other hand, this guy would go one minute be writing poetry in the corner to cutting himself with rusty razor blades. That’s a kind of crazy you don’t want to mess with. He’s tattooed his whole body himself. He carved his own chest open with a knife at a kid’s birthday party … I [bleep] you not.’’
JC: You made the unforeseen alliance with one-time nemesis Wes, why not add C.T. to the alliance if there’s a Season 36 in your future?
JB: “Absolutely man. That was kind of going that way. We were calling ourselves ‘The Space Cowboys,’ but … C.T. and I have never really worked together. We’re cool, but C.T. was hinting, ‘How do I get in this?’ That’s the next logical evolution of alliances in the show. But if and when there’s a 36 … I’m miles away from being mentally anywhere near a challenge. This last challenge really did take it out of me mentally and emotionally, and again with seven I’ll be back to being public enemy No. 1 when I show up again. If this was going to be my last one, what better way to go out? I’d now be going to just make good TV, and that’s not bad either. We’ll see.’’