In one form or another, MTV’s The Challenge has been on TV for over 20 years, which is a truly remarkable amount of time when you consider what the series entails: a who’s-who of former Road Rules and Real World cast members—and, more recently, standouts from Are You the One?, Big Brother, Ex on the Beach and Geordie Shore—marooned in a giant house, where they duke it out, in various stages of sobriety and undress, through a mixture of politicking, polidicking and physical challenges, for large sums of money. Practically since its inception, the show has been changing, iterating on itself, building conflict by seeding goodwill and enmity, the ultimate climaxes of which often take multiple seasons to arrive. With an ever-evolving roster of spunky castmates—some old, some new—The Challenge maintains the structural hallmarks of a long-running soap opera, the drunken theatrics of The Real World and the competitive juices of Survivor.
One unflappable pillar of calm amidst this booze and testosterone-fueled storm has been T.J. Lavin, the former pro BMX rider and beloved host of The Challenge since 2005. Despite his overall amiability and laid-back delivery, he has, in a revolving ensemble of graphic tees and flat-brimmed hats, become known amongst fans for his candor and quick-witted retorts. He is generous with compliments, even if they tend to feel a bit perfunctory: an unmoved pronouncement that “You killed it” is probably the most effusive praise you’re liable to hear as a contestant. But he’s also not afraid to call someone out—particularly if he feels like they’re not giving it their all. For a contestant, disappointing Lavin is akin to disappointing your dad. And nothing disappoints Lavin more than quitters.
That may be, of course, because of the host’s own experience with quitting—or lack thereof. In 2010, at the Dew Tour Championship in Las Vegas, Lavin crashed while performing a rudimentary trick, during what was to be his final run before retirement. He broke his arm and his orbital bone, and was placed in a medically-induced coma due to brain bleeding. Recovery took years; he had to relearn things as basic as tying shoes and counting money.
“The most important thing is just to not give up,” he said, in 2011, about his rehabilitation.
Heading into tonight’s premiere (at 9pm ET) of The Challenge’s 32nd season, subtitled The Final Reckoning, I caught up with the longtime host to discuss the show’s worst quitter of all-time, the keys to the franchise’s longevity, what he does when they're not filming and which reality TV star he'd most like to see on The Challenge...
When you started hosting the show in 2005, did you ever think it would last this long?
No way. Dave Mirra [who hosted the show before me] said you’ll do it for like one or two seasons and you’ll be over it. Now here we are 32 seasons later, and it’s amazing. I still love it. It’s insane.
How do you account for its longevity?
I think it’s because it’s changing every season. Every season is different. Every season has a new theme and a new place.
What do you think about the new castmates from different MTV shows?
I like them. I think it’s refreshing. There’s definitely a divide in the house, no doubt about it. It’s just like the Champs vs. Stars thing. They’re always on divided teams. Really, I don’t care where they come from. As long as they go in there and try hard, they’re good to go.
Is there anything you despise more than quitters?
[Demurs] Well, I mean, yeah, of course.
In the context of the show?
Not on the show. I really don’t like cheaters and quitters. But the quitting thing is probably worse.
Was there any one quitting performance you felt particularly disappointed about?
I don’t even remember this dude’s name. But he quit when we were in Mexico, because he missed his girlfriend. It seemed so funny. I have no idea if they’re still together today, but I highly doubt it. It’s kind of a thing where you’re, like, ‘Dude, are you serious? You’re really going to blow your shot at this? You’re really going to quit something that everyone and their mother would die to do?’ So many people want to try the show and want to make it on. I have so many people sliding into the DMs trying to be on the show and trying to give me their résumés. It’s, like, dude, there are a lot of people that would love to be on the show and you’re just going to throw it away like that? That’s why it bothers me so much. You’re taking the space of someone who’s really going to try.
[Ed. Note: This dude’s name was Brandon, and he was on Rivals III. As a send off, Lavin told him: “Don’t take care. Hope to see you never.”]
What’s the craziest challenge you can remember?
It wasn’t crazy, like you could get hurt, but the canyon swing in New Zealand, where they had to hold each other, and when they dropped it was over 300 feet...that was awesome. I think the gnarliest one was last season, where they were jumping car from car, and the cars were really slippery. It took out Leroy pretty bad.
I feel like this is the million dollar question: what are you doing when you’re not filming? How much down time is there?
There’s a lot of down time most of the time, but this time there wasn’t too much. It was mostly filming every day. It was a lot of work because it was so many episodes.
But I have a YouTube channel, and on my YouTube channel, I just posted last night what I do during the filming of Challenges. It’s mostly humanitarian work and just having fun with the locals.
[Ed. Note: The video is called “Hangin’ with Lavs,” and having watched it, I can attest to the fact that that’s quite literally what it is. Set to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” the vlog features Lavin happily shooting the shit with the locals of Hermanus, South Africa, where The Final Reckoning takes place. He offers them rides, buys them clothes, gives an impromptu piano lesson at the local Holiday Inn and is generally as magnanimous and earnest and big-hearted as you’d hope. If nothing else, The Challenge should persist as a means of sending T.J. Lavin out into the world as our informal ambassador.]
What’s the biggest misconception viewers have about The Challenge and the people on it?
That these dudes aren’t athletes. I think they very much are. If you’re going to win, you’ve got to be somewhat athletic, and that’s something some people don’t realize. These dudes are really doing work.
Do you think there’s anyone who can take Johnny Bananas’s throne, as the GOAT? Who do you see as his second-coming, so to speak?
I don’t see anyone in the sand. But I think Joss would be a really good player eventually. He’s got something, he’s pretty savvy, he can talk to people, he’s cool, he’s likable and he’s super athletic.
How do you see The Challenge as a franchise ending? How would you end it?
I would think that we’d go to every single country that we’ve ever been to, and do a challenge in every one of those countries, one at a time, and you get points for every country you go to, and maybe the overall champion would be the person who wins the most of those challenges. It would be so epic if you had to travel all away around the world 100 times. I think that’s the only way we could do it justice.
Is there anyone else in the reality TV universe you think would make a good cast member?
Who would be good or who would be fun?
Who would be fun.
I think we should get Kanye West.
That would certainly be a good for drama.
He’d be perfect.