JJ Watt Talks Hosting ‘Ultimate Tag’ in the Era of Social Distancing, Reveals the Show’s Professional Taggers
NFL star JJ Watt is no stranger to competition — and with hosting Fox’s new competition series “Ultimate Tag,” he’s taking that competitive spirit and the childhood game the show’s based on to the next level.
Hosting the show alongside his brothers (and fellow NFL players) Derek and TJ, Watt watches from the sidelines and commentates as professional taggers (which include parkour athletes and stunt performers) compete in challenges against amateurs (schoolyard basketball players, former college athletes and a husband & wife pair).
Speaking to Variety over the phone while isolating with the whole family in Wisconsin, Watt opened up about hosting with his brothers. “There’s nobody else I would rather do it with, that’s for sure,” he said. “Because we got to experience something new together. We got to go through the struggles together. We got to experience the successes of it together and we got to kind of rip each other give each other a hard time throughout the whole process, which was really fun, especially in the beginning while TJ was learning how to read the teleprompter.”
JJ had the most TV hosting experience, especially after his stint hosting “SNL” in February, adding, “It was really fun for me as the older brother to watch Derek and TJ throughout the whole course of a couple of weeks that we were filming, because they really did grow into their own and their own individual styles and personalities that came out and they got really, really good at it.”
But of course, the brothers are naturally competitive and Watt said he doesn’t think any of them would admit that one of their brothers beat them in a game of tag as kids. And it’s those kind of childhood memories that Watt hopes that the rowdy series will bring up for audiences while they isolate at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
How does “Ultimate Tag” fill that hole that’s left by the lack of professional sports due to the pandemic?
I think it really fits across many demographics, especially during this time because there are so many sports fans right now that are craving that adrenaline rush, that competition, just something that could give them that thrill. We have some unbelievable athletes, both as professional taggers and as competitive on the show.
And then we also fit the demographic of family who are all at home right now looking for something to watch that the parents can enjoy, as well as the kids. And, I mean, everybody’s played tag before, whether it’s the parents back when they were kids or the kids that’re playing tag right now. So, everybody knows the concept, you know the goal of the game before you even tune in. So, everybody should watch it together and get excited about it and have that family conversation around one thing. It’s important to bring that to people right now and give them that jolt of energy on their couch.
What is it like hosting a show whose whole premise is about trying to touch each other, when the world is currently practicing social distancing?
Somebody did bring that up to me the other day. One of my friends said, “Don’t you think it’s kind of ironic that you’re coming out with a game show called ‘Ultimate Tag’ during the time when everybody is trying to not get tagged by other people in real life?’ And it really was kind of a funny little irony there obviously we wish we weren’t in the situation that we’re in and we wish we didn’t have to do something like that in the real world. But I do think that this game will give people a bit of a reprieve from the real world and hopefully give them a chance to kind of sink into this “Ultimate Tag” world for an hour and enjoy it and just watch with some childhood glee again.
You personally donated $350,000 to the Houston Food Bank (with wife, Chicago Red Stars forward Kealia Ohai) and helped raise money alongside Feeding America. Why has it been so important for you to give back in those ways?
We’re fortunate to be in a situation where we can give back and we can try and help others out during such difficult times. The whole world is going through something that is unprecedented, something we’ve never seen, certainly in our own lifetimes. There are so many people out there that’re struggling, whether it’s financially or it’s food, whatever it may be, and we’re in a situation where we can help and give back. And most of the time, we want to help give back in a way where we physically go out and help people, whether that’s at the food bank, you know, giving food, serving food, or it’s going out meeting individual people. But this is a very unique time where that’s not what you’re supposed to do. The way you help is by not going out, by not helping out. That’s why we felt like the best way we could was financially providing all of those meals for as many people as we could because so many are struggling right now, the unemployment rate and what jobs and things. So, we just wanted to make sure that people have food to eat and that they wouldn’t go hungry.
Tell me about these professional taggers — just how athletic are they?
The professionals are incredible athletes, just quick, agile, fast. Some of them legitimately on par with the athleticism, speed and power of our teammates in the NFL. I mean truly incredible. And then some of the competitors in the amateurs that were on the show were truly impressive and unbelievable. So for us as athletes, being able to appreciate what these guys raised to do on the course, how they were able to fly around and flip and do all these crazy things, it was a lot of fun and true joy just to sit back and enjoy watching them go through this course like it’s nothing, when we all know how hard it really is.
It’s a lot of fun and the professional taggers with their personalities — some of them are a bit crazy psychotic. It really is fun to watch them bring this whole thing to life and make it their own. And I think people are going to really fall in love with these taggers with some of their personalities.
Did you have a personal favorite or one that reminded you of your own competitiveness?
The best one – a guy named “The Flow” — I’ve never seen somebody move across a course, an obstacle the way he does, just truly effortless throughout the whole course. So fast. There’s a woman named “The Banshee” who literally scared me. Her whole thing is, like, crazy and that was her personality trait that she was playing into – she’d look at you with these crazy eyes and she’d kind of do all these screams. And I mean she is frightening, she’s quick and fast [too], so it was a lot of fun to watch her kind of try and get into the head of the competitors. And then there’s a guy named “The Big Deal” who really, I think reminded us of ourselves, he feels a little bit more like a linebacker in the NFL and he’s powerful but still has quickness and strength. These athletes are really incredible.
As an athlete, did you want to participate in the tagging? Or were you not allowed because you have football to play?
We very badly wanted to participate. There’s game of tag the show that is a 30-foot dome that’s up in the air and there’s like a giant air mattress underneath it and there’s no harnesses or anything. And then there’s another game that has trampolines all over the course so you can hop to jump all over the place. So, my brothers and I were sitting on the edge of the course one day in between takes and we all kind of looked at each other like “Let’s do it, let’s see who’s the best.” And our agent just happened to be sitting right next to us and kind of put the kibosh on it quickly, and just reminded us that our coaches wouldn’t be happy if they found out about us jumping on trampolines or crawling on a dome 30 feet in the air.
Do you have any other celeb friends or fellow athletes you think who could manage to survive ultimate tag?
I would love at celebrity challenge of “Ultimate Tag” to see who would succeed out there – I would love have Arnold [Schwarzenegger] commentating with me. I’d love to see Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake out there competing. I think that they would do good. They got some athleticism, they could do some good things on the course. A couple of my other athlete friends or whether it’s NBA guys or MLB guys, it’d be really good to see the competitive side of guys come out. Some of the guys who aren’t professional athletes I think would have a lot of success.
Meet the 18 “Professional Taggers” below:
“Atomic Ant” (Lorena Abreu)
Hometown: McAllen, TX
Social Handle: Instagram: @lorenaparkour / Twitter: @Lorenaparkours
“Banshee” (Carrie Bernans)
Hometown: Memphis, TN, and Richmond, VA
Social Handle: Instagram: @carriebernans / Twitter: @carriebernans
“Beach Boy” (Travis DesLaurier)
Hometown: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Social Handle: Instagram: @travbeachboy / Twitter: @travbeachboy
“Big Deal” (Austin Raye)
Hometown: New Orleans, LA
Social Handle: Instagram: @austin_raye_ / Twitter: @austin_raye_
“The Boss” (Brooke Ence)
Hometown: Santa Cruz, CA, and St. George, UT
Social Handles: Instagram: @brookeence / Twitter: @brookeence
“The Bulldog” (Ruel DaCosta)
Hometown: Milton Keynes, England
Social Handle: Instagram: @ruelbulldog / Twitter: @bulldogruel
“Caveman” (Josh Yadon)
Hometown: Bloomington, CA
Social Handle: Instagram: @joshyadon / Twitter: @joshyadon
“Dynamite” (Yessenia Cossio)
Hometown: Miami, FL
Social Handle: Instagram: @yesseniacossioofficial
“Flame” (Caitlin Hutson)
Hometown: Orlando, FL
Social Handle: Instagram: @caitlinhutson
“The Flow” (Tavon McVey)
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Social Handle: Instagram: @tavonflows
“Geek” (Omar Zaki)
Hometown: Reston, VA
Social Handle: Instagram: @omarzaki0 / Twitter: @omarzakifreerun
Hometown: Harrisburg, PA
Social Handle: Instagram: @nastythehorse / Twitter: @Nastythehorse
“Iron Giantess” (Laura Micetich)
Hometown: Jackson, TN
Social Handle: Instagram: @theirongiantess / Twitter: @theirongiantess
“The Kid” (Corbin Reinhardt)
Hometown: Northridge, CA
Social Handle: Instagram: @corbin_reinhardt / Twitter: @corbinreinhardt
“La Flair” (Jesse La Flair)
Hometown: Long Island, NY
Social Handle: Instagram: @jesselaflair / Twitter: @jesselaflair
“Rocket” (Julian Daigre)
Hometown: New Orleans, LA
Social Handle: Instagram: @juliandaigre / Twitter: @juliandaigre
“Spitfire” (Sydney Olson)
Hometown: Port Orchard, WA
Social Handle: Instagram: @sydneyolson1
“The Viking” (Ross Forte)
Hometown: Kansas City, MO
Social Handle: Instagram: @rossforte / Twitter: @rossaforte