How Johnny Bananas Turned 15 Minutes of Reality TV Fame Into a 15-Year Career

Now on his 20th season of "The Challenge," Bananas has become one of TV's most beloved villains

June 4, 2020 9:56 am
johnny bananas the challenge
Johnny Bananas is now on his 20th season of MTV's "The Challenge"
Erik Anthony Johnson

Take a moment and think of your most beloved actor or actress, and then marvel at the fact that — whoever they are — Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio has probably been on TV longer than they have. With 20-plus seasons of reality television under his belt (beginning with MTV’s The Real World: Key West in 2005 and including the longest ever run on The Challenge as well as a recent stint on the Food Network’s Worst Cooks In America), he’s been on the air more than twice as long as Jerry Seinfeld or the cast of The Office. The cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which recently became the longest-running live action comedy of all time by being renewed for a 15th season, is still seven seasons behind him. By that measure, he’s been on TV longer than Law & Order.

Over the course of 15 years (several of which featured multiple seasons), he’s managed to carve out a career for himself as one of the greatest reality TV personas of all time, a smirking antagonist who refers to himself as “the man, the myth, the legend” and boasts the C.V. — six Challenge wins, earning him $684,720 in prize money so far — to prove it. His partner Sarah Rice on The Challenge: Rivals III was shocked when he stole her half of their winnings in that season’s finale, but anyone who has spent time watching Bananas could have predicted the move; the man knows what makes for good TV. It’s why there were no hard feelings when his longtime rival-turned-ally Wes Bergmann decided at the last moment to face off against him in an elimination on Wednesday night’s episode. Two former enemies who spent the season building a friendship going head-to-head to earn a ticket to the final? It’s positively Shakespearean, and as Bananas — who ultimately sent Wes packing — always says, “All’s fair in love, war and Challenges.”

But he’s been able to parlay his success on The Challenge into a lasting career, including a gig hosting NBC’s late-night travel show 1st Look. It’s a savvy move: could Devenanzio, who turns 38 later this month and has spent the majority of his adult life as a reality star, be priming himself to finally walk away from the physically demanding MTV competition show? We caught up with him to find out whether he’s mulling retirement, the changes in reality TV he’s witnessed over the past decade and whether or not he’s really such an asshole in real life.

InsideHook: This is your 20th season on The Challenge. Was there a specific season or moment where you first realized, “I can make a career out of this, I’m not just here for a few seasons, this is what I want to do”?

Johnny Bananas: Not really. It wasn’t a moment. I think when that really became a reality was when we went from doing one Challenge a year to two, and then they actually threw in Champs vs Stars there for a couple of years, so then we were actually doing three. Obviously, like any other job, the longer you’re employed, the more attractive the salary gets for showing up, and obviously that’s the case with us as well. Put winning aside, if I film two Challenges a year, I’m making a very comfortable living doing that. You add on a win, and now we’re in a whole different realm. Once I got my hosting gig for 1st Look, it really became obvious that I could definitely continue doing this for a while now and make a very decent living out of it. The struggle has been just trying to stay healthy — not the struggle, but now obviously to stay healthy and stay in shape and stay mentally sharp and just not get burned out. Doing 16 weeks of The Challenge a year is more than enough to handle, and then throw on top of that all the free time I had in between Challenges now is basically being occupied by 1st Look and other projects. So more than anything, it’s just about being able to find a balance and just being able to just have enough bandwidth to be able to take on everything that’s coming my way.

You mentioned 1st Look, and I’m curious how that came to be. Were you always interested in hosting?

I just felt like for me, that would be a natural transition. I always liked hosting because I just feel like I’ve just got a knack for dealing with people and thinking outside of the box and thinking on my toes. I’ve never been a big fan of scripted things, which is why acting was never all that attractive to me. I always thought that I was just better as me, kind of going off the script. Even to this day, even when I have a script, I never read it word for word. I like to put things in my own words, and I like to say it the way I want to say it, just because it doesn’t sound as canned and more natural. Obviously, I know I’m not going to be able to do Challenges forever and there’s no replacing TJ, so that’s not even something I’d consider. TJ is the host of The Challenge. So I just figured, “Listen, there’s other opportunities out there, and I think I would be a great host in other areas.” And 1st Look just fell into my lap because it just so happens that a woman who does casting for various NBC properties, they were looking for a new host on 1st Look, and given the makeup of 1st Look and what 1st Look is all about, which is having the host explore all these off-the-wall, out-there jobs and professions and travel locations and all these things around the world, it was just a natural fit for me. I think that I couldn’t have chosen a better fit for me and what I’m good at. It basically complements all of my strengths. Between The Challenge and 1st Look, I’m doing everything I want to do. I get to compete, I get to experience new things. I get to meet new people. I get to travel and I get paid for doing it. So yeah, I have somehow found a pretty good couple of gigs. Good niche to be in.

This season on The Challenge you worked with Wes. Going into this season, did you see it as sort of a one-and-done type thing, or were you thinking there was potential for a long-term alliance with him?

I didn’t know if it was going to last a day. Okay? I mean, listen. Yeah. You have a hard enough time trusting people who are your friends, people who you’ve worked with in the past. Trust is such a hard thing to come by in The Challenge. To try to establish trust with somebody that you’ve essentially spent your entire career being at odds with and trying to screw over and trying to manipulate and trying to work against — while the idea sounded great, and it’s like, “Hey man, we’ll do it and we’ll work together and no one will see it coming and we’ll be able to make this thing happen” — as much as I wanted to, going in, think that this was going to work, I never thought that it actually had a chance. And the fact that it’s worked as well as it has and that we’ve not just been able to make it work, but we’ve been able to make it work well and that he’s actually held up his end of the bargain when push came to shove is truly just shocking. I truly believe now that anything is possible. If Wes and I can work together on a Challenge and put differences aside, I don’t think there’s anything in this world that can’t be accomplished.

Before the season started, you did your own version of that Tom Brady video where he teases retirement. Have you started to think about how many more Challenges you have left in you?

I don’t like to quantify it with a number, right? I’ve never believed that there are certain ages or there are certain times that things need to happen. Like when you’re 21, you need your college degree. And when you’re 30, you need to be settled down and married and have kids. And when you’re whatever 40, you need to be retired. Whatever it is. The way I see it is I just feel like things are just naturally going to happen. I feel like for me to sit here and to put some sort of an artificial time or number on how many I got left or how many years I have left, I just don’t know. It might be too many; it might not be enough. You know? So I just like to think that where I’m at right now, physically and mentally, I feel like there’s still a tremendous amount that I bring to the show. I feel like I can still compete and I can still hang with guys who are over a decade younger than me. And do it well. I think once I’m not able to keep up mentally or physically with the rigors of The Challenge, I think that’s my time. But I know that right now, based on going into this season, the way that I’ve performed up to this point, I don’t necessarily see the end in sight anytime soon. So that might be good news for some people. That’s probably bad news for a lot of other people, but yeah, I’m not going to be one of these Challenge cast members that claims they’re retired like Jordan, who retired years ago and now has come out of retirement and he’s like, “Oh, this is what I’m going to do for the foreseeable future.” So I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be the guy that retires and unretires. If and when I do finally hang it up, it’s going to be for good. But yeah, like I said, that’s not going to be any time soon.

Do you have any goals or anything left to check off on The Challenge before you retire? I mean, obviously another win would be great, but are there any other milestones you still want to hit?

At this point, obviously another win would be great, but I don’t know what else I could possibly accomplish. I feel like at this point, any move I make on The Challenge is I’m moving laterally, which is fine. I maintaining, I’m keeping myself there. But yeah, I think that seventh elusive win would definitely be what I need for a lot of reasons. There was a time that I really did take winning for granted. I just felt like, “Listen, it’s just going to happen. I’m going to show up every season. I’m either going to make it to the final or win a final. That’s just going to happen.” Because for a while there, it was like clockwork. And then after Rivals III, I’ve definitely had a string of performances where some of them … I mean, I was almost there, right there, right at the finish line. And I just couldn’t get the ball over the finish line. A lot of people have attributed it a lot of different reasons. The most common theory is I’m cursed. I don’t believe in being cursed. I don’t think it’s a curse. If anything, it’s a byproduct of my success, and the more successful you are and the more you win, the less people want to see you be successful. And this isn’t just cast members. This is production. This is all the way to the top. There needs to be some parity if they want to keep this thing entertaining. So I’m not surprised that my road has been difficult as it has, but more than anything, more than proving all the haters wrong — and I want to prove that curses don’t exist, or at least when it comes to me, they’re made to be broken — but more than anything, I just want to prove it to myself that I still have what it takes to make it to a final and to win. Like I said, I think I took final appearances and wins for granted for a long time. If I ever did make it back there, it would mean a lot more than it has in the past.

You’re also on Worst Cooks, and while that’s another competition show, it’s obviously a whole different ballgame. Has your experience on The Challenge prepared you at all for it? Does it translate at all?

Absolutely. They had no idea what they were getting with me. And like I said, I’m used to competing at a very, very difficult, very high level against other very hungry, very athletic, very scary competitors. And that’s just the intensity that I bring with me anytime I compete. I don’t care if I’m playing beer pong, cornhole. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to give it my all. I’m going to do the best that I can. I’m going to try and win it. I’m going to do everything I can to win. So going into Worst Cooks, I think a lot of these other people weren’t really expecting the intensity of the challenges that we did. I think a lot of people didn’t bring that competitive edge. They might not even necessarily have it. I basically brought my A game, and I brought everything that I would to a normal challenge and I think I blew a lot of people away in that regard. People were looking at me like, “Holy shit, this guy means business.” We just did a challenge on Worst Cooks when we were blindfolded, we had to put a mystery ingredient in our mouth, identify it, bounce on a bouncy ball horse over to a board, pick the object off the board that we put in our mouth and then bounce back, and the first one to put it on the podium wins or won that round. I was going so hard. I was flying through the set. I was knocking over hay bales. I almost took out the chef at one point. These people are looking at me like, “Dude, calm down. It’s just the game.” But that’s the intensity I bring everywhere. 

I also brought strategy with me, too. On Worst Cooks, the first plate that we did, the first cook that we made was basically whatever we wanted to make. It could be anything. What we’re going to bring to a dinner party. Going in, I’m like, “Alright, this is an elimination show. We’re going to be judged based on our performance. Right? So if I go in and I lay down a zero, if I put my worst effort out there and I just have fun doing it and make a complete ass of myself and I start from the bottom, then there’s only up from there.” Everybody else went and they tried to throw down their ace. Everyone was, “This is the best dish. This is as good as I can possibly do.” And it’s like, then if you set the bar that high, you’re going to have to keep raising the bar. I went in thinking like, “If I set this bar incredibly low and I go in and they think I’m a terrible cook and then I come out and I like, do anything. I could peel a piece of garlic and they’d be impressed.” So then obviously getting in people’s heads, I got under some people’s skin already, the chefs and my competitors as well. I just know how to get under people’s skin. I know that if you get flustered mentally, you’re supposed to be concentrating, and that’s what this show’s all about, concentrating. And if I can get under their skin and if I can of rattle them a little bit, it’s going to affect their performance. So I did that as well. So I just brought everything that I could to the challenge, and I tried to create as much levity and hysteria as possible. I don’t know any other way. I definitely went back and dipped into my arsenal a little bit, and I brought some of the old tricks out and I don’t think they were ready for that.

I’m sure you saw that a few weeks ago, The Ringer had a bracket of the greatest reality TV characters of all time, and it came down to you and CT in the final round. What’s your reaction to that?

I mean, just the fact that out of 64 of the biggest names in reality television — I mean, Kris Jenner and Snooki, The Situation, Jeff Probst, Gordon Ramsay. The names that were on there … I remember looking at this bracket— I was an 11 seed from the beginning, which I’m still a little bitter about — but I’m looking at these names and I’m like, “I’m going to be lucky to make it past week one.” These are some really heavy hitters out there in the reality television realm. The fact that I was able to just keep plugging away and keep putting down Ws and making it through. We got to the final four, and I’m like, “Dude, this is insane.” CT was still there. You know what? It was funny though, because we were in opposing brackets and I thought from the beginning, I’m like, “listen, the only appropriate way for this bracket to end is me and CT to face off again in this bracket.” I think a lot of fans agreed, and just making it again to the final and just being me and him, while a lot of people looked at it like, “This is just some dumb bracket,” I didn’t see it like that. The Ringer takes this stuff really seriously. I think a lot of their fans did. I mean, the amount of people who were voting, the amount of people who took part in it — not just fans of ours, but just people who watch television. In my opinion, it was a really big deal. I was just really happy to be a part of it. And again, the fact that it came down to an all-Challenge final I think just says a lot about not just the fan base that CT and myself have, but the amount of fans that The Challenge itself reaches and how it really is, in my opinion, the greatest reality television show ever. It’s the longest running, it’s the most successful. We essentially invented the reality television genre and everybody else, in my opinion, is just paying rent in it. So it was only appropriate for the two kings of reality TV to face off at the end.

What’s been the biggest change to reality TV that you’ve noticed since you first started?

Social media. Social media has been a blessing and a curse when it comes to reality TV, mainly because of people’s motivation for going on reality television. So when I first started, when I went on The Real World, and then when I went on The ChallengeThe Real World it was like, you wanted to be a part of this experience. You wanted to go on because you watched this and you’re like, “This is the coolest experience ever. This is like a coming of age.” It’s like everyone wanted to be casted in The Real World because they wanted to experience that. When I went on The Challenge, I wanted to go on because I wanted to compete. I saw all these other people that I literally looked at as celebrities, the Mark Longs, the Landons, the CTs, all these guys. Brad, Derrick — I loved these guys. And I would be like, “Damn, I want to be like them. I would love so much to go on.” It was like a dream, right? Social media didn’t exist. Now, I feel like people want to go on because their number-one priority and their number-one concern is their following. “How is this going to help my following? How am I going to be able to increase my likes?” Instead of people going on for the love of the game, instead of people going on because they want to be a part of this historical franchise, people go on because they want to see how many Instagram likes or how many TikTok views they get. You know what I mean? And it really has kind of changed the motivation, and it’s changed the type of people who go on.

What also has changed is the fact that The Challenge used to be an MTV family franchise essentially. If you were on The Real World, if you were on Road Rules, that’s how you get on. Unfortunately, both of those shows are no longer, so they had to obviously start pulling cast members from different franchises. And now you just get every Tom, Dick and Harry from whatever is the popular show on television right now, and people come on again for the wrong reasons in my opinion. It’s these people that I feel like had this glimmer of this moment of fame, whether it was on Big Brother or whether it was on Survivor or whether it was on Love Island or whatever show, they had this little taste of fame, and they’ll do anything to get that back. The Challenge provides you with the opportunity to be on television for a long time. So I just see people coming out of the woodwork. I just feel like it encourages the wrong type of people, or people are coming on the show now for just the wrong reasons in a way. I guess that’s just the natural state. That’s just how things are now; but it’s just over the years, just watching that transition and watching the caliber of cast or talent that’s on now is just completely different than it used to be. And that’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way things go.

This is a different generation too, though. People’s interests and just the way society and the way social media is and norms and sensitivity and political correctness and all this stuff. It’s a different world we’re living in as well. So I think that’s changed at the same time. Everybody has access to everybody now. Back when I first started doing Challenges, Twitter didn’t exist. Instagram didn’t exist. So fans weren’t able to have a direct connection to you. Now, oh my God, dude, you do one thing, you slip up in the smallest way, and you will be buried. I think that that’s really changed things a lot too. I think people are acting now differently on television because they’re either afraid to be criticized or they so desperately want to be accepted and want to be loved that it’s really affecting the way that they come across on television. And that’s what they’re most concerned about. They aren’t being themselves. They’re more concerned with being whatever version of themselves that fans are either going to accept or deny.

Do you feel like you have a different version of yourself, on the show versus in “real” life? What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you?

That I’m the same person. I don’t like to think that I’m a different person on TV, or at least on The Challenge. I’m just a much more colorful, over-the-top, in-your-face version of myself. It’s not like I go on and I’m not true to who I am. But I do go on and I put on my producer hat when I go on The Challenge, and I’m like, “What is going to make great TV?” At the end of the day, the way I see it is we’re there to make great TV and we’re there to entertain. And if you followed me around in a day in the life at my house, I’m one of the least entertaining people. I wake up, I have my tea, I have whatever landscaping/gardening project I have going on for the day. I don’t go out. I cook all my meals at home. I watch Netflix, I drink wine. I spend time with my family. I live a very different life. I’m not this guy that’s in Vegas popping bottles and living this crazy wild lifestyle, constantly stirring shit up and being manipulative, being conniving. It’s just, I know when I’m on TV, I know how to make friction. And that’s what makes good television. Friction. And I know how to go against the grain and how to be a thorn in people’s side and how to get under people’s skin.

That’s not to say that I don’t have an element of that as well when I’m home. You could ask my girlfriend or my younger sister. I grew up terrorizing her. I just loved being kind of mischievous, and I liked to get a rise out of people. That’s how I’ve always been. I just really up the ante when I’m on television. And people always say, they’re like, “Oh my God, you’re such an ass.” And it’s like, “Listen. If I went on and I was the person I am at home, I’d never be cast for the show again. OK?” So I know what makes good television. I know I’ve perfected over the years what makes good TV, what people want to see, how to start a fire, how to keep a fire burning.

At 1st Look, I basically had to undo everything that I did; everything that I’d built, everything I’ve created, I then had to put the brakes on and completely undo everything that I’ve done and uncreate this personality type, because the Johnny Bananas on The Challenge is in your face. Everything has to be some sort of a tongue-in-cheek joke or sarcastic humor or everything has to be a punchline. The Challenge is all about absorbing all of the oxygen in the room and not letting anybody else get a word in edgewise and you kind of being the star. Whereas hosting is the exact opposite. Hosting is you taking a backseat and whoever you’re interviewing is the star. It’s about being interested instead of being interesting. Not everything has to be a punchline, and not everything has to be a joke, and not everything has to be funny and not everything has to be sarcastic. And it was so hard for me to learn — and I’m still to this day learning — that it’s okay to be a more docile, dialed-back version of myself.

One of my producers told me, he goes, “A joke every five minutes. One joke every now and then makes the information go down easier.” And it hits better. If everything out of your mouth is a joke and everything’s a punchline, no one’s going to take you seriously. But if you’re informative and if you say intelligent things and you put intelligent things out there, and every once in a while, you drop a little joke here and there, it’s more effective. And it will enable people to see you from a different perspective, that you’re not just this jokester that doesn’t take anything seriously. You know what I mean? You have a serious side. And 1st Look really has been such an amazing experience and opportunity for me to grow, to really hone and really sharpen my ability to be on camera and to have more than one tool in my toolbox.

What’s the status on shooting all of these various shows because of quarantine? I’m assuming everything’s delayed?

Luckily, with The Challenge and Worst Cooks, we got those two in the can before all this happened. It’s just crazy how timing works out, where I filmed these two huge shows for two huge networks and it just so happens that everyone’s stuck inside in quarantine, social distancing, captive audience, bam. They’re both out. 1st Look is a little bit different. We’re doing a lot of episodes virtually. So we’ve created this thing called the Box Challenge. Whoever my guest is, we have a bunch of different celebrities who we’re working with currently. Basically, we do a challenge where a random box that the producers will send, and I don’t know what it is either, will show up each of our doors. We have to record ourselves doing whatever the task in the box is. It could be anything. It could be LEGOs, it could be a puzzle, it could be whatever. Take care of an animal for a day. Nobody knows what it’s going to be. So we’ve been doing these virtual box challenges. We also started this segment called Athletes at Home, and I’ve been interviewing NFL and Major League Baseball athletes whose seasons are in hiatus right now. And just basically talking to them about what they’ve been doing in quarantine, how this has affected their respective sport, and just what they foresee the future of their sport to look like and how much different that is. It’s crazy because we look at celebrities and we look at athletes, especially professional athletes as being almost godlike figures that are above what normal society has to deal with. But it’s almost crazy how the coronavirus has put everybody on a level playing field. And even athletes, we’re basically on the same playing field with respect to this virus as athletes are. They’re dealing in the same way, and at the end of the day, we’re all human beings.

So I’ve been doing that. Then we’re doing another segment where we’re revisiting a lot of the small business owners that we shot 1st Look segments with. There’s a zoo in Miami called Jungle Island. There’s an aquarium in Arizona that we shot with. And basically just, “Hey, what’s it been like being a business owner, working for a zoo or a place that takes care of animals, what’s it been like during this pandemic? And what’s the outlook, and when you guys going to reopen? How’s that been?” So we’re doing follow-up stories on some of the past segments that we’ve had. So believe it or not, as crazy as quarantine has been, it’s been nonstop for me. It hasn’t been much of a break.

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