Dressed in khakis, sweater vest and and necktie, Joel Brady looks the part of his vocation: college professor. But on television, Mr. Brady demonstrates he’s not your average Joel.
Fans of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior” know that the program — which airs on Monday nights and subsequently on cable offspring Esquire — features great feats of strength and agility as contestants tackle a pitfall-filled obstacle course.
It’s based on a popular Japanese show, “Sasuke”, and for the past few summers, NBC has gained solid ratings among the younger demographic broadcasting the American version. Mr. Brady, an elite-level rock climber, is scheduled to appear in the Denver regional finals Monday.
Pitt professor auditions for American Ninja Warrior
"American Ninja Warrior" has dubbed Pitt professor Joel Brady the "Vampire Ninja" for one of the courses he teaches in the university's department of Slavic studies.
Dozens of contestants were deemed fit to tackle one of five first-round courses in Miami, Denver, St. Louis, Los Angeles’ Venice Beach or Dallas this season. The stages became increasingly more difficult, but those who survived won their ticket to the national finals in Las Vegas.
Nationals took place earlier this summer, with the grand champion winning $500,000. NBC will air the finale Aug. 11.
Mr. Brady isn’t the only Pittsburgh-area contestant to take a stab at the course, but he has been promoted by the network as the “vampire ninja” (more on that, later). On reality television, packaging personalities is almost as important as recognizing talent, and Mr. Brady said he knew this when he submitted his dryly funny audition tape.
“I knew I had to tell my story, something compelling,” said Mr. Brady, who has a doctorate in religious studies. The son of Protestant missionaries — a family profession dating back to the early 1900s — he grew up partly in Japan but also in Economy, Beaver County.
Although he teaches a variety of classes in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, one — Vampire: Blood and Empire — got him noticed. His other courses include Behind Bars: Cross-Cultural Representations of the Prison in the 20th Century and Madness and Madmen in Russian Culture.
His first appearance aired June 23, drew 5.5 million viewers and was the top-rated show in the 18-49 demographic that night. The producers provided a brief video introduction in which he‘s shown in one of the Cathedral of Learning’s Nationality classrooms.
“I teach a course about vampires,” he says in the film. “It’s an interesting course that covers the history, anthropology, sociology, literature and film of vampires.
“It’s also the course that your parents are mad at you for taking and wasting all their tuition money for.”
Once he was chosen to appear, he upped his training and flew out to Denver four weeks later.
All this took place in May, when a freak snowstorm led to plunging temperatures and icy conditions on the course. Because the course is set over water, failure at any point means a cold dunk in the drink.
Would-be warriors must be strong, agile and bold. But the moment Mr. Brady lined up for his first run, he realized he’d need luck as well.
“There was a freak snowstorm in Denver that weekend, and it was subfreezing out there,” he said. The deceptively simple first obstacle — a set of platforms mounted at 45-degree angles — took out quite a few contestants.
“Those steps were literally a sheet of ice,“ he said. ”On the next obstacle, I just went into survival mode. I was like a deer in headlights.”
After crossing a rolling log and leaping to safety, he reached the part of the course where climbers shine.
The Devil’s Steps resembles an inverted “V” that must be traversed through hand-over-hand climbs. After easily working his way through (”I was sort of in my element“) he eventually reached the dreaded Warped Wall.
Warriors are given three chances to run up the concave side of a 15-foot-high wall. Mr. Brady failed to reach the top, but his time to that point was fast enough to qualify him for the next round.
Just being on the show scratched an itch. A few years back, Mr. Brady wrote some magazine articles about friends who‘d competed on “American Ninja Warrior.”
“Most rock climbers who look at that show think: ‘That was made for me,’ ” he said.
Keeping in mind that it is, after all, a television show, Mr. Brady went all out with the professorial look.
“It’s really what I wear when I teach; the only difference is I had the New Balance shoes. It’s not really a costume, just my usual clothes, out of context.”
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.