OAHU, Hawaii — In late 2015, a video went viral of a surfer catching a giant wave off the coast of Teahupo’o, a village in Tahiti. It was one of the biggest waves to hit the French Polynesian surf spot, but that’s not what made this particular video so interesting.
The surfer, wearing a black head-to-toe bodysuit, was on fire. It wasn’t a visual trick – his entire body was coated in flames.
That man was Jamie O’Brien, or “J.O.B.,” performing his biggest and boldest stunt for his web show, “Who Is J.O.B.” on Red Bull TV. The show recently concluded its ninth and final season, in which O’Brien also surfed on a hamster wheel, jumped between boards in the middle of a live wave and slid down a sewer on a surfboard. He’s been orchestrating crazy antics for years – and ascending into the upper echelon of surfing in the process.
“In my opinion, as far as the surf community goes, Jamie is the current definition of what surfing is,” said freelance cinematographer Greg Browning, who worked on the last four seasons of the show.
O’Brien is a competitive surfer, and an accomplished one at that. He has won a number of major events, including the 2004 Pipeline Masters (the final event on the World Surf League Championship Tour, essentially the World Series of surfing) and the 2010 Volcom Pipe Pro – both of which take place at Banzai Pipeline in Oahu, Hawaii, where O’Brien lives full time. He competes in the Pipe Pro most years, although he was forced out of last month’s competition early due to an illness.
But where O’Brien has made his mark has been in free-riding, or surfing outside structured competition. The World Surf League’s Championship Tour only consists of 34 surfers each year, and athletes are forced to constantly compete in order to remain in the rankings. It’s a lifestyle O’Brien has never been fond of, despite his immense talent.
“If you’re on the [Championship Tour], you sign the paper, they own all the media rights, and it’s just like they own you for the whole year,” O’Brien told The Post. “And then, they want to own you the next year if you keep qualifying.”
“Then, you want to win so bad that when you lose, you let yourself down, which is kind of a s–tty thing,”
So by eschewing the constant competition and filming surfing’s version of “Jackass” instead, he wound up creating an entirely new brand for the sport. “Who Is J.O.B.” was the most popular show on Red Bull TV by a large margin before ending in 2019 – the first season alone amassed seven million viewers – and he has nearly 400,000 YouTube subscribers.
He’s almost an influencer, which may seem common among extreme sports athletes, but O’Brien was one of the first to do it to major success. A number of young surfers followed suit, including popular surf vloggers like Koa Rothman and Nathan Florence.
“I think it’s an outlet that no one’s really grabbed ahold of and put in a headlock,” O’Brien told The Post. “We did this rad show with Red Bull eight years, and it was super successful because we had fun doing it.”
O’Brien admits the fire stunt was by far his craziest, but it started as a mere fan suggestion from Instagram. O’Brien originally suggested Mexico as the location, but the team pivoted to Teahupo’o, which has notoriously massive waves. O’Brien told The Post he nearly drowned there on a previous trip.
“I’m thinking something like six, eight feet, maybe 10,” O’Brien said. “But then they were saying the biggest swell in eight years is coming, we’re on, green light. I’m just going, f–k.
“I’m on the plane, sitting there, going like, I’m going to die.”
Things didn’t get any less precarious once he got out in the water. His suit was covered in gel, which if it made contact with the surfboard could have made him slip. Once he was on fire, he was told not to breathe in, or else he might inhale the fire.
“I was like, what do you mean, don’t breathe in? I gotta friggin’ do that before I wipe out. It burned my eyebrows, my eyelashes got stuck together,” O’Brien said.
Everything else went smoothly, though, and O’Brien ended up going viral. Within a day, the video was on Mashable, Men’s Journal, The Inertia – even local TV stations. And while he admits he won’t do anything that crazy again – “there’s a time and place for everything, that was a good time, and I nailed it” – he has continued to film content on a near-daily basis.
Much of it takes place in his backyard at Banzai Pipeline – his house is feet away from the beach. Having spent his whole life there, O’Brien is considered somewhat of a local hero – and a literal hero, too.
The famed Oahu beach, frequented by surfing legends such as Kelly Slater and John John Florence, has dangerous waves that rival Teahupo’o. O’Brien has acted as somewhat of a lifeguard, on multiple occasions saving surfers’ lives.
One of those instances came in 2016, when a New Jersey body boarder named Dylan McGill got knocked unconscious by a large wave. O’Brien was in his house when he heard someone screaming on the beach, “guy down!”
“I just launched all my stuff out of my pockets, I think I was in walking shorts, and I ran straight down the beach,” he said.
The boarder had hit his head on the reef and swallowed water. O’Brien grabbed a soft-top surfboard and paddled out with a friend, then lugged the unconscious man back to shore. First responders then performed CPR on him and brought him back to life.
“We got him back to the beach so fast that his chance of surviving ended up being pretty high,” he said. “It was pretty heavy, I felt like I was a second responder on the scene.”