In January 2018, I had the privilege to interview Jeff Probst, host of the CBS reality television show, Survivor. He was gracious enough to inaugurate the entertainment portion of the “10 questions” interview series.
Kurt Manwaring: Have you ever looked back and wondered how your life might be different if you had been given the role of hosting The Amazing Race and someone else hosted Survivor?
Jeff Probst: What’s interesting about your question is that Phil Koeghan (host of Amazing Race) and I were the final two people considered for Survivor. I had worked with Phil years earlier in New York at the fX network. So it was a fun day when we both showed up at CBS. I ended up with Survivor and he got Amazing Race.
It’s obviously impossible to know what would have happened if the roles were reversed. I can only say that I love hosting Survivor and can’t imagine it any other way.
Kurt Manwaring: You had a talk show for a while. Did you plan questions ahead of time or just prepare yourself and let things take their course? What makes a really good interview question — either mechanically or motivationally?
Jeff Probst: Talk shows are a strange beast but the preparation is like any other job. You have to do your homework and prep for the guest and then when it comes time for the interview you have to rely on your instincts. So it’s both.
Kurt Manwaring: Actors often get frustrated when they feel they have been typecast in a certain role. Did you ever experience that frustration? If so, how did you deal with it?
Jeff Probst: Well, I’ve had moments where I’ve wondered “Is this all I will ever do?”
And then I’ll complain to a friend who will quickly snap me back into reality with the reminder that I have one of the greatest jobs of all time. All time.
I love Survivor. I love the human dynamic that we explore every season. I’m as into it today as I was when we premiered in 2000.
Kurt Manwaring: More than once, you have talked about being approached by someone who has mentioned how Survivor helped them through a difficult time in their lives. What is it that makes a show with no small amount of backstabbing and trickery positively affect people on an emotional level?
Jeff Probst: I think the themes resonate with all of us.
Being chosen last or being lost in an unfamiliar environment are powerful themes. Survivor lets you explore those themes in your own life by playing vicariously from the safety of your couch.
You can imagine what you would have done in a specific situation, or who in your life do you think might vote you out, or how you would do living on your own in the jungle.
The adventure that Survivor offers is life changing and I think it really does inspire people to make positive changes in their life. And it doesn’t hurt that the story telling is just wickedly entertaining.
So if nothing else, it’s just a very fun hour of television.
Kurt Manwaring: There are some college courses that study Survivor. When did you first realize this was more than just an entertaining show?
The first seeds of the culture collision. Strangers from different walks of life forced to work together and vote each other out.
Pretty good stuff.
Kurt Manwaring: Contestants who are voted off have access to a psychologist immediately after being voted out. Could you take us behind the scenes and explain what it is like for some of these contestants under the most emotional circumstances?
Jeff Probst: It really varies with every contestant.
Some are completely fine. They see Survivor as a game and nothing else. So getting voted out has no impact on their emotional well-being.
At the other end of the spectrum are players who may have confided in someone who later betrayed them. Those kinds of trust issues can bring up a lot of emotional turmoil.
Our psychologists are just amazing. They are empathetic, they understand the pressures, they bring unending compassion and they offer a truly safe place to talk through things.
A lot of players grow much more than they anticipated and leave the game with more emotional clarity than they’ve ever had.
Kurt Manwaring: Survivor has seen a fair number of Mormon contestants, ranging from Tyson Apostol to Dawn Meehan to Todd Herzog. Do Mormon contestants bring anything unique to the show as a result of the religious faith?
Jeff Probst: I don’t think so. I think the things we bring into the game, whether it’s a religious element or anything else, are very person specific.
Someone who is Mormon could choose to play the game with absolute integrity and never cross any ethical line. While another person, such as Tyson might look at the game as just that… a game.
What are the rules and let me exploit them. This has nothing to do with my belief system.
Kurt Manwaring: How did you come up with the idea for Ghost Island and how difficult was it to track down all the original props from seasons past? Was anyone hesitant to give up the goods?
Jeff Probst: Ghost Island has been a name we’ve wanted to use for a long time, we just didn’t have any good creative to go with it. Once we came up with the idea of “bad decisions coming back to haunt you” we knew we had it.
Finding the props took a lot of work. We literally had to scour the country to track them down from various collectors. Some were very hesitant to give them up but we managed to convince them that now they would have even more history!
We’re very grateful to those who loaned us the use of their Survivor icons. It made for a very fun season.
Kurt Manwaring: Survivor has been on the air for so long now the audience has ebbed and flowed. What would you say to those reading this who haven’t watched in a while to get them invested in the show again?
Jeff Probst: Great question. I’d say to someone who hasn’t watched in a while or has never watched to give Survivor one episode. Just one hour. If you’re not hooked then you should walk away.
We have a whole new generation watching the show now. Kids as young as five and six are discovering it and going back to watch all the old seasons. It’s just been amazing.
Survivor resonates with little kids, their parents and their grandparents. Everybody gets it on another level.
Oh, and I’d also say to them, “Yes, it’s 100% real.”
Kurt Manwaring: You have said you would not want to be a contestant on Survivor. If you were forced to be a contestant on a reality show but given the choice, which show would be advertising Jeff Probst as their newest contestant?
Jeff Probst: The only reason I say I wouldn’t want to be a contestant as myself is that everybody would want to vote me off. If I could play the game but as someone else that wasn’t connected to the show, I’d love it.
I’ve seen how positively it impacts those brave enough to play. That’s why we always say “these 20 Americans are about to begin an adventure that will forever change their lives.”