On the verge of the 25th season of "Survivor," Jeff Probst talks about longevity, catchphrases and hosting the worst Emmys ever
When the Emmys are handed out on Sunday night, at least one streak will come to an end. "Survivor" host Jeff Probst, who has won the reality-host Emmy for the last four years in a row — which is to say, every year the award has been given out — is not even nominated this year.
The show that Probst hosts and executive produces also missed the cut in the Outstanding Reality-Competition Program category — but "Survivor" can console itself with the fact that on Wednesday night it will launch its 25th season, making it a pioneer that predates the category and helped create the maligned but lucrative reality genre.
Along the way, its host's catchphrases – "the tribe has spoken," "I'll go tally the votes" and "once again, immunity is back up for grabs" among them – have entered the pop-culture lexicon, and given Probst enough clout that he now hosts a syndicated daytime talk show, "The Jeff Probst Show." He also recently finished directing his second movie, "Kiss Me."
"Survivor" is beginning its 25th season. Obviously, you didn't expect to be around this long when you started.
I didn't have big expectations, but I'll preface this by saying that I didn't really know anything about television. I thought, well, it seemed to do pretty well its first season, and then our second season we beat "Friends" and were the number one show on TV. So I figured we'd certainly get a third season, and then we'd probably fade out.
But I do remember somebody telling me that [CBS chief] Les Moonves said, "This show's gonna run 10 years," and me thinking, shows what that guy knows. But when we shot the first season, we had our editing bays on location, and [creator] Mark Burnett was cutting the show daily. And on about day 15, he had the editors cut 15 minutes together. Basically, it was act one of episode one of season one.
And he got everybody together in this little covered area that we had in the South China Sea, and he played it on this little screen, and it blew me away. I thought oh my God, I'm a part of a really good show. But I didn't know it would become popular. I thought it would be a PBS-type show for people who loved social experiments about human behavior.
For all those seasons, the format has remained essentially the same. How hard is it to keep things fresh?
It's the number-one priority. There are five elements in the show. Two of them are fixed, and three are variable. The two that are fixed are the format, which is fantastic: take a group of strangers and force them to work together to survive, but get rid of each other to win. The second is the storytelling, and we've managed to keep some of the best long-form storytellers together for nearly a decade.
And then the variables are the cast: Who do we put on the show? The creative: What do we do with them? And the luck: Who stays and who goes? Because if all of your great people are voted out early and you're left with the not-so-great, then no matter what you do it's going to be a so-so season.
There was a time you were thinking about walking away from "Survivor," wasn’t there?
Yeah, there was. I had a really rough year in Samoa [season 19]. I still don’t really know what it was, but a lot of things happened on the show. This guy Russell [Swan], he nearly died, and it was really scary to me. Some other things happened with contestants. It just was a weird season, and I was really exhausted and I just didn’t think I was good anymore.
I went and talked to Moonves, and said, "I owe you and Mark my whole career, and I don’t want to disrespect you in any way, but I'm really tired, and the show might be better served by having somebody new come in with fresh ideas." And Moonves was awesome. He said, "Do what you need to do. We hope you stay with the show, and if you don’t we'll figure it out." And that was the best approach, because he gave me a chance to decompress, and I was totally back into it again.
At this point, is there a best way to win "Survivor?"
In my opinion, no. Because you don't know what's coming. This guy Boston Rob (right) played about the best game I've seen anybody play [on "Survivor: Redemption Island"]. He told us beforehand exactly what he needed to do, and he did it. He said, "I need two people under my wing. One of them needs to be a young girl, and I need to tell her to be quiet and listen to me … " And he had the math figured out. He said, "If it's this many people in the game, I need to do this. If you guys have this twist, I need to do that. If this happens, I need to do this."
Rob assessed and adapted all day – and after the show, he said, "I rarely slept. Even at night, I was thinking and listening and watching who was lying next to who." All you can really do is be as aware as you can be. And unfortunately, for most people, we're just not that aware.
When you're asking questions at a tribal council, it often seems that you've been getting reports from the camera people who are with the contestants, because you know which areas to probe.
A little. When you're the executive producer you're aware of what's happening, it's the nature of the job. But you'd be surprised at how little information I need to do a tribal council. Because I'm asking the same general questions, just of different people and in a different order: Who's leading, who's not? Who's contributing, who's not? Who's likeable, who's annoying?
I do know the information I'm looking for, but I've never had anybody tell me after tribal council, "Oh, I totally knew who was going home because of the questions you asked." And it's evidenced by how many blind sides we have on the show.
How often are they blind sides to you? I would think that most of the time you probably know who's going home.
Yeah. It's not often a blind side to me. Either we know going in who it's going to be, or you can sense that something has just shifted, but the person it's shifted against doesn't get it and they're still talking.
When you're at tribal council and something happens like Colton [Cumbie, from season 24] saying, "Oh, some of my favorite servants are black," do you think, Wow this is going to be great TV?
That's kind of a loaded question. Of course, as a producer you're always aware when you have something interesting. And that was certainly interesting. But I think that's second nature to me now—I'm not sitting in my chair going Oh my God, I can't wait to call Burnett. I'm just riveted by what is happening.
What's kept me interested in "Survivor" is human behavior. Here's a case of a guy who is telling you with no embarrassment that he does have black friends, they're the people who work for him. On one hand you're shaking your head in disbelief, but on the other hand this is his truth. This is not odd in the world that he lives in. That's what fascinates me.
I wonder sometimes – and perhaps this question came to mind more last season than most – if there aren't times when you watch the contestants make dumb moves and you just want to say, "Have you people ever even watched this show before?"
Yeah. Yeah. But what we've learned is that when you bring people on who aren’t necessarily the best strategists, or totally familiar with all the ins and outs, they change the game. That adds a nice element, because this game can get predictable. And that's death.
So when you throw in a newbie, and they go left when history dictates they should go right, then you have something happening.
Speaking of predictability, in the last season there were a couple of challenges where you weren't there, and you let the contestants run things on their own.
We're always looking for ways to catch them off guard and create reality in a new way. I'm not satisfied they worked, and I'm not sure we'd do them again. But you have to take chances in reality TV.
When they did the challenges without you, it was funny to see one of the contestants clearly step into the Jeff Probst role and do the running commentary.
Yeah, Troyzan. Well, the language that I use on the show, if you’re a "Survivor" fan, is somewhat mockable. Because I always say the same things. That's by design.
There was a time when people would say, "Do you realize you always say, 'Come on in, guys!' at the beginning of a challenge? You should change it up." And I say, "Yeah, I'm aware."
Since you brought up those sayings, I have to ask: Isn't your standard line "Once again, immunity is back up for grabs" redundant?
You mean when I say back?
Yeah. You could just say, "Once again, immunity is up for grabs," or "Immunity is back up for grabs"?
Oh. Well, let's be real clear, Steve. When it comes to English and grammar, I'm just happy that my Kansas education has gotten me this far. Another thing I say is, "I'll go tally the votes." I'm not tallying the votes. I'm going to get the votes, and then I'm going to arrange them, and then I'm going to read them.
A lot of the phrases or sayings on the show really came organically. One day, I said, "Once again, immunity is back up for grabs." And then I said it again, and at a certain point, it was like, I think I'll just start saying this. And I didn't realize it was redundant until just now, when you pointed it out. And maybe I'll stop one day.
The common complaint among "Survivor" villains is "I'm not like that, the edit made me look bad." How often does the edit misrepresent a contestant?
Never. Never. That has been a complaint from the beginning. I remember in season two, Jerri Manthey was convinced that we edited her to look bitchy. Jerri was bitchy. You can't create that. We don't Frankenbite things, meaning we don't take 10 words from 10 different sentences and put them together.
Our ratio of what we shoot and what we air is about 250-to-1, so it's impossible to show everything. We withhold information to make it fun, but we don't withhold to misrepresent. In fact, we want likeable people as much or more than we want villains, because if you don't have somebody to root for, you don't have a good season.
Despite your past success at the Emmys, "Survivor" has never won in the Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, and it hasn't even been nominated since 2006.
It did baffle me for a while that we weren't even nominated. Because when I look at the field, there are some really good reality shows, but aren't we in the top five or six?
I think the storytelling is really unmatched. I don't see another show that tells the same kind of in-depth, arcing, personal stories that we do, in our 14 hours of episodes about these humans who leave their ordinary world to take on this mighty adventure. I've never been anything but proud to be on "Survivor."
In 2008, when they used five reality-show hosts to host the Emmys, it obviously wasn’t well-received…
Oh, you didn't read the reviews?
No, I thought that was one of our finer moments. [laughs] What were you going to ask?
What went wrong?
The lesson I learned is that five people doing anything is tough to manage, because you lose your point of view. It sounded like a good idea. It’s one of those funny things: these guys are supposed to be the best hosts, and yet we did the worst hosting in the history of the Emmys.
And if you look at it, you had Tom [Bergeron], Heidi [Klum], Howie [Mandel], Ryan [Seacrest] and me. No similarities. And what happened from day one is Tom said, "Well, I wanna do something like this," and Heidi said, "Well, I wanna do something like this," and Howie said, "I want to tell this story…" Ryan, Howie and I were at Seacrest's house probably two weeks before the Emmys, already writing the [negative] reviews [we knew were coming]. We were trying to outdo each other for how bad it was going to be. We all saw it coming.
And then, on top of it, about a day before the show we find out that we're actually not gonna open the show with the bit we had prepared. Oprah's gonna come open the show. So then we really had nothing to do at all. That was when I was certain that it was over.
And it was a very odd night, because I won the [reality-host] Emmy at the end of the night after hosting one of the worst Emmys ever. I thought, I might need a shot of whiskey after this one to make sense of it all.