It's been a few years since I've talked with Jeff Probst either before a “Survivor” season or before a finale and I'd forgotten that I probably needed to request three or four hours as an interview time. Jeff Probst is in his 28th season of hosting “Survivor” and he still loves talking about the game, talking about his favorite players and the constant surprise that each season brings.
You may not agree with his take on things — I tend to root more for the underdogs, while Probst's love and admiration for certain Alpha Dog contestants is famous/notorious — but you can't doubt his passion, even if it's for something like this season's all-power Tyler Perry Idol, which has been the source of ample grumbling on my weekly recaps.
Tony, the finder of the Tyler Perry Idol, is a Jeff Probst kinda “Survivor” player, while death-cheating Spencer is the guy I tend to root for, but in this interview, we amply discuss what makes good “Survivor” drama.
There were lots and lots of things I didn't get to in this interview and I'll try to request a longer block next time we get to talk, but it's still a good 20 minutes of Probst discussing the first All-Star-free “Survivor” season in recent years, his own shifting role as host, Tony's allure as a potential returning player, Amanda Kimmel's near-misses and what his quid pro quo will be from Tyler Perry.
Click through for the full Q&A. And check back for all of my “Survivor: Cagayan” interviews in the week after the finale…
HitFix: OK, so looking at the season in totality this is the first season in a couple of years that the show has done a completely All-Star free season. How did you feel about sort of returning to the pure version of “Survivor,” I guess.
Jeff Probst: Well it was a little risky, you know. We didn”t know going in, you know — Is this gonna work? Fans kept asking us for it but they had also been enjoying the returning players seasons. So you”re not always sure what the right move is. I will say that we felt really good about the cast. I feel like our casting – Lynne Spillman is our casting director and we met a couple of years ago and talked about the show. We work very closely together but we just started talking about the show and she really took casting to another level in terms of the type of people we”re now getting. And I think that”s probably what gave us that confidence, is we had this group of people, 18 people, and we thought, “You know what? We”d be okay with any of these guys being our Final 5. Right now. Any five you want.” So that”s a pretty good feeling and it was illustrated – if you think back we lost a lot of very good people straight out of the gate. I mean, David Samson, the Marlins guy? Fantastic. If he”d just lasted a few more weeks he”d be so memorable and we locked him out of the gate and still looked around and went, “Well that”s alright. We”ve still got 15 others.” So we were hesitant but we were optimistic and now we”re gearing up for two new seasons with all new people back to back.
HitFix: Well okay, does that mean that we”re actually, for Season 30, there”s not an All-Star returning twist of any sort?
Jeff Probst: Don”t know about that but just in terms of our confidence with bringing back former players versus new players we, you know I feel like one thing I said recently in, you know, Twitter or in a blog or whatever is that I listen to the audience. I listen to the audience and the audience has been saying… Like for instance with Redemption Island — it”s a love/hate thing. I don”t know where you fall on it but some people really like it, some people really hate it. It doesn”t mean we won”t do it. To me that says there”s a visual reaction so that”s good. And hating a villain or loving a villain is good. The same with this extra Idol this year. When I started talking to people about it and when it was first introduced and Tony found it, I found this consistent theme which was – at least my assessment was — if you liked Tony, then you love the new Idol. But if you were rooting against Tony then you thought it was the stupidest idea and was going to ruin what was otherwise a great season. And so I feel like there”s this ability to talk to an audience and get feedback from them. And it doesn”t mean they dictate the show but it does seem like a really valuable tool. And they”d been asking for new players and they”ve given us the confidence to try it and it”s spawned some new ideas about what we can do with the show that can satisfy everybody.
HitFix: I”m gonna go back to the Idol thing in a couple of minutes but do you personally miss the sort of rapport that you have with the players who are returning and who you already know and they know you?
Jeff Probst: That”s a good question. No, I don”t… I don't know if I miss it. Do I miss it? It”s always fun when there”s a returning player. Like, you know, Culpepper. He walks in strutting into the beach, I”m gonna have fun with Culpepper coming back. Cochran coming back? Ozzy? Yes. But it is amazing and it was a great reminder to me how fast you can have new favorites. Like I told Spencer from the beginning he had no chance to win the game. I couldn”t have been more wrong. Obviously. I mean here he is. And I like Spencer a lot. I like Tony. I like Sarah. I like Kass. I like Tasha. I like Woo. So I guess yes, I like returning players coming back but there is something like dating a new girl that”s also very fun about meeting a new future favorite like we did. If you look at this season and last season you could, just off the five I just mentioned and then go to “Blood versus Water” and take Culpepper, Hayden, Ciera, Vytas. Let's see, that”s nine just without a list in front of me. That”s nine returning players. That”s an entire tribe from two seasons. So we”re on a roll and also learning, “Hey, that”s right. We can do the show with new people. It”ll work.”
HitFix: Well now I”m very interested in sort of the way that your role changes per season. In “Blood versus Water” it felt like often at Tribal Council you had to sort of poke and prod to get people to make moves and to sort of do things. Whereas this season in large part because of Kass and Tony it seems like you”ve been sitting back a little bit more and letting things happen in front of you. Does it feel different to you?
Jeff Probst: Yes. I think it”s a really interesting observation because I continue to try to pay attention to my role and evolve with the show. And I do think there was a time, now in hindsight looking back, that I did need to get more involved. I think the show needed a push and the players needed permission to mix it up a little more. So I would throw a couple of, you know, rocks into the equation and see what happens. And now, especially the last couple of years, I”m much more present during a Tribal Council in this sense: I”m going in knowing that it”s much less predictable than in seasons past because you have players like Kass and Tony and they really will change their mind literally at Tribal Council just because they want to or because they have an idea. So I don”t spend as much time making sure that I”m tracking who”s gonna be going home. I spend more of my energy observing what”s happening. And the last Tribal Council is a great example, where you had so many people laughing. And I was just taken by how funny Tribal was. It was really funny. They were very funny. I was having a good time laughing with them but the observation that I made was, “It is kind of ironic, isn”t it that somebody about to be voted out after 36 of the worst days of your life and they”re all laughing about it. What is that?”
So I think I”m where I should be as a host. I”m still annoying at challenges. I”m still gonna be yelling and saying, “Tony dropped his block,” you know. As if Tony doesn”t know he dropped it and as if the audience can”t see that he dropped it – you have me saying he dropped it. But the reason I take joy in that and find it valuable or valid is it”s another obstacle. Yes, it”s annoying to have some idiot standing behind you saying “Tony”s falling out of this. He”s got to pick it up or he”ll be going home.” Because then you start thinking, “Oh my God, I”m gonna be going home.” Well you shouldn”t! It's a metaphor for the game. You should be focused on the prize. The prize is winning this challenge. So I”m having as much of a good, fun joke as the audience is about, “Oh my God dude. Please shut up.” And I”ll tell you, Dan, I will rehearse challenges, a few times a season I”ll run the challenge during rehearsal and John Kirhoffer, our challenge producer, will play me. And he does that to me and man, it is really frustrating because you”re trying to put a puzzle together and he”s right behind you going, “Nope, that piece doesn”t look like it fits, does it?” And so that's a long-winded answer in saying that I feel like my role on the show has to evolve with the show and I like being a little more passive at Tribal Council. And it”s not that we”re not showing something. I”m not asking a question and we”re cutting it out. I very often sit down at Tribal and say wow, where are we and they just start and it”s great.
HitFix: Now in challenges which comes more natural to you – talking trash about people who are underperforming or trying to encourage people and be positive?
Jeff Probst: It's 50-50. My best buddy is this guy Jamie Lopez and he”s the greatest trash talker on the planet. And I talk to him several times a day so he”s like my alter ego out there. And that part of me being channeled is really fun. I like getting under people”s skin because I think it”s funny. But my heart is in the encouragement and it”s only recently that we”ve started letting that into the show. And it”s in the same theme of what you and I have been talking about. It feels like now we”ve been on long enough that it”s okay to let the audience see that actually I”m out there encouraging them five times as much as I am trash talking. And when I see somebody working hard in challenge, especially if it”s a long endurance challenge, if you were to sit out there during the challenge you would hear me almost nonstop whether it's 30 minutes or 15 hours, say the same thing over and over: “Don”t lose your concentration. Whatever you”re doing is working. Remember that if you stop focusing you”re gonna slip – you don”t want to slip so just keep digging. Don”t think about anything else. If I”m bothering you tell me what you want me to say. I want you to do well.” It”s a constant stream of affirmation because I am rooting for them. But if you fall I will say, “Well, that dream”s over” and move on.
HitFix: Now you mentioned the special idol, the Tyler Perry Idol. And you said that you”ve heard nice things. Now I have to confess I”ve heard mostly negative things. How much of it sort of success or failure do you think is going to be hinging on Tony”s hypothetical bluff with it next week?
Jeff Probst: Well I don”t know. I really do think that had Spencer found it, it would be considered one of the greatest things of all times. Because I think Spencer as an underdog it would feel, “Yeah, it”s only fair that the underdog got something so powerful. It”s about time!” And when the guy who”s got everything go his way also gets this get out of jail free card, you go, “Oh, that”s just too much.” But that”s how it went and I”ve got to say, Tony was out there looking for it and a lot of those guys weren”t. I don”t understand why people don”t go looking for idols all the time but I think part of it is exhaustion, lethargy, you”re hungry, it”s a hundred degrees out, you just can”t bear to do it again. So its legacy is in some ways unimportant because it”s a one-off. It”s an element. I was ticked that Tyler Perry would continue to Tweet me. You know, he”ll Tweet me like once every two weeks” “How about this? I get Tweets. I get emails from Jimmy Fallon” “Great idea, how about this?” Neil Patrick Harris will send me ideas. Pauley Parrette sends ideas. I love that people that are on their own TV shows that are these massive stars or filmmakers like our storytelling enough that they want to contribute to it. That”s very flattering. And the way it came down was Tyler Perry said, “Why don”t you do it late in the show? It”s a one-off and maybe nobody even finds it.” And that”s honestly what we thought would happen, because we buried it and we just said, “Womewhere there”s an Idol.” We never really believed anyone would find it and we weren”t gonna give them a clue. We just wanted them looking for this elusive thing. And Tony found it in like two days. I don”t remember the exact details, but he found it very fast. And I, as a player looking from the outside in, would say, “Like it or not he deserved it.” And the idea to lie with it is pretty freaking brilliant because none of us, none of the producers, saw that happening. Nobody. And when one of the producers came back and said, “Tony”s gonna lie.” I went, “Oh my God. I would have never thought of that,” because if you play it out and he”s at Tribal Council and if somebody asks me at this Final Tribal and says, “Well Jeff, what is the deal with the Idol,” I will say what I always say which is, “You”ll find out if and when somebody plays this Idol. I”m not saying it is an Idol. I”m not saying what power it does have.” So Tony has, in effect, say that, “The only way to be certain that I”m not out of this game is to challenge me. And if you challenge me you may be going home. So why don”t we just make a deal instead.” A brilliant move.
HitFix: And you also talked about how sort of Tony has been kind of the polarizing figure and a lot of how people have felt about this season has been if they like Tony or don”t. Is it a safe assumption that if Tony doesn”t win next week we”re gonna see him back on “Survivor” two, three, four times until he eventually wins?
Jeff Probst: [Laughs.] Oh until he eventually wins? I don”t know. But as far as a returning player, oh Tony”s at the top of your list. But to be really clear, he”s not alone. We”ve had an abundance of players in the last two seasons that would be on our Asked Back List if and when we ask anybody back. It”s fun to have this new growing list and guys like Tony… I don”t get when somebody says they don”t like Tony. I think it's “I love to not like Tony” versus “I really despise him” because I don”t think Tony brings that out in people and I could be wrong but there”s an element of “Survivor” that is definitely like wrestling which is, “I hate Tony!” but the hate is in, you know, an exclamation – like quotes, you know. The hate is “I love to hate him,” but you don”t want him gone and every time we have a great player and they leave, a great villain, every time we have a great villain and then they get voted out, the next week people go, “Huh, I kind of miss him.” Yeah, of course. He”s interesting.
HitFix: Well but I think it”s exactly what you said earlier about the Idol is that Tony has simultaneously been the sort of player who”s been in charge, but he”s also been the player who — through his own effort — has gotten, you know, these breaks as well and so it”s the big guy who”s getting the breaks which makes it may be harder to root for than say someone like Cochran. So which do you think works better from your point of view standing on the outside?
Jeff Probst: I think everybody has their own story. So Cochran had a very different story than Spencer who has a different story than Tony. Tony”s been on a run. In some ways I think Tony”s like Russell in this sense: He”s shown the way he plays his game and for him to play again might be difficult unless he changes his game. Whereas Cochran didn”t really show you how he played his game. You weren”t sure and when he came the next time he played a very different game. So I think Tony has played a balls-out approach. “I am going to run, literally run for the jungle to find an Idol. And I”m only gonna be gone seven minutes because I know seven minutes is how long everyone thinks it takes for me to go to the bathroom. So I”m going to walk slowly. Once I”m out of eyesight I”m going to split. I”m gonna dig for four minutes, I”m gonna run back for two and then walk back for the last 60 seconds and nobody will know the difference.” How can you not appreciate that. But you contrast Tony to Spencer, who didn”t get a break the entire game and is still here, still has a shot to win. It”s a very different story but it”s no less worthy and no more valuable. It”s just different.
HitFix: It”s whether you like the sort of the frontrunner or…
Jeff Probst: The underdog. Yeah. And I think it”s always easy to root for the underdog. And that”s something that Tony will have to contend with if he ends up next to certainly Woo or Spencer. He will have to think about, “How do I now position myself because now I”m the big evil giant compared to these guys?” And there”s only one way to play Final Tribal in my opinion and that is to finish what you started and slay the jury. And the people that come in and apologize, I just don”t get it. I know what they”re trying to do and it clearly makes sense because people do it season after season, but my instinct would be to say “I”m gonna finish the same way I played. I”ve got a knife left and it”s still got blood on it and it”s got all of your blood and I”m now going to lick it clean to show you guys I”m consistent and I”m gonna beg you to vote the way you will feel in a year, not the way you may feel at this moment because that wouldn”t be fair to me.” That”s a speech I want someone to make but, you know, nine times out of ten it starts like this. “First of all I want to apologize…”
HitFix: Well Amanda Kimmel would have two wins if she”d given the speech that you just gave.
Jeff Probst: Yeah. Amanda Kimmel is one of the few people that I really think could have won this game with just a little… If Amanda could play again, make it to the Final and then call a friend, phone a friend and have the friend be Parvati? She could win. But that”s the difference between Amanda and Parvati. Parvati has that knife and she doesn”t think it”s bad to gut you with it and she even thinks it”s kind of fun to open up your insides and pull out your organs and then show them to you as you”re expiring. “It was me who did it.” Because she knows it”s a game. “It”s a game. It”s not real. I didn”t really cut your organs out. Look, they”re still there. It”s just me, Parvati. Your mistake was you still think I”m gonna go out with you and I”m not and I never was. See ya. I”ve got to go buy a condo in West Hollywood.”
HitFix: And just as a last question. Have you thought about the “Madea” movie that you would like to now pitch to Tyler Perry?
Jeff Probst: That”s funny, no. Good idea. Yeah, quid pro quo.
HitFix: I think he owes you one.
Jeff Probst: I think Tyler needs to put me in his damn movie. That”s what I think and I”m gonna Tweet him that later tonight.
HitFix: In drag or out of drag?
Jeff Probst: I”ll do either. I mean it”s for the art.
The “Survivor: Cagayan” finale airs Wednesday on CBS.
More “Survivor: Cagayan” exit interviews: