“Survivor” Host Jeff Probst on Big Returning Winners, Fire Tokens, the Edge of Extinction and More

“Survivor: Winners at War” (CBS)

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Gordon Holmes: We hung out before season 30, and the belief back then was that 30 was a big round number so we’d be seeing some kind of impressive all-star cast. Instead, it ended up being all new players because it was “Just the 30th season.” The belief being that there will be plenty more. Why are we blowing up 40 with what I’d consider to be the biggest possible theme with “Winners at War”?

Jeff Probst: I think with 40 it was hard to ignore the celebration angle. Twenty years, forty seasons, that is something you want to take a moment and tip your cap to all the people who’ve played and all the people who’ve watched over the years. So, that’s what we did. And then the biggest idea we could pull off was to do all winners, which for years I thought was going to be impossible.

Holmes: What changed your mind?

Probst: A lesson in producing from the president of CBS. The question was; should we do winners? And I said, “Well, a lot of the winners that you’re going to want to see out there have told us that they’ll never play again.” They’ve told us that for years. And that’s people like Rob and Parvati and Yul.

Holmes: C’mon Jeff, these people are liars. You’ve seen the show.

Probst: Right! And we were in the room and Kelly (Kahl) said, “Maybe you should call them and ask.” I thought that was a pretty good sales technique. And once the first person said yes, you could sense that this idea of being a part of 40 was a bigger draw than not being a part of it.

 

Holmes: When I heard this was the angle, I sat down and created two casts; a dream cast and what I thought was a realistic cast. This cast is closer to the dream cast.

Probst: Really?

Holmes: Yeah, I didn’t think you’d get the Parvatis and the Robs.

Probst: Mine too, honestly. I never thought Parvati would play again. Yul had said “no” for years, Rob had said “no” from the second he won. Even with those three, it’s not the same cast. But, then when you add Tyson and Kim and Sandra. The other one we thought would say “no” was Danni Boatwright. She’d always said “no.” So getting those four that said “no,” once you have them then add the other great winners who are open to playing, it got really appealing. And Sandra, given that she’s had a target on her back for so long, she was the first person to say “yes” before the question was even asked.

Holmes: So, basically it’s, “Sandra would you be interested in…”

Holmes and Probst: Yes.

Probst: That’s exactly it. If it has to do with “Survivor,” she’s in. I have such respect for that.

Holmes: You’ve got to play a little hard to get.

Probst: She’s got that track record, she won. But true champions want to play again and see if they can win again.

 

Holmes: During the pre-game interviews with the cast, you could see the Island of the Idols statues from my location. If someone else pulls this off and becomes a two-time champ, you’ve got to build a giant bust for them. Don’t make me a liar.

Probst: The cool thing about the Island of the Idols is if the fans enjoy it, it opens the door to bring in other idols. There are so many different ways to play the game, that having two other idols would be interesting. Rob and Sandra have two specific styles. If you brought Tyson and Parvati, you’d have two different approaches. Then you have this whole new layer of, “Is this good advice from this person.”

 

Holmes: We got our cast bios in alphabetical order by first name. I was blown away to see Amber in there. So, my brain tells me that both her and Rob can’t be here. A couple of pages later, there’s Rob. And it dawns on me that they’re playing Blood vs. Water in a regular season.

Probst: You’re right. I think it’s really tough, but they knew it. The cool thing about Rob and Amber saying “yes” is the way it happened. I called Rob fully expecting a no. And I said, “I have to ask, I know you’ve agreed to do 39, but we have an idea for 40 and it could involve you. But, it would mean back-to-back seasons and it would mean competing against people for the money in a real season.” I kept waiting for him to interrupt me and say, “Dude, it’s not happening.” Instead he said, “Bro, I’m thinking about it.” It was like he knew we were going to call. So, I said, “While you’re thinking about it, I know this is even more unlikely, but what are the chances that Amber would come as well? Because could you imagine a couple who met on the show and got engaged on the show play together?” And I could tell when he said, “Let me talk to her,” that it was a possibility. So, of all the people that said yes, I think the biggest surprise was Amber.

 

Holmes: You, me, and Parvati did an exercise before season 30 where we broke down how we’d work with players if we were in the game. This is what Parvati said about how she’d approach returning to the game…

“She’d already burned her flirt identity, played out her Black Widow persona, and outlasted as the underdog. What’s left? The lovable mother.”

Probst: Wow…if she can transition from the Black Widow flirt to the lovable mom simply because she had a child? Then she may go down as the greatest of all time.

Holmes: It’s quite an arc.

Probst: It’s quite an arc, but I don’t see it. The wind of Fiji is blowing on everybody. When the wind blows on Parvati, it’s like she’s starring in her own music video. She looks like she did when she first played. I think that natural charm of Parvati is still her natural strength. I want to play with her. I want to play with Rob. Two very dangerous people, but I’d like to play with them. I think it’d be fun to conspire with Rob and Parvati, even though I know that they’ve already looked at each other and thought, “How lucky are we? We have a patsy in our midst.” They made an alliance with a guy that they already know is enamored with them. But, I still think that happens out there. I think some winners are more appealing than others. Adam is a really good player, but he doesn’t have that same allure as Sandra. Sandra is a legend, she’s played forever.

Holmes: And that comes with time. Maybe ten years from now…

Probst: Yeah, sure.

 

Holmes: Ethan was another dream cast member that I wasn’t sure if he could return due to his health issues. He’s so personable, so likable.

Probst: He’s one of the nicest guys to ever play “Survivor” and it has never changed. Despite all of the stuff he’s gone through, he’s remained optimistic and positive. He’s always checking in to say, “You know I want to play again. I just need my doctor’s approval. I’m having a tough time. But, don’t forget about me.” And I’d say, “We’d never forget about you. You’re welcome anytime. You give us the go when you can play.” And it was just in the last couple of years where he was really clear. He said, “I’m 100%, I’m ready.” And when we had decided what we were going to do for 40, he was one of the first people we called. And the cool thing about seeing Ethan out here, is that other than some gray hair…he’s got the same enthusiasm. He’s just an older version of the guy who played. And I’ve noticed that all of the people who said “yes” to play, they’re all very switched on. You can tell that they approach their lives at home the same way they played the game.

 

Holmes: The Edge of Extinction is back. That is a very polarizing twist. What went into the decision to bring that back?

Probst: Edge of Extinction for me was an absolute. I knew that the first winner I called was going to say, “Am I going to have a chance?” They wouldn’t know we were doing all winners, so they’d want to know if they had a shot. And from a producing standpoint, I want to see the greatest have a second shot. We’ve had this debate many times.

Holmes: Yes, we have. Starting in pre-game for “South Pacific.”

Probst: Right. I’m a believer in the loser’s bracket. I think Edge of Extinction offers two things in a “Winners at War” season; it offers a chance for winners to get back in. But, it also offers us a chance to watch proven, strategic players in the game be forced to deal with their own truth when it comes to the Edge of Extinction. Because, the Edge of Extinction is not “Survivor.” “Survivor” for the most part you have several people with you. You have people to talk you through a tough time. You have people that sleep next to you if it’s raining. Edge of Extinction is brutal. Getting rice is brutal. There are many people the first time we did it that didn’t want to go up for rice. It wasn‘t worth it. The hike to get to the top of the island and come all the way down and then cook it and eat it? You’re better off just sleeping. And that’s why the sign says, “You will work for everything and when it’s too much, raise the sail.” So, what’s the burden put on a winner now? You’re certainly not going to raise the sail. You’re a winner after all.

Holmes: One of my issues with it is that one of the most underrated and stressful parts of the “Survivor” experience is paranoia. That’s a constant in the game. Once you take away the threat of being voted out, it’s like a camping trip. A sucky camping trip. But a camping trip.

Probst: The Edge of Extinction was not designed to create paranoia. It was designed to see how far you can push people in their pursuit to get back in the game. And in that process, what would they learn about themselves? And when you watch the final episode of “Edge of Extinction” you see a dozen people tell you that they found something inside of themselves that they didn’t know was there. You had a woman Julia (Carter) who healed the death of her dad. You had David Wright saying, “I’ve grown up out here. I’ve stood over the abyss and realized that I’m everything I need to be. Because I’ve seen the bottom.” You had a firefighter in Eric (Hafemann) say, “The only reason I didn’t raise that sail was for my two kids. And I learned that I’m not as strong as I thought, but I’m as strong as I needed to be.” Those are huge stories. And, tucked in there is an opportunity to get back in the game. But first, you’ve got to get through yourself.

Holmes: I’m not debating that it’s impressive to survive the Edge of Extinction. It’s going through hell for a one-in-eleven shot at getting back in the game. But like you said, it’s not “Survivor.” At the end of the day, I think this twist is going to be an agree-to-disagree kind of thing. Was the thought behind the Fire Tokens to add a dimension of gameplay to the Edge of Extinction?

Probst: Yes, the idea with Edge of Extinction at “Winners at War” was to take it to the next level. And how that works is that Extinction is where most, if not all of the advantages will live. The only way they get into the game is to be found by someone at Extinction and sold to someone within the game. It’s that exchange of advantage for fire token that starts our economy. The player in the game needs the advantage, the fire token helps them buy it. The player outside of the game needs to accumulate as many fire tokens as possible to buy their own advantages to get back into the game. So, you have a really basic supply and demand. And as the game progresses, it stands to reason that these advantages will become more valuable and the price will go up. And now, if you’re in the game, if you’ve done a good job of accumulating some wealth, you can buy what you need. Or, you’re going to have to find a friend.

Holmes: We spoke about this earlier, there’s a menu at camp. If I want an advantage at a challenge, I need four fire tokens. I hand them off to you and those tokens will be recirculated in some other fashion. Is that through rewards, are they hidden around camp like you would with an immunity idol?

Probst: It could be either of those. They can be bequeathed to you by a player who is voted out. You could end up finding them in the game, in the jungle. Or, it could be part of a reward in a challenge.

Holmes: You can invest them in the fire stock market, make a nice dividend.

Probst: Sort of. The idea is that if we add this layer to the society, what will happen down the line? What will happen in a free-market economy of “Survivor”? Could somebody become very rich in this game and have no friends? Nobody wants to do business with them. They’re a billionaire who sits alone in their home.

Holmes: We’ve always talked about “Survivor” being a microcosm of society and now we have a class system based around fire tokens.

Probst: We’ll see where it goes! The players always take it somewhere.

 

Holmes: For years, people have been saying the show should up the prize money. I never understood this argument, because it doesn’t matter to me as a viewer. However, when I saw their reaction to that announcement, I realized I was very wrong. As usual.

Probst: So was I. I’m right there with you. That came from talking with CBS and saying, “Should we go for broke? Should we make it even bigger?” And we did have a debate that it won’t change who agrees to come on the show. Nobody asked for two million dollars. And, it’s not going to change who watches the show. It was CBS’s decision, it’s their money. And at the end of all this, they thought, “It’s a 40th season, let’s pull out all the stops and do something really fun.” And when we do 41, we’ll go back to a million, and I hope that will be enough.

Holmes: Yeah, sorry 41.

 

Holmes: Twenty years in prime time.

Probst: Wow.

Holmes: This is rarified air, my friend. “The Simpsons” thirty one years, “Gunsmoke” is twenty, “Law and Order: SVU” is twenty one. “Lassie” is nineteen seasons. So, you’ve officially kicked Lassie’s ass.

Probst: (Laughs) That’s awesome.

Holmes: In your face, Lassie. How do you even put that into perspective at this point?

Probst: I still remember watching the first episode with a group of friends, I had a small little TV. I moved it and I plugged it in. They had no idea what it was about. It was this weird show. And they said, “Wow, that was really interesting. That’s so cool. Good luck. Good job, Jeff.” And then by the end of that first season, it was Richard Hatch winning and people told me they were screaming out of their windows that the villain had won this game. And then season two premiered after the Super Bowl to 45 million people. It beat “Friends” that year. It was the biggest show in the world and I didn’t have an understanding of what that meant at the time. I wasn’t very experienced in Hollywood. I didn’t understand that that was a giant thing. So for me, it took several years, easily a decade, before I started to get some perspective that we’re still on and we’ve been on for twenty seasons and ten years…now I’m starting to appreciate that that longevity is really hard to pull off. And then as I got more responsibility on the show, I started feeling the responsibility that I don’t want to be the one that drops this glass ball. And so, I’ve lost perspective of the twenty years and gained the perspective of looking for opportunities for growth. I quote things from “Survivor” all the time. Coach told me, “You’ve got to meet people where they are.” Craziest guy that’s ever been on our show said one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard. I think about that stuff all the time. So, I don’t know how to put it in perspective. But, I just like it when people enjoy it. When I see a “Survivor” family and they say, “Just so you know, we watch it every Wednesday night.” Or, “We make our kids do their homework before they watch it, it’s a good incentive.” Or, when a little kid says, “I’m going to be on the show someday,” and then one day they are. As a dad that’s the stuff that makes me the happiest.

 

Don’t miss the premiere of “Survivor: Winners at War” – Wednesday, February 12, 2020 at 8 pm ET.

Any Questions? Drop me a line on Twitter: @GordonHolmes