A Survivor Figures Out What to Do With Himself
By CLAIRE DEDERER
Published: February 5, 2006
BACK in October, Jeff Probst, the host of the "Survivor" series, considered quitting the show after this coming season. He implied that his problem was with his higher-ups at CBS. "I honestly have no idea what they think about me," he told Entertainment Weekly. "If they even know what I do, or if they look at me as disposable."
Eventually they showed their appreciation: In December they signed him up for two more years, encompassing four more seasons of the show. "Survivor Panama: Exile Island" had its premiere last week.
His contractual issues may be settled, but the underlying question remains: What does Jeff Probst do?
In the show's first episodes, shown during the summer of 2000, it was hard to take him seriously. He was eager and freckly. He buddied up to the contestants. He smiled constantly. His voice was softer than it is now. Tribal council seemed actively to pain him. He wore shorts. Since then it's become clear that he does a lot more than that, but it has taken him a while to define the job.
My friends and I love strategy games, so we were "Survivor" fans from the beginning. During commercials the phone lines burned from house to house: "Can you believe she said that?" "Why don't they just vote him out? He's so annoying!" "Why is that big fat man naked?"
We loved "Survivor," but were kind of embarrassed about loving it, and Mr. Probst embodied everything shaming about the show. He was corny, with his dimpled pretty-boy looks and his gigantic torch snuffer. He didn't seem connected to the made-up rituals. He just stood there in his shorts and mouthed the lines: "Survivors, go!" and "The tribe has spoken." And he barely even pretended to believe the fiction that he ran the game. In that first season Mr. Probst just seemed to be a jolly campmate who was never voted off.
But in the second season he became cooler, more dignified. He stopped making friends with the contestants and started asking them questions. He became what he is now: a methodical, meticulous interviewer, more police investigator than talk-show host. He has a knack for asking just the right question and then, of all things, actually listening to the answer.
Mr. Probst's agile questioning challenged my assumption that he was a mere mouthpiece. Indeed, Mark Burnett, the show's creator, explained that Mr. Probst is not fed his material. "Jeff gets some information about what's going on, but he doesn't need to know much," Mr. Burnett said. "He likes to figure out on his own what's going on. Some tribal councils might last one-and-a-half to two hours while Jeff gets the talk to where he wants it to be. Jeff is very interested in people and things, and that comes across."
It was during the Pearl Islands season — the fall of 2004 — that Mr. Probst really came into his own. For starters, he had great material to work with. That season saw some of "Survivor's" biggest personalities ever: the piratic Rupert, the slimy Jonny Fairplay, the sport-coat-clad lawyer Andrew Savage, and the buff-yet-exhausted Ostin.
It was in his exchanges with Jonny Fairplay and Ostin that Mr. Probst's new steeliness came into view. At tribal council, he asked, "What are you basing your vote on?" Jonny Fairplay, with his tangle of bleached curls and his weasel's face, answered, "Whatever the astrological signs tell me." And then something happened that you rarely see on television: pure silence. Mr. Probst stopped and just stared at Jon. All of a sudden Mr. Probst looked like an immunity idol himself. Perfectly still. Perfectly comfortable with the quiet and with the tension he was causing. Finally he asked, "Is that a respectful way to treat somebody you've lived with for 12 days?" When he sent the group home from tribal council that night, he looked as though he was sick of the sight of them.
A couple weeks later Ostin decided to quit. A big, brawny, gym-built guy, he said his body — which he referred to, unfortunately, as his "temple" — just couldn't take it anymore: "My temple has nothing to offer me right now." At tribal council, Mr. Probst duly snuffed Ostin's torch but didn't give him the respect of the traditional goodbye. Instead he said, "Ostin, per your wishes, go home." Then he turned to the remaining group: "With all due respect to Ostin, people work too damn hard to get in this game and fight to stay alive." Mr. Probst's message was clear: Don't disrespect this game.
Those episodes seemed to kick off a new era. Mr. Probst isn't just a host anymore — he has become the game's guardian. He has no patience for people who, as they say in England, lower the tone. He still roots for players and is excited by a good challenge, but as often as not he conducts tribal councils in the key of I've Had It With You People. Sometimes he throws in a half-laughing dose of Utter Disbelief.
And with good reason. "Survivor" is now in its 12th installment, and contestants still arrive not knowing how to make fire. They still haven't thought about how to build a shelter, or what they'll do if an alliance swings against them. They still boss each other around and pick ridiculous fights. It makes it hard to identify with them. But "Survivor" is not a show about contestants anyway — anyone you might root for is likely to be booted off the island. It encourages a cooler, more detached way of viewing. You savor the characters like a cannibal contemplating a feast: Who's next?
Non-"Survivor" people who say, "Oh, it's all just done with editing" are missing the point. "Survivor" fans love the editing. We love the — forgive me — artistry of the show. We love the twists, the ingenious casting and the deprivations. The producers are like the Greek gods, sitting on Mount Olympus, setting dramas and scenarios and defeats into motion. As we sit at home trying to guess what's going to happen next, we feel closer to these gods than we do to the actual contestants.
Mr. Probst is in a unique position. He's a producer, one of the gods, but he's also a viewer like us. Like the gods, his job is to protect his realm. Like the viewers, he just cannot believe what he's seeing. His gift is that he has found a way to project both these personae at the same time: He's simultaneously haughty and fascinated. This weird hybrid makes him the best reality-show host on television, though to some that might sound more like an insult than a compliment. At any rate, he has one thing nailed down: These days he always wears pants.link