It was a Survivor season premiere unlike any other. Survivor 41 kicked off Wednesday night on CBS with a two-hour premiere that shattered many of the norms that the show had established over its first 40 seasons — including breaking the fourth wall with direct communication between the host and viewers, footage of the crew who actually makes the show, and the demolition of one of the franchise's most famous lines ever.
There were also several new twists put into play, including a version of the prisoner's dilemma in which a player from each of the three tribes had to decide whether to risk or protect their vote — the catch being that if they all chose to risk it in the hopes of getting an extra vote at a later Tribal Council, then all three would lose a vote. There was also a huge new element added to the show in the form of the Shot in the Dark Die, in which a contestant (at only one Tribal Council over the course of the season) could sacrifice their vote to reach into a bag and have a one-in-six chance at getting safety at the Tribal.
We risked our own vote to connect with host Jeff Probst over all the big changes that went down in the premiere and are happy to report we were rewarded for our boldness with some in-depth answers. (Also make sure to watch the exclusive deleted scene above and check out our season premiere recap.)
Robert Voets/CBS Jeff Probst on 'Survivor 41'
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I have to say, I watched this marooning, and even with all the changes, the thing that struck me the most was how insanely happy you seemed. I'm not sure I've ever seen you that positively ebullient. Tell me about all the emotions for you and the crew as you actually started rolling for the first time in close to two years.
JEFF PROBST: Ah, yes. I can take myself back to that "day one" moment right now. I can still vividly connect to the excitement I felt as the players started boarding the barge to begin Survivor 41. It was so good to be back that I was giddy with joy. It may sound corny, but it's the truth.
To give some context, Survivor 41 is the start of my third decade, and I cannot recall a time when I have felt this level of excitement to launch a new season. Here's why: The year away really reminded me how much I love everything about Survivor. I love the casting process and the game design. I love shooting the show with our crew. I love interacting with the players as they take on this giant adventure. I love the editing process and then ultimately delivering the show to the fans to see their reaction.
I could also feel the same energy from our crew. Everywhere I looked, I saw smiles of gratitude and appreciation. We were all so happy to be back together. And then there were the players, many of whom had been scheduled to play over a year ago and then were told we couldn't shoot. They were so pumped to get started that they were nearly levitating.
It's obviously been a very difficult 18 months for everyone in the world, so to be standing together on a giant barge in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, knowing we had all been tested and quarantined and thus were safe to play Survivor, was a truly electric moment.
With the exception of a medical emergency, we never, ever see the crew on Survivor, but there were several shots in this premiere where we saw the entire show around the show. Why did you decide to give us some footage of the folks who bring Survivor to life?
The single biggest benefit of the quarantine period was that it gave us time to truly step back and look at the show without the pressure of a ticking clock. And one of the ideas that kept popping up was, how do we bring the audience inside the game even more? To be clear, this will not result in any major shift in how we tell our stories; we're just looking for a few Easter egg moments.
So we just started a list of all the things we thought would be fun for a fan to see. One of the things that made the list was to occasionally show a few shots of our crew to remind the audience of how many people it takes to make this show. And we also decided that from time to time we would make the audience aware of something that is going to happen in the game before the players learn of it, so they can play along or second-guess. We did that in the premiere with the Beware Advantage.
The long-term plan is to bring the fans inside the game a bit more each season, but the key is to do it very judiciously. So it will only be occasionally in Survivor 41, then a bit in Survivor 42. And like everything else we do, this too is an experiment. If it works and people like it, we'll keep on with it, and if it doesn't, we'll lose it.
And if you've watched the premiere, hopefully you saw that we're also doing something called Game Within the Game. GWG is an interactive Survivor training academy designed specifically for young, future Survivor players who dream of being on the island one day. We love how many kids watch Survivor, and we hope this is a fun way for them to start practicing!
I always like to think you are talking to me through the screen, Jeff. But this time, you were actually talking to me through the screen! Where did this decision to directly address viewers come from, and is it something we're going to continue to see throughout the season?
Another nutty, risky experiment, for sure! But I remember exactly where I was standing when this idea birthed itself. I was in my garage, writing ideas on a whiteboard. I was talking on the phone with [executive producer] Matt Van Wagenen and we were riffing on ideas. This is a really fun process because the stakes are so low, you can consider any idea. I said, "What if the first thing we see in Survivor 41 is me walking through the jungle talking directly to the fans as I tell them how much I've missed them?"
Clearly an absurd way to start an adventure show. But Matt's response was instant. "Why not?! It sounds fun! In fact, where else can you talk to the audience?!" It's really inspiring to brainstorm with Matt because he is always open to an idea and then always has another layer to add to it. You keep bouncing back and forth, and the idea starts to take shape. So from that point forward we looked for opportunities to talk directly to the audience. We came up with a long list, and then we scaled it back to just a few times during the season. We love the idea, but we want it to grow organically from season to season. And we'll gauge our fans' reaction and adjust accordingly.
Robert Voets Jeff Probst on 'Survivor 41'
The Shot in the Dark Die, which can only be played once per person, gives contestants a one-in-six shot at safety when they decide to play it. I dig this wrinkle because it is evenly distributed to everyone and they each have to decide the best time to use it. What was the game mechanic you wanted to achieve with this new twist?
It starts with our overall theme for Survivor 41, which is "dangerous fun." When you combine dangerous fun with a dilemma that forces a player to make a risk-vs.-reward decision, then you have a great Survivor game element.
I'd had an idea in my notes for a few years about a bag that just sits at Tribal, and any time before the vote a player could reach in the bag and hope for an advantage that would immediately shift the game. The general intention was to create more uncertainty at Tribal Council by adding the threat that a seemingly perfect plan could fall apart if someone decides to reach into the bag.
This was one of the first ideas to get added into the game design. Then it just became a matter of formalizing how it plays. The way it plays now is the bag sits in the voting confessional, so your decision is private. Nobody else knows what you're doing. That's the dangerous fun element. Then, if you decide to reach into the bag and grab a scroll, you must sacrifice your vote. So you can't vote at that Tribal Council. But nobody else will know until the votes are read. That's the risk-vs.-reward dilemma.
And what makes the Shot in the Dark a great game element is that it does not require anyone to ever play it in order for it to have impact. The mere threat that someone might reach into the bag is what creates the uncertainty.
During season 40, you were setting up Fire Tokens to be a big part of the franchise moving forward as you established a Survivor currency. As someone who was intrigued by that possibility and the different ways it could be employed, I'm wondering if Fire Tokens is something we might see again, or are you heading into a different direction?
For now we are heading in a direction that does not include Fire Tokens. But what's great about our new approach is that anything is possible. Literally anything. Players will never be able to predict what might happen vs. what is happening, what's real vs. what's isn't, what is permanent vs. what could be temporary. It's the same exact game, but totally different.
Okay, Jeff. Tell the truth. What would you do in the prisoner's dilemma? Would you protect your vote or risk it?
Just to clarify for any game purists, we did alter the traditional prisoner's dilemma structure, and that is why it works in our show. Television producers have tried to make game shows based on the prisoner's dilemma for years, but the concept is inherently complicated. When we figured out how to simplify it, that is when it came to life.
From a strategy standpoint, my personal default is to take the risk. Always risk. You are trying to move your game forward, which is different from trying to ensure you don't go backwards. One is offense, the other is defense. So the only decision I would make would be to assess if there was any known information or weird gut feeling that would make me reconsider my default of risk. If not, then I risk. I have never believed you can play a zero-sum game from a place of fear. But hey, I've never played a single day of Survivor, so my opinion is not worth much. Plus, there is no playbook for Survivor. All types of players have won employing a variety of strategies. You have to go with what works for you.
Robert Voets Jeff Probst on 'Survivor 41'
Finally, after discussing it with the contestants, you decided to tweak your trademark challenge intro line, eliminating the word "guys." While I support the change, I am concerned about one other aspect of the equation which has yet to be addressed: Will you still look at your feet when you tell the players to now "Come on in"?
So glad you asked. Yes, I will continue to look at my feet. And I guess I'll finally share the reason I do it. Wow, I didn't expect to be this open. I'm a bit emotional, as this is pretty revealing, but here goes. That brief moment when I look down at my feet is when all the magic happens, for that is the moment I connect with my powerful alter ego and guide, known only as "Survivor Guy."
Survivor Guy first came to me years ago, while we were in the Marquesas Islands filming the fourth season of the show. I was sitting alone on an island enduring a tremendous rainstorm. This was something I did on a regular basis, as I've always been a method host and wanted to be able to relate to what the players were feeling. I remember seeing a rat scurry past and then, seemingly out of nowhere, Survivor Guy appeared right in front of me.
Weirdly, he looked a lot like me, only significantly cooler. He wore animal skins, had much longer hair, a lot of odd tattoos and a feather necklace. I'll never forget his first words to me: "Jeff, I am Survivor Guy… I am your alter ego, and if you embrace what I have to offer I can make your life on Survivor better than ever."
We sat for the next six hours as he regaled me with tales from his life of jungle living. I'll be honest, I don't remember a lot of it because I was pretty damn cold. But it was clear he was very earnest, even though his stories seemed completely implausible.
Then as the sun began to rise, he said, "I must go. I'm needed somewhere else." He started to walk away, then began a slow run, and finally leaped up as though he were going to fly away, kinda like a bird. But instead he only got about six inches of air, stumbled a bit, and then kept walking, finally disappearing into the jungle. To this day, Survivor Guy remains my Survivor spirit animal.
Survivor Guy guides me. Survivor Guy informs me. Survivor Guy literally gives me the questions at Tribal Council. Survivor Guy also comes up with those incredibly memorable lines, like "Got nothin' for you" or "Worth playing for?" He even gave me a couple of new quips for this season, including "Sorry for you." I'm still working on the delivery, but I'm confident it's a keeper.
To this day, I don't know where he comes from or where he actually lives, but I'll tell you this… he's my superhero. I'd be lost without Survivor Guy.