Survivor: Blood vs. Water has turned the CBS hit reality show on its head, with multi-layered complications brought on by castaways playing with family members and loved ones. Host Jeff Probst is breaking down the drama, and dishing inside information on what to expect the rest of this season. Jeff also talks about his guest-starring appearance on Two and a Half Men, which he promises to be as risque as fans have come to expect from the show, set to air November 14, and shares his excitement at the November 19 release of the third book in his bestselling Stranded children's book series, Survivors. Read on for our Q&A.
ETonline: Survivor feels like a totally new show this season. Were you surprised by how much the loved one angle changed the game?
Jeff Probst: Yeah, and that's saying something because we anticipated it changing the game quite a bit and then when we got out there and started playing, the players took it to a whole other level that we never saw coming. I've said before that there were definitely times at Tribal Council or maybe at Redemption Island when something was happening, that I felt like I was playing catch up to a game that they were already well-versed in.
ETonline: What have been your favorite and least favorite moves so far this season?
Jeff: I think taking [Brad] Culpepper out was a big move. And one that clearly showed that someone like Caleb is here to play, and here to win. Anytime someone makes a big move and makes it early, it catches my attention because they immediately go into that small group of people that you truly believe are willing to risk it all in order to get it all. And so I like moves like that.
Worst moves? You know, worst moves are just hard to quantify because it's so easy to backseat drive. I think the hardest thing to do in Survivor for most people, is just keep your emotions intact. And you see if often, where people say something -- Brad did it, Marissa did it. They say things that they know, even as they're coming out of their mouth, this is going to go really poorly. But they just can't stop. And that's a sign of really good casting. Putting together the right group of people, that when given extreme conflict, will react in a way that will sometimes help them and more often hurt them.
ETonline: Who do you think is in a good position right now to win, if you can answer that.
Jeff: I think, if I've learned anything over the years, it is that every single season is a unique one. And so if you just look at past winners and try to emulate their game, the odds are it won't work. Because that was a very specific situation, they had a group of people, it was a certain time in everybody's life, and the minute you change one dynamic, it changes the game. So I think the people who have the best shot at winning, I think it's usually pretty clear. If you just go down the list, and ask yourself, 'Could Rupert's wife ever win this game?' Probably not. And you could list all the reasons. It doesn't mean she doesn't deserve to be on, it doesn't mean it's not fun to watch her on her own adventure, but she probably doesn't have the right combination of skills to win. So often, the best way to figure out who has a shot at winning is by eliminating those that you're pretty sure don't.
ETonline: When you were planning the season, were you specifically thinking of the emotional outbursts you might get when you decided to invite all of the tribe members to watch the Redemption Island battles?
Jeff: Yes, that we did anticipate. The pitch to CBS from the beginning was, Blood vs. Water with Redemption Island. And the reason to bring everybody was because [when] the people [were] fighting for their life, you wanted to ensure that their loved ones would always be there. … So we didn't give [the tribes] a choice of just bringing any two people, we just said, bring everybody. … The loved ones are watching because they're rooting for their person to survive, the others are watching the loved ones to watch where their loyalties lie.
ETonline: And it's a great opportunity to get information about the other tribe too.
Jeff: Yeah, that kind of surprised us. It happened the first time we did Redemption Island, but it didn't happen to this degree, that people would share so much dirty laundry. If you think about how Survivor typically works, you're voted out and it's instant. … You're out of the game, your torch is snuffed, you're gone. And as you're walking off, you start realizing, 'Oh, wow, this is what happened! Oh my God, I was blindsided, that person lied to me. I got played.' And all this clarity comes to you, but you're gone. With Redemption Island, you have a chance to come back and say, 'Okay, had a couple days to go over things fellas, and now I realize what you did to me, so now here's the payback. I'm gonna tell everybody what I know. Or, even better, I may make up some stuff. No one will ever know.' Because there are very few rules in Survivor.
ETonline: So one last question about Survivor. It seems to be the hot topic that everyone was talking about. Last [week]'s Redemption Island challenge seemed to favor Laura M., since she was the most petite competitor. Do the producers take those kinds of natural advantages or disadvantages into account when planning a challenge?
Jeff: The good news/bad news about challenges is they take awhile to build. … The lead time is pretty long, which doesn’t give you any leeway to change things as you go. And the good news about that is, that's why the game remains fair. It's luck of the draw. Puzzles are always unfair for dumb people. And things that require physical fitness are always unfair for out-of-shape people. So, no we don't take anything into consideration and the best evidence that Survivor's challenges are built and designed early is to look at the history of our show. There have been many times when a favorite walks up to the last challenge and it's something that they just can't do. And they're gone, just like that. I'm thinking of Malcolm recently, and he knew the minute he walked up and it was a balancing challenge, that he was out. And there's nothing to do about it, that's the way it goes. That's why it's tricky to win Survivor. It doesn't really ultimately matter if you're an athlete, if you're brainy, if you're young or if you're old, you have to just have that crazy combination of all the right elements in the right season at the right time with the right group of people.
ETonline: So let's talk about Two and a Half Men. Can you give us a preview of what part you'll be playing in that episode?
Jeff: I play a neighbor to the fellas, and I'll definitely be seen in a way you're not used to seeing me. There is no blue Survivor shirt, that's for sure. And I had a blast, an absolute blast doing it. I got a call on Monday, was shooting on Thursday. I know Jon [Cryer] and his wife Lisa [Joyner], my wife and I are friends with them. So it was really fun, I called him and I said, 'Hey I just got a call about being on your show,' and he goes, 'Yeah, I just read the script. It's gonna be fun.' And I went over and shot it and that's about all they want me to say, but I had a great time. I had no idea how sexual… You watch it at home, and you see what they get away with, and then when you're there on the stage rehearsing it, it's pretty bawdy stuff for CBS 9 o'clock. I like it!
ETonline: And does your character participate in any of the sexual joking that they do? Or you, since you're playing yourself, right?
Jeff: Yes, I'm playing a version of myself [laughing], yes. Yeah I think it's hard to do anything on Two and a Half Men and be involved in some way in something related to sex. The whole show's about sex!
ETonline: And in terms of your new book, if you could tell me what to expect, and what you're excited about when it comes to that?
Jeff: Stranded is the name of the series, and it's an adventure series for kids 8-12, and it's basically Survivor for kids. And the basic premise is, a mom and a dad get married and they both bring two kids into the marriage. So they send the kids on this sailing adventure to get to know each other, and the kids are shipwrecked and end up stranded without any adults. And they have to figure it out.
And it came from the idea that, well I married my wife and she brought these two amazing kids into my life, and we were realizing, God there's nothing out there in fiction about blended families. There's lot of self-help books, How to Tell Your Kids They Have a New Dad, but there's nothing that just shows blended family in action. And that's what this is. … We've really captured a world that kids enjoy, which is, what would you do? I have kids come up to me all the time, it's now a new generation, and they often say, 'When are you going to do a Survivor for kids?' And I always say, 'Do you think you can handle it?' This is that idea. Kids 9, 11, 11 and 13 having to make fire, having to find food, having to build shelter, having to figure it out, while they try to get rescued. … And it's been one of the most unexpected, just joyful things to have happen. I really had no idea when I pitched the series that it would lead to so much fun and so much connecting with kids and moms. It's been great.
ETonline: You've done many different projects, you've been a host, a producer, guest star, writer, what role do you like the best?
Jeff: Storytelling. I love telling stories, that's it. I love it. That's the word I would choose to describe what I love the most. I don't care if we're making them up, we make up a lot of stories in our family. ... I love being a part of storytelling, so whether I'm getting to do that on Survivor, or do it through kids' adventure books, or directing a movie, it's all sort of the same: Once Upon a Time…
Survivor airs Wednesdays on CBS at 8/7c, while Two and a Half Men airs Thursdays at 9/8c on CBS. Stranded: Survivors hits shelves on November 19.