Jeff Probst: Life Lessons from 'Survivor' (INTERVIEW)

With tonight's premiere of the new season of  “Survivor: San Juan del Sur – Blood vs. Water,” we caught up with bedimpled host Jeff Probst about life on the reality series and what's on the horizon.
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Jeff Probst Photo

Jeff Probst kicks off the 29th season of “Survivor” with a 90-minute premiere tonight. (Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2014 CBS Broadcasting)

As Survivor heads into its 29th season, which premieres tonight, the show’s bedimpled and perennially spry star Jeff Probst chatted with Bio about the ratings juggernaut he’s hosted since its debut in 2000. For Probst, there have been many memorable moments in the show’s globetrekking run, including a hilarious and rather electrifying flashback to Season 2 when he scampered off set and into the Australian outback to answer an urgent call of nature. Much to Probst's surprise, his errant emission alighted upon a shrouded electric fence, which sent a sobering jolt “back to the point of origin.”

“You don’t do that twice!” laughs Probst, who recalls his Season 2 lavatory calamity as merely the ineluctable toll of following his bliss – and, uh, his bladder – which, he says, is what we are all born to do. 

The Road to Reality TV Stardom

An ardent exponent of Joseph Campbell’s 1949 tome, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Probst “holds dearly” the venerated mythologist’s maxim that the adventure we are ready for is the one that we get. Beyond Joseph Campbell, Probst credits his parents with instilling in him the twin philosophies of “follow your bliss” and “carpe diem," which have guided him through leaner years as an aspiring filmmaker in the Pacific Northwest.

“My folks always told me, ‘The only thing that will impress us is that you choose to live the life you want to live,’” he remembers. “I’m not sure they meant for me to drop out of college and thumb my way to Los Angeles to become an artist, but their support gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams.”

In L.A., Probst quickly found work as host of VH-1’s Rock & Roll Jeopardy, FX’s Backchat, and the syndicated Access Hollywood. While he was aware that the steady paychecks were a blessing, he found the talking head gigs exacting a slow, steady levy on his state of mind. “None of it felt right to me,” he says, stepping back from his burgeoning career. “I made a pact with myself: if I didn’t find a job I really loved by the time my money ran out, I’d come up with a different career for myself. I wasn’t going to do ‘just a job.’ I wanted something that was going to move my soul.”

A week later while stuck in Los Angeles freeway traffic, Probst heard from Mark Burnett, a largely unknown television producer at the time.

“Mark was talking about this show he was doing – 16 people dropped on an island, forced to work together, voting each other into oblivion every three days, with a $1-million grand prize – and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, that’s mine,’” Probst says, still galvanized by the memory.

Probst – who says, “If it takes somebody breaking the ice, I’ll bring the sledgehammer” – wrangled face time with Burnett, but their first meeting did not go well. “He talked for an hour and a half and then gave me five minutes, during which time I told him all these made up stories about what an adventurer I was and how I’d caught all of these big fish in my life,” Probst says. “I knew he wasn’t buying it, so I finally told him the truth: ‘I’m a student of the human condition. I’m a writer. I’ve been in therapy. I get this show.’ And that was that.”

Three months passed and Probst, preparing to pack his belongings into the back of a U-Haul, decided instead on making a “Hail Mary” play. He purchased a bulk of empty wine bottles and stuffed them full of hand-written notes that expressed in vivid detail the unprecedented triumphs enjoyed by Burnett and CBS after hiring an underdog named Jeff Probst to shepherd contestants through their Survivor challenges. “It was, like, ‘Survivor knocks Who Wants To Be A Millionaire off the air!’ and ‘Survivor makes (CBS executive Les) Moonves the most successful boss in television!’” Probst recalls. “Every single one of my messages in a bottle ended with a simple statement: ‘Experts say some of the success of Survivor goes to the likable, though unknown, host, Jeff Probst.’”

Roused by Probst’s ingenuity and vision, Burnett hired him for the gig, and the boy from Kansas was, within days, dropped from a helicopter into the middle of the South China Sea to begin his new post. With unwavering faith and support from Burnett, Probst’s confidence skyrocketed and, balancing aspects of therapist, party planner, comic, and cleric, he eventually claimed his place in the pantheon of beloved television personalities. For 29 seasons, fans have looked to Probst as the reliable constant in an often epic, always compulsively watchable, clash of colossal, occasionally grotesque, personalities brawling over a generous prize in far flung locations like Borneo, Thailand, Guatemala, Cook Islands, Samoa, and Micronesia. The show was an instant smash for CBS, averaging 28 million viewers in its first season, and remains in the Top 20 most-watched shows on television.

Life Lessons He Learned from Survivor

Jeff Probst Photo

Jeff Probst says "Survivor" has broadened his perspective on the world. "Most everything I have in my life, the things a lot of us even take for granted in our lives, are things some people in other parts of the world would kill to have," he says. "You can’t take anything for granted.” (Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2014 CBS Broadcasting)

In February, Puffin – an imprint of Penguin Books – will publish the latest installment of Probst’s bestselling, Survivor-inspired young adult series, Stranded, about a clique of pre-teens who, after a brutal shipwreck in the South Pacific, must band together to prevail over endless peril. An avid reader himself, whose first favorite was Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown franchise, Probst believes in the transformative power of storytelling. In his own home, shared with wife Lisa Ann Kelly and her two young children, Probst seeks to maintain “a world of storytelling,” routinely turning family dinners, household chores, and bedtime into an arena for fantastic adventure. “I think it’s important to believe – and to remember – that anything is possible,” he says, “because it is.”

For Probst, the greatest gift he’s received from Survivor – besides the mantel full of trophies, full-flavored paychecks, and international celebrity – is his well-stamped passport and the experiences that come with it. “I’ve spent weeks with Samburu warriors in Kenya and Aboriginals in Australia, people from remote parts of Serbia and South Africa and New Zealand,’” he says. “The experiences started broadening my perspective on the world and really made me appreciate how rare the gifts of my life are. Most everything I have in my life, the things a lot of us even take for granted in our lives, are things some people in other parts of the world would kill to have. You can’t take anything for granted.”

Probst, who is currently in production for this season of Survivor and already in pre-production on the next edition, due in February 2015, is in no hurry to be voted off the proverbial island. He also insists he’s more mindful today of where he takes his bathroom breaks, and is also enjoying the open horizon that lies ahead. “I don’t know what comes next for me,” he says. “I already see life as being too short. I don’t know how many more days on the planet I will have, but it’s not enough. I’m a dad and a husband and a friend, and I want it all.”