Wednesday, February 07, 2001

Surviving the fame

'Australian Outback' brings new challenges to host Jeff Probst

        Whenever Jeff Probst's career flames out, he wants no regrets.

        “I'm fully aware that this is my one shot, probably, in this business, and I'm trying to make the most of it professionally,” says the host of Survivor: The Australian Outback (8 p.m. Thursday, Channels 12, 7).

        Before Survivor, Mr. Probst was best known — if you can say that — as the host of VH1's Rock and Roll Jeopardy! in 1998.

        “I was a nobody, really, you know. Nobody,” he says.

        Now he's recognized everywhere by people of all ages.

        “It's overwhelming,” says Mr. Probst, 38, who has hosted local TV shows in Seattle and reported for Access Hollywood. “It has changed my life in every way.”
[photo] Jeff Probst is making the best of his stint on Survivor
(CBS photo)
| ZOOM |

Drawn to the job


        The Wichita, Kan., native was living in Los Angeles with his wife, Shelley, a psychotherapist, when he heard British TV producer Mark Burnett talking on the radio about his $1 million TV survival game show. He tracked down Mr. Burnett and “went after it.”

        “I literally went 18 months with no jobs because just nothing was appealing to me,” he says. “I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, because I was halfway stuck in this business” unable to find “something that my soul connected to.”

        That's how he became a household name as the host of TV's most popular summer series. He's back again hosting the second Survivor series taped last October and November in Australia.

        “What's fascinating to me about watching it, is it's true human dynamics playing out in front of your eyes,” he says, explaining the show'sappeal.

        Although the 16 contestants had seen the summer show, and studied their predecessors' pitfalls, the new Survivor castaways made the same mistakes.

        “We would sit there and think, (this is) unbelieveable . . . They're this close, and there they go, going off (at someone) and costing themselves another vote,” he says.

        “Whereas the first group were virgins, everybody here came to play,” he says. “You can play this game a lot of ways. You can play it devious. You can play it straight. Maybe playing it straight is devious, I don't know.”

They all "came to play'


        He refuses to speak specifically about any of the contestants, including Rodger Bingham of Crittenden, Ky. When asked how the 53-year-old Grant County High School teacher held up as “the old man” in the competition, Mr. Probst says: “These guys all came to play. With all due respect to Sonja (original Survivor cast member Sonja Christopher), there are no Sonjas on Survivor 2.”

        To Mr. Probst, clashes in the Outback are as inevitable as kangaroos. “Everybody has their hot button,” he says.

        As Mr. Burnett explains: “Whenever you choose 16 people who are all pretty A-type (personalities), who want to be leaders and want to win, and you add in the pressure of team dynamics — group dynamics — and nature in the raw, you are going to get raw emotions.”

        Part of Mr. Probst's role is to stir the pot. He spends hours at the base camp reviewing videotape from the Kucha and Ogakor tribes. He knows who is strong. He knows who has secrets.

Changes for second season


        In his book Survivor ($17.95; CBS Books),Mr.Burnett says that Mr. Probst's role is “to focus a laser beam on those secrets, bringing them into the light.”

        What has changed in the second Survivor is how Mr. Probst prys out information at the tribal councils near a Herbert River waterfall in North Queensland, about 200 miles south of Cairns.

        “I was much friendlier with this group from the beginning. I connected with them faster,” says Mr. Probst, who also was a rock band singer in Seattle and produced Boeing Co. marketing films. He also has written and directed an independent feature film, Finder's Fee.

        In the first Survivor series, Mr. Probst thinks he was too tough on Rudy, Richard, Susan, Kelly and the gang. He describes himself as “a little to the right of neutral, maybe more of a hard-core I'm-not-your-friend” last summer.

Silly sayings stick


        What hasn't changed are Mr. Probst's corny tribal council sayings, like “Fire means life” and “The tribe has spoken.” He had no luck talking Mr. Burnett out of the silly sayings.

        “I talked to Mark about it. I said, "I'm going to get lacerated because this is over the top.' ”

        Mr. Burnett, however, compared the tribal council ritual to attending a Roman Catholic Mass.

        “It's like if you go in a Catholic Church for the first time, if you've never been there, you think, "What is this?' After 20 years, you start to get it.

        “I realized that by week 10 or 11, it will become clear that those phrases are familiar enough — and the way they're delivered is mockable enough — that it will be clear that my tongue is in my cheek, and this is good fun.”

        Good fun, indeed. The tribal chieftain has spoken.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer radio/TV critic. E-mail:


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