'Survivor' Season 35: Jeff Probst on Knowing When It's Time to Quit

The executive producer and showrunner speaks with THR about the third episode of the season, and muses on the notion of giving up on 'Survivor.'
Courtesy of CBS

Welcome to The Hollywood Reporter's Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers regular season coverage! Every week, we're bringing you exit interviews with the latest person voted out, recaps from THR's very own Dan Fienberg and weekly check-ins with executive producer and host Jeff Probst. Bookmark our season 35 one-stop shop to make sure you don't miss out on any of it.

Warning: spoilers ahead for season 35, episode three.

There's a thought on Survivor that in order to move forward, you have to dig deep. But what happens when you dig yourself into a hole?

In the third episode of Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, two very different examples of "quitting," or lack thereof, were on full display. Shortly after losing the immunity challenge and sensing her imminent demise in the game, the Hustlers tribe's Lauren Rimmer declared that she would not walk away from Survivor without a fight. She more than lived up to her word, battling tooth and nail to make it through the evening's Tribal Council — and she succeeded, watching from the sidelines as Patrick Bolton's torch was snuffed. It was a surprising outcome from the outside looking in, as Patrick appeared to have an edge, whether due to his physicality or the fact that he seemed deeply entrenched with fellow players Ryan Ulrich, Devon Pinto and Ali Elliott, or even Lauren's own apparent isolation from her tribe. In a very real way, Lauren's survival through this episode serves as a reminder of why you can't quit on Survivor. 

Ironically enough, Patrick stands as a monument to why you sometimes have to quit on Survivor. He refused to pull himself from the hero position during the immunity challenge, which ultimately cost his tribe the win. He refused to leave Lauren alone in the ocean when she was clearly fuming with him, and his poker face (such as it exists) immediately let her know where his head was at with the vote. Earlier in the episode, Ali warned Patrick that his antics weren't sitting well with people, and not only was he reticent to dial down his personality even in light of such a revelation, it seemed like he took the criticism very personally. If Patrick had it in him to quit every once in a while, perhaps he would still be in the game.

Which leads us to the topic of our weekly conversation with executive producer, showrunner and host Jeff Probst: Is it true that you should never really quit on Survivor, or are there moments when the best play on the field is to abandon ship and plot a new course? 

"The different meanings regarding the word 'quit' and how it relates to Survivor is really interesting," says Probst. "I often say during a challenge: 'You never quit. You never give up. Anything can happen.' It is a proven fact that tribes often come from behind to pull out a victory, so no matter how bad it seems, keep fighting. But there are definitely other ways to look at the idea of quitting, or giving up, especially regarding tribe dynamics. If you are pushing an agenda for someone you want voted out of the game, you have to be very aware of how the idea is landing. If the rest of the tribe is wary, you can certainly go back for a second push, but that's probably as far as you push it. If there isn't a lot of love for your idea, you are best to give up the idea, at least for the moment."

"It's an interesting layer you're bringing up, because the good players know how to do it, and the lesser players don't," Probst continues. "It probably comes down to ego more than anything else: 'This is a good idea, and we should do it. The fact that you guys don't see it just shows how much smarter I am.' It's a dangerous trap. Ego has very little value in a group situation. In fact, I'd say that the attention your ego demands will be offset by the damage it will do. You can always revisit an idea later."

From his side of the aisle, how has Probst encountered the notion of when to quit and when to stay the course over the course of his Survivor career? How does he know when it's time to move on from an idea, whether that's sensing the natural end of a Tribal Council in the air and it's now time to vote, or whether that's coming together with his creative team to hammer out a theme for a new season or twist to the game, and it's now time to lock in an idea, or cut bait and move on to a new one?

"I find myself in the same situation as the showrunner," he says. "We have this massively talented team and for all intents and purposes, we all run the show. But I have forced ideas or themes into the game because I wanted them, and I refused to quit on the idea. Conversely, I have had key creative people who refused to stop pitching an idea to me, even when they knew I wasn't into it. In fact, it happened this season. Two of our smartest guys had an idea that I was not sure was worth the risk. They were relentless, which really made me take notice. Even when all signs indicated they should let it go, they came back again and again. At that point, I made the decision that within our own creative tribe, this idea needed to happen. So I quit on my uncertainty, and instead embraced their certainty. I'm so glad I did. It's a really fun idea that is executed beautifully. I'm so glad you brought this topic up; I just learned something about human behavior and group dynamics. Are you angling for my job?"

Always, Probst. Always.

But one thing at a time. First, a trip back to the past. As mentioned earlier, the outcast of the episode was Patrick, the Alabama small business owner who founded his own moving company — the easily sunburned, self-described wild banshee with an eternal grin on his face. How did Probst view Patrick on the afternoon of the first day of the game, and how does he view the player now? Let's drill down and find out.

First, here's how Probst described Patrick in the preseason: "Patrick fooled me in casting. I think I got had. I think what Patrick presented was a really likable guy, and a very hardworking guy. He started this company and he described it to us as: 'I went door-to-door at every business and said, 'If you ever need to move, call me. I'll have a better deal and I'll do a better job.' And then I sent flowers to every place and said, it's from me, Patrick, the mover guy.' I was really impressed with that. That's work ethic. And he does have this big smile. And you have to see it to understand, but it's really a big smile, and it's on, all the time. But then we met the day before the show started, out here in Fiji, and I thought I saw a part of Patrick which is, 'You're a little bit more of a conniver than I realize.' That smile, while genuine, is also the same smile that says, 'Yes, I'm laughing with you, and oh, I'm also laughing at you.' ... I think Patrick is in trouble, actually. With this group, I think he's going to be the odd man out. Now, if he can figure out the charm he showed me in casting and turn that on, he will be fine. Because he charmed me. And I'm not saying he's not charming. I'm just saying I think Patrick is closer to a villain than a hero in terms of how he's going to play the game. I worry that that smile, because it's so prominent, might actually annoy people, almost like if you're in prison and you find someone who is happy. It's like, 'Wait a second. You can't be happy out here. It just doesn't work! So get rid of the smile!'"

Months after these comments, Patrick stands revealed as the third one out. What does Probst think of his assessment now, with the benefit of hindsight?

"I still feel the same way today. But now there's more," Probst says. "I saw a part of Patrick at Tribal Council that showed me he is open to listening to others and learning about his own behavior and how it impacts others. I think Patrick just tried a bit too hard to be the funny guy and be the center of attention. That's a very risky role on Survivor. Most people don't want anybody to be the center of attention. It's too disruptive. To your earlier points, if Patrick had been able to quit on that idea and just blend, he'd probably still be in the game and Lauren may have been voted out. I think Patrick may learn to do that after his time on Survivor. I hope so, because he does have a great smile and an optimistic approach to life. A little restraint might be a nice added ingredient. Oh, and yes, I am fully aware that I am sitting here in judgment on all sorts of ideas and people. Fortunately, my therapist has assured me that I am perfect just as I am."

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