Jeff Probst has been hosting Survivor since the show first dropped 16 castaways into the ocean off the coast of Pulau Tiga in Borneo, Malaysia. He has become a reality TV staple and has earned many accolades over the years for captaining the Survivor ship. But what did he do before Survivor? It was kind of a wild ride.
Survivor Was Not Probst’s First Hosting Gig
Probst’s first job in entertainment was working as a producer and narrator for Boeing Motion Picture/Television. He told the Emmy organization in 2015 that his dad, Jerry, got him the job making marketing and training videos. He started as a production assistant and worked his way up to writing scripts and recording narration.
His big break into national entertainment came when he auditioned for then-fledgling network FX to host a show called Backchat, which he said was a late-night show “designed to be a ‘letters to the editor’ about the network.”
He laughed as he said that no one watched FX initially, so they had no letters to respond to. Instead, they just made them up.
“We would think of something funny to do, and then we’d write a letter. Like, ‘How do they make bagels?’ Then we would go do a bagel shoot. I was getting paid to learn. It was crazy, but I got a check every two weeks,” Probst recalled.
Probst also hosted Rock n Roll Jeopardy for VH1 from 1998 to 2001.
A Sandra Bullock Interview Landed Him Survivor
In the 1990s, Probst also worked for Access Hollywood and he told the Emmys that an interview he did with future Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock is what helped him land Survivor.
I had interviewed Sandra Bullock a few times. Every time someone interviews Sandra, she tries to give that interviewer something special, something she didn’t give the other guy. I always felt like, “This is a decent person going out of her way.”
At one interview, her blouse was unbuttoned kind of low, so I said, “Bullock’s showing a lot of cleavage today.” She said, “Why are you looking at my cleavage?” I said, “Why are you showing it to me?” Then she goes, “Well, unbutton yours.” So I unbuttoned my shirt.
It was this silly little thing that never made the air. But I had a demo tape, and at the end were these 30 seconds with her.
[Survivor executive producer] Mark Burnett said, “There were two reasons I picked you over the other guy. One was all your experience at FX. I knew that live TV would be important because Survivor is basically a live show shot in the jungle. And two, the interview with Sandra Bullock. I thought that anybody who could have that kind of an exchange with a celebrity is the guy I want.
But it wasn’t only that interview that got him the job. Probst was so nervous after his audition for the show that Burnett wouldn’t pick him that he wrote fake articles about Survivor trumpeting the success he was imagining the show would have.
The articles were titled “Survivor sets a summer season viewing record,” “Survivor knocks Who Wants to Be a Millionaire off the air,” and “Survivor makes [CBS president and CEO Leslie] Moonves so rich he buys his own island,” and Probst ended every article with the line, “Experts say some of the success goes to the very likable but unknown Jeff Probst.”
“I sent the stories to Mark Burnett and to Ghen Maynard, who was the exec at CBS overseeing the show. I knew it was risky because it could come across as pushy or arrogant. But I really had nothing to lose. Then I got a call about three weeks later,” said Probst.
What he didn’t know, that Burnett told the Emmys in 2011, was that Burnett had done a similar thing when he pitched Survivor to CBS, so that really sealed the deal for Burnett.
Probst Now Has Four Emmys On His Mantle
The Primetime Emmy Award category Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality – Competition Program was first handed out in 2008 and once it got started, Probst took home the hardware the first four years it was awarded. After his fourth win, the Los Angeles Times said it was because Probst “takes hosting to the next level.”
The paper cited an argument on a recent episode that Probst oversaw “with intelligence and grace” as evidence that he acts as “the jungle therapist and allows the fighting contestants to find common ground. It’s remarkable television to watch.”
Unfortunately and rather inexplicably, after sweeping the first four years of the award, Probst has never again even been nominated — and it isn’t because the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences doesn’t like repeats. RuPaul has won the category five times, and Tom Bergeron has nine nominations total with one win.
But even without more Emmy nominations, Probst is still the No. 1 host in Survivor fans’ hearts.
Survivor hopes to film season 41 in the spring of 2021 for a fall 2021 premiere.