If you ever plan to play the game Survivor in the hopes of winning a million dollars, listen up. That’s because whether you live or die in the game can often come down to how you do in a challenge. And how you do in a challenge often comes down to one thing: the puzzle. So when we spoke to the man who creates those challenges, producer John Kirhoffer, in Fiji during the filming of season 36 (which will air next spring after Survivor: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers), he had a huge piece of advice for anyone that ever actually makes it onto the show.
“People say, ‘What should you do to prepare for Survivor?’” says Kirhoffer. “People come in, ‘You know, I’ve been practicing making fire.’ That’s a great idea and you should practice making fire. [But] you should go to Toys ‘R’ Us or whatever and get every puzzle you can and play every puzzle in the newspaper, because puzzles are puzzles. And it’s a way of thinking. So many people come out completely unprepared and it boggles my mind. If you have people who are good at puzzles, they can keep you in at the end.”
And practicing puzzles has proven to pay off before. Prior to appearing on the show, Zeke Smith practiced on an app called Picture Slider Free that he heard two-time champ Sandra Diaz-Twine mention, and then went on to win a challenge on a slide puzzle. The fact is, the majority of challenges that involve a puzzle are ultimately won or lost on that puzzle since they almost always take much longer than any physical portion of the contest. I asked Kirhoffer his thoughts about my assertion that any challenge is ultimately all about the puzzle.
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“If I can quote you — because I do read you — ‘it’s all just window dressing for a puzzle,’” laughs Kirhoffer. “Which, fair enough. We’re putting these big physical elements in front of something that will take three minutes to get through the physical thing and then you’ve got a 20-minute puzzle — it’s about the 20-minute puzzle. But you can’t just start off with a 20-minute puzzle. You’ve got people with different skill sets and we’re going to make you earn the advantage of getting there first. And if the puzzle people come up short — we’ve had so many puzzles finish moments before the other puzzle, and thank God that tribe was able to get up over the net or crawl under the sand quicker than the other tribe so they had the advantage.”
Like the show itself, the challenges on Survivor have evolved over 17+ years. For instance, the final contest used to always be an endurance challenge of some sort — one that often went on for hours on end. Personally, I was a fan of ending on an endurance competition because it meant everything was ultimately coming down to a case of who-wants-it-more. So why did they get away from ending with that, and having some of those competitions that extend from day to night (like the one that closed out the Palau season)?
“There’s something special about them,” acknowledges Kirhoffer, “because when your watching you’re getting the same 8 to 12 minutes of television but there’s the time lapse and it goes into darkness and all of those things. We’ve been out here for 36 seasons and it just feels like we’ve evolved from being out there and keeping the crew out there forever when they’re running into overtime and all those other things that we didn’t account for. So I love when a challenge goes a few hours, like we do ‘Get a Grip’ where they get up on the post, which is a classic, or ‘When It Rains It Pours,’ when they have the hand up with the bucket of water, and we will still do that every once in a while and that’s three or four hours. We’re fine with three or four hours but…we just don’t need to be out there for that long.”
The crew is currently in the middle of shooting season 36 — which also happens to be the fourth straight season in the same location, something the show has never done before. We asked Kirhoffer what makes the spectacular location of Fiji so great for challenges. “We have beautiful lagoons, we have water-to-land areas, we have this coral reef structure out in the middle of the ocean where it’s hundreds of feet deep, but we’ve got this little coral structure that’s a perfect 30 feet deep. We can set up our towers, we can set up our water challenges and have crystal blue underwater shots — the dive down shots. We have big fields that are perfect for big, aggressive, physical challenges and mazes. And the weather. We get just enough rain. We had the hurricane, but overall it’s that beautiful tropical paradise and I love it here. I love every minute here.”
To hear the complete interview — in which Kirhoffer also talks about the one challenge that went horribly awry as well as what happens when players attempt to cheat or circumvent the rules — download the new EW Morning Live podcast, or click on the Soundcloud above. As a bonus, you’ll also get to hear our conversation with Jon Cryer (in which he discusses his feelings on the last minute Pretty in Pink reshoots that changed Andie picking Duckie to choosing Blane) as well as our interview with SNL’s Aidy Bryant. And for more EW Morning Live podcast news, follow us on Twitter @EWMLPodcast. Survivor fans ready…GO!