Remember the S.O.S. challenge in the early days of Survivor? You’re forgiven if you don’t because it was not exactly the most memorable competition. Players on both tribes would basically compete to make the most noticeable rescue sign on their beach and then some random dude in a plane would tell Jeff Probst which one he liked more. It certainly fit into the theme of people being stranded out on a deserted island, but it wasn’t exactly the height of drama. (Not to mention it was pretty subjective.)
It’s no surprise that the S.O.S. challenge is no longer in rotation on the show. In fact, it has not been seen since season 10 (Survivor: Palau). But there are plenty of other challenges from yesteryear — some of my favorites, actually — that have not been staged in quite a long time. Where did they go? Why did they leave? And might some of them ever return? I spoke to Survivor challenge producer John Kirhoffer on location in Fiji (where filming is underway for season 38, which will air in early 2019) to get the scoop on these forgotten gems — and maybe even convinced him to bring back a few. (Also make sure to check out Kirhoffer’s list of Survivor‘s 35 Best Challenges Ever.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s talk about some fun challenges that you guys used to do but haven’t done recently. First off, I love it when the loved ones participate in a reward challenge. Sometimes you get Colby yelling at his brother Reed, or you get people who maybe aren’t that adept at it. The last time you let them participate was in Caramoan in season 26, so it’s been 10 seasons since we’ve seen this. Why is that and will we at some point maybe see it again?
JOHN KIRHOFFER: You never know what you’re gonna get when a loved one comes in. If they have a bad knee, if they have a shoulder problem, that’s not the kind of depth that we go into to know. So you don’t always get your Colby yelling at Reed moment that you would love.
GALLERY: Survivor‘s 35 Best Challenges Ever
One of my favorites was in China, and this seemed really fair to me. We made a big maze in the shape of a yin-yang sign, and the contestants and their loved ones were blindfolded, and they hadn’t seen each other before. We blindfolded everybody and then we said, “Oh, by the way, you’re looking for your loved one and you’re calling out.” And I think it was Amanda and her sister were making bird noises or something. And then they had to find each other, and the first pair that could embrace each other in the same space would win, and that was one of my favorites.
Is there something you guys can do where even if the loved ones are not, quote-unquote “running” the challenge — because maybe it’s not an even playing field in terms of different loved ones — they could still be involved and not just watching? For instance, you had a challenge in Ghost Island where people were in a cage that had to be let out. Is there something where the loved ones could be in the cage and you have to free them? Or the loved ones are standing under a big bucket and the first person to fill the bucket and dump paint all over their loved one wins? Just some way where they can be involved, even if it is more as a prop?
Well, in season 7, Pearl Islands, we did the Q&A where they walk the plank. So if you got it right, “Sandra you got it right. Whose loved one do you want to walk the plank?”
So, what about getting them involved in one of those ways?
We’ll write that on the board. Dalton wants more challenges on the board. [Laughs] He’s only got three right now, so he wants more.
Always! Okay, next challenge, and it’s is an old one you guys used to do. This is the one where Jeff tells a long story.
Folklore, where he tells them an ancient tale, and then people have to run up to stations to answer questions and see how much they remember. And this was the famous Rudy, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.”
Right. In fact, then it was called the Survivor Witch Project. The Blair Witch Project was this big success, and in that season they ran out with video cameras and video’d themselves. We just did it in Second Chance. And they ran around, and they did that. It was at night. They run around and they answer the questions, and at one station … whoever got to that station first, there was a hidden idol waiting. That one worked out great. And we talk about that all the time. And one of the things with Jeff is, it only works if we’ve got a compelling story. A good, natural story.
All right, what about the F.U. challenge? This is one where you would ask a tribe questions about each other and then they had to guess what others had said. It always led to bruised feelings.
So it would be like, “What do you mean I’m the bossy one?” Or “What do you mean I smell the most?” And it always led to drama back at the beach afterward. I don’t even know the last time you did this.
The last time we did this was season 24, One World. One of the things that happened is, they started to figure it out, and then they started to collude about how to answer their questions. I would go out to camp and they would fill out a questionnaire, and it became such a regular deal that they started to collude on “Everyone say this and everyone say that,” and a couple of them got pretty tough. So it’s not gone, we didn’t kill either one of those challenges — Folklore or Touchy Subjects — it’s just we gave ’em a break for a while.
I love the cat and mouse game that producers and contestants play with each other. You guys do something for a while, contestants find a way to game the system, so you all then have to mix things up. Okay, this isn’t necessarily a specific challenge, but it’s something I like that you’ve done in the past and I guess I would call it elements where a tribe can’t see their teammates. Obviously we could think back to season 1 and Gervase where he’s running and then gets in the woods and he starts walking.
And I remember I did your first challenge in Survivor: Philippines where a pair would run into the woods and climb a net to bring back a bag paddles or puzzle pieces or something and everyone was wondering and worrying about who was going to come out first. And then one team celebrated when they see their tribemates emerge. So I guess it would be a challenge where teammates are out of sight for a while and then come into sight.
And then you wonder what’s happening.
And then you’ll see one pair goes in first, somebody goes in behind them, and then the other pair comes out first because they went in and killed them and hid them under a tree. [Laughs]
That, I think, is pretty much a topography thing. It’s if we have the right topography where there are the trails and stuff. One thing here in Fiji, we’ve been in the same location now for six seasons, and you’ll see that in seasons 37 and 38 we’ve got a couple brand new locations. But it’s just finding those locations that work well. But I love that one. I love the running out and we talked about it. We’ll put that on the board too.
There we go! We’re making some hay here. I like it! All right, this is a classic that I’ve spoken to you a lot about before and how much I like it. I believe it first debuted in Palau, and you have teams basically in a circle on opposite sides of the circle, chasing each other as they’re carrying these heavy sandbags. This was in the rotation for a while — no pun intended with the actual rotation.
Hot Pursuit. Yeah, we had an Argentinean guy working challenges at the time who used to say, “We just play Hot Pursuit, it is the best.” Yeah, that was one that we started in Palau. We did it once on dry land in Gabon. And it was a big track. And then we pitched different ways. One of the things we pitched is, what if you were swimming? What if you just had a big oval course and you had to swim and you were pulling a rowboat behind you, and as you got tired you had to get into the rowboat? Or a rickshaw, and you’re pulling the rickshaw and as people fall out they get in the rickshaw, making it heavier.
But again, the water version of it you need a nice, flat plane of water that you can count on being shin-to-knee-deep for a big field. And here, there’s so much coral. It’s either coral or it’s a steep drop-off. So it’s very difficult. It’s like another one that maybe got on your list coming up that’s my all-time favorite, which is Breathing Room, where they’re under the grate and slowly the tide comes up and they run out of breathing room and they bail out the back.
That one we also debuted in season 10, Palau. But here, we don’t have that area that’s shallow enough to set up the apparatus, and that’s not in a zone that gets swelled. Because we get big swells. And when you’re doing that, you can’t have swells coming through and raising the level of the water.
Can I tell you how much that challenge stressed me out? Basically all these people, they’re under a grate in the ocean and it’s like a horror movie. Literally, the tide’s coming in, and in a certain amount of time you’re not going to be able to breathe. And how long can you last without breathing?
It does get gnarly. You’re right. And there at the end you’re trying to make a snorkel out of your hand. That one fully advantages people who are just comfortable in the water. If you’re not comfortable in the water, you’re not gonna get hurt ’cause you just bail out the back two feet behind you. You just get out and you’re fine. But being underwater and in the ocean is completely different than swimming in the pool. We see it every season.
I believe Jason beat Ozzy in that in Micronesia. That was his big moment, but then Ozzy got him back with the effing stick. Okay, here’s another one. What about where you have teams adding weighted bags to members of the opposite tribe who are holding up these poles with sandbags? Usually you had three players holding up the bags per tribe, and each team had to decide whom to put the weight on, so there was strategy involved as well.
Shoulder the Load. The first time we did that was season 7, Pearl Islands. They hammered Rupert. I remember Savage collapsing, and the blonde woman Christa was the one that won it. We don’t do that one. That one makes me nervous; I get so much anxiety.
Just the back strain that it could cause. Some things we do for reward as opposed to immunity ’cause if it’s getting close and you’re doing that for immunity, I just wonder if somebody is gonna push themselves too far. I don’t know, could they fall over and tweak their back. We’ve done it a few times. It’s just one that makes me, personally, uncomfortable to watch. So we haven’t offered it up in a while.
Well, that brings us to another super physical challenge and probably my favorite thing I’ve ever been lucky enough to watch up close, which was the Heroes vs. Villains opening challenge. It was two-on-two battles, with folks wrestling each other back to their mat, and we saw Stephanie’s dislocated shoulder and Rupert’s broken toe. So I’m guessing the reason you haven’t done that is just because of the injury concern.
And we’ve also moved kind of away from Kicking and Screaming — like where somebody’s gripped onto a pole and two people have to pull them off the pole in any way. These things are cyclical, but it got pretty violent for a while, and it’s like, we’re not WWE. We like the head-to-head battles, but we don’t wanna become WWE. We still do it pretty often out in the water where they grab the ball and they come in, and they’re underwater and they’re dunking each other. That feels more friendly, even if it can get aggressive, as opposed to pushing somebody’s face in the sand.
Well, what about another one we haven’t seen in a while — the sumo ring that you guys used to set up. That may have started in Palau as well. And people would have a mat or some sort of pad and they’re trying to knock each other out of the ring.
Sumo at Sea.
I remember James throwing his mat down once on top of Randy Bailey.
Knocks him in the mud and then throws the bag on him, and it’s just, holy macro.
So, why haven’t we seen that one in a while?
You know what, that one’s definitely gonna come back. We gave that a rest ’cause it felt like we were over-using it. It was a go-to every couple seasons, but we did talk about bringing that one back. That is a fun, head-to-head classic.
Okay, what about the one — and I want to say this started in Cook Islands — where the whole tribe has to fit onto a tiny platform out in the water, and they all have to get all their feet on and all get on there.
United We Stand. Yeah, first they have to transport two players from one platform to another using the posts. And in Micronesia, James famously instead of having someone walk across, he just picked up the pole with somebody on it and carried her right across. I’m like, “Okay, that was something.” And then we did that again in Kaoh Rong, season 32. Again, it requires a more lagoon setting.
We tested a water challenge this morning — an epic brand-new concept, brand-new challenge. I’m super excited about it. But even then, we have backups. Every time there’s water, we have a backup because of bad weather and the swells that come in. And here in Fiji the swells can just be oppressively big. To do that one again, we’ve got to find an area that’s flat enough that they’re not just gonna get wiped out during it if a big swell comes through.
For more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.
Survivor’s 35 Best Challenges Ever