Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Joel Klug says there was producer manipulation on Borneo
With Survivor filming for seasons 41 and 42 indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show’s past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they’ve been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.
For years, Joel Klug beat himself up for not fighting hard enough to stay in the game on Survivor: Borneo. “Not going for the kill stuck with me for a long time,” says Klug. But now, he says that not taking the low road in the hopes of lasting a few more days in the game was the best thing he did on season 1 of the reality franchise. “Now that I look back,” he says, “it was probably a reputation saving move — or lack of move — and I am happy I made that decision. Don’t beg or flail around… just take it in the teeth and call it a day with some dignity intact.”
Klug has a lot of mixed feelings about his experience on the seminal season of broadcast reality television, which he opens up about in his Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire. While Joel reveals that “there were many negative effects of the show on my personal and professional life,” he also acknowledges that “the good did far outweigh the bad in the long run.”
Klug also wades into the controversy of the Stacey Stillman lawsuit, in which his fellow season 1 contestant alleged that executive producer Mark Burnett had engineered her ouster by convincing two other players (Dirk Been and Sean Kenniff) to vote against her to protect quote-machine Rudy Boesch from being eliminated early instead. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court.
“CBS at the time was the ‘Tiffany Network,’” says Klug of the allegations. “60 Minutes was a network institution and it drove the image of the organization. After Sonja was voted out, Mark saw that B.B. (64-years-old) was the next on the block. He was also trying to save Rudy (72-years-old) on the opposing tribe. Mark was trying to make the show a success and was not interested in leaving his long suffering baby to chance.”
Klug continues: “Mark started making moves of his own — some of them blatant, and some a bit more covert. Some of these moves directly lead to Stacey getting voted out…. If people would have known all the shenanigans that were pulled between first season production and cast, they would be shocked.” (CBS declined to comment, citing that the original lawsuit over the matter has already been settled. It should also be noted that Klug says of the lawsuit, “I don’t think it was worth it for her or anyone else involved.” Klug also gives Burnett major kudos for making season 1 happen at all, while saying that “I am happy Mark came out unscathed from the scandal and has had a historic and influential career.”)
For more from Klug about the relationship between production and cast in season 1, his biggest regret from the game, the scoop on what he did after being voted off, and all the intel as to what he’s up to now, read on for his full Quarantine Questionnaire. He also has some pretty strong words when it comes to his feelings about Jeff Probst’s role in the game.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you’ve been up to since appearing on Survivor.
JOEL KLUG: I feel like it has been a complete separate life…before/after Survivor.
Going into that first season, we had some idea that the experience would be life changing. I don’t believe anyone had an accurate idea how much was coming our way. Currently, I work for a digital TV network MOTOTV and production company Garage Films. MOTOTV is a television network in the action sports industry (Powersports, Marine, Ski/Snow/Skate/Surf). I own a small piece of the network, so I see that as taking most my time for the next few years. Garage Films is a large scale commercial production company. The most recent project was for the 2020 Corvette and some other Chevrolet models.
I got married in 2018 to a beautiful person at the young age of 45 and have a wonderful son who is about to turn 13. We also have a mini golden doodle, Lola, that is our little baby to the point that a normal family may find us nauseating😉
I also have a small construction company and have been designing/rebuilding a large property in Wisconsin the past couple years. This keeps me occupied during quarantine😉. I lived in Los Angeles from 2000-2012 and currently live outside Milwaukee . There are about 21 days in the middle of summer that the weather is pretty good, so I am happy here.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
That answer has changed over the years. If you would have asked the same question in 2000, I would have said something challenge-related: the spear throw win or coming from behind to win the very first immunity challenge. Now, I would have to say it was not going full-blown-blood-thirsty-scorched earth when I felt the end coming.
In our first season, it was not as much a television show as a strange experiment. During the casting process, I could tell the production was unsure about me because I “kept my cards close to the vest.” I was reserved. They were first and foremost worried about people quitting when the realities of Borneo were experienced. The second concern was a lack of emotion being exhibited by the cast members during filming — they wanted outspoken people with little inhibition on camera.
I had a job and planned on returning directly back after the production ended. When the producers announced that the “merge” was happening the next day — they never pre-announced the merge after that first season) — I chewed out the producer that he just “killed” me. I knew I had the ability to pull moves to get me out of harms way, but didn’t want to expose that dastardly side to the general public, potentially embarrassing my family and my damaging the trust of business clients. But, in reality I believe nothing would have changed the vote after the merge was announced and I would have humiliated myself with a desperate swing and a miss.
Not going for the kill stuck with me for a long time, but now that I look back, it was probably a reputation saving move — or lack of move — and I am happy I made that decision. Don’t beg or flail around… just take it in the teeth and call it a day with some dignity intact.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
The lack of a move in the waning days of my island time was regretted for a few years following the show…playing back instances of when I could have flipped the game with some nasty move has tormented many past players. As I get older, I try not to beat my self up for “what might have been” — whether that is in regard to Survivor or other life events in the entertainment industry.
If I would have thrown someone under the bus (Gervase, for the cow comment) and made it past the merge without Dirk & Gervase to compete with… maybe I could have gone to the end. Sean had already been worked on a bit before the merge, since the first season was a bit fast and loose with contestant interaction at the challenges. I tell people in recent seasons that directly after the show the second guessing can be overwhelming. But I assure them not to worry, because it will not subside after 20 years either.
What’s something that will blow fans’ minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
The list of things fans of Survivor don’t know about Survivor is longer than what they do know about Survivor. The biggest surprise would probably be the level of disarray the first season experienced.
Please let me preface this by saying… Mark Burnett is the best salesperson I have ever personally observed in action. He is without question the main reason the first season not only happened, but almost as importantly, was actually completed. Not only did he push the Survivor rock up a hill for years to get the production green lit, but he also scrambled tirelessly to keep the actual production together during the shoot.
He was fighting a crew that didn’t believe in the concept. They would often openly refer to the show and its concept as trash… many of them were the next Scorsese, don’t ya know? Add to that a cast of frantic cats and a natural setting among the harshest on the planet — it was almost an impossible challenge Mark had undertaken. He appeared to have moved Craig Piligian (Deadliest Catch/Orange County Choppers) to a more influential position during filming, and that caused a solidifying effect to the crew. Craig was a bit of a tough guy, and I think that mattered.
Unfortunately, the cast was not so easy to “control.” I would imagine that was a side effect to casting people with rebellious and generally fearless personalities. We didn’t listen to what the producers told us to do, and Jeff had very little influence over our behavior in that first season. All this leads me to the thing I believe was the most controversial in our first season: the Stacey Stillman lawsuit.
The suit claimed Mark had influenced the cast to vote in certain directions — directions that we would later deduce were to help appease an older CBS demographic. CBS at the time was the “Tiffany Network”… 60 Minutes was a network institution and it drove the image of the organization. After Sonja was voted out, Mark saw that B.B. (64-years-old) was the next on the block. He was also trying to save Rudy (72-years-old) on the opposing tribe. Mark was trying to make the show a success and was not interested in leaving his long suffering baby to chance.
Mark started making moves of his own — some of them blatant, and some a bit more covert. Some of these moves directly lead to Stacey getting voted out. Stacey didn’t catch wind of this till months after the show. In the limo line after the Emmys, actually. That story in and of itself is amazing and too long for this format. Point being… if people would have known all the shenanigans that were pulled between first season production and cast, they would be shocked. Stacey got pretty beat up when she filed a lawsuit claiming unfair practices by the production. In the end, she came out with a win, but I don’t think it was worth it for her or anyone else involved. I am happy Mark came out unscathed from the scandal and has had a historic and influential career.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
I am not going to lie: It was a rough couple of years, trying to live down the “cow comment.” We didn’t understand the impact of TV and the size of audience for the first show was historic. As I said earlier, I am glad I didn’t make the desperate moves to try and save myself, because I can only assume that would have removed any remaining dignity. I wasn’t offended or thrilled with my edit, and look at myself as a more forgettable cast member of the show. I think I am okay with that…I prefer living my life in more of an anonymous fashion. Having people strain to listen to your private conversations in a restaurant is not my ideal life😉
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
I hate to reference the difference of Borneo over subsequent seasons, but that factors into so many aspects of our experience. All the way up to Jeff saying his now famous “You are witnessing 16 Americans” line that kicked off the show… I was unaware how this was going to play out. Was this Double Dare? MTV’s Road Rules? Eco-Challenge? To my pleasant surprise, it was more Eco-Challenge — throw them in and see if they drown on national television. The terrain and climate were surprisingly oppressive. Everything was wet and/or moving. Plants had needles and sharp leaves. We had almost no food and the other people on the island were worse than all those natural challenges. But I loved the experience. It was real and punishing.
After getting voted off, there was no “Ponderosa.” We were kind of left on our own. BB had gone home after he was voted off and made it into a national newspaper almost immediately. After that, they asked us not to go home following our exit from the show. Sadly, no Redemption Island in season 1.
I spent the next few weeks traveling around Southeast Asia and hanging with the locals in Borneo. It was as just as impactful on my life as the 18 days on the island. Coming home was a massive shock, mainly because I was in no way prepared for such a life-altering adventure. For the first group of us, the time on the island was only a small part of the Survivor experience. Hollywood called, and many of us jumped in. I honestly believe it took me four or five years to completely realize how much we all had changed through the experience. Such a significant change can cause upheaval in every aspect of your life… all too often negative. When I interact with my castmates today, I don’t think they resemble much of what we were previous to season 1. I don’t think the “shock” of the whole thing will ever really wear off.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Of course. For me, there were many negative effects of the show on my personal and professional life. The show was remarkably popular and we were for the most part unprotected. Whether this was the media that saw a target of notoriety that they could attack with little risk or the general public that wanted to take a shot at a “celebrity” for bragging rights… there was no shortage of bad experiences. There are many people throughout the history of Survivor that will never be heard from again because of the experience following the show. That being said…the good did far outweigh the bad in the long run.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
There is an unexpected bond that has formed amongst the entire Survivor family and then usually among your individual season. It has been a 20 year experience of meeting new cast members that have shared this unique experience… but not everyone gets along. There are many individual rifts in the Survivor family that maybe someone else will elaborate on. (Mitchell Olson will probably give you that gossip.)
For a few years after the show, Gervase, Dirk, Sean and myself stayed very tight. Of course, Stacey and I kept in close contact but have drifted apart through the years. Ramona as well. Gretchen went home to Tennesee right away. Colleen hung around L.A. for a few years and we hung out a bit. Greg even sniffed the scene for a while.
Today, I keep in contact with Gervase and Mitchell almost on a daily basis — digging each other with otherworldly cruelty and attacking each other on every personal level. But we are pretty close. I also speak with Dr Jill Behm pretty regularly. Troyzan, Mike Holloway, Chris Daugherty, I keep in contact from time to time.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what’s your favorite season you were not on and why?
For a few years, I was an avid watcher but also wanted to separate myself from the show in Los Angeles a bit. It did carry a stigma in the entertainment industry, and I thought I would be able to outrun my connection. The Stillman lawsuit was also kind of fresh and I just wanted to turn the page. I was assuming the show wouldn’t make it much past the first All-Stars season.
I would see it in passing from time to time, but for the most part, tried to forget about the show. After Chris Daugherty’s season I didn’t watch until Gervase went back on again for Blood vs. Water. watched that season, and have been watching again since then. But here we are 20 years later and the program still has a nice following. My 3 favorite seasons are 1, and I pick that because I was hardly on it😉. 2. Whatever number Chris Daugherty’s season was, because I think he overcame some of the biggest odds with only his personality and that really impressed me. Also, season 30 with Mike H. — another person who won despite having very little interpersonal strategy but out of sheer will and immunity wins dominated his season. I guess it’s a tie between Chris and Mike. But I am in no way a Survivor superfan aficionado.
Who’s one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
When I played I was too young and arrogant to make much of the opportunity. Gretchen and I could have been a formidable team, but the game was too unknown for most of us in the first season to even get out of our own way. A few years ago I played a mini-Survivor game in Maine hosted by Bob Crowley (wonderful man). Dr Jill Behm and I teamed up and did very well.
I love Gretchen, but think that if Jill and I would have teamed up on season 1, the show would have been completely different. She is a BMF, grounded and highly intelligent. We have very different personalities and I believe our strengths played off each other well. In my opinion, winning Survivor has as much to do with whomever you are cast with as well as a bunch of luck — especially in the more modern versions of the game.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Let me preface this answer as well. I am so happy with all of Jeff’s success with the show. In that first season, he was just trying to make it in the entertainment industry like everyone else. He was a relatively last minute addition to the show, and I cant imagine he would have foreseen the success the show would have. He is also a legit film director, and if you haven’t seen Finders Fee, its worth checking out.
Love Jeff, buuuut… I think he has become too integral to the outcome of the show. I understand why he would want this, since having is face on such a high profile show has been an incredible vehicle for his career to say the least… but “live Tribals” and probing questions born of voyeuristic production information can all but channel the winner Jeff desires. If you ain’t giving good sound bites, you probably will not be around too long. It is a television product after all, and I think the competition has suffered because of all the production involvement.
His influential participation in Tribal Councils and incorporating popular societal causes all but cancels out the multiple days of personal strategy conducted by the contestants. Someone could have done a ton of moves for days, and all that can be washed away by Jeff interjecting too much or allowing the whole thing to devolve into a Jerry Springer episode. The interpersonal manipulation is a large factor in the show. It made it so much more desirable than a show centered around challenges. I do wish him all the luck in the world though, and its made 40 seasons…so what do I know😉
Finally, would you play again if asked?
This answer has changed a good amount over the years. If you would have asked me to go back in right away, I would have killed to play again…no question at all, it would have been yes. Now that I am older and the game is so unpredictable with idols and idol nullifiers and super idols and super idol nullifier nullifiers…I like to think I would pass on the offer. So if they asked me to play again, the answer would probably be…yes…then would ask why.
I still think it is one of the hardest things you can do. To win Survivor is an incredible accomplishment — for anyone, no matter their walk of life. I love the concept. I love the people it has touched. I love Survivor.