Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Sean Kenniff defends his alphabetical voting strategy
With season 41 of Survivor delayed 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.
As part of the first season of Survivor, Sean Kenniff became an instant celebrity. While Richard Hatch became famous for winning the million dollars, Sue Hawk became famous for her "rat and snake" speech, and Greg Buis and Colleen Haskell became famous for the show's first-ever showmance, Sean became famous for something else entirely. No, not Superpole 2000… although that was completely awesome. No, Sean's claim to fame (or infamy, perhaps) was his… shall we say… unique voting strategy. But while people still may question it 21 years later, the good doctor insists there actually was a method to his madness.
"For the record, I do NOT regret voting for contestants in alphabetical order," Sean says. "It was far more strategic than most people think. After the tribes merged, the names of the Pagong Tribe were all at the front of the alphabet (Gretchen, Greg, Colleen, Gervase, Jenna), while the Tagi alliance names (Kelly, Rich, Rudy, Sue, and Sean) were all at the back end of the alphabet. So the alliance was not under attack. I thought the alphabet strategy would likely leave me as the last contestant standing against the Tagi alliance, which is exactly what happened. And the strategy gave the appearance of impartiality, which would have certainly helped me come jury time if I made it to the end."
That certainly is sound thinking. Unfortunately for Sean, he never made it to the end to find out if the strategy would have paid off. After Kelly Wiglesworth saved herself with a final 5 immunity challenge win, Sean was voted out by his fellow Tagis on day 36. Now, Sean looks back at the wild ride of being part of the Survivor: Borneo phenomenon, winning the first-ever Loved Ones visit, his makeshift bowling alley, and some of the gory details that never made it to TV.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
SEAN KENNIFF: It's been 20 years since I was on the first season of Survivor, and nearly everything has changed! It's been a constant adventure for me. I'm still a neurologist, and I work at two very busy hospitals. Like many other major hospitals, we got hit hard by COVID-19. It was a frightening and harrowing situation being on the frontlines of this pandemic, but thankfully things are finally looking better.
Immediately following Survivor, I reported for the syndicated TV show Extra!, and then for CBS News as a television health journalist for about eight or nine years. In 2010 I wrote two books, one of which was very well received by critics and readers. So that was a very cool experience.
In 2012, I married the most amazing woman, Esther. She is beautiful and brainy, and a little nutty. We have a lot of laughs together, and just enjoy hanging out with each other. We have three amazing kids. My wife actually used to watch me on Survivor, and always tells me that I was never her favorite! Our little family is the best thing that has ever happened to me — by far. Being a dad is the greatest joy a man can ever experience.
And then there's this: the Jerk at Work! My wife and I invented this ridiculously fun toy for adults at work. It's a holiday doll, kinda like the Elf on the Shelf, but way better, and way naughtier. Just Google it and you'll find it. Make sure to watch our video. I'm proud to say we made the BEST WORST infomercial ever, and I make a few cameos in it. We planned to launch the Jerk at Work in 2019, but then hit production delays out of our factory and we missed the holiday season. Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Offices shut down across the country, and so did all the fun. But in 2021, as people head back to work, you'll be hearing much more about the Jerk at Work. Since the Survivor fan base is so large and so loyal, I'm hoping they'll be pivotal to its success.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
I played the game as honestly as any contestant could play it, and I'm proud of that. I was an island on the island, standing in the middle of two opposing teams — just doing my own thing.
But my proudest moment was when I won the trivia challenge and became the very first Survivor contestant to win a family visit. I shared a night with my father aboard a luxury yacht in the middle of the South China Sea, on the nation's No. 1 television show, with 30-plus-million Americans watching! What a blessing it was to share my father with the world. My dad is a retired New York city firefighter, and a hero in every sense. Being able to share the Survivor experience with my dad was the best prize I could have ever won, even far better than the million bucks. That one experience was priceless for us both.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
I regret that I never finished making that bowling alley! We really needed to have more fun on Tagi beach. But my team (Tagi) threatened to vote me out if I finished it. So that dream had to die, LOL. I don't even enjoy bowling!
For the record, I do NOT regret voting for contestants in alphabetical order. It was far more strategic than most people think. After the tribes merged, the names of the Pagong Tribe were all at the front of the alphabet (Gretchen, Greg, Colleen, Gervase, Jenna), while the Tagi alliance names (Kelly, Rich, Rudy, Sue, and Sean) were all at the back end of the alphabet. So the alliance was not under attack. I thought the alphabet strategy would likely leave me as the last contestant standing against the Tagi alliance, which is exactly what happened. And the strategy gave the appearance of impartiality, which would have certainly helped me come jury time if I made it to the end.
Also for the record, I don't regret not joining the Tagi alliance.
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
I wouldn't say this would be mind-blowing, but Jenna and I were chosen as ambassadors to a summit before our tribes merged. After starving for several weeks, the wine and lobster wreaked havoc on my intestines. Jenna did fine, but I had terrible abdominal cramping with sudden unpredictable bouts of diarrhea, and the crew had to stop filming about 10-15 times so I could go to the bathroom. Thank God they did not air any of that! Fans used to ask why there was no romance between us that night. Well, now you know at least one good reason.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
Nailed it! With a caveat. I was portrayed as a nice guy but sort of hapless, harmless, naive, and essentially useless in the jungle. And that's mostly true. I certainly have many strengths, but honestly, none of my strengths are entertaining. None of your strengths are entertaining either. Only weaknesses and faults are fun and entertaining. Like most people, I'm most entertaining at my dumbest and silliest.
The casting directors do look for individuals and archetypes. They always cast a villain, a babe, a jock, mouthy types, etc.… They want viewers to relate to the contestants. The edits are not wholly accurate, because like all people, the Survivor contestants are impossibly complicated and nuanced. But I wouldn't call the edits inaccurate either. Accuracy is for NASA engineers. Survivor producers are making entertainment, not Mars orbiters.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
For sure it was culture shock returning from Borneo back to New York city. We were the first season of Survivor, it was the first reality show ever on network TV, and it was a cultural sensation. We were sudden celebrities, and I don't think any of us were prepared for that. It was fun to see the world from behind the velvet rope for a while and go to all the industry parties, movie premieres, make TV appearances, and hang out with truly famous celebrities. It was sure great for my dating life!
There were some clear downsides, though. You need to have thick skin (fortunately, I have it). There are a lot of mean and horrible people out there, and some of them have their own TV shows. You have to love yourself despite the enormous hate in the world, and sometimes when you're on reality TV, it is not easy.
It was also awkward because you still had to go back to your day job after everyone had been watching you for months on television. I'd be examining a patient, and they would want to talk about Survivor. Fame is only great if it comes with a lot of money, and, for most of us, it didn't.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
I'm horrible at keeping in touch. I trade messages with Sue, Joel, Gervase, and Jenna from time to time. Rich and I used to keep in touch more often for the first few years, but life has grown very busy for us both. I heard from Gretchen recently. Ramona is in a lot of our group chats. They're a great group of people, really. We're like a loosely knit family.
Do you still watch Survivor, and, if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
I watch from time to time but have not been able to watch entire seasons for more than 10 years (life is busy!). I would still say that Survivor: The Australian Outback was my favorite because it was still new, the game was still simple, and it was very dramatic.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
I would have loved to play with Rob Cesternino or Boston Rob because I think they'd keep me laughing the whole time. And with both of them having R names, they'd be safe from me and my alphabet strategy — at least for a while.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
I think it would be a great idea to conduct two separate but simultaneous Survivor shows in the same geographic area, and then later merge them. Kinda like a Super Survivor. You start with four tribes instead of two — eight contestants on each tribe. Like normal, two tribes compete in each game. However, the two tribes in each game are unaware of the other two tribes and the other game. The episodes air on separate days of the week.
Once down to the final 4 in each game, the remaining contestants of both games are surprised by yet another merger. Old strategies would need to be abandoned and new strategies quickly devised. I call this idea Survivor: Parallel Universes. A few years ago, some of us former contestants were asked by producers to suggest any ideas we had, so I sent them this idea. Crickets! I think it would be interesting to see if the same kind of people make it to the finals of both games. And then of course you would have the best players of both games competing against each other. The prize could be $2 million, and both games can be shown as a single super-season, instead of the traditional two seasons per year.
Just an idea, Mark? Jeff? Call me!
Finally, would you play again if asked?
No, I wouldn't play Survivor again, for several reasons. First, I would miss my kids terribly, and they would miss me. I realize plenty of other parents have competed on Survivor. But my kids are young, and they're growing so fast. I would not want to miss a single second of their lives.
Besides that, to be honest, I'm older, slower, my abs are long gone, and I certainly don't plan on starving myself or doing enough sit-ups to get me back on the beach, shirtless on national TV! Perhaps if there was a Survivor: Hardbods vs. Dadbods, I would think about it.
A return would never capture the essence and spirit of the very first season of Survivor. I had my day in the sun, and it was so wonderful. It's somebody else's turn. For me, fame is no longer seductive. It's not even an incentive. I'm far more content without it.
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