SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

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.

John Cochran did not stand a chance in hell of winning Survivor: Caramoan, and I told him exactly that right before the game began. After all, who in their right mind would want to align with the guy after he betrayed his entire alliance by refusing to go to rocks in the recently aired Survivor: South Pacific, ensuring not only their destruction but his own.

So, naturally, after being told there was no point in even going out and playing, not only did Cochran go and win Caramoan, but he did so in epic fashion — completing a perfect game with zero votes cast against him all season while also receiving every single jury vote for the win. It's a feat matched by only one other player in Survivor history, J.T. Thomas in Tocantins. (Jeremy Collins received three voted against him in Cambodia that were voided by a Hidden Immunity Idol.)

But other than one super awkward reward visit as well as biannual Reunion show appearances, Cochran has not returned to the series that made him a household (last) name since his epic season 26 triumph, including a notable absence in the all-champion Winners at War edition. What gives? Will the world's most famous red sweater vest model ever return to the island?

In his Quarantine Questionnaire, Cochran explains exactly why his days getting sunburned in the South Pacific are a thing of the past. Not only that, but the TV writer reveals why he regrets his "needlessly snarky" Survivor interviews, opens up about overcoming his "embarrassing weakness," and gets into why Jeff Probst once told him to shut up. It's an insightful and entertaining look back from a true legend of the game.

John Cochran
Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Images

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.

JOHN COCHRAN: Apart from sitting in the audience at like every reunion show? The best thing to come out of playing Survivor — better than winning, or even doing tai chi with Coach — was that it gave me the opportunity to pursue an exciting new career. When I appeared on the show, I was a diligent but directionless law student without a clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life. It wasn't until Jeff Probst encouraged me to consider writing that I ever thought about doing it professionally.

After Jeff brought it up on the Caramoan finale, Greg Garcia (creator of My Name is Earl, Raising Hope, and more) reached out to CBS and offered me my first television writing job. That was over seven years ago, and I've been doing it ever since! I recently finished up work on the second season of Star Trek: Lower Decks, alongside fellow Survivor nervous nellie David Wright. It's been some of the most fulfilling fun I've ever had, and it never would've happened without Survivor.

What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?

This may be a slight cop-out answer, but just the fact that I even did it in the first place. Those who know me are aware how difficult it is for me to find the energy to get out of bed, let alone participate in a grueling televised outdoor survival competition. I spend most of my time coming up with complex mental flow-charts of worst-case scenarios and reasons why I shouldn't do something or go somewhere. So when I think back on 23-year-old me, I'm proud of myself for momentarily pushing down all those anxieties, propping my cell phone against a lamp in my apartment, and recording my audition video so that I could be a part of something I've loved for a long time.

If that's too much of a cop-out, my in-game answer would probably be how I performed at final Tribal Council. A few months before I played Survivor, I had to do a moot court oral argument for law school and got very negative feedback from the faculty panel. It really made me question my talent for lawyering and, more generally, public speaking. I knew I could respond to producer prompts in interviews with silly narration, or jokingly evade Probst's probing questions at Tribal Council, but was much less confident about being taken seriously by a jury of my peers.

Coupled with my inane gloating about writing a paper on Survivor juries, I felt a ton of self-imposed pressure and stress heading into final Tribal. Some other unfortunate stuff ended up dominating the proceedings, so my performance is ultimately kind of forgettable on a Survivor macro level. But just on a personal level, I was proud to succeed at something I'd very recently considered an embarrassing weakness.

What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experiences?

How do I pick just one regret?! I definitely regret being needlessly snarky about other contestants in some interviews. It's a funny, cathartic thing to do when you're out there trying to make a cameraman laugh, but then you go home and realize your throwaway zingers can become hurtful, experience-defining memes for other players. So I wish I'd strictly directed any snark at myself, which is my natural instinct anyway.

More abstractly, I regret not intentionally taking the time to step back and fully absorb the experience I was having out there, rather than spending every private moment worrying about who had an idol or whether everyone secretly hated me and wanted to blindside me. After the whole Survivor rollercoaster is over, the memories that really stick with you aren't strategy/challenge highlight reels, but the little things that happen during the long stretches of time when it feels like there's nothing to do and nowhere to go.

In Caramoan, I was on the same beach all 39 days, and for the entire time there was this one bird that periodically sang a melody identical to the chorus of "Ease on Down the Road" from The Wiz. I think way more about that bird these days than I do about blindsides or challenge stats, and I wish I'd consciously collected more of those memories.

What's something that will blow fans minds that happened out there in one of your seasons but never made it to TV?

One of the coolest parts of being on Survivor is that you get to keep the treemail parchment. There's always some negotiating among players about who gets to keep which ones, but a challenge winner generally gets to have their corresponding message. So when I won the gross food challenge in Caramoan, I was very excited that I'd have a treemail message of my own (especially since I wasn't optimistic about my chances of winning any future challenges that didn't involve eating gross food).

Unfortunately, later that day, someone used the parchment as kindling for the fire back at camp. I was pretty bummed; I already had a spot picked out for where I wanted to frame it. A few days later, our next challenge was "Last Gasp" — that torturous one where players float on their backs in the ocean, faces pressed against a steel grate, struggling to breathe as the tide rises. It's a challenge that takes a while and has some downtime where you're just idly floating around before it actually gets difficult.

It was during that time that I explained to Probst my situation with the gross food treemail, and how much it would mean to me if the challenge department could print another copy for me to keep as a souvenir. With my ears fully submerged underwater, I could still make out Probst's muffled "Shut up, Cochran." So I did and meekly resumed drowning myself.

Survivor: Caramoan - Fans vs. Favorites
Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS/Getty Images

How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?

I mean, in my everyday life, I usually don't enter rooms accompanied by awkward didgeridoo sounds and shots of exotic wildlife rolling their eyes at me. But really, probably the most difficult aspect of Survivor is that when you play, you have this amazing experience that is so clear and so personal to you. And then the moment it's over, your personal story is handed over to an incredible production team that has to juggle your story with 19 others, all while making it part of a suspenseful and entertaining 40-minute television program. Inevitably, the end result is a depiction of yourself and your experience that doesn't feel exactly like what you know and remember. And worst of all, now that's the version of you the whole country knows! It can be a very frustrating and helpless feeling, especially on social media.

I had the kind of unusual experience of being on two seasons filmed only a year apart, but with two very different outcomes and edits. Watching my first season, it definitely sometimes felt like a montage of every embarrassing thing I said or did, paired with decontextualized footage of tribemates cringing at what a bizarre dork I am. It wasn't always fun to watch and kept me from hosting viewing parties that season. One of the bigger reliefs about winning a year later was that I knew it probably meant my most embarrassing moments would be left on the cutting room floor. I allowed myself to enjoy watching Caramoan more, even if it was peeking through my fingers. 

It's difficult to complain about edits because obviously players are the ones responsible for what they say and do on the show. But it's worth remembering that everyone who participates on Survivor, or any other reality show, is infinitely more complex than however they're presented for the few minutes viewers get to know them over the course of a season. Heroes aren't necessarily always heroes, and Villains more often than not aren't really villains.

But that's a long, very complainy way of saying that I don't have any major complaints about either of my edits. I think overall they captured my Survivor journey accurately, entertainingly, and movingly! I mean, first episode of South Pacific I say insecurity is my greatest weakness and am afraid to take off my shirt. Caramoan premiere I literally shed my skin (sunburn!) and in final Tribal Council say insecurity is my greatest strength. Come on, that's a pretty great arc. How can I complain about that edit?

What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?

I never really experienced the side effects of continuing to sleep on the floor or hiding snacks around my apartment, which I know sometimes happens. I do remember, the day after Caramoan's final Tribal Council, I went around Ponderosa and the airport mentally cataloging every modern convenience I swore I'd never take for granted again. The ability to easily retrieve ice-cold beverages from a giant glowing box! Resting your head on a pillow that isn't also a canteen! Toothpaste! My gratitude rush was sadly over by the end of the week, but it was a pretty magical feeling while it lasted.

Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?

After my first time, I'm not sure I necessarily regretted playing, but I felt very disappointed in myself and embarrassed by my performance. I'd backed out last minute from a competitive summer job at the Department of Justice to play that season, and to return home knowing I'd potentially jeopardized my legal career in exchange for some night-vision footage of me being called disgusting was extremely hard for me to process.

Fortunately, I didn't have much time for processing, since I was back on the island only a few months after the finale, and my derailed legal career ended up miraculously re-railing onto a much more exciting track. I'm someone who can't end a single day without accumulating a new list of regrets, but playing Survivor definitely isn't one of them.

Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your seasons?

Dawn and I check in with each other once or twice a year for hours-long catch-up sessions, and we always manage to fall back into an effortless rapport. Across two seasons, Dawn and I played together *on the same tribe* for 66 days. Twenty-four hours a day, to be clear. That's a long time, especially under such intense, stressful circumstances, so you get to know each other very well in a very unique way. It's a special psychospiritual bond we'll always have. Also, she was the only other person to recognize the "Ease on Down the Road" birdsong.

I regularly text (and recently did weekly Winners at War Zoom viewing parties) with Sophie, who's become a very close friend despite our fraught origin story. I, the dodgeball target, gave a speech at her wedding rehearsal dinner!  Andrea is another really good friend I've stayed in touch with and hope to visit in Wisconsin when society exists again. And most locally, Edna and I cross paths every so often, eager to relive our Snickers feasts from Ponderosa.

Also, hey, Stephen Fishbach — Dalton says I'm only supposed to mention people from my seasons, so I'm sorry, but congratulations to you and Julia on baby Margot!

Last Push
Credit: CBS

Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?

Of course, I still watch! I've even recently branched out into Australian and South African Survivor as part of a Zoom club with some friends, which has been really fun. We're also watching 2007's Kid Nation (rewatching in my case, tragically), which is somewhat less fun.

For my favorite season, I'll go with China. The cast was incredible, the location was exciting and integrated into challenges in cool ways, amazing logo, and a fun blend of good and bad gameplay that culminated in a very satisfying winner. Plus I'm a sucker for a great final Tribal Council, and while I wrote an essay on handling Survivor juries, Todd's who wrote the book. So it'll always be a favorite of mine. But ask me on another day and I'll say Pearl Islands, or Heroes vs. Villains, or South Africa season 6.

Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?

Cirie! I always tend to root for players I can relate to, and from the moment Cirie expressed a fear of leaves in the premiere of Survivor: Panama, I was all in. Plus, when it comes to actually playing Survivor, the vast majority of your time out there isn't spent hunting for idols or coming up with crazy voting strategies — it's just sitting around, talking, trying to pass the time in as pleasant a way as possible. And so beyond having a next-level strategic mind, Cirie just seems like she'd be fun to talk to. I've still never met her, which has only made her grow in mythological stature for me.

Other answer is Sandra. I'm happy to be a jester in her royal court if it means we get to hang out on the sit-out bench together.

If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?

There's not much I can say that hasn't already been discussed by previous respondents or, in the case of the Soul Survivors Organization and Black Survivor Alliance, what's already been accomplished. It's hard to overstate how huge and important the commitments they got are, and I think it'll have an impact felt well beyond Survivor.

I guess my main suggestions for change would be with an eye towards better preparing contestants for what to expect and how to handle the scrutiny and criticism they'll receive when the show airs. Even though signing up for a reality television show carries with it the assumption of the risk that you're going to deal with online haters, I know I wasn't ready for the sheer quantity, intensity, and longevity of the haterade.

I certainly didn't anticipate that almost ten years after first playing, I'd still receive many messages every week explaining what an ugly, spineless coward I am. The insults eventually lose their impact just through repetition but remain an unpleasant, persistent toothache in your inbox. And I know I can't be anywhere close to getting the worst of this stuff compared to other contestants.

I thought it was really great that season 40 openly addressed the difficulty experienced by players post-show and the psychological toll it takes — and these were firefighters and officers and Marines saying this, not a fragile nerd like me! So I'm hopeful that Survivor (and reality television more broadly) will work to help future participants navigate the post-show experience, especially online. Maybe a Survivor "scared straight" program where I come in and let applicants scroll through my DMs? 

Finally, would you play again if asked?

No, but it's not out of a diminished love for the show (which is best enjoyed when you're able to watch it purely as a fan and not as someone eyeing up competition while plotting a return appearance). I was a law student on summer vacation the last two times I played; doing it now would be significantly more disruptive to my job and nervous system. And, in any case, I'm at peace with and truly grateful for how my Survivor journey ended: hugging Debbie on a boat in episode 5 of Game Changers.

To keep track of our daily Survivor Quarantine Questionnaires and get all the latest updates, check out EW's Survivor hub, and follow Dalton on Twitter.

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SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"

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