Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Jonathan Penner on being a 'pain in the ass' on the show
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.
Jonathan Penner was a super entertaining Survivor player. And never was he ever more entertaining than when mixing it up with Jeff Probst. Which is why it's no surprise that Penner has stories from his Survivor days of more good-natured taunts between the contestant and host that didn't make it to air, including the time Probst announced, "Penner, you are a real pain in the ASS!"
That's just one of the stories Penner shares in his Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire. Penner may have been deemed a "pain in the ass," but he also was a fan favorite thanks to his entertaining confessionals, blunt assessments, and deep love of the game.
While this reporter thought there was a good chance Penner might be voted out first on Survivor: Cook Islands after being embedded with the contestants before the game started, the actor and writer made it all the way to day 33 and proved to be so popular he was brought back twice more on Survivor: Micronesia (where he was medically evacuated on day 15 due to an infected knee) and Survivor: Philippines (where he turned down a final four deal that could have taken him all the way, and his torch was snuffed on day 30).
Now, Penner — whose emotional family struggle with ALS turned into a Survivor fandom rallying cry and storyline on Winners at War due to Yul Kwon returning to raise awareness about the disease — relives his epic three-season (as opposed to three-day) Survivor run, and it's as entertaining as you would expect.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
JONATHAN PENNER: Well, it's been nine years, so that's what? 3,000 days or so. Hmm. That first Monday, I had In 'n' Out burger and went to the movies. The next day was a Tuesday. I think I had to go to the DMV…. There were lots of little things like that, but the two biggest events, were making a horror movie starting in about 2014, The Bye Bye Man, which is now considered one of the top 5 movies ever released on January 6, 2017.
And then later that year, my wife started getting sick and finally was diagnosed with ALS in December 2017. I spent from then until her death this past January as her primary caregiver. So I've seen some serious highs and lows. Right now, I'm just trying to figure out who the hell I am and what my place is in the world as a single dad, widowered after 30 amazing years with my partner and the love of my life.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
I have a couple of proud memories. Playing really hard and having as much fun as possible. Making friends with Yul, a truly spectacular human and friend. Lasting long enough for my wife to join me and compete, though we lost to fierce Parvati and her dad. Winning individual immunity once, when I needed it most. Fishing like a caveman. Bringing the word "bollocks" to American TV.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experiences?
Not winning. In Micronesia, I got injured and let the medical team handle it poorly. I didn't know how to advocate for myself. And in the Philippines, when I had finally fought my way into a great position, I blew it. I was so exhausted I didn't focus just when I needed to most. My regrettable bad.
What's something that will blow fans minds that happened out there in one of your seasons but never made it to TV?
Beside the Ponderosa shenanigans? And my secret love affair with Artis Silvester? (Actually, we are just good friends.) I guess, there was that once, during a pole climbing challenge in Cook Islands when I was out immediately. (Yul said my inability to climb the pole was like why elephants can't climb trees, a very nice analogy for my body, thank you, Yul.) Anyway, Mark Burnett's kids were there visiting on the island and his daughter, an adorable kid of maybe 6 or something was sitting nearby, out of camera range, licking a lollipop. I tried to get her to give it to me.
Maybe they thought I was creepy, as I was actually saying, "Hey, little girl, please give me your candy!"… or maybe because they realized Penner suddenly having a lolly in his mouth would look weird as hell on camera… or maybe they just realized having a little kid torture a grown man who hadn't had a bite to eat in 20 days was too cruel and unusual a punishment, but for whatever reason, they whisked her away from the area, much to her and my chagrin. All I got was Jeff saying, "Penner, you are a real pain in the ASS!"
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
Great. Did they need to include quite so much burping and farting on the day they voted me off of Cook Islands? Probably not. Could I have given Jeff even more playful hell? Absolutely, he gave even better than he took. But for the most part, it was fair and funny and I came across pretty much as I am: a loud, abrasive, sensitive, athletic, nerd, idiot, loser, family man.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
It was hard in a lot of ways, honestly. Stacy always laughed because the first night back I got into bed and said, "Wow, you got new sheets." They were SO soft. They weren't new, I'd just been sleeping in dirt.
I still walk around barefoot all the time. Drive barefoot too. I kind of hate all the tech we're addicted to now, it's too much for a species designed to be together, huddled and listening for threats and beauty. Also, I looked so sick and skinny when I returned from Cook Islands, a friend of ours almost threw up. She didn't know where I'd been and assumed I was dying of something. I looked like hell.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Regretted, no. I thought right after I came out of the game in Cook Islands, though, that I was for sure going to be portrayed as the villain and as a despicable ass. The psychologist there laughed and said she thought I had helped make the season memorable and was going to come off well. I guess we were both right. And I regret not playing better. I just made a number of terrible mistakes.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your seasons?
Well, I'm in touch constantly with Yul. We've been good friends now for 15 years. (I have mentored him a little — you can see the results in his pre-merge boot from WatW!) No, he and I are great friends and he fought so hard for Stacy and advocated for her, for my family, and for everyone suffering with ALS. A real mensch.
Tina and I have become close, but really, I like everyone. Billy and Candice, Mike Holloway, Max and Tyler, Tony and Michele, Ethan, Shirin, Bob Dawg… and honestly so many people on the show, in production, at CBS and especially among the fans have reached out to me around Stacy's brave fight and her passing. It's been amazingly touching and very, very helpful. She really touched the world.
Do you still watch Survivor, and, if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
I still watch it, I guess Winners at War, because I got to see Yul and Denise and with him leading the way we were able to raise hundreds of thousands for ALS. It was also just incredible gameplay, Natalie was tremendous and Tony was amazing. I couldn't follow all the Fire Token economics of it, though, but that's because I'm old and mentally feeble.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
Probably Wanda, as I know I could beat her. Though I like Tina and Ethan a lot. I am undecided on this question.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
Nah, the producers are much smarter than me. There's a reason the show's been on for 20 years and counting. My ideas would be regressive and dull. I'm not saying all the changes have always been for the better, but somehow the show has been able to evolve and stay relevant. And now, hopefully with even more inclusive casting, it will reflect America as we truly are, and appeal to an even broader audience. They're doing just fine without my help. Though a "Penner Wins" season might be appealing. To the fans of course.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
Sure, I would. Watching me lumbering around like the Mummy might not be too pretty, but why not? I'm a firm believer in opening the door when opportunity knocks. I may need a few minutes to REACH the door, but when I get there, I'll open it, dammit! Cheers.