Survivor host JEFF PROBST looks back on 20 seasons of TV’s ultimate popularity contest.

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SURVIVOR has come a long way since Sue Hawk’s legendary rat-versus-snake speech that led to Richard Hatch being crowned the show’s first winner in 2000. Currently airing its milestone 20th season, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, the groundbreaking reality show has seen more than 300 contestants, numerous Tribal Councils and countless blindsides.

Yet for all of the show’s unpredictability, its resiliency in an era of television when some shows last only one episode is largely due to the comfort viewers find in its predictable-yet-essential tropes. Survivor wouldn’t be Survivor without its signature opening or catchphrases such as “The tribe has spoken.” And it wouldn’t be the same without Jeff Probst, the show’s Emmy-winning ringmaster, color commentator and referee. Probst takes a break from tallying the votes to reflect on a decade of contestants outwitting, outplaying and outlasting each other.

What sticks out in your mind as you look back on the show’s run?
I remember reading the vote in [season one] announcing that Richard Hatch was the winner, and I remember him putting his hands in his face, and it was a conclusion of this giant experiment that we had no idea if anybody was going to watch. It was the last moment of innocence for us. Once we released it, it became the audience’s show.

Is there anything that still surprises you after all these years?
We had it last season with Russell [Hantz, the runner-up of Survivor: Samoa and a contestant this season]. It was our 19th season, and what emerged was one of the most notorious villains and one of the most creative players ever. He was the first person to ever go look for an immunity idol without a clue. He was the first person to burn somebody’s socks and empty his own tribe’s canteens. The show continues to reinvent itself just with who we put on.

Are you surprised by things that contestants still don’t consider coming in?
It’s amazing to me that more people don’t go to their local adventure store and buy a flint and steel and shave off some magnesium and [learn] to make a fire. I don’t think you can anticipate how hard Survivor’s going to be, so common sense would tell you it’s not that we have 300-some people who just didn’t consider that. The average American is so thin-skinned. People think of dehydration and they think, I went hiking this weekend. I forgot to take my water. I was so dehydrated. No, you were thirsty.

Why do players continually fail to vote out the obvious big threat?
It’s easy to backseat drive when you know everything, watching at home. In the game, you have different relationships. Even though a guy might be a threat to win, he’s your ally and you have his vote, so you’re thinking, If I get rid of him, he can’t win the game, but I’m now down a vote. You make a decision to trust somebody, and you’re either right or you’re wrong, and it can be a million-dollar decision.

How would Jeff Probst do on Survivor?
It’s easy to talk when you know you’re never going to do it. I’d probably last a while because I think I know enough to not get in the way. I’ll go where the vote is. The thing that would get in my way is when I’m not eating, I get irritable and irritating, and I say things I regret. That’s one of the biggest obstacles: keeping control of yourself when you’re out of your comfort zone.

Ramblin’ Man

After living in numerous remote locations, Jeff Probst has become accustomed to life on the road. He gave us the scoop on his travels.

On the challenges of Survivor living:
The big key when traveling for Survivor is how to make location feel like home. Typically, if we’re in a hotel, it’s just a room with a toilet and a shower, but it’s yours and it’s private. If not, we’re in these tent situations, which changes everything because you’re not living with the creature comforts you’re used to.

On the highlights of his travels:
I took a personal trip after Survivor: China, where seven of us slept on the Great Wall of China, and we were the only seven people on the wall. We were calling everybody we knew, saying, “Do you know there are seven people on the Great Wall of China tonight, and I’m one of them?”

On his top travel tips:
Have a kit that has shampoo and that stuff in containers so you don’t have to worry about [their being] over three ounces. I either check everything or I check nothing. If I’m going on a quick trip, I put everything in the smallest suitcase I can. If I’m going all the way to Africa, I put everything in suitcases and just take a book [on the plane].