‘Survivor’ Challenge Producer Spills Some Challenge Secrets

If I were a “Survivor” contestant, I’d probably hate John Kirhoffer.

As the man behind all of “Survivor’s” immunity and reward challenges, Kirhoffer is the reason why Ace Gordon was smacked in the face with a watermelon, why Tom Westman had to cling to a pole for twelve hours, and why Ashley Trainer had to try to drink a disgusting sea slug smoothie. He can make a contestant’s life a living hell.

But, seeing as I get to sit on my couch and watch and laugh, I’d say I love John Kirhoffer.

I had a chance to speak with “Survivor’s” Challenge Producer during my trip to San Juan del Sur this past summer to find out which reality show stole his “Eat Weird Things” idea, who his dream contestant is, and what he’s got in store for the Nicaragua contestants.

Gordon Holmes: “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains” featured all classic challenges. Did that give you an opportunity to reload and come up with some new stuff for Nicaragua?
John Kirhoffer:
Yeah. I loved “Heroes vs. Villains.” That was one of my favorite seasons ever, for the record. And it was a good opportunity to do all classic challenges and to bring back our favorites. This year we’ve endeavored to try all different challenges. So, in old vs. young we have…mostly new challenges.
Gordon: Mostly?
John: (Laughs) There are a couple of classic challenges. My boss Mark (Burnett) loves classic challenges. So there are some classics, and some are reminiscent, but the vast majority are brand new.

Note: At this point a CBS representative had become enthralled with the interview process and decided to ask her own question.

CBS Representative: How do you incorporate all of the local flavor into the challenges?
Whenever we come to a location we study the history and the culture and the environment. The art department, the production designers start putting those elements in.
Gordon: Like this season’s Conquistador theme?
John: The Conquistador theme, we want to go with this theme because it’s very Nicaraguan. So, you’ll see this theme in the production design and then in some of the challenges. We always find out about the local sports and historic and cultural things and incorporate that into the challenges. Whatever country we go to we always use their history and culture in the production design and as inspiration for the challenges.
Gordon: Does the Nicaraguan terrain provide any advantages or disadvantages for creating challenges?
John: We’re doing the majority of the challenges down by a beach. There are some beautiful areas in there with some swamps, jungles, big trees. So yeah, it does help.

Gordon: Are there any contestants that you’re excited for this season?
John: I’m a huge NFL fan, so seeing Jimmy Johnson out there is exciting. Other than having Gene Simmons from KISS out there, Jimmy Johnson is about as big as it gets for me.
Gordon: Which NFL team do you pull for?
John: The Green Bay Packers.
Gordon: Oh, so you might be a little hard on Jimmy then?
John: (Laughs) No, he’s a legend.

Gordon: Speaking of legends, what can you tell me about “The Dream Team”?
The Dream Team are twenty young men and women between the ages of 18 and 30 who test and rehearse all of the challenges. They are my production assistants. And when they’re not testing challenges they’re working in the art department painting things, helping move things, assisting the carpenters. And they are a force of young men and women who are here to learn about making television. And one of my proudest achievements in “Survivor” for the last 11 years is that there are over 30 former Dream Teamers in full-time positions in this crew right now. And, a couple dozen more than that are out working in television. One of my Dream Teamers has an Emmy, he won an Emmy last year for cinematography, Marc Bennett (“Out Of The Wild: The Alaska Experiment: What Did I Sign Up For?”).
Gordon: Do you get part of their salary?
John: I get 25% of their salary for life. I’m like an agent. (Laughs) No, I don’t get anything. I get their eternal love…I hope.
Gordon: Is being a Dream Teamer the best summer job ever?
John: I would’ve killed to be a Dream Teamer when I was in college.

Gordon: My personal favorite challenges are the endurance challenges. It used to be, “Here, stand on this post and we’ll see you in twenty hours.” Are we going to be seeing anything like that in “Survivor: Nicaragua”?
You will not see anything that lasts twenty hours, but you will see some endurance challenges.

Gordon: My second favorite challenges are the “Eat Weird Things” challenges.
Gordon: Will we be seeing anything like that this season?
John: We have no “Eat Weird Things” scheduled for this season. We try to give it a break every once in a while. If you follow the show, we try to give the auction a break. It’s a staple of the show, but we want to give it a break. The “Eat Weird Things” challenge was great in the early days before “Fear Factor.” We came up with that. But, it also was generated with, “Here are things that indigenous people actually eat to survive on.” It was not just what can you eat without vomiting. And what happened was after about six seasons or so, we went to all these different regions, and it started to get repetitive. “Oh, they eat the same kinds of spiders here, they eat the same kind of bugs here and the same kinds of roaches.” Then we tried smoothies. We put them in a blender. But, we’re giving that a break this season.
Gordon: I don’t know if my recorder picked that up, but that was the sound of my heart breaking.
John: (Laughs) My aunt, too. She’s like, “Tell me they’re going to eat something weird! I love it when they eat weird stuff!”

Don’t Forget: “Survivor: Nicaragua” premieres Wednesday, September 15, 2010 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS. And yes, the rumors are true, “Survivor” is NOWonWED.

More “Survivor” Fun: Meet the La Flor and Espada Tribes, check out our Pre-Season “Survivor” Rankings, and see what new twists “Survivor” has in store for us.

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