Jeff Probst spent many a late night watching Johnny Carson host The Tonight Show when he was growing up, but he didn’t aspire to follow in the legend’s footsteps—at least not consciously. "I do remember as a kid watching what he did and how he talked to people and the way that they interacted, so there was probably something developing in my soul that was leaning me toward hosting," Probst muses. "But I just fell into it."
Probst’s interest in being on camera was first sparked when he was working at a Seattle company that produced marketing videos in the 1980s. He had landed a job there as a production assistant fresh out of college and worked his way up the ladder. When he finally got a chance to produce his first video, he had to hire a host, and while filling out the talent’s AFTRA contract, Probst saw that the guy was going to get paid $500 for a day of work. "I thought, ‘What? That’s more than I’m going to make this month!’ So I asked my boss if I could hire myself the next time, and he said yeah," Probst recalls.
Probst was a natural, and before long he was the face of numerous corporate videos. He eventually graduated to television, and his first notable gig was hosting Backchat, a show on FX that had him reading and answering viewer mail live on air. He went on to emcee the VH1 series Rock & Roll Jeopardy!
But it was Survivor, now in its 25th season on CBS, that made Probst a pop culture icon. It’s impossible to even imagine anyone else uttering the words, "The tribe has spoken."
While Probst’s work on Survivor has won him four Primetime Emmys, and he remains passionate about the show, he began testing his skills in daytime talk this fall as host of the nationally syndicated The Jeff Probst Show.
Probst took some time during a break in taping his talk show to offer advice for those who want to break into the business of hosting for television.
You have to be yourself because that’s the only thing that separates you from anyone else. You also have to rely on your instincts, your gut. If you’re not comfortable being yourself, and you don’t know yourself well enough, then that’s the thing you have to figure out before you can actually host because you’re going off your gut most of the time, especially if it’s a live situation with an interview.
The greatest gift that I got was my first two big jobs. One was at FX back when FX was a live cable channel. It was a network, but it was live television all day. The guy that ran the place, the executive producer Peter Faiman, his direction was, "Try something, and if it works, do it again tomorrow, and if it doesn’t, try something else." So that was my first job. I was told, "Just be yourself, and follow your instincts."
Then I get Survivor, and Mark [Burnett, the executive producer] says to me, "I’ve hired you because I think you know the story I want to tell. Now go tell it." He never second-guessed me, and I know there were times where he would see Tribal Council and probably cringe at the question I was asking, or was yearning for me to ask a different question. But he never said anything, and what he fostered was incredible confidence that I was doing it right whether I was or not. And that allowed my instinct to grow.
I’m noticing in daytime that the parts of myself I love to access on Survivor, I can’t necessarily use on daytime because daytime has a different filter system. On Survivor, we’re telling epic adventures full of heroes and villains, and it’s Shakespearean often. What’s usually running through my head is, "Who is the hero at this moment, and who is the goat? Who is the underdog? Who is the villain?" Those are the stories you’re trying to tell. And in that sense, the show lets you access a wide variety, a lot of different parts of yourself, which is why it’s so freeing. On one hand you can say, "Are you out of your mind? That makes no sense!" Then you can turn just as quickly to somebody and say, "Are you okay because I see tears in your eyes? What’s happening?" So you can be empathetic, and you can be a destroyer. It’s why Survivor is an incredible gig for me.
With daytime, you have to shut down parts of yourself and then open up others. What I’m really learning in daytime—honestly, as we talk right now, I’m still in the process of learning it—is I’m sort of teaching myself some new instincts because it’s a different world.
For instance, if I want to say the word "naughty," I can say that if I’m talking about Santa Claus and whether you’ve been naughty or nice. But saying it in regards to somebody’s sex life, we have to think about that. That drives me crazy as it’s not my instinct. My instinct is to say, "We all have a sex life, don’t we? And it’s fun to have a little naughty in your bedroom, isn’t it?"
I’d like to say that, but, well, it’s daytime.
So these are examples of trying to find the voice of the show. The comparison between Survivor and daytime, it’s been a massive learning experience for me to access new parts of myself and see if I can find an authentic voice in daytime.
I’ve learned from people calling me out in interviews. Over the years on Survivor, if I get lazy, and I make a statement to somebody like, "Boy, you guys really blew it at today’s challenge," it’s a lazy interview. Sometimes I get away with it, and people go, "Well, Jeff, here’s what happened…" Other times, people go, "Is there a question?" Then I go, "Oh, damn, okay."
So you’re always learning, and you’re always being challenged.
I think you also have to put yourself on the sofa of the person at home who is watching and ask yourself, "What do they want to know?" Your curiosity may be in line with the audience, and it may not be. There are definitely times on the talk show where I could ask the actors a whole series of questions that I’d be interested in, but instead I access a different part of myself. I think, "What if I’m at home with a bag of chips and a soft drink watching Survivor?" Or in the case of daytime, "I have two kids. I’m on Facebook. I’m making dinner, and I’m watching this show."
Put yourself in the spot of the audience. Ask what they’re thinking, what they want to know.
It’s [Dancing With the Stars host] Tom Bergeron’s job to find funny moments within the Q&A between the dancer and the judges, and he’s brilliant at it. It doesn’t seem like he’s doing anything as he’s just standing there, but what he’s doing is listening, and he’s looking for an opportunity to either shut up and let the moment play out, or to jump in and milk the moment.
It’s the same on Survivor. Probably about five years ago, I was getting bored, and I decided, "Okay, I’ve got to find a way to make Tribal Council interesting again to me." So I decided I was going to say less and listen more and really push it. We don’t have the time in an episode to fully show what goes on at Tribal, but I don’t hesitate now to ask a question and let the person answer, and then do the oldest interviewing trick in the world, which is to just keep staring, and I’ll stare to the point where someone will uncomfortably laugh, and then they’ll say, "What?" Then I still won’t say anything. "What do you want? Did I not say enough? Look, I’m not going to pick a fight. The reason I don’t like her…" And before you know it, they’re saying that thing they shouldn’t have said.
You know, I listen to Howard Stern a lot, and I marvel at his fearlessness in interviewing. I know a little about him personally, and I know that he’s a really nice guy. He’s genuinely loyal, and he’s in love with his wife, and he’s a good dad. But when you’re in his studio, it’s "I’m going to get everything from you, Probst," which is why I never want to be a guest.
He follows his instincts. He milks moments. If you make a little aside like, "But that’s back when I was single, and my days were crazy—anyway, my kids…," he’ll go, "Wait. Wait. Wait a minute! How crazy did it get?"
Oh dude, the hook is in, and now you’re in trouble.