Meet the Genius Mind Behind ‘Survivor’s’ Wild Challenges

Typically when viewers think about Survivor, the first person to come to mind is the show’s dimpled host, Jeff Probst. He’s been a constant on the show since its inception, doling out immunity idols, scathing commentary, and uplifting words of encouragement to castaways for years. It’s almost impossible to imagine the show without him.

But, there’s another man who, behind the scenes, has also been with Survivor for years, and who makes sure everything runs smoothly. Without this man, Survivor wouldn’t be half as fun as it is today. His name is John Kirhoffer.

Kirhoffer has been dreaming up Survivor challenges since 2000. That’s 38 seasons of challenges pitting castaways against each other in ridiculous and sometimes excruciating ways. Suffice it to say, Kirhoffer absolutely loves his job.   

Working with the ‘Survivor’ family

Gavin Whitson and Eric Hafemann
Gavin Whitson and Eric Hafemann | Photo by Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images

Right now, Probst, Kirhoffer, and the rest of the Survivor team are filming Seasons 39 and 40. But Kirhoffer remembers what it was like when he first started working on Survivor.

“Season 1, I was offshore on a boat with Mark Burnett and he said to me, ‘John, this is going to be the biggest show in the world, and you and I are going to be working together for a long, long time. And I was like, ‘From your lips to God’s ears, Mark. That would be great.’ And this is our 20th year doing this show together,” said Kirhoffer in an interview with Huffington Post.

Kirhoffer went on to explain that the Survivor team is basically like a family. From the sound of it, he wouldn’t want to be working anywhere else.

“We spend more than half our lives on location, out of the country, and we’re a family,” explained Kirhoffer. “For me personally, you don’t get those homesick pains of isolation because so much of our crew has been there for so many years. Right down to Jeff. It’s just a friendly, loving, nurturing environment, which I think is a key reason we’re still chugging along.

How to make a successful challenge

David Wright, Lauren O'Connell, Dan "Wardog" Dasilva, and Kelly Wentworth
David Wright, Lauren O’Connell, Dan “Wardog” Dasilva, and Kelly Wentworth | Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images

As viewers can probably imagine, a lot more than meets the eye goes into making a successful Survivor challenge. It all starts with a scouting trip.

“We go out and do a scout to see what kind of landscape we have. Do we have big fields? Do we have rolling hills? Do we have flat water? Do we have waves? What kind of water clarity is there? Then, we come back to the States and we start putting together our challenges,” Kirhoffer explained.

According to Kirhoffer, it can take weeks for his team to invent and plan out all the details of a new challenge. The details are then sent to the art department, which constructs each challenge by hand, on-site.

Tested and approved by the Dream Team

Lauren O'Connell and Ron Clark
Lauren O’Connell and Ron Clark | Photo by Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images)

Kirhoffer’s challenges are subject to change right up until shooting begins for each season of Survivor. That’s where Kirhoffer’s “Dream Team” comes in.

Kirhoffer explained the process in an interview with TV Insider. “We come up with dozens of ideas, and eventually our ‘Dream Team’ — an elite crew of men and women — tests and retests them. Sometimes they don’t work. A couple times a season, [host] Jeff Probst jumps in and gives them a try. He loves it!”

Typically employees who make the Dream Team are young folks who are avid fans of the show. Either they have a connection with someone in production, or they’re the type to relentless send letters to Jeff Probst, asking to join the show.

Chris Marchand, a member of Kirhoffer’s department, explained, “What we do is hire 11 at least 21-year-old people and they live with us on the island. They rehearse every game to make sure it is fair, competitive and fun to watch, and they help us with figuring out all those little bits and pieces that we need to adjust.”

Sounds like an excellent gig. Kirhoffer’s outrageous challenges will surely continue to keep viewers on their toes for seasons to come.