Jonathan Penner has played 80 days in the game of Survivor, one of the few players who has had the opportunity to play three times. It wasn’t a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, but Penner definitely made the most out of this last (and final?) performance.
Starting out with a major target on his back as one of three returning players, Penner quickly found his tribe’s hidden Immunity Idol, working his way towards the top of the Kalabaw tribe. After being betrayed, Penner was able to will his way through the game, only recently feeling like he had reached a resting place.
But in Survivor, one can never feel safe. Penner’s major flaw was in not agreeing to be a part of Lisa and Skupin’s Final 4 alliance, a move that seems to be an odd rookie mistake for such a veteran player. This error was a fatal one, but some point to Penner’s earlier move – casting a throwaway vote for Abi that could have kept Jeff Kent in the game – as where his game ultimately shifted.
Jonathan Penner is and has been one of my personal favorite contestants on the show and he definitely furthered his legacy within the game. He may not have won in three chances, but he is among the most entertaining people to ever have played the game.
I spoke with Jonathan today about his most recent experience on Survivor, his future and for some insight on his puzzling strategic mistakes.
So how do you feel things would have worked out had you agreed to join in an alliance with Lisa and Skupin?
Jonathan Penner: I have no idea how it would have worked out, honestly. I assume that Lisa and Skupin would have felt as obligated to me as they did to Malcolm and Denise, you know, having shaken their hands. You know, shaking hands means a lot to those people. It means a lot to me. And that’s why I didn’t just blithely do that with them and make a commitment that I was not prepared to make and blow some smoke up their ass. That’s what they needed to have happened. You know I had never lied to them in the game and I was not prepared to start. Obviously I should have.
Do you think that the six of you dropped your guard a bit with Abi, heading into the food auction?
I guess we did, I mean obviously we did. I thought that I was in a better position than I was, everyone else knew they were in the position that they were in and quite honestly I didn’t think of their being some kind of specific advantage that Abi might afford herself. So drop our guard? I guess we did. Assuming she was going home was a dangerous thing to do.
What’s your take with the bias that players seem to have towards returning players?
I think it’s a little simplistic. I think when folks go into a game with a set of assumptions, it can be very dangerous. Certainly you can go very far hitching your wagon to a returning player. We know a lot. We have a lot of experience and can go far because we have big targets on our back and we need strong allies.
You had an interesting relationship with Jeff Kent in the game, where he really wanted you out of the game but also at times seemed close with you. Could you have gone further into the game had you and Jeff made a stronger alliance together?
Absolutely. I hoped to go to the end with him. What we had talked about, I didn’t realize until I watched the show that he had kind of poisoned the well against me with the other members of Kalabaw. I saw him as a likely ally. He’s a real alpha male and I’m not necessarily a beta male myself, but I also recognized that I needed him and he was a hell of a competitor, a real bright guy and we worked really, really well together and got along. I was certainly hopeful that our alliance would work out. But I do think that we went on to the merge beach – even though the edit of the episode made it clear that he was gunning for me – I don’t really think so much that that was the case. I think once he saw that Denise was more loyal to Malcolm, that the numbers were not going to work out for any of us, really. That he had to make it clearer to the Tandang people that he wasn’t really aligned with me. I think he was trying to save himself, and did for one vote.
A few episodes back you had an interesting conversation with Lisa about story-telling, and how the audience would view her “story,” positively or negatively based on her decisions. How much of that was genuine and how much of that was game play?
It was all of those things. In Survivor, things are complicated just as they are in life. Just like I’m talking to you now open and honestly, we’re also doing this for your business and my publicity and all of that stuff. So me and Lisa were having an open and honest conversation, we have a wonderful connection and I needed to sway her. I was very pleasantly surprised that they left that in. I let her know that if she made the flip, the audience was going to be cheering and if she didn’t make the flip, they’d be disappointed. Now was that manipulative? Of course. Was it true? Of course.
How did this exit compare to being medically evacuated from the game or your prior time on the island?
(Laughs) Well, being medically evacuated was much tougher. It was unbelievably frustrating, excruciatingly painful I must say, and also very frightening. It led to a whole adventure in and of itself with surgery in Palau and rehab. It was a quite mortifying and terrible way to leave the game. This was much less mortifying. I basically played the game I wanted to play, clearly I made a mistake in not lying to Lisa when I needed to, when she needed me to make a commitment to her.
We all know how much Lisa valued her word, but why do you feel Skupin didn’t go along with your last effort to sway him to keep you in the game?
You’ll have to ask Skupin if you get the chance, I honestly don’t know. I honestly did everything under the sun to convince him including him rightly telling him that he had a better chance to win against me. He may have just been tired of going back and forth. I explained to him that at least at the time, he had put himself in a bad spot with the jury, and by voting me off he’d be in a bad spot with me on the jury. I couldn’t really see how he would get enough votes. We’ll find out if he proves me wrong, but nobody wants to be told that they can’t win the game. You may go to the end, but you have not played a winning game. You’ve played a staying alive game.
Did it ever occur to you to use Lisa’s secret – her identity as a former TV star – against her in order to keep yourself in the game?
We weren’t the only ones who knew. In fact, Denise had told me, I didn’t know. I certainly let Lisa believe that I did know. By the time I met her, I did know. But when we first had gotten on the beach I did not recognize her, I had never and have never seen one episode of “The Facts of Life.” Just like I didn’t know Jeff Kent was a baseball player. Did I ever consider using that against her? No. I honestly didn’t. Nor did I ever consider betraying some of the other stuff she told me in confidence.
What has surprised you the most this season watching it on TV?
It surprised me that Jeff had poisoned the well so early and so effectively. I could not figure out why I wasn’t able to get any traction with any of the other players to align with me. Me and Jeff really got along well, unfortunately none of that was really shown. I do believe that we would have gone far. I was surprised last night to see how quickly Skupin had decided to vote me off. I had never quite figured out why they would have wanted to vote for me first instead of Carter. They must have determined that I was too big a threat…or too big an a$$hole, I don’t know.
You pride yourself on being an excellent story-teller. Do you feel that your story this season was accurately portrayed?
Yes, accurately and kindly. I’m sure there were some other scenes that they could have shown. Actually there were some scenes with my fat ass and like some doingy, doingy kind of music as I was looking for the Idol, but other than that. It was probably deserved since especially at that point I had a fat ass. I think I was fairly and kindly portrayed, so that was cool.
There were rumors that you had been considered for the “Heroes vs. Villains” season but that if fell through?
That was definitely my understanding. I certainly was in training to do it. They weren’t calling it “Heroes vs. Villains,” it was just some kind of an all-star season. While they were shooting Samoa, or whatever Russell Hantz’s first season was, they said, you know what? There is a guy out there on the island right now that the producers think would be unbelievable and it’s going to be him if he’ll do it. And I said, well is he going to want to do it? He’ll be pretty beat up, and they were like, oh…He’ll do it. But I was in training and I was ready to go.
In your “next day interview” on CBS.com (to the sidebar on the left of this column) you say that you have been “squeezed dry” by Survivor and that after spending 80 days in the game, you are finally done with Survivor. Now that some time has passed, do you still feel like you would never play again if asked?
I would certainly consider it seriously if I was available and physically able. I would never say never. Survivor is an extraordinary thing. It’s sort of a peek experience, you might call it. It’s almost an addictive kind of thing. Like vacation, or sex, or reading good books or I don’t know, whatever turns you on. You get to do something that really puts you in a heightened state and takes you out of your – now my day-to-day life is never humdrum – but out of your day-to-day life. The whole experience of it…is kind of fascinating and fabulous. So if they make that call again – and I can barely conceive that I would get a fourth chance to play the game – but I of course would consider it very, very seriously.
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