30 from 30: #16 – Jonny Fairplay and the Dead Grandma Lie

The Moment:

Jonny Fairplay schemes a sympathy win during the loved ones visit by lying about his dead grandmother.

We’re counting down the 30 Moments That Shaped Survivor, events that happened on the show that helped create and evolve the game and the series that we know and love. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. And since these posts are covering the first thirty seasons of Survivor, there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.


The Impact:

Ask the uninitiated TV viewer to name three things about Survivor, and they’ll likely give you the following: “the tribe has spoken”, “Richard Hatch”, and “the dead grandma thing”. It’s one of the most iconic events in fifteen years of Survivor: Jon “Jonny Fairplay” Dalton conspiring with his friend to lie about the death of his family member. Not only did it fool five* other players (and even production, briefly), but the move earned him several extra days in the game and infamy offscreen.

“Lil” is short for “gullible”

The Pearl Islands family visit was proceeding according to the usual script that family member visits follow: loved one appears, big hugs, maybe some tears, have a seat and wait for the challenge. But when Jonny Fairplay’s loved one, Dan (a.k.a. Thunder D), comes prancing out for the challenge…

thunder d 2
Apologies for this not being a GIF.

…their lively chat turns dark when Fairplay asks about his grandmother, who was supposedly Choice A in the CBS Panama Weekend Vacation sweepstakes. Dan, apparently having forgotten the plan, needs Fairplay to prompt him with a “Where’s grandma?” But when Dan drops the bomb that she passed away before coming out, everything changes. Fairplay even uses his “dead grandma” to make promises to every alliance left in the game.

*Sandra, whose bullshit detector rivals Jon Stewart’s, was having none of this. She made the only anti-Fairplay move in the challenge.

Changa can get loud, too, what the f—

Soon after, lest America be gullible enough to feel sympathy for Fairplay, we see him in a confessional. Fairplay tells us that grandma is home, alive and well, probably watching Jerry Springer (Editor’s note: for you kids too young to remember, that was a talk show where some old guy had crazy people yell at each other and throw shoes).

This was the first pre-planned stunt in Survivor. Sure, you can prepare to make fire or come in with a strategy, but chances are those things will help little, if at all, once the game begins. Jon and his “loved one” planned this before the show, and this—coupled with voting out beloved hero Rupert in the previous episode—cemented his place as the first true Survivor villain.

Can’t get enough Sad Lil

Why It Matters:

Every good narrative needs a hero and a villain. After slaying America’s beloved pirate king and hatching a mutiny with the Outcasts, Jon Dalton became the mischief maker-in-chief, the guy you were both laughing at and wanted to see taken down. And that’s without the editors having to reconfigure a lick of footage. Up until this point, Survivor’s antagonists were generally those who went against the underdog alliances, the ones who conspired to vote out a popular tribe or contestant, the ones who liked to manipulate the game. Jerri Manthey—who America loved to hate in Australia—was really just a bitchy antagonist. Many of these seasons were focused on the experience, or who was deserving, or who had the best strategy. No one was truly twisted, at least on screen.

Well, most people...
Well, almost no one…

Once Jonny Fairplay came on board, he set the template for villains on Survivor. (This was around the same time Omarosa was playing up her villain role on Mark Burnett’s other hit show of the mid-aughts.) By stopping at nothing to win a million dollars, Dalton turned what was a ray of sunshine in the game for the past few seasons into another plaything. He preyed on sympathy to turn votes. And he almost made it to the final tribal council, too.

Villains eventually became a staple of Survivor. Whether that is directly related to Fairplay’s pioneering action or a larger symptom of Real Housewives fever leaking in from the rest of reality television is up for debate. But there is no denying that doing whatever you can to win took on a different meaning after Pearl Islands aired.

And sometimes, people weren’t even doing it to win. They were aiming for something even more precious: airtime. From Coach’s tall tales of survival and attempts to control his cults alliances, to Colton’s meltdown to throw a challenge because of racism, to Chaos Kass and her llamas messing up others’ games for fun, these days being bad and coming in with a “damn the torpedoes” mindset for airtime and infamy is commonplace. Sometimes these people influenced the game and greatly advanced their chances (see: Kass in Cagayan), and sometimes it was just as a last ditch effort (see: J’Tia in the same season).

No I really DID get captured in the Amazon! Vote with me.

Villainy is a fine line in Survivor. We want our villains to be devious and maybe even charming, not terrible human beings. Arrogance, snark, and deceitfulness are the hallmarks of a truly great Survivor villain. Sometimes, casting misfires when trying to find a good villain and gives us hateful, awful people instead. But when done correctly, villains have made good popcorn TV for young, old, and Springer fans alike.

Copyright Getty Images, 2005. Or so Jon Dalton tells us.

What Else Made the List?

You can view all our 30 from 30 content by clicking here.

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A Survivor fan since the end of season one, Mark hasn’t finished One World, but still thinks Kim is overhyped.

Top 5, Baby: Cambodia, Cagayan, Heroes vs. Villains, Pearl Islands, and Palau.
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21 thoughts on “30 from 30: #16 – Jonny Fairplay and the Dead Grandma Lie

  1. I don’t have much to say about the dead grandma lie, I always thought it was pretty overblown.

    No doubt it was influential though. I remember Todd was informed his sister had a miscarriage during China and no one believed him. Unfortunately, would not be the worst thing to happen in Todd’s personal life in the next decade.

    1. I am also of the opinion that it’s become incredibly overrated as a move, but it’s perfect and essential for this list. It’s a formative moment of the series.

      But as a gameplay move, I’m not sure it made much of a difference at all. I think if it doesn’t happen, nothing really changes in the game other than Fairplay doesn’t get to hang with Thunder D for the night.

      1. I disagree slightly, since as I noted, it felt like he bought himself some extra days in the game and a chance at the final immunity. Lil would have cut him loose sooner. Maybe a girls alliance would have affected the endgame, but it’s all hypothetical. Sandra would have probably still won.

        1. Lil’s main alliance wasn’t with Fairplay though, it was with Burton. And she cut Burton loose when he didn’t take her on the reward. So the grandma lie had little to no impact on that.

      2. According to Fairplay (via Mario Lanza), Thunder D was the one who taught him about Survivor in the first place, Fairplay ran his whole game by him on the reward, and they both agreed he was golden. So I’d agree it didn’t change much. Fairplay didn’t get any master insights from his pal. Fairplay claims that swearing on his dead grandma to the other players helped his game, but I’m not sure we have much evidence of that in the show.

        1. This is pretty unrelated to your point, but everything Fairplay says about the game I put into the “not very reliable” category. He lied about everything he could on the show to try to get him a million dollars, what’s stopping him from lying about all this stuff to make him look better afterwards?

          1. That’s not fair. In his second go round, he was pretty straight up and honourab… okay, I get your point.

          2. I’m not sure I buy your point generally, but I agree with you about Fairplay in particular. He’s an entertainer, and when it comes to Survivor he’s always “in character”. And that character is a shameless self promoter.

    2. I think we even mentioned in the podcast that while we’ve often said it had little impact on the actual game that season, it had a huge impact on the show itself. And the Todd example you give is evidence that it did affect the game in future seasons.

    3. The Funny 115 on this made me love it again. There are a lot of little nuances in that whole sequence that made it so hilarious.

      1. A moment that I noticed for the first time recently: when Darrah’s boyfriend comes out, Fairplay hangs his head. He thought he had a shot.

      2. my recent including Thunder D multiple times for little reason in my posts is all because I reread the Funny 115 on it and the way he presents the Thunder D pictures just make me constantly crack up

  2. Here is the quote from a bonus video from Sandra regarding the dead Grandma lie (this is possibly the greatest thing ever said on the show): “Jon said his Grandma raised him… he’s the devil, she’s got to be the devil… Who cares… She’s in Hell now. Good for her, good for us, good for the world. No one cares about Jon or his dead grandma.”

      1. That sign she’s holding up with her nickname is just one letter away from being a completely Sandra-appropriate profanity in Spanish.

  3. Another underrated great thing about this: why did anyone believe that Fairplay was going to bring his grandma to the Amazon? NO ONE BRINGS THEIR GRANDMA! I can’t imagine CBS would even allow it.

        1. Fairplay: How’s Gran-Gran
          Thunder D: Dude, they took her to The Amazon by mistake
          Fairplay: (starts crying)

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