The 40 Most Influential Survivors: Stephen Fishbach

Stephen Fishbach

Tocantins, Cambodia, Survivor Know-It-Alls

To celebrate the 40th season of Survivor, we’re counting down the 40 Most Influential Survivors to ever play the game. Because Survivor is a game, a tv show, and a rabid fandom, we’re taking all forms of influence into consideration for this list. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. Note: this list is presented in chronological order and there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.

Stephen Fishbach is the 26th entry in this series.

Long before Winners at War, where conservative, white, rural heterosexual Sarah was showing us how we can get along with people who aren’t like us by giving a reward to conservative, white, rural heterosexual Nick, Survivor was teaching us the lesson that it is possible to form deep bonds with people from different backgrounds. In Tocantins, an erudite, Jewish, city-dwelling intellectual Stephen Fishbach was dropped into Brazil with a crowd of people who were few- if any- of those things. One could say he was a real Fishy out of water, and then one might immediately hate oneself for writing that, and then decide to just own it and embrace the hatred of the people that read that.

But within the first few days in Brazil, Stephen notes that he has found an unlikely friendship- a charming Southern good ol’ boy type named JT. Their bond would become one of the most memorable pairings of the first twenty seasons of Survivor. They spent the entire game as allies, and despite having arrived at the merge down significantly in numbers, they integrated themselves seamlessly into the group as they voted everyone else out. At the final tribal council, Stephen’s game was rewarded with exactly zero votes. The viewing audience- clearly a bunch of anti-intellectual rubes- agreed with the jury, awarding JT an additional $100,000 as the fan favorite of the season.

The real $1.1 million was the friendships we made along the way.

In future seasons, players would intentionally seek out unexpected alliance partners in order to make their alliance less obvious: Denise and Malcolm, Cochran and Dawn, Aubry and Joe, Ken and David, and Ryan and Chrissy, just to name a few. Unlike a showmance/Romber pairing, the Unlikely Duo strategy doesn’t cause other players to panic; there’s no urgency to vote out half of the pair, because there’s always doubts that the bonds between the pair are truly that strong.

But the Unlikely Duo strategy is not Fishbach’s only lasting impact on the game. A few years after his second-place finish, Fishbach became the regular co-host of Survivor Know-It-Alls with Rob Cesternino. They became perhaps the second-greatest Survivor podcast in existence, and their success may have even partly inspired the greatest Survivor podcast of all. Together, Rob and Stephen built a large enough audience that they could host live events every season, packing the house at various venues and attracting dozens of former Survivors to every event. Other Survivors, whether motivated by a genuine love of the game or a desperate desire to reclaim some attention, would go on to start their own podcasts in hopes of becoming the next Rob and Stephen.

Of course, the central premise of the Survivor Know-It-Alls podcast was that it was two former Survivors who knew everything about the game except how to win. But after years of talking to other Survivors, and after watching the player clearly recruited to be the New Stephen Fishbach (John Cochran) actually win a season, Stephen would get a second chance at the game. Survivor casting assembled a group of former players who had played just one time, and allowed fans of the show to vote them into the cast of Cambodia. Fishbach was a near-lock as a beloved podcast host, and also had the coveted endorsement of the most influential online Survivor community.

Sure, one could argue that maybe he wasn’t portrayed in the most flattering light that season.

Actually, it would be a pretty strong argument.

But his minor mishaps pale in comparison to what Fishbach gave us in Cambodia from a narrative perspective. In an emotional confessional, he notes that he really wants to be sure he doesn’t repeat the mistakes of his Survivor past. This time, he wants to be the one taking out the popular, athletic golden boy (Joe), not sitting next to him at final tribal council. The confessional is as close as Survivor comes to a scripted theatrical monologue, and Fishbach beautifully lays out his thoughts and motivations.

Naturally, he would get voted out while attempting to take out Joe. Like I said, he wasn’t portrayed in the most flattering light that season. But to a large community of Survivor nerds online, his fears and passion resonated. Stephen Fishbach was not the first nerd archetype the show had ever cast, but his willingness to let his inner monologue be spelled out plainly in confessionals turned him into a fully fleshed-out person rather than a one-dimensional stereotype. Fishbach gave players like John Cochran, Spencer Bledsoe, and David Wright a template to follow- not just for how to play the game, but for giving the show the material to present you as an authentic, relatable person at the same time.

Who else made the list?

You can see each entry on the list by clicking this link.