The secret is finally out — Washington University in St. Louis senior Zach Wurtenberger is a contestant on “Survivor,” one of the longest-running and most popular reality shows in television history.
“My whole college experience has been defined by ‘Survivor,’” said Wurtenberger, an English major in Arts & Sciences. “I applied as a freshman, got cast when I was a sophomore, played when I was a junior and now it’s airing when I’m a senior.”
“Survivor” kicks off its 42nd season with a two-hour premiere at 7 p.m. Central Wednesday, March 9, on CBS. Last spring, the show’s 18 contestants arrived in Fiji with the clothes on their backs and a dream: to last 26 days without host Jeff Probst snuffing out their torch while proclaiming the most-dreaded words in reality TV: “The tribe has spoken.”
Wurtenberger can’t reveal what happened next, only that it was “the most amazing, miserable experience” of his life. He will watch the first episode in his apartment surrounded by friends and family who flew to St. Louis for his big night.
“It honestly feels like a second bar mitzvah,” said Wurtenberger, who is from the Miami suburb of Weston, Fla. “It’s a very weird thing, but I’m excited.”
It has been a long time coming. Wurtenberger took the spring 2020 semester off to compete in Season 41. Then the pandemic hit and shooting was delayed for almost a year. Wurtenberger was worried he would need to take another leave when the producers pushed him to Season 42. The move allowed Wurtenberger to attend all but the final weeks of the spring 2021 semester.
“I told all of my professors at the very start of the semester that I had this opportunity that I couldn’t miss and, luckily, they were very understanding, even if they were like, ‘So what do you mean, you can’t tell me what it is?’” Wurtenberger said. “I ended up finishing up my finals the day before I flew out.”
Wurtenberger’s professors and classmates learned his secret last month when CBS announced the cast, though Wurtenberger admitted he had told some friends. One of those friends nervously scanned the room upon learning the news.
“She was like, ‘Wait — are we being filmed right now? Are there cameras here?’” Wurtenberger said. “She had somehow never seen ‘Survivor.’”
Wurtenberger, in contrast, was raised on reality TV. Born the same year “Survivor” debuted, Wurtenberger would tune in with his parents. He was soon hooked and started watching DVDs of past seasons over and over.
“I’ve been a competitive person throughout my whole life and yet, I never got into sports,” Wurtenberger said. “‘Survivor’ became, in a way, my favorite sport. The energy people put into their favorite sports teams, I put into my favorite ‘Survivor’ contestant or team. And I could also see myself more in the players because it’s relationship- and strategy-based.”
Eligible to apply at 18, Wurternberger studied the audition tapes of past players and spent hours creating his own perfect pitch. Still, Wurtenberger knew he was a long shot.
“There are literally tens of thousands of people applying to be on the show,” Wurtenberger said. “You hear these stories about people who have been applying for 10 years and so my thought was, ‘It may take five years, it may take 10 years, but I need to get in their heads now.’ Obviously, I was very pleasantly surprised that I made it on my first attempt.”
The producers surely recognized in Wurtenberger what friends here have known all along — Wurtenberger is friendly and smart, hard-working and savvy. He’s also super funny. Take Skate Park, a sketch he wrote for the comedy troupe Kids on Campus. The scene opens on a dad who wants to be an ally in his son’s protest to save a skate park from demolition. He then learns a selfless developer wants to build an orphanage on the site.
“I thought we were going up against Big Oil or Big Retail,” says the dad.
“It’s the same thing. It’s Big Orphanage,” responds the indignant son.
“Humor is a part of myself that I’m proud of and I’ve been able to develop more at WashU through things like Kids on Campus,” said Wurtenberger, who called the sketch one of his proudest accomplishments in his CBS bio. (Another accomplishment: “Getting into Washington University.”) “I don’t think it hurt in getting cast. I mean, if you can make Jeff Probst laugh, that’s a pretty good skill.”