CAMBRIDGE — “MythBusters,” a show in which the hosts use scientific experimentation to investigate everything from common assumptions to weird urban legends, is one of the most popular programs on the Discovery Channel. It’s filmed in and around San Francisco, but “MythBusters” frontmen Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage came to Cambridge recently to receive the Harvard Humanism Award. Blast asked them what happens behind the scenes of their popular show and how they’ve produced seven years of explosive television without killing anyone.
Each of these guys has an interesting past. Jamie earned a degree in Russian language and experimented with various careers before hunkering down into the special effects business and becoming the owner of M5 Industries, the effects company where much of “MythBusters” takes place. Adam’s dad worked on Sesame Street, giving him a bridge into the world of puppetry and models, but he was also a child actor who played Mr. Whipple’s stockboy in one of the popular “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin” television commercials. Adam also appeared as a drowning teen in the 1985 Billy Joel video for “You’re Only Human.”
One of Jamie and Adam most notable early collaborations was as the creators of Blendo, a robotic tiny terror with spinning blades and an inverted wok for a shell. Powered by a lawnmower engine, Blendo mowed through its opponents on the TV show “Robot Wars.” With the ability to slice into the arena walls as well as its opponents, plus a tendency to hurl parts of its dismembered foes into the audience at high speeds, Blendo was twice withdrawn and awarded the title of “co-champion” after being deemed to dangerous for competition.
The creation of this infamous mechanical menace, designed by Jamie and wired by Adam, demonstrates some of the same qualities that make “MythBusters” successful. Jamie and Adam have considerable technical skills honed through decades of “hands on” experience building things that never existed before.
They also have flair for the dramatic, although drama is something Jamie likes to downplay. He’s the one with the beret and the walrus-y mustache that almost conceals his serious mouth. Jamie has a calm, no non-sense attitude, and a tendency to grumble at anything he considers silly or unnecessary, but his eyes twinkle and dance when he’s amused at the success (or failure) of some endeavor. Adam, the redhead, has an effusively cheerful personality. Their different personas work well together on screen, and their mutual respect is evident.
BLAST: Jamie, how did M5 Industries come into being? How did that lead to you working in front of the camera on “MythBusters?”
JAMIE HYNEMAN: I had run a local model shop for a production company called Colossal Pictures, and at one point they had to downsize and just gave me the shop, hoping I would take it and run with it, which I did. They remained one of my best clients for some years. My colorful history caught the attention of a film production company that Discovery contracts with, and when they had the idea to do a show on urban legends they approached me. I called Adam, who used to work for me, because I thought between the two of us we might be able to pull it off. The rest is history.
BLAST: Adam, you had an unusual childhood. How did it lead you into your current career?
ADAM SAVAGE: It’s funny actually. I think it started out as two different parts of my interest because I grew up building things, I grew up making things. I was always encouraged to do that. My father was an artist and a sculptor. But by the time I was fifteen I had decided that I wanted to be an actor. So my parents put that opportunity in front of me. And I did some auditions in New York, and I did some commercials. But by the time I was, I guess probably nineteen, I had passed on that in favor of doing stuff with my hands — graphic design, assistant animation in New York, and then eventually working in theater in San Francisco, and film special effects. Then MythBusters came along and it was the perfect marriage of two things, performance and special effects.
Blast’s Kari Byron interview
BLAST: When you were a kid, did your interest in “hands on” science ever get you in trouble with parents or teachers? And just how big of an explosion was it?
AS: No actually, although I enjoyed setting fires, and almost burnt down our entire summer complex. That was about the worst that ever happened. That was the worst it ever got.
JH: I was a problematic kid, to be sure. I left home when I was 14 and hitchhiked all over the country. But science, explosions, and the stuff we are known for now was not part of the story then. I just have a wide range of interests, and the more pyrotechnic ones ended up being part of the chemistry of what works for the show. They are something we only really came to be intimate with when we started doing MythBusters.
BLAST: Dangerous experiments are exciting to watch, but your concern for safety is obvious as well. Who most often puts the limits on what you do on MythBusters — the production company, your insurance company, or someone else?
JH: Adam and I are the main ones that put limits on what we do. It is in our best interest to remain intact, and while we have acquired quite a few scars on the show, that is about as far as it has gone to date. We have safety oversight from a consultant who did safety consulting for “Fear Factor” and “Jackass”, and he interfaces with the insurance company. But for the most part, the stuff we do does not fit within stunt work or other similar categories. It is very hands on science and experimentation. At this point we are by far our own best experts.
AS: Really at this point it’s very rare that we come up with a story or a way of doing a story that the insurance company says “absolutely not, you can’t do it that way,” because we’ve already thought a lot of their objections.
BLAST: Has there ever been something which you flat out refused to do for the show, perhaps before the camera even started rolling?
JH: Those would be things that I find distasteful, more than dangerous or difficult things. Production in the early days thought it would make for good TV if Adam and I were fighting/having conflicts with each other, so they would encourage us to do that or even try to spin us up against each other. We eventually just put a stop to it. Disagreements that are constructive are fine, but to create conflict as entertainment is in my opinion trashy television, and we have far more interesting things to put out there. The only other things I object to are subjective; production also likes to put us in awkward or goofy situations, undignified ones, which Adam is often OK with, me, not so much.
AS: At one point we were doing this story about tasers. And there was an ongoing discussion about whether or not one of us would get tasered. And after really carefully looking at the research, it was obviously going to be me who was going to get tasered. The question was whether or not I would agree to do it, and then the insurance would take a look at whether they felt comfortable with me doing it. And I took a long look at it and decided I didn’t want to do it.
BLAST: Can you think of a particular moment that really scared the bejeebus out of you?
JH: Well, in general I don’t like heights, but it is more that I am just automatically very uncomfortable there. I do what I have to do; it’s my job. Often the things we do are risky, and I have to say I have gotten quite used to that being the case. For my own safety and that of others on the team I try to remain as flat calm as possible to make sure I don’t miss something that would end up with someone getting hurt. If I was actually “scared”, I would likely be less on the ball. The only one I was really very concerned about my safety in was recent. The episode has not aired yet so I can’t tell very much about it, but I was out in 180 mph+ winds, and while I was tethered, I could tell by the way things around me were behaving that if something let go I would be like something on the end of a whip, and the crack might break my back. The force of the wind I was in was so intense that I knew I had no chance of competing with it. I would be like a rag doll.
BLAST: Is there a myth you’d love to test but the necessary experiment just seems too risky?
AS: There’s this great story out there about a liquid oxygen truck that spills on a highway, and the liquid oxygen ends up turning the entire highway into a bomb and blowing a whole section of road to smithereens. And we did enough investigation into liquid oxygen to discover it’s one of the most terrifying things in the world. Because under the right conditions, obviously, it can make things burn energetically. But it can also turn things like a greasy rag into a high explosive, and I’m really not exaggerating that. On top of that, it’s totally unpredictable. So when we looked at the unpredictability of it, we realized we were ending up with a myth that was either incredibly dangerous or nothing would happen, and the likelihood of either was equal. So the likelihood of ending up with an episode that was safe was very mild.
JH: The thing is that pure oxygen is invisible, yet has the potential of making all sorts of things explosive. Using the amount required to replicate that situation means that you have to consider what would happen if it drifted. What if it went, say, to a running automobile some distance away? The whole auto could explode. Scary.
BLAST: Does the element of danger in your work ever freak out your wives? Have they ever “vetoed” an experiment?
JH: Yes, and no. For the most part she does not know what I am doing until after it’s done, and even if she did, there should be nothing to be concerned about because if we thought it was unsafe, we wouldn’t be doing it. Again, Adam and I are for the most part alone in this — we are often the only ones that really know what the risks are. Our safety oversight, the insurance company, everybody else, is looking at categories and saying stuff like “you are riding at high speed on a motorcycle, so wear a helmet”, and so on. Sure, we’ll do that. But who is the expert about tons of liquid oxygen dumped out on the ground? We are, and we are the only ones we trust.
AS: My wife has never vetoed anything because she trusts my judgment as to what I’m doing. But there are times when I’ve casually described what I’m doing to do and she’s asked for “a little more clarification, please, because that sounds really spooky.”
BLAST: What is the most surprising or implausible myth you’ve ever confirmed?
JH: We are constantly surprised, and many of the stories we take on are implausible. Quantify that? I’d put it this way, we are focused on the process. We dig into something, and it is what it is. We try not to have preconceptions, and are not really that concerned about whether something is true or not so much as whether we have processed the topic diligently. Having done this a lot, we know that in many cases even the silliest stories have an element of truth in them, so one needs to have an open mind to get to the heart of the matter.
AS: We just did one that’s going to air in a couple months called “Waterslide Wipeout.” There’s a YouTube video of a guy riding this long, long waterslide and then flying an impossibly long way through the air. I don’t want to spoil it, but basically we tested that myth as best we could. We had some preconceptions before we went in and we were completely surprised by the results we got out.
BLAST: As recipients of the Harvard Humanism Award, you’ll be in a select group that includes Salman Rushdie, Joss Whedon and Greg Graffin, the front man of the band Bad Religion. Please say a little about why think the students chose you for the award.
AS: It’s hard for me to look into their heads, but given what I’ve read about the award it seems that were being singled out for really demonstrating a level of critical thinking I think is wanting in the rest of the world. One of the things about the show is that what you see is really pretty much what you get. The progression of experiments often mirrors the series of discussions that Jamie and I, and our crew, had going in and discussing the story.
JH: What we do on MythBusters promotes methodical rational, critical thought. It is as simple as that. The episodes we do manifest the benefit of this approach to all sorts of things around us. It shows how easy, even fun it is to deal with the world in this way, and so one does not need to rely on some supernatural entity for things that one does not immediately understand. It also implies that one should not take things that are accepted practice as being the right way to do things, but rather to take on the responsibility for yourself to figure things out, or work with others to do so. Self responsibility is a big, big thing as far as being able to maintain ethical behavior, and so in that sense we are promoting by example ethical behavior, and therefore I can understand this choice.
BLAST: Would you like to mention any upcoming projects, either in front of the camera or behind the scenes?
JH: As surprising as it seems, we are still finding plenty of fresh material to work with. Some of the best work we have done is recent, so keep watching. As far as behind the scenes, I would note that I personally have been doing a fair amount of work for the military in developing new forms of armor specifically aimed at reducing the harm cause by explosives. We use explosives and weapons with a certain amount of glee on the show, and I am concerned that we may seem to be glorifying them. We find them interesting, like many other things, but don’t in any way want to seem like we are encouraging irresponsible use of them. So I’m hoping that my work will mitigate harm from such things and show that just because we use them on the show does not mean we are cavalier about such things. So far our tests are showing a fair amount of success, hopefully we will be saving some lives.
Interview was condensed and edited.