Could a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building kill someone when it hits the ground? Is a snowplow capable of flipping a car? What's the best rememedy for spicy foods?
For more than a decade, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman have set out to answer life's most pressing queries on Discovery Channel's "MythBusters." Putting myths, rumors and legends to the test with rigorous scientific theory, Savage and Hyneman propelled "MythBusters" to become one of the channel's most popular shows, garnering seven Emmy Award nominations.
The show's 14th season, premiering in January, will be its last. Because the MythBusters knew the end was coming, however, they've created a blowout farewell season for their devoted fans.
Savage and Hyneman will make a stop at the Hippodrome Theatre Saturday on their "MythBusters: Jamie and Adam Unleashed" live tour, which Savage described as "like a magic show, except instead of illusions we have live illusions -- we have science." Ahead of the show, Savage spoke over the phone about the myth he's always wanted to bust, how the show has changed him and the "funny man, straight man" dynamic he and Hyneman share.
"MythBusters" is Discovery Channel's longest-running show. What did you expect of the series when you first started?
I had already been working for more than a decade in the film and television industry, so I already had a reasonable amount of knowledge about how taciturn and peripatetic working in the industry can be. So I didn't have any expectations in the beginning. We shot the pilot thinking, "Well, this will be fun." Then, when the show got picked up, we did the first season and thought, "Well, that was cool." For the first three years, we just kept on watching the ratings rise with continual astonishment, and the fact that they stayed high for the better part of 10 or 12 years was absolutely unbelievable, really.
What about the show do you think resonated with people, and why do you think it took off in the way that it did?
I think that in the light of what passes for "reality television" these days, "MythBusters" is a fairly structured show that is an honest show. I see a lot of building shows these days, and I can smell a producer writing down how they think the build will go, but the only variable is what gets built. The conflicts between the contestants and difficulties encountered and the stakes at the end of every commercial break are all preordained. It's staid, and I don't find it interesting to watch. On "MythBusters," we would write out an outline, but we would almost never be able to follow it because nothing happened the way we expected it to happen, so we would change directions based on what was actually going on, not on what we had already pre-planned. And I think an honest narrative resonates with people.
After 14 seasons, are you coming out of this experience with any of your long-held ideas about the world confirmed or altered? Did the show more firmly plant you in the camp of skeptic?
One hundred percent. I've actually gone all the way through skeptic out the other side. What I mean is I think of skeptic as a fairly toxic and politicized word at this point, and I prefer the term critical thinker. Making "MythBusters" has fundamentally and inexorably altered me completely. I started this show as someone interested in the sciences; I finished it, I think, as a scientist, with a scientist's way of thinking and parsing the world. I'm so grateful for that experience. I cannot imagine thinking the way I used to think anymore. What a gift.
Will your next endeavors involve the marriage of science and storytelling?
In fact, absolutely, and I go even further in saying I don't consider there to be a difference between those two terms. The greatest thing I've learned on "MythBusters" through the repeated telling of the story of scientific inquiry is that science is just another genre of storytelling, albeit one with rigor. When we look at a picture about how our universe is structured from the Big Bang on until now, we're not looking at the universe; we're looking at a representation that is the best current story we have about how our universe works. The best thing about science is, we're willing to change that story based on new evidence, but it's just as much of a story as a painting or a book.
What was the most challenging part of making the show?
The most challenging part is really trying to stay true to a story. Storytelling is hard. Good storytelling is really hard. Making sure that your narrative makes sense, making sure that you're keeping the viewer interested, making sure that you pay attention to the unexpected parts that the story may go in. It's the best part, but it's also the most difficult part.
You and Jamie are not friends outside of the show, but clearly your dynamic resonates with people. How do you think your on-screen relationship served the audience?
Yes, we are not friends. We have never in 24 years had dinner alone together. But there's a strength and there's an integrity to the tension between us, and our attack on solving problems. Having someone who's willing to question your work and willing to put you to it to defend your ideas is really really important. I think the entertainment industry is rife with people who don't hear the word "no" often enough. There is a real strength in having to defend your own ideas. We also by accident adhered beautifully to the funny man, straight man team of comedy. And that also has a real integrity to it.
Are there any remaining myths you have always wanted to bust but didn't have the opportunity?
Yes. There is a story, actually, that we went a fair bit down the road to testing in the last season, and it involves a mythical American Indian mode of hunting, in which hunters who wish to collect ducks would acclimatize the ducks to pumpkins floating in their pond. Then they would take a pumpkin, cut two eye holes out of it, and put it on their head and swim out among the ducks, and the ducks, already acclimatized to pumpkins, wouldn't think anything new or different about this hunter wearing a pumpkin on their head, and the hunter would be able to go up and grab the ducks right from where they were swimming. I was totally dying to test this. We actually got all the way toward building some remote-controlled camera pumpkins in order to be able to cover this without scaring the ducks. Because of some of the last-minute things that were happening in some of our episodes, we just didn't have time to test this. We wouldn't have been able to cut it into one of the final-season episodes and we had to abandon it. I'm very sad about that.
What can you tell readers about the show's final season?
In cable, if a reality show stops getting good ratings, they just stop making it. But I have been saying to Discovery for years, "Hey, when the writing's on the wall and you think you may stop ordering episodes, let us say goodbye, let us shoot one final episode." Discovery did one better than that, and they let us shoot an entire season that is a goodbye. When we plotted this season, we looked through the whole series of "MythBusters" for the iconic categories that would satisfy the fans. There's a driving episode, there's an explosions episode, there's a rocket episode, there's a social science episode with tons of "MythBusters" volunteers. ... The last season will be deeply, deeply satisfying to our fans.