It all started with Pop Rocks and a pig's stomach. Back in 2002, special-effects pros Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage got together to test one of America's favorite urban legends—that simultaneously ingesting Pop Rocks and soda would make your stomach explode—for a television pilot called Mythbusters. Five years and 100 episodes later, the duo, along with "build team" Grant Imahara, Kari Byron, and Tory Balleci, have put more than 300 myths to the test, from "Can a penny dropped from the Empire State Building kill someone?" to "How hard is it to find a needle in a haystack?" Drawing on more than 30 combined years of special-effects and model-construction know-how, the team has proven time and time again that any scientific query can be made more interesting via crash-test dummies, robots, and/or explosives.
The A.V. Club: Did you guys ever suspect you'd still have new myths to bust after 100 episodes?
Adam Savage: It's actually quite funny. In the summer of 2002, we had spent six weeks shooting the three pilots of Mythbusters, and Jamie called me up afterward—well, first he called me up to tell me to clear my crap back out of his shop—and he said, "Well, that was kind of fun, wasn't it? I mean, I don't see where this could go, because we pretty much did everything. But it was fun." We didn't really see much more that was testable.† We know now at this point, there's no end in sight into what we can test.
Jamie Hyneman: It points out that the show is about a lot more than just urban legends, which is what we saw on the face of it. As it turns out, one of the biggest choices we have doing the show is deciding the tangents we are allowed to take, the stuff that we see along the way. We're allowed to explore the world at large on these things; the urban-legend aspect of it is just kind of an excuse.
AVC: It seems that in recent seasons, you guys have moved away from classic urban legends. Now you have a lot more theme shows, like your movie myths and your Shark Week special.
AS: The main trend with the theme episodes is that anywhere there is a misconception about the way the physical world works, we're finding fertile material. Whether it's in a phrase like "going over like a lead balloon" or "a needle in a haystack," or tackling movie myths or even a genre, like MacGyver or James Bond, we're finding that all these things can lead to people believing the world works in a certain way. It might not be correct, but we can test out if it's true.
AVC: You guys have a reputation of loving to blow things up. Do you worry that the sensationalism of big explosions and big guns overshadows the other things you do?
AS: Totally. Totally. It's always about the entertainment and the science. For us, there's this careful dance that's still going after five years of doing the show. The explosions, like the urban legends, are a great way of bringing people in to watch, because it's really fun, and you know we're always going to give you a satisfying ending. But for us, the most exciting part of doing the show is telling the story about the narrative of learning, the go-through with each myth, and we really do learn as we go. And we're wrong a good portion of the time.
JH: We really do prefer to build things rather than destroy things, believe it or not. The explosions and the weapons, they make it interesting, but it is more or less a gimmick. There are times when we're testing an actual explosion, and then there are times when we blow stuff up just because we can.
AVC: With that said, what's the coolest thing you've blown up?
AS: I'd have to say it was on an episode called "Trail Blazers," where we had to light a line of gunpowder like Bugs Bunny, and we torched Jamie's robot—what'd you call the robot?
AS: [Laughs.] Sparky, who was holding onto a cask of gunpowder. After all those years of doing remote detonations, where we just push a button and something explodes, to actually see a nice big fat line of black smoke heading toward something that will blow up is very satisfying.
AVC: You guys don't have any formal scientific training, but you generally seem to follow scientific methods and procedures when you're testing myths. To what degree are you attempting to scientifically prove something, vs. just indulging your own curiosity?
JH: If it turns out that we're doing proper science from time to time, it just happens to be that that's the most efficient way of doing it. We go into each of these stories with an open mind, and one of the great things about how the show works is that we're not approaching it from a doctoral point of view, we're just trying to see what happens. And we have relatively little time and a whole lot of curiosity, so the most efficient way to get there is what we do, and that often happens to be some form of science. We may not have a sample size larger than one, or we may not have unlimited resources—it's a TV show, and we generally turn these things around in about a week or so. That being said, the fact that we don't have formal training, that makes what we're experiencing a little bit more accessible to the viewers. If we actually knew what we were doing ahead of time, it would just be like talking at you, instead of experiencing the situation with you.
AS: We don't necessarily stand by our faults every time, but we will always stand by our methodologies and ethos. And the methodology is much more important to us. Given the restrictions of television, we understand why our results might not be unassailable, but whenever, for instance, on the Discovery Channel online message boards, people pipe in and say we're idiots and we don't know what we're doing and we got something totally wrong, interestingly, the people who jump most vigorously to our defense are working scientists. These are people from everywhere, from Lawrence Livermore and JPL and Sandia National Labs, the FBI, all over the place, real scientists who see what we're doing, and they consistently thank us. "I agree your results aren't always right," they'll say, "but your methods are clearly showing that science is a re-creative process, and it's an interesting process because it's messy, and no other shows show that."
AVC: Do you ever find yourself making something needlessly complicated, or do you generally go for the quick-and-dirty method?
AS: Oh no no no, I think the whole thing that Jamie and I have in working together is that we are constantly simplifying each other's designs, and we both appreciate that the quickest and the dirtiest solution is usually the most elegant, the least expensive, and the fastest.
JH: With the sole exception of us wanting to have fun with something, like the cask of gunpowder on Sparky. There are a lot of times when we can just time something and say "busted" or "confirmed" or whatever, instead of building a robot or some gadget to make it happen more elaborately. In those cases, we're simply enjoying ourselves. It's not that we can't find the simpler way to do it, it's just that we want to have some fun.
AVC: And it's also more entertaining to watch robots.
AS: And it's also entertaining to watch us—and surprisingly, this is one of the best parts about the job—it's entertaining to watch us having fun. At this point, we've discovered that one of the best barometers of which direction to keep going in is what we're most interested in, and we can't ask more of a job than that.
AVC: You've built some pretty scary rigs over the years. Have you ever been building something and realized, "Holy crap, this could kill someone"?
AS: All the time. [Laughs.] The most recent one I think that we were both really suitably and respectfully terrified of was the steam-powered machine gun. We had this beautiful rotor on an air tool spinning at a couple-thousand RPMs, and while the sound was just lovely, both Jamie and I are laughing and standing behind every barrier we can get behind while it shot.
JH: Yeah, we've found that the biggest thing as far as the danger is simply pressure.† When we work with explosives, we've got bomb technicians there, bomb-squad guys who go into unknown situations all the time, and they've dealt with it safely. So we can pretty well relax when they're on the scene. Those other times, with some of these steam-powered things or pressure-powered things, it sort of sneaks up on you, because there's a lot of potential for death sitting right there. You just have to make sure you've done your homework, and it's properly put together.
AVC: Like when you launched the water-heater rocket. That seemed particularly terrifying.
AS: Actually, you know, it was at first. We were planning one of those small explosions in the parking lot outside of one of our shops, but we had two failures. We spent a day getting a couple of failures that didn't blow up, but by that point, Jamie and I had internalized in our brains enough of the structure and what was going on that we became more and more concerned with being in a confined space. We were wanting to pull the plug halfway through that day and get out to the runway at the Alameda naval base, in order to have enough space to take it and flip it around, where we did feel safe to blow up as many as we wanted.
JH: That's a situation that happens a lot to us, where we're trying to get some kind of result out of something, and maybe things aren't going the way we thought they would; your inclination is to cut some corners and try to, you know, make something happen. Sometimes when we see that happening, we've learned the hard way that we have to back off and say, "This is the time to not push it."
AVC: When you're doing those small-scale tests outside your workshop, do you have neighbors or people near the workshop wondering what the hell all the explosions are?
AS: Yes. [Laughs.] Except for the fact that we're on television, it's very much like having a 14-year-old pyromaniac in the neighborhood. You feel kind of safe, because he's been doing it for years, and it's kind of okay, and you smile at him indulgently. We get the same looks.
JH: Yeah, one of our neighbors is a salami distributor, and they pretty well—I mean, we used their salami to make a rocket engine out of. They just look at us and they're amused, they're fine with it.
AS: We did have a problem with a previous neighbor. Jamie's shop is called M5, and Kari, Grant, and Tory work in a shop called M7, and somewhere in the middle there, between seasons two and three, there was an M6. M6 had to go away, because we were unfortunate enough to rent the space right next door to a photographer who did nice, quiet portrait photography. Meanwhile, we're next door making every noise you could possibly imagine.
JH: Yeah, the final straw, I think, was a full-stock engine that we were just doing everything we could to destroy—putting bleach in the oil, anything we could think of. So we're sitting there with the muffler going for like, eight hours straight, at full RPM, right next door to this guy while he's trying to get his photo subjects in the mood and whatnot.
AVC: So have you used M6 since then?
AS: We cleared all traces of our occupation out of M6 and moved to M7, and it's been quite smooth over there. We chose a place all the way at the end of an industrial park.
JH: We still have M5, that's where Adam and I work mostly, because I own the building here, and I don't want—you know, I have pigs buried under the sidewalk and stuff, and I didn't want to cause any undue attention. So we go over to M7 if we need to make a mess.
AVC: You both have varied artistic and special-effects backgrounds, but with the growing success of the show, you probably don't have as much time to pursue those things. Do you ever miss model-building and special effects, or are you generally able to integrate it into what you do in the show?
AS: You know, it's funny, I've gone in my life through a bunch of different stages. When I finally got up to Industrial Light And Magic to work on the Star Wars movies as a model-maker, it felt like dying and going to heaven. And then, after a few years, I felt like "There's the next thing, I need to look for what the next thing is." I felt like I had kind of played it out, and I wanted to see what was next, and then came Mythbusters. You know, it's the best job I've ever had, on its worst day it's better than anything else, but it's a huge amount of responsibility, and there are days when just going into work and building something from someone else's drawing sounds like going back to heaven.
JH: In my case, after hundreds and hundreds of commercials and dealing with ad agencies and directors, often trying to hawk some product that I wouldn't even use, now we're doing things where this stuff is real. There's no director who wants to portray cheese puffs with a certain color that's going to make or break the commercial, in his opinion. We don't have to do that, so I don't miss it at all, really. I have to say for both of us, this experience that we've been having here has changed us dramatically, and we've evolved since we've come on the scene with Mythbusters, because of what we've learned, and that, I think, is the biggest reward for us. You know, dealing with effects, as a job it's great, but with Mythbusters, the stuff we've seen, the stuff we've absorbed over the years, has just been fantastic, and I wouldn't change it for the world.
AS: Absolutely. I will say, we're right in the middle of doing the Apollo Moon Landing hoax, and right after we finish this phone call, I'm going to go downstairs and build a scale model of the lunar lander. I've probably got about four hours to do it, and Tory and Grant, who worked with me at Industrial Light And Magic, are jealous as hell that I get to build an actual model.
AVC: Adam, you play the clown to Jamie's straight man on the show. How much of that is for entertainment value, and to what degree are you just wreaking havoc on Jamie's shop?
AS: I'd say equal parts both. I think at this point, there's a certain bizarre chemistry between Jamie and I that we can't ignore a lot of the mechanics of, that we're quite aware of. Half of it is absolutely genuine, and half of it is us playing around with that fact.
AVC: You mentioned your message boards earlier. Your website has a very active community, and it's where a lot of your myths originate from, but they also pick apart everything you do. How much are you aware of that when you go into myths?
AS: The Mythbusters crew, we monitor the Discovery boards, we look for the new ideas that are being forwarded on those boards, and we keep track of what's going on, we keep updated. That being said, I can't read that stuff anymore. I find that your basic Internet chat board is way too vitriolic for my tastes, and because Jamie and I are at the center of the maelstrom, we're the targets. I find it's too much for me to read endless critiques, even if we're being well-defended, of exactly what we're doing. When someone tells us something we're doing wrong on the boards, we try to respond, we try to be responsive to the fan boards, but yeah, I can't read them.
JH: We should point out that if we feel like we've upset somebody and they're vitriolic, if people are actively pursuing some sort of complaint, then we've done our job. We're not out to educate the public on any particular thing—say, on urban legends. If we've gotten somebody worked up—hopefully not by doing something just idiotic, you know, we could be Jackass or something—the fact that they are lively and pursuing some aspect of what we do with energy, then we've caused somebody to think about something, and that's a lot more than most programs on TV can say. From our point of view, we're just curious, we're poking around and having fun. If it's science, if it's accurate, if it's not accurate, we did the best we can to keep things clean and understandable, but we're just having fun, so sue us if we got something wrong.