In 2002, Discovery Channel began developing a series that aimed to shine a light on a number of urban legends, putting science and physics to the test to determine if the tall tales could have actually happened. The series, which would go on to be named "MythBusters," enlisted the help of two special effects artists to produce three episodes, exploring stories of combining Pop Rocks with soda, if too many poppy seeds could cause one to fail a drug test, or if a man could attach enough helium balloons to a lawn chair to take flight. The series, hosted by Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, would go on to be so successful, it would run for 13 years, film nearly 300 episodes, and become a worldwide phenomenon in the world of educational entertainment. The original run of the series concluded five years ago, in March of 2016.
Even before joining MythBusters, Savage had a career that a pop-culture fan could only dream of. Having worked at Industrial Light & Magic, Savage already had an up-close look at the difference between fact and fiction, as his talents required that he convince fans that what they were seeing in films like Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, The Mummy, and The Matrix Reloaded could really exist. Despite Savage saying goodbye to the world of MythBusters, his work with Tested and on his various social media channels show that he's just as passionate as ever about bringing to life seemingly impossible props, creatures, and outlandish events, continuing to inspire a scientific curiosity among his following.
In honor of the series finale's five-year anniversary, ComicBook.com caught up with Savage to discuss the myths he never got to test, his memories of late co-star Grant Imahara, and how much he still appreciates his time on the Discovery Channel series.
Header photo courtesy of Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images/Discovery Channel
Art Over Physics
ComicBook.com: Throughout the course MythBusters, you tackled not only real-world reports but also debunked seemingly illogical events from movies and TV, from superheroes to Star Wars. Do you consume pop culture in a different way now, with it being harder to turn off the "myth-busting" elements of your brain during outlandish sequences?
Adam Savage: Oh, not even a little bit. I know a lot of people ask, I started to get this question when I worked in special effects. "Does working behind the scenes change the way I view movies? Does it make it harder for my suspension of disbelief?" And the answer is no. I'm still a lover of a good story. In fact, I can prefer a movie for its story over its scientific veracity and the example I love to give is that [Alfonso] Cuarón movie with Sandra Bullock? Gravity.
Gravity, whose grasp of reality is tenuous at best, is a way more involving movie to me than Interstellar, whose grasp of physics and reality is tight as a drum. I find the former's story to be way more compelling. So there was no amount of myth-busting that ended up making me more jaded about how people tackled physics or the fantastical in narrative form. I'm just as forgiving as I've always been and it's always about whether or not the story involves me or not.prevnext
You did entire episodes devoted to The Simpsons and to Jaws, were there any franchises or movies that you had hoped to spend an episode busting myths from that, for one reason or another, you weren't able to investigate?
The James Bond franchise is a hilarious example for us because the first time we tackled it ... I mean, we tackled James Bond myths three or four times over the course of MythBusters. We did, "Could you change the course of a bullet with a strong magnet? Could you put on a wetsuit over a tuxedo and go scuba diving to a party and be fine? Could you jump a motorboat on a ramp?" However many stories we did on MythBusters, we thought when we first started tackling James Bond myths, that this would be an endless resource for awesome stuff to test. But what we found was at the end of the last one we did, we couldn't find any other physics within the James Bond universe that was even close to being right.
There's a scientific term, which I love, which is "not even wrong," like you are so disconnected from reality, your answer isn't even parsable as right or wrong. It's "not even wrong." And a lot of James Bond physics fall into this category, so we were surprised when we started crawling through all the movies. We bought the entire set, and we literally had an intern scrubbing through the stunts and we kept on being like, "No, can't touch that. Can't touch that."
On the other side of the equation are the Fast and Furious movies where there were several stories and we might've tackled one or two from that series. I can't quite remember, but I do know that there were a couple on our list the entire time that we were just never able to do for budgetary reasons because the stunts in Fast and Furious movies are so gigantic. We wanted to.
In one of the films, they drag a giant bank vault behind two cars. We went way down the road of trying to make that work. The difficulty is there are no roads that anyone wants to give you permission to tear up.
We have a 20-ton steel box, which is fairly easy to build and you want to drag it behind two cars, which is also itself, engineering-wise, not incredibly difficult, albeit spectacular. The hangup turns out to be finding a roadbed that we could afford to go to and film that we could tear up and then we would repair. And that permitting process just kept us from being able to do that story.
Well, maybe when the next F9 comes out this summer, we can do a mini MythBusters and just something more like "does The Rock really sweat that much?"
"Is it really true he hasn't had candy since '80s?"prevnext
Part of the joy of the show for audiences was seeing your enthusiasm, and the infectious enthusiasm of all of your co-hosts, and how that has spilled over onto social media and live events over the years. It's clear you guys were the people we saw on TV and you weren't playing characters, but do you feel like the show authentically represented you or did you feel like they leaned into certain elements for more compelling TV, like, "Oh let's lean more into the tension between Adam and Jamie on this myth"?
Oh, it's both all the time. It is both all the time. It's very interesting. My experience was that when I first started appearing on camera and I first started really learning the character that I was on camera, because, despite the fact that if you met me and became my friend, you would feel that the person you saw on MythBusters was very close to the person you know, right? What you see, you're right. What you see with all of us hosts is largely what you get.
However, the requirements of television are that you're still playing a version of yourself that is punched up by a little bit and it's just the necessity of the television camera asks a little bit more in order to look like it's happening at the same baseline. So I like to point out that the television camera is like me plus 10%, right? It's me pushed outwards with a little more volume, a little more energy, about 10%.
And since, in the last five years that I've become a full-fledged YouTuber, what I notice is that for YouTube, it's like me plus 5%. It's less than what television requires, but it's still a little bit of like an augmented version and it's just that the camera kills some of your enthusiasm. It adds 10 pounds and it kills some of the passion in your face. And so you've got to bring it out and that's a process of just watching yourself.
For all five of us, the same thing that happens to all normal people happened at the beginning, which is watching ourselves on camera was appalling. Watching yourself speak on camera is just awful. And then after a period of time, and I feel like it's different for everybody, you gain some remove. You start to understand the relationship you have with the camera.
The preamble to what I'm about to say is the relationship between talent and their camera person is not ... you could do good work on television without a great camera person, but having a camera person you have a connection to makes such a huge difference to your performance and MythBusters was very lucky. We had a succession of amazing camera people throughout our entire run that are still some very close friends of mine and of the other hosts. We chewed on a lot of the same mud together and that really helps to bring out that character that you're bringing to the television.
Regarding editorial, absolutely they punch stuff up to make more drama out of it and you've got to do that because reality doesn't fall into neat and tidy narrative arcs, you know? We build a narrative on television and maybe it's me making fun of Jamie for saying that Lexan was bulletproof and knowing that there's like six camera takes of him saying "bulletproof" so when he denies it, I can make a lot of fun of him. Jamie doesn't feel one way or the other about that kind of malarkey and, in fact, he finds it a little disingenuous. At the same time, as a producer of reality television, you look for the story. We didn't manufacture relationships at all, but that's not to say that in the beginning days, production absolutely did pit Jamie and I against each other editorially and, actually, we didn't like that. So we stopped that for the most part.
So some of the conflicts you see between us in the first couple of seasons are genuine, but we didn't realize that they were being pushed farther than we were comfortable with. So Jamie and I really, very specifically, lower the volume on that in subsequent seasons and felt much better about the output because of that.prevnext
When the show first started, obviously you had no idea what it would become, but it was surely an unconventional experience from the start. In both the positive and negative ways, do you remember the first time you thought, "I can't believe this gets to be my job," and, conversely, a time you thought, "I can't believe this has to be my job?"
Oh, that second one never happened to me. Seriously. Not to say that there weren't moments where I wasn't uncomfortable, or unhappy, or injured, which I wished such a thing had not happened, but I was always eternally grateful, counting my blessings for the job that was MythBusters. And I think all of us felt that way. As for the first moment that you described of, "I can't believe I get to do this," we frequently referred to that -- that was a moment that happened to everyone on the crew probably a couple of times a week each. Seriously.
The first time I experienced this moment was with shooting the [pilot episodes]. In shooting the pilots, we had six weeks to make three episodes, which sounds like a lot of time, but we were doing three myths per episodes, so it was nine myths in six weeks and we didn't do it linearly the way we did it later when we were in MythBusters production where it was like myth, finale, shoot. Myth, finale, shoot. This was like, we did the set up on all nine stories for about a month and then spent two weeks knocking them down. And it was a slog.
But the very first story I think we were doing was "Lawn Chair Larry," was raising me off the ground using helium weather balloons and I'm sitting in a lawn chair with a BB gun straddled across my lap, a hundred feet off the ground and the press is downstairs and the police show up. And I cannot believe that, I'm like, "Who is paying for me to do this? This is insanity. Literally, this is like the fulfillment of my 10-year old dream. I can't believe this is happening," and we felt that. We basically shortened it to what we call the "MythBusters moment," and we would just turn to each other and go, "I'm having one of those MythBuster moments. You're like, "Yeah."prevnext
Grant Imahara: Master Impressionist
All fans were shocked by Grant Imahara's passing last year, as we felt such a connection to him after seeing him on the show for years and following his career afterward. Despite feeling like we knew him intimately, is there anything fans might be surprised to know about him?
I constantly found Grant's kindness to be one of the more surprising aspects of his wonderful personality. Grant was unerringly generous with his time, with his information, with his input, incredibly intelligent as a maker, as an engineer, as a manager, as a television personality. Just was a prodigious brain, but the kindness, seriously, Grant's the kind of friend who helped all of his friends move. He's the kind of person who if you told him you were setting up a shop, he'd come help you set that shop up.
Just so generous and I was lucky to have two whole families with Grant. One was the Industrial Light & Magic model shop family, and then was the MythBusters family. And then post-MythBusters, Grant went down to L.A. and built a whole 'nother family down there and I got to meet some of those lovely folks. Again, we're all telling the same stories, just over a period of about 25 years of this, of this lovely human being who was so giving of themselves.
Also, this might not have been clear; Grant was an insanely good impressionist. He would do impressions of other model makers that would keep us in stitches. My impression of Jamie, where I'm using my fingers as the mustache, that's Grant's impression. I stole that directly from him, told him I was stealing it for television, then he was like, "That's totally cool, man." Grant was incredibly good at doing impressions and you can't be good at impressions if you don't love people, if you don't watch them and see them for what they are and see them for who they are, and you love that, and then you bring that out. His impressions were never cruel. Comedy frequently can ride that gray line. Not the way Grant did it. His impressions were always really with kindness.prevnext
A Different Path
You've been connected to MythBusters in various ways since the show officially ended, but if there was a world where everyone agreed to getting back together for a reboot, even Jamie somehow, would you be on board or would a MythBusters revival be impossible without Grant?
Well, I don't know if Grant is the limiting factor. I don't think anything would pull Jamie out of retirement to come do it again. I mean, that's fine. That's his choice. I think it would take a lot to pull me out of the retirement of being a MythBuster.
Part of it is also that that was a period in my life, one that changed my whole life, and I am so grateful for it, but it's in the past. The kinds of things that I'm interested in doing now are similar but different and I'm just on a different path now. Again, that's not to say you can never say never because I love the idea that this franchise, which is just about Discovery using the scientific method, there's nothing more satisfying to me than that there's been so many iterations and that there seems to be an appetite for more. But I am older than I was when I first started this and I think it's to younger generations to take it on and run with it, which is, again, totally fine with me.prevnext
No Stone Left Unturned
You tested hundreds of myths over the years and even revisited some to ensure you hit things from all angles. Five years later, are there any myths you tested that you still feel like you could have gotten a more definitive answer from, if you had another day or week to work out some kinks?
No, not for me. A couple of things at the very end of MythBusters were really remarkable. One was that we were able to know a year in advance that we were going to end the show, and two was that Discovery was an unbelievable partner in allowing us to take that last season and make it a goodbye season. And in doing that, we looked at every fan suggestion we had ever gotten, every single one, we looked at every master list we'd ever made of unproduced stories.
Then we went back over everything that we produced and we asked ourselves, "If we could tackle this again, would there be a fundamentally more interesting or different or deeper result?" While certainly, there are some smaller, less spectacular experiments where I'm sure that would have been the case, for the majority of the stuff we did, we did the Alcatraz escape in Season 1, and I consider it still one of the best executions ever done on camera of what that escape has actually been like. I'm so grateful for that. We looked over Alcatraz because it's one of our all-time favorites and thought, "Could we do it again?" And we just realized, "No, we'd just be doing the exact same thing a second time."
So that's my way of saying we actually looked at the whole roster of stories. While I know that some of them are strong and some of them are weaker, the fact is there were none that we've considered needing a complete redo in order for us to get to a result we felt really powerful about. I don't want to give the impression that I think that all of our answers were right. That's not what the show was about. We did have to make a call -- Busted, Plausible, or Confirmed -- but that's not where the soul of the show rested for the hosts and the production.
The soul of the hosts and the production was, "Have we communicated how to get to this result?" I mean, even if I don't stand by our results on MythBusters, I stand by our methodologies. That was where we really worked to, even though we were doing sometimes experimental iterations of one and two, which is ludicrous to come to a conclusion based on that, we still felt that if we could do a hundred [tests], that methodology would have yielded a bonafide answer. And so that's the thing, we felt that those methodologies were all pretty strong over the years.prevnext
"I'm Still Having a Blast."
Many audiences will look at your work on the series and consider it a dream job. Do you look back at the series as having been your dream job and now everything has to compare to being on MythBusters, or was it merely a great opportunity that has shown you what your dream job really is?
Oh, I have no idea what my dream job is. I mean, my joke is I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. But the reality is that I like making things. I like communicating my experience and teaching people about science and discovery and innovation and creativity. I consider myself to be a professional permission machine in that everything that I enjoy about my life now and have enjoyed for the past 53 years I've been on this earth, has been brought about because of the passions that I have for building things, for telling stories, for learning things, and acquiring skills that communicate that experience.
I'm eternally grateful for every weird, wonderful, bizarre opportunity I get to tell those kinds of stories, whether it's on television, whether it's in film, whether it's on YouTube, whether it's on stage, whether it's in audio. I am agnostic as to the medium. So right now I'm ecstatic and really enjoying what we're doing at Tested.com, my YouTube channel. The team at Tested is stronger than it's ever been. We've been able to maintain our full staff throughout the entire lockdown, which I'm incredibly grateful for. And these stories are delightful to tell and they change over time. To a certain extent, I try and be aware of what's working and what I think maybe could use some work, but it's a process. As a lifelong freelancer, I'm always thinking about what's next and I've always got irons in like two or three other fires.
I'm really dying to get back out on stage and perform in front of people and so I'm working on a project with that in mind, probably for mid-2022. I'm not sure when that could come to fruition. I don't know what stage shows are going to be like in a post-COVID world, but I'd like to be a part of it. So I'm starting to do some writing in that regard. For me, it's linear. Each thing builds upon the past thing and I'm still having a blast.
I know I'm not alone in saying that your passion for science is infectious, whether it was on MythBusters or now through Tested and social media, it's evident just how much you love the practical application of some heavy concepts to remind audiences of all ages just how much fun it is to explore things you're curious about and I'm confident in saying you've helped inspire an entire generation of new scientists.
I really appreciate that. I'm so grateful for the time we got to do that show and there is a way in which it showed up that was so organic that doesn't happen anymore. When we first shot those pilots, we had a crew of, in addition to Jamie and I, I think four people, maybe five. It was incredibly tiny and television doesn't get made that way anymore, for the most part. I think that that's sad because when you send out a crew of 30 people with a whole bunch of cameras, it's hard to grow something remarkable from a tiny little germinative seed, but that's really what happened with MythBusters. The show sort of grew up around the five hosts and what our enthusiasms were, and that was only possible because of, really, I feel like the very low expectations for reality television way back in those days.
Nowadays, there's been so many tens of thousands of hours of reality that have been made, everybody has an idea about how to get more drama out of this and get more narrative out of this. But back then, it was personality-driven. Narrative reality television was so nascent that I feel like MythBusters was a really lucky and delightful accident. There is a way in which I share that experience with my other co-hosts and those of us that went through that ringer, we share an intimate thing that nobody else got to see, in a way. Our experience was really, really unique to be at the middle of that maelstrom and, like I said, it changed my life, and for that, I will be forever grateful.
You can keep up to date with Savage's latest projects on Tested.com.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.prev