If a 13-year-old show — with six Emmy nominations and zero wins in its first 12 years — snags another Emmy nomination, could that validate the term “lucky 13”?
Maybe, if it’s “Mythbusters.”
“I love ‘lucky 13,’ considering we’ve spent our entire show debunking superstitions,” says Adam Savage, who, with fellow host Jamie Hyneman, has conducted roughly 2,800 experiments disproving — and sometimes proving — the plausibility of nearly 1,000 urban legends, myths and common misperceptions since filming began in 2002.
Luck was also involved in Hyneman and Savage becoming hosts of what’s now Discovery’s longest-running series.
“The idea for ‘Mythbusters’ was actually a creation of Beyond Prods. out of Sydney,” Savage says. Producers had trouble finding the right host until they remembered meeting Hyneman and Savage when the duo created a robot for “Robot Wars” in the early 1990s. They contacted Hyneman, who asked if Savage was interested in co-hosting.
“Unbeknownst to Jamie, I’d just purchased the first Apple Powerbook devoted to editing digital video, and had been teaching myself the rudiments of filmmaking,” Savage recalls. “I showed up with my camera, we filmed a couple of hours, I cut a 14-minute demo reel on my laptop and we sent it in.”
Everything happened quickly. “Jamie called me on a Monday, we filmed the demo reel on a Tuesday, it got to Discovery by Friday, I think, and the camera crew showed up 2½ weeks later to film three pilots,” Savage says. “We have not stopped filming ‘Mythbusters’ since.”
Each of those pilots covered three myths. “I was like, ‘Well, that was fun, but that’s all the urban legends I know, so I don’t see this going anywhere,’ ” Hyneman adds. “That was 13 years ago and we’re still going.”
One of the first experiments they taped had Savage in a lawn chair 100 feet above ground suspended by weather balloons. That’s when they realized doing experiments themselves would engender viewer trust.
The show matured along with its hosts. Episodes grew from simplistic, linear narratives into more complex scientific tales. Savage and Hyneman learned how to behave on camera and have adapted the types of experiments they perform to ensure viewers see the process as well as the result.
“After 13 years of making this show, I’m really clear that my job is that of a storyteller,” Savage says.
He says Discovery has been a terrific partner over the years, occasionally suggesting ways to freshen the show and brand. “Some of their ideas were great, and some we didn’t agree with,” Savage says, noting that it’s not only important to keep things fresh for viewers, but also to keep everyone on the show from growing bored of doing the same thing a thousand times over.
The most recent change is the 2014 departure of three popular myth-busting personalities: Kari Byron, Grant Imahara and Tory Belleci.
“ ‘Mythbusters’ initially started with Jamie and Adam at the forefront,” says Denise Contis, Discovery Channel’s exec VP of production and development. “We said, ‘You know what? Let’s go back to that,’ We love Kari, Tory and Grant — they’re all still members of the Discovery family, and we’re looking at doing other projects with them again — but with Jamie and Adam we’re going back to the magic that launched the series.”
Contis says the new season looks different, too. “We’ve got some great new technological changes and higher-resolution cameras. The shots are spectacular. Beautiful.”
But what’s evolved most over time is the crew’s safety procedures.
“At this point, with hundreds and hundreds of explosive events and other dangerous situations, Adam and I have a pretty strong intuition about what we should be doing and what we shouldn’t, and how to do it safely,” Hyneman says. “At the same time, there’s also something hovering in the back of our minds that sooner or later the odds are going to get you if you’re playing around with this kind of stuff. We’re very cognizant of that and never, ever, let our guard down.”
Yet accidents do happen.
“There was a cannonball that ended up going through someone’s house and damaging another person’s car farther away,” Savage says. “That’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to us. Thankfully nobody was hurt in that incident and it changed every way in which we approach safety. Before that we would have told you we prized our safety practices, but we’ve gotten even more robust with them.”
Truth be told, the most-common workplace accidents among the “Mythbusters” crew involve stitches for cuts and mending broken fingers.
“The worst injuries we’ve had have been from the blast panels,” Hyneman says. “They weigh close to a couple hundred pounds so if your finger gets between them, the finger is going to break. Adam was the latest one.”
“It was from moving safety equipment,” Savage says. “Yes, I know. Irony.”
Hyneman insists the most dangerous task they perform is simply driving to and from location shoots. Yet he and Savage spend a good deal of time on the road with their live tour, “Mythbusters: Jamie & Adam Unleashed!,” where they perform experiments and test theories, like modern day magicians who let the audience in on how things are done.
Both men are pleased at the diverse audience their shows — both television and live — attract. “When we look across the audiences the thing that astounds us the most is how evenly distributed the demographics are,” Hyneman says.
“Every race, color, creed, age, gender you can imagine,” Savage adds. “There are families with kids, old couples, college kids, grizzled engineers from every facet of engineering — from computer to hydraulic to geological, I love that. I love how wide the ‘Mythbusters’ demographic is.”
“You’ve got to figure we’re doing something right — and we’re doing it with science- and engineering-based topics,” Hyneman says, noting the upcoming November and December tour dates will be his last. “I’m approaching 60 now, and it was only about a year ago that I was tied upside down on a bungee cord trying to bungee jump for apples. Come on! I’m an old man!”
So for the series, Savage says, “Every show has its bell curve, and I don’t know where we are on ours. You know there’s going to be an end, but you don’t know when it’s going to come. But we’re planning to keep doing this show until they come and lock the doors.”
Jamie and Adam’s Top Five Favorite Busts
Asking Hyneman and Savage which of the nearly 1,000 myths, urban legends and misconceptions they’ve tackled over the years is their favorite is worse than asking a parent to choose a favorite child. But they did share some of their more memorable experiments.
Can you really raise a sunken boat using ping-pong balls?
Hyneman notes that there are multiple ways to get the ping-pong balls into the sunken ship. “I realized if I got a big, gas-driven water pump like you’d use to pump out your basement in a flood, I could put that at the surface of the ocean and pump water into a tube going down into the sunken boat and pour the ping-pong balls into the stream of water so they’d flow down with the water. It was looking at a relatively complex problem that you could approach all sorts of ways and finding some really inventive and sneaky solutions.”
Can methane explosions in a sewer really cause manhole covers to blow into the air?
“Jamie managed to find a university that was doing some groundbreaking work in this field,” Savage says. “Not only did they help us out, but our experiment became part of a published paper on exactly this phenomenon. And the height that our manhole covers went to exceeded all of the scientists’ expectations. So we’re co-authors of this scientific paper, and to me it’s incredibly exciting to have contributed to it.”
“Polishing a Turd”
Is the old adage true that you can’t polish a turd?
To bust this theory, the Mythbusters used dorodango — a technique children in Japan use to turn mud into shiny spheres — on animal dung and it worked. “There’s a certain technique, using just your hands and rubbing a certain way and taking it in and out of the fridge, which sweats moisture to the surface, that can turn mud into something as shiny and smooth as a ball bearing,” says Hyneman. “They can be quite beautiful because of striations in the dirt, but we used poo from the zoo. It turned out to be a fascinating story about the physics involved to create an almost perfectly spherical object that’s glasslike on the surface.”
Could a penny dropped from a skyscraper embed itself in the sidewalk or even kill someone on the ground?
“In 2004 we were in testing the idea that a penny dropped from the Empire State Building would kill you when it hits the ground,” Savage says. “We had math that said how fast a penny would go, but I wanted to show that empirically on the show. So I ended up building this unique little wind tunnel that showed a penny had two different terminal velocities. That was the first time I realized that I could actually tell these stories in a really visual way.”
Could a balloon made of lead actually float?
“We made a balloon out of lead that was 14 feet across, filled it with helium, and it flew, but the lead was .0007 of an inch in thickness, and the whole balloon weighed 28 pounds,” Hyneman says. “There’s a good reason they don’t normally make balloons out of lead, so why would you want to do that? Well, for us, we see it as an adventure in how to problem-solve, how to deal with these materials and processes. And in a larger way it teaches us a tremendous amount about how the world works — physical materials and processes. That translates to 100 other attempts we’ve been successful at because of the bits of information we gleaned from that experience.”