So, here is a complete transcript of our conversation…
Prairie Dog: How do you feel about Mythbusters becoming this big phenomenom?
Adam Savage: It’s funny, every time I’m asked about that I just want to quote Rilke from Letters To A Young Poet. In that he says, it’s vital that you remain ignorant of your best qualities. You know, the fact is the ways in which MythBusters has become successful, almost none of them were ways in which we intended. All I set out to do at the beginning — and it’s not… MythBusters wasn’t our idea — but all I set out to understand at the beginning was how we’re telling a story. And over the years, the different ways in which people reached out to us and explained the significance of the show to us – whether it’s a PhD graduate student telling us that he got into the field because of MythBusters or people describing that we’re at the intersection of critical thinking or that we got their autistic child interested in science — the ways in which MythBusters has been demonstrated to us to be significant to people, the way we deal with it is by merely taking that seriously but still doing our very best when we’re shooting the show to remain true to what we think of as the cause, which is our enthusiasms and our curiosity.
PD: It’s interesting how it’s your curiosity that drives the show and not some agenda to educate or something.
AS: I think that when people set out to do that, there’s been so many attempts by different networks to replicate MythBusters specific formula of investigation and storytelling but none of them are honest narratives. I can watch them and I can tell that what I’m watching was written down and then felt. The difference with MythBusters is while the show is not our “idea”, the show is ours. And what I mean is we have a real sense of ownership of it, Jamie and I. And when we move through an experiment and we come to a conclusion that frequently will alter what we need to shoot afterwards — and so we do. The peripatetic path that the story takes to reach its completion is absolutely genuine. And we have built over 11 years a great set of relationships with locations and people in San Francisco and the Bay Area and when it turns out we need a swimming pool at the last minutes we can go get one. When we need a landfill where we can do something really stinky like pour acid somewhere, we’ve got that relationship set. And that allows us to be really light on our feet and allows us to really follow our noses.
And, people ask all the time are you surprised by results? And the fact is, that happens more often than not.
PD: That speaks to how much preparation and work you do and the method that’s involved behind the scenes. Maybe you’re not doing “science” but you’re striving for something scientific.
AS: I wouldn’t defend our results as definitive, nearly ever. I mean, not nearly ever. Let’s say, 90 per cent of the time I would not stand by our results as definitive.
But I would always stand behind our methodology. If our methodology was carried out in a genuine fashion with a good two dozen or two hundred iterations then we really would be coming to something. The methodology is where we argue the most, between us and our crew and our director and our producer. And I don’t mean like we’re standing against them, I mean, everybody’s pitching in and saying is this the most honest way to do this? Is this the right way to do this? Have we removed enough variables? Is there a cleaner way?
And in addition we’re trying to tell a good story. So how does the audience understand this? What is the hook, the hold and the payoff for the next sequence, etcetera? But that methodology is something I always like to imagine somebody who’s a practicing scientist would go, “Well, that’s pretty darn good, you’ve done pretty well with that.” And frankly that’s where scientists regularly step up and defend us in comment sections on websites and in forums is they say very specifically— it’s one of my favourite compliments from the XKCD comic where zombie Richard Feynman shows up to educate someone who complains we don’t know what we’re doing. He says in their demonstrations that knowledge is gained experiment to experiment building empirically on one thing to the next they’re doing more to educate people about how science actually works. I really appreciate that. We both take that very seriously.
PD: Doing this show, you must have become this crazy polymath because what you cover crosses so many disciplines. Does it make dinner parties ever awkward because you’re the guy who knows all the trivia in the room?
AS: I have to remember to shut the hell up. Because, yeah, in the end if I wanted to be a bore I could be the biggest bore in the world because I’ve got the, “Oh yeah, we tested that on the show.” I get enough of being the centre of attention in my daily life at my job. I don’t need it when I’m having dinner with friends. I really don’t.
It’s funny when I meet people who I’m excited about meeting and who are excited about meeting me, good mutual admiration society dinner, like meeting with Vince Gilligan or something like that, the last thing I want to talk about is MythBusters, but of course, probably the last thing Vince Gilligan wants to talk about is Breaking Bad.
The thing you say about the polymath thing, it is one of those things where Jamie and I, on a personal and private level, that is where we find the most reward in doing this show. We love gathering skills. We love gathering new ways of solving problems. And we’ll both say almost identical answers to this question, that we thought we came to MythBusters with some skills because we both spent a decade in special effects, really cutting our teeth on solving different and weird problems every day. But what we’ve gotten in the last ten years in terms of the ability to tackle something we know nothing about, to break it down and deconstruct it and put it into its component parts and put it back together again, that ability which happens so many times, we’ll realize, “Okay, we got to figure out a way to build this,” but we don’t know how to do that, “Okay let’s figure that out,” and then an hour later we’ve got a plan, what that’s given us in terms of the ability to parse something is so wonderful and it feels really, really great.
PD: About your partnership with Jamie Hyneman, people love you guys. But on the internet there’s this famous quote of yours that you guys have never had dinner together.
PD: But when I talk to serious fans of your show, they’re often disappointed to find out that you aren’t bosom pals. They seem very invested in your relationship… and that got me thinking… is there MythBusters fanfic out there?
AS: Oh yes there is.
PD: Really? I didn’t want to Google that.
AS: Oh yeah. You know rule 34, right?
PD: Yeah. [Rule 34: If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.]
AS: So at one point, I don’t remember how I came across it, but I read one sentence of a piece of MythBusters fanfic and I was like, “That’s enough! That’s enough!” and I stopped. I didn’t want to… I would need brain bleach for what was following.
I will say, Jamie and I like to make hay at the fact that we’ve never had dinner alone together. The fact is we’ve had plenty of lunches alone together to discuss business and to talk about what needs to happen. And while it’s true that we don’t under any reasonable definition get along on a daily basis in a way that’s pleasurable — you know there’s some people you look forward to seeing because you’ve got lots to talk about. Neither Jamie nor I feel that about the other. However, that does not mean that we don’t find this partnership incredibly fruitful and rewarding. Because we do. We might drive each other batty being the very different types of personalities that we are. But within this crazy melee that only the two of us really understand —there’s no one else who’s going through it except the two of us — we’ve never really disagreed about the really big things. The morality and the money, we’ve never disagreed about those. So we’ve never disagreed about turning down really quite large sums of money to pitch for a company we didn’t want anything to do with. We’ve done that relatively effortlessly. And someday I’ll tally it up and be shocked at the number. But I’ll also be really grateful that I’ve been working with someone whose eyes are on what I consider to be exactly the right things.
We also recognize that this partnership is fruitful because of the pair of us and because of that difference. So while the difference is annoying on a temporal level, it’s very rewarding on a macro level and we really keep an eye on that.
PD: What do you have in store for Regina with Behind The Myths?
AS: I’ll tell you, we love Canada. We’ve gotten some of the most enthusiastic reactions from any audiences up in Canada. In fact, in Montreal last year, we had to do a curtain call. that’s the only time we’ve ever had to do that. I believe that when I went to get Jamie in his dressing room to say, “Dude we have to go back out on stage, the audience wants a curtain call.” He said, “What’s that?”
So, the show is about two hours. And it is not your normal MythBusters episode very specifically because on MythBusters we are the audience’s avatar, we are their experiential guide through what we’re putting ourselves through. But on stage you are always the ringleader. You can’t escape being the ringleader. So in order to bring the audience up on stage to a certain degree, we literally bring the audience up on stage. We bring about 12 to 13 people up through the course of the two hour show and we mess with them. We pit children against adults. We pit athletes against each other in feats of strength and tests of character. We alter the way that people see things. We get them to gently humiliate themselves on a high speed camera just like we have. It is really, really fun. It’s a little bit different every night because of that and for me as the primary voice, I find this show to be an education in performance that I find really invigorating.
PD: And since you’re doing such a huge tour you could do something really scientific considering you’ll have such a large, well-stratified sample participating in your experiments.
AS: Well, they’re not experiments, per se. We definitely talked about doing something like that at one point. And it was actually, it’s funny that you say it, because it was a key feature of some of the pieces that we wrote into the [Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition] that I believe is in Denver right now. And that’s a museum exhibit show that’s going to tour the country for the next five or six years based on MythBusters. And one of the things that we were really excited about writing into it was certain things like running in the rain where the data is gathered over millions of people that will be conducting the experiment over the years.
But, you know, we realized at the beginning of writing the Behind The Myths Tour that we couldn’t conduct experiments on stage per se. But we can indulge people in looking at their thinking and realizing that it’s counterintuitive. And there’s nothing more counterintuitive than the punchline to a joke. And I think that that is one of the central themes of the show, that there is something deeply scientifically true about the counterintuitive inherent in a joke.
PD: I had a myth I was wondering if you could offer some insight on. This weekend [our interview took place on Nov. 19] is the Grey Cup, that’s the championship game in the Canadian Football League. It’s happening here in Regina and the hometown team, the Roughriders, are playing. And the CFL and the Roughriders are a really big deal here. So, when you get to Regina, there will be a lot of people who’re either really disappointed because they showed up to the game and the Riders lost. Or they’re going to be really happy because they won. In light of that, I was wondering about this idea that how an audience acts during a game can influence the outcome. So, you know, how if the crowd cheers louder they can rouse their team to victory. Have you guys done anything about this on the show?
AS: You know I hadn’t considered that but that’s actually fantastic. That’s a great idea. We were talking to someone, I’m in Texas right now and we were talking to someone the other day and I was realizing — oh, it was my seat-mate — I was flying into Midland, Texas, which is a small town in the middle of a wide state with an oil boom going on and he was talking about how big sports is in these little towns. So I was thinking about how while sports was definitely not my thing in school I really understand the ways it deeply engenders a community. And how important that is, culturally. And the comparisons between sports and religion are quite apt.
But I can tell you from being a performer up on stage that the audience reaction matters greatly. It matters greatly to what you do and how you do it. If you are experienced and you are professional it doesn’t have to matter in any way that people necessarily would ever really notice unless you pointed out some very subtle things to them. And I know that I would be giving 95 per cent of the same show to a crowd of 200 as to a crowd of 10,000 that are super enthusiastic. But I also know that when I have a crowd that is super enthusiastic, you end up with more room to move. It feels like they’ll accept anything and so when you try new things you find new ways and new bits of courage to play around with that. Every comedian knows this really intimately. And I totally— This is a very interesting idea and I’m definitely putting it on the list for MythBusters. It’s a fascinating psychological thing. It’d be difficult to even tease out. But if you were able to, I’m of the opinion that it matters.
I mean, athletes talk all the time about the difficulty of winning when you’re not on your home turf. And that that is something that really sets apart the real championship teams. And I can imagine it is very, very difficult to play in a hostile stadium.