Busting Myths and Other Business

UPDATED: February 6, 2012
PUBLISHED: February 6, 2012

It might look like child’s play, all that laughing and backslapping and blowing things up. But inside the San Francisco studio where Mythbusters hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage dream up, and then rein in, the ideas for their hit TV show, there is order amid the chaos. After all, you can’t scientifically determine that it’s impossible to knock off someone’s socks without a team meeting, a whiteboard and a test dummy named Buster.

For nine seasons now, Hyneman (the one with the handlebar mustache and beret) and Savage (the redhead with the dark-rimmed glasses and the little-boy smile) have been entertaining a growing number of devoted viewers—as many as 2 million for each new episode—by looking into the veracity of urban legends and popular assumptions. Often relying on tools like black powder and remote-control ignition, and calculations involving air flow and surface area, this clever, incongruous duo garnered the No. 1 cable show rating among male viewers ages 18-54 when the 2011 season began. But it turns out that everybody, male and female, wants to know stuff like… Can you lift a car with just duct tape? (Yes.) If you dip a sleeping person’s hand in water, will they really wet the bed? (No.) Does driving while you’re angry decrease fuel efficiency? (Yes.)

Myth or Fact: Involvement?

Savage’s and Hyneman’s roles go way beyond those of traditional on-air talent. They’re just as likely to be scouting for old airplane seats to determine whether the crash position is the best way to survive a plane crash as they are to be building wild contraptions right along with the crew, or working to build their fan base, tweeting their own insights and posting to Facebook. Savage even keeps a journal of ideas so he can be more strategic in his posts.

Savage and Hyneman actually participate in just about everything but the actual voice-over narration for their weekly show on the Discovery Channel. “I think one of the reasons that we’ve had the success that we’ve had is that we are very proactive and think of this as a business,” says Hyneman. “It’s not just us showing up in front of a camera and having fun.”

Beyond TV, these guys have captivated fans online, too, with an enviable following of 4.7 million Facebook “likes.” Their Build Team, which tests additional theories in a separate studio without the leading men, also has its own Facebook following—even Buster the test dummy has some 5,000 friends. MythBusters’ online popularity is largely due to their viewing strength with males ages 18-35. But Hyneman and Savage also understood the importance of harnessing social media to engage their audience.

Online followers or viewers actually contribute about 30 percent of the ideas tested on MythBusters, although that contribution continues to grow with their successful social network presence. The remaining 70 percent of the show ideas come straight from them and their team members.

MythBusters generally tests three myths each episode. Aside from paranormal theories, which they refuse to tackle, just about anything goes. Consider these topics:

Is a kitchen sponge really dirtier than a toilet seat? Can party balloons lift a small child?If you talk to a plant, will it grow taller? Is it possible to make a candle from ear wax? Can you polish poop? Oh, and what about the effectiveness of the crash test position when you’re in a plane crash? (Yes. Yes. Maybe. No. Yes. And yes, lean forward and brace in the event of plane crash.)

With such popularity, Hyneman and Savage are in demand for marketing appearances, too—colleges, conventions and several times at the White House to help President Barack Obama promote science and math in America’s schools. They’ve guest starred on the popular CSI series, and are adept at late night TV appearances. In all, their shoot schedule produces about 22 episodes per calendar year, each of them taking an average of 18 days from start to finish. Of course, this timing all depends on a myth’s complexity, since it’s clearly more tedious to build a machine that tests gravity than it is to mail yourself a coconut, unpackaged, and wait for it to arrive. (It did.) Their workload is heavy, sometimes literally. But it’s all part of the business of being a MythBuster.

And, although they may appear at times to be undisciplined goofballs, they’re all business when they’re working. Otherwise, “we pretty much keep banker’s hours, unless we are shooting something on location,” Hyneman says. But most of the tests are done within driving distance of their Bay Area homes and the studio, M5 Industries, the workshop Hyneman started years ago as a go-to props and robotic expert. (He’s the one who hung up the sign often seen in the background: Clean up or die.)

Savage and Hyneman take weekends off and refrain from shop talk at home—unless one of them needs to explain a missing eyebrow at the breakfast table. And one other thing, they’re not buddies. They don’t text during off hours or get together for brunch with their wives or meet up at the ballpark for a Giants game. “If either of us had a free evening, the last thing we would do is call the other up,” Savage says. Their relationship, say both men, is strictly business—although we have to believe that if either were trapped in a submerged car, the other would certainly be called upon for help.

“We respect each other,” says Hyneman, who sought out Savage to co-host the show because he thought Savage’s personality was a better fit for TV. “We don’t even really like each other, and we try not to spend time together,” Hyneman says, not laughing. “This is a relationship built on differences more than anything else.”

The Road to Mythbusting

So how did this odd couple happen to produce one of TV’s most popular family hours? As different as they may be, Hyneman and Savage share a couple things in common: 1) They were not science geeks to begin with and, 2) their career paths were long and scenic, intersecting at junctures involving model-making and props, explosives and tinkering.

“I was a problematic kid, to be sure,” says Hyneman, who was just 14 when he left his hometown of Columbus, Ind., to hitchhike around the country. He eventually returned, earning a four-year degree in Russian linguistics from Indiana University. Then he set off to create one of the most diverse résumés on this planet: stuntman, props expert, robotics engineer, concrete inspector, chef, machinist, wilderness expert, boat captain, animal wrangler. In 1989, he married a woman who is now a science teacher.

Hyneman says he knew early the importance of diversifying his business. Luckily, he had the right skills. “I’ve run several of my own small businesses in my life,” he says. “It was one commercial or movie at a time and the work would come and go. How I did it was to diversify with a lot of small things.” He was always game to try something new and interesting. There was no bucket list, no scheme to get rich, quick or not. In fact, when you talk with Hyneman, you get the idea that it never occurred to him that he would become a television star, or that millions of people would want to learn things from him.

Savage, on the other hand, grew up around entertainment and the arts. The son of a filmmaker, painter and animation artist who worked on Sesame Street, Savage always loved puppets, models and dismantling and putting things back together. When he was a kid, he’d spend countless hours at a bike shop in his hometown of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., about 30 miles from Manhattan, where he would work on his own bike and help the shop owner with other repairs. Through the years, Savage has dabbled in everything from metal to glass, plastics to injection molding, and pneumatics to animatronics.

But Savage was also a bit of a ham. His New York connections landed him an early spot as a Mr. Whipple stock boy in a Don’t-Squeeze-the-Charmin commercial. When he was just 18, he appeared as a drowning teen in the 1985 Billy Joel video for You’re Only Human. (Watch it on YouTube. It looks like he’s wearing the same glasses, although probably a different prescription.) Savage also is married and shares custody of middle-school-aged twin boys from a first marriage.

In the mid-1990s, when Hyneman was at M5 making props for everything from Coca-Cola commercials to Star Wars movies, he and Savage teamed up to create the robot Blendo for a TV show called Robot Wars. The show played in the States for two years and eventually caught on in England.

In 2002, when Australian writer and producer Peter Rees started pitching the idea to network and cable owners for a show called Tall Tales or True, Hyneman’s experience with robotics and pyrotechnics put him on the producer’s short list. He got the job and then called the gabbier Savage. “I am pretty much who I seem, and it’s not a television host,” Hyneman says.

Their on-air chemistry and complementary skill sets worked. On the surface, at least, Hyneman and Savage seem to have no problem sharing the limelight. “One of the things that we do,” Savage explains, “is that Jamie and I often argue from two totally different vantage points. Then, at a certain point, it all becomes clear.” And when it becomes clear, the obstinacy stops. Usually.

And while Hyneman and Savage like to talk about their differences, it’s almost like they spend too much time doing so. Which makes us suspect they might even like each other, at least occasionally, especially when the other guy might be down.

“What’s nice about the partnership is that we can give the other space if we’re not in tip-top shape,” says Savage, discussing their often grueling work schedules. “If you burn the candle at both ends, you’d better take a few days to recuperate.”

Hmmm. Burn the candle at both ends? You have to wonder if that’s even possible.

How Does It Happen?

How do you organize your work day if your job happens to be testing the veracity of things like: Is it possible to literally knock some sense into someone? (Yes, it is.) For MythBusters hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, it all comes down to a white board.

About every three months, Hyneman and Savage meet up with a handful of their top producers and Mythmates at their studio in San Francisco to plan a half-dozen or so episodes. This is the real down-and-dirty part of their work, the part where they pitch ideas and then decide which ones will be tested. The part where they yell and laugh, gyrate and argue—yet “try to be fluid.”

“The planning sessions are the most fun we have doing the show,” says Savage, clearly the show’s on-air funny man. “We do often come to these planning meetings expecting how a story might go, but it rarely works in a linear fashion.”

So, they have an idea and they map it out. How would you drive a car over a cliff to see if it really will explode, just like in the movies? What kind of car? What kind of cliff? What kind of explosives, or just the gas tank? Where would they go? How would they watch it? (After all, the car is presumably going to disappear over a cliff.) Who’s going to be in charge of what?

“We systematically go through things and it all gets worked out in these crazy, messy drawings,” Hyneman says. “Then we photograph all that with our smartphones.”

Still, the plans aren’t carved in stone. “We know things are going to change,” Savage says. “Through the years, we’ve learned to be very light on our feet.”

Talk about a Loose Cannon…

It doesn’t always go like clockwork. While shooting footage for their 2012 season, a 30-pound cannonball about the size of a melon shot well beyond the bomb range where they were working. The loose cannon(ball) tore through a cinderblock wall, then bounced off a sidewalk in a residential neighborhood in Dublin, Ca., damaging two homes and a parked van.

 The two show hosts were not on set at the time, but later visited the homeowners. Said Savage: “It’s a wake-up call.” The MythBusters were testing whether other projectiles shot from a cannon could pick up the same speed and have the same impact as the steel ball. Savage used the opportunity to post to Twitter: “Very intense. We're SUPER relieved no one was hurt."