Sunday May 25, 2008
By MELODY L. GOH
Since its debut in 2003, MythBusters has gone from strength to strength, and one crazy experiment after another, thanks to an inquisitive, creative and receptive team.
DID you know that a jawbreaker that has been heated in a microwave could explode when you bite into it? And that if your feet stink, washing it with vodka can get rid of the foul odour?
It is priceless information like this, no matter how silly it may seem to some at first, that makes the popular documentary series MythBusters so interesting to watch.
For those of you who don’t know what the show is about (what, have you been living in a cave the past five years?), MythBusters is an award-winning programme that attempts to debunk myths and urban legends by way of testing them out and doing experiments. The show was created in 2002 for the Discovery Channel by producer Paul Rees from the Australian production company, Beyond Television Productions (the same company which gave us the popular 1980s documentary series Beyond 2000, and later, Beyond Tomorrow).
In 2003, MythBusters aired its first episode in the United States. It’s into its sixth season now, which is currently showing on Malaysian TV.
At the core of the show are Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, the two main hosts who helm the show with three other co-hosts. It has to be said that these two guys are so different from one another that they make the perfect pair. At least on television, that is.
“I have a strange relationship with Jamie that is built on contracts and by really deep respect for one another. We can really drive each other nuts, though, as we have a different approach to doing things and solving problems. But while we often disagree about how to proceed with something, the fact is that the moment the right answer is in front of us, we instinctively agree to it, and I find that remarkable,” Savage, 41, tells the media at an interview session with the MythBusters team and set visit to their studios in San Francisco, California, recently.
Hyneman, 52, adds: “We’ve been quoted as saying that ‘we’re not friends, we don’t like each other and we don’t hang out after work’. It’s a wonderful thing, really, because we’ve learned to make that a powerful tool in problem-solving. We irritate each other, but we’ve actually made it a rule to see things entirely differently so that if something stumps one of us, the other one will get it.
“In spite of our disgust for one another, we’re finely attuned to each other. At times on a project, we almost don’t have to talk, yet we still come to the same conclusion.”
This strange but mutual understanding that Hyneman and Savage have is only slightly evident throughout the interview. Although there is no bickering between the two, they don’t exactly seem like the best of friends either. However, they both do tend to get a little excited when talking about certain experiments. Well, at least Savage seems excited; it is a little hard to detect excitement in Hyneman’s deep droning voice that matches his stone-faced expression.
Savage reveals that the MythBusters team has encountered numerous ridiculous myths that surprisingly turned out to be true. Take, for example, the myth about an elephant being afraid of a mouse. On a trip to South Africa, the team discovered how size truly doesn’t matter.
The team was in the continent to shoot a series special on the great white shark. However, weather conditions were bad so filming was halted.
“It was expensive for all of us to be in South Africa, and we weren’t getting any footage at all. So, we decided to go inland and shoot fillers to salvage the trip,” says Savage.
“We got some elephant dung, cut a piece out of it, placed the mouse into the hole and covered it. As the elephant was walking (the team was at an elephant reserve), out popped the mouse. Almost immediately, the elephant stopped in its tracks and gently stepped back!
“That turned out to be a real surprise to all of us; it was one of the most fun experiments we’ve done so far and one of my favourites, too,” Savage continues.
However, he points out that the mouse in question was white so perhaps the elephant was just taken aback at the sight of a tiny white rodent.
“I’m sure there’d be people who’ll ask us, ‘Oh, why didn’t you use a brown mouse?’ but, to us, the experiment still worked because it fit the original myth,” says Savage. He adds that since the show’s first season, there have been many fans and viewers who regularly write in to question the MythBusters’ methods and approach when dealing with their experiments. To these, the team responds positively.
“There are many ways of doing things but, basically, we go with the method that is as close to the myth as we could. But we love getting new data on how to test something. If their methodology works, we’ll use it – why not?” says Savage.
In fact, many of the show’s projects are based on suggestions given to them by viewers. The two hosts, as well as their trio of MythBuilders-cum-co-hosts also come up with interesting subjects to try out. Says Kari Byron, 33, the only female among the five hosts, the team also goes through several websites on the Internet to find out new urban legends and myths for busting.
“I don’t think we will ever have a problem looking for experiments to do. There are loads of ideas that you can get on the Internet, and if that’s not enough, we get tons of fan mail from people who are very eager to share their ideas with us,” she notes.
Nevertheless, there are limits to what MythBusters can and will do. “We don’t do aliens or anything that has to do with the supernatural, but we would try almost anything else. It’s really not about what we’re doing but how much time we could do them in. We build almost everything ourselves. Essentially, we (the hosts) are all builders and model-makers, really,” says Hyneman.
A walk through their studios – M5 and M7, with M5 being the main set from where Hyneman and Savage work, and M7 for the other team – proves that they do indeed make their own props. At M5, a huge mechanical shark is placed on a worktable, ready for use. On the ceiling are giant figures and statues that have been used in commercials and films (which Hyneman’s company, M5 Industries Inc, has worked on), while the walls are lined with tools, materials, instruments and models labelled as “grooblies, doo-dads and geegaws”.
At M7, where Byron, Grant Imahara and Tory Belecci (both 37) are based, a skeleton sitting on a row of airplane seats is mounted on one part of the wall, while everywhere else, tools, models, wires and replicas stand quietly in their corner. Also lying quietly on a stretcher is Buster, the unofficial member of the MythBusters team.
Buster is the resident crash test dummy of MythBusters. He’s the one the team goes to when it needs “somebody” to test something that might prove to be fatal. Buster doesn’t mind, though.
Still, while Buster never complains, the things he goes through for the show are often harsh and even destructive. “We have only two dummies, Buster and Buster 2.0. The original Buster had been reconstructed so many times that we decided to make another one,” says Savage.
Buster’s abuse is proof that many of the experiments done on MythBusters aren’t the kinds you’d want to do in the comforts of your own home. From exploding toilets to jet-fuelled cars, some experiments can be very dangerous, if not done properly, of course.
“We go through safety protocols all the time. The crew really looks to us for guidance when it comes to safety on the set, so we’re responsible for everyone’s well-being and we don’t take that lightly. We can’t. So, when we’re dealing with a dangerous project, we do it in the safest way possible,” explains Savage.
Apparently, the biggest “accident” so far occurred when someone was handling the safety equipment and broke a finger or two!
The team enlists the help and consultation of retired FBI agents, the bomb squad, fire fighters and other professionals when dealing with something as dangerous as explosives.
Says Hyneman: “The longer we do the show the more afraid we get because we have to be. It’s not about the things you know that are going to kill you, it’s the things you don’t know. And if you don’t know, how are you going to deal with that? By being afraid.”
The show’s escalating popularity – the interview session and set visit is attended by about 20 journalists from five continents, a testimony to the show’s international appeal – means that the hosts and co-hosts are celebrities in their own right.
For most of them, it is hard to walk on the streets without being recognised, and getting bombarded with questions about the show. Byron recently found out that she’s a big hit among prison inmates, who request for her pictures so they can use them to trade for things!
Apart from fan mail, the team also receives items and equipment that can be used for future experiments like used cars. Savage sometimes gets cool black T-shirts which he is known for wearing all the time.
The team members hardly think of themselves as TV stars, though, perhaps because all of them simply assume the role of inquisitive people who are just curious about things. But then again, aren’t we all?
Well, maybe the MythBusters team is just a bit more curious and ingenious than the rest of us are.
The latest season of ‘MythBusters’ currently airs on Discovery Channel (Astro 551) every Wednesday at 10pm. For June, the programme moves to Thursday, 10pm. Last season’s episodes are also being shown on the channel every weekday at noon. Check ‘Astro Guide’ for the repeat schedules for both.