On June 17, 1985, a media entrepreneur named John Hendricks took a chance on his dream, and launched what has become the largest nonfiction media company in the world, the Discovery Channel.
Amazingly, that means that the channel will turn 25 years old on Thursday, and several of the network's shows are celebrating the anniversary by running special episodes.
For "MythBusters," one of the network's top-rated shows, that meant the chance to put together an episode touting its five hosts' top 25 favorite moments. Since its debut, there have been 191 "MythBusters" episodes featuring 2,326 experiments, so it couldn't have been easy to pick just 25 to call out.
But that's exactly what the five hosts--Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, Grant Imahara, Kari Byron, and Tory Belleci--did. Sifting through mountains of potential choices, the group found 25 moments they felt were worthy of being featured above the 2,301 that didn't make the cut.
That episode will air on Wednesday night. But the two main "MythBusters," Savage and Hyneman, were willing to talk ahead of time with 45 Minutes on IM about the process of choosing a top 25 list, and about their years doing the show. If it's trying to see if it's possible to kill someone by dropping a penny, or smashing two cars together at high speed, or splashing a person into a waterslide from across a valley, the two have shown no fear in putting their bodies, and their reputations, on the line.
Q: Welcome to 45 minutes on IM. Let's start from the top. Tell me about your favorite "MythBusters" moments.
Adam Savage: My first favorite moment was during the filming of "Penny Drop." (See video below.) Will a penny dropped from the Empire State Building kill you when it hits the ground? We had figured out the terminal velocity of a penny with math, but I built a wind tunnel to demonstrate it physically, because I wanted to see it happen. I was so pleased with the successful wind tunnel, specifically because it physicalized the experience rather than represent it with dry numbers.
I have to say also that feeding a giant octopus at the Monterey Bay Aquarium was incredible too.
Truly, standing under our lead balloon, a 14-foot-diameter helium floating balloon made of 28 pounds of lead, has to rank as one of both of our favorite moments either shooting or watching the show. That episode demonstrates the internal process and how thrilling we find it, better than any other. Though the recent "Waterslide Wipeout" is pretty amazing as well.
Jamie Hyneman: For me, it was seeing an elephant shying away from a mouse. Also, seeing the first Rocket car take off across the desert. We shot that during the first pilots filmed in the summer of 2002.
Is that when the car exploded on the ramp?
Savage: No, that was the second rocket car. The first one had Jamie (Hyneman) remote-controlling a Chevy from a helicopter. I've never seen him smile that big.
So, who was killed by the penny? Did you sacrifice an intern or something like that?
Savage: Ah, nobody was killed. I got shot in the butt with a penny at its worst possible terminal velocity--about 70mph--and all it did was piss me off. Later we built an add-on for a sniper rifle that fired the penny at about Mach 4 and it still wasn't enough to break the bone of the skull we'd embedded in ballistic gel. So no matter how fast, a penny cannot kill you. Maybe it's different at like 20,000 miles an hour, but we haven't gotten there yet.
Jamie has a story he's always wanted to test: How fast does a wet noodle have to be going before it's lethal. We found a place in New Mexico [where] we may be able to test this. Maybe someone's spilled ramen could jeopardize the space station or something like that.
Why does it take going to New Mexico to do something like that?
Savage: We filmed the finale of "Compact Compact"--where we threw two cars together at the speed of sound--at New Mexico Tech, and they have incredible testing facilities, including a gun arrangement that can accelerate an object up to 16,000 miles an hour. A wet noodle was the first thing both Jamie and I thought of.
You've done so many amazing things. What is it about the moments you named above that make them your favorites?
Savage: It's hard to say. For me, they fall into a few categories: moments where we elegantly did our job (communicating what's going on) the best. Moments where we were just doing something so cool that we never imagined we'd be doing it. And moments where we can't believe that someone is paying for us to, for instance, swim time trials in syrup.
Hyneman: It's the results that are surprising, even results where we've totally screwed up, and then learned something in the process, are the ones that stand out. Having our preconceptions overturned is actually thrilling for us.
That leads to another question I wanted to ask: Talk about the notion of "Failure is always an option."
Savage: Well, people always imagine a scientist sets up an experiment to prove something. When it doesn't, they imagine him saying "my experiment was a failure." In fact, a real scientist sets up an experiment to test something. If he was wrong about his preconceptions, he's far from upset. In fact, it means something else entirely new has been illuminated. This is how it is for us, and thus we say that any experiment that yields data, even if we were wrong about what that data would be, is a successful experiment.
Do you guys do consider yourselves scientists, and not just entertainers who do experiments? Not that I dispute that in any way.
Savage: Not at all.
Hyneman: If we knew what we were doing we wouldn't be entertaining.
Savage: We're not a demonstration show, and that's largely the type of show that scientists have hosted. We are unencumbered by actual training, so the narrative of "MythBusters" is one of us filling in the substantial blanks in our knowledge by experimentation. Let's say that we're experimenters who are entertaining.
Going back to the 25 top moments episode, how did you pick your favorites?
Savage: Each of the five hosts selected their 10 favorite (there was a lot of overlap) and we assembled all the choices into a single two-hour episode. It was crazy fun to talk about our favorite moments in long form. I also love how the blue-screen stuff worked out. We've been wanting to do an episode like this for a long time.
I'm sure some moments on the show have fallen flat. Why does that happen, and what would be an example?
Savage: Usually it's because we're working under very limited time constraints. We are often in the position of wanting to go further with a story but we run out of time. We'd also love to regularly do more than one trial of something. An example of an episode we screwed up was "Sniper Scope," where we tested a Vietnam-era myth of a sniper shooting another sniper through his scope. We busted it and then got better data regarding both the scope and the ammo. We reassembled the story and re-did it about four months later and proved it was possible. Good for us, too, because we didn't like the thought of pissing off snipers. Both of us are kind of working out these answers as we go, by the way.
After all these years, how do you keep from being jaded about it--assuming you're not?
Hyneman: It's not like we have to try. We're just reacting naturally and still enjoying the work.
Savage: Since the show is largely based on our curiosity, and our satisfaction of it, it remains thrilling.
Does it still surprise you that you get paid to spend your time satisfying your curiosities?
Hyneman: Yes and no. Yes because it's so unlikely that we would have a job that is so much fun. And no because it seems that if we're having fun, then the audience is having fun as well and that makes for good TV, and they keep tuning in and our ratings stay high.
What's something you've always wanted to be asked, but haven't been?
Savage: You want us to do your job for you?
Savage: I'm kidding. Honestly, we've been asked just about everything. I can't say that there's a burning topic we want to talk about, but are stifled. Heck, we've been asked what superhero we'd be. I think both of us said Batman.
Hyneman: We'll keep away from politics, religion, and direct product commentary for obvious reasons, both social and economic. That doesn't mean we don't have strong opinions on all of those.
Does that mean you wouldn't consider doing an experiment related to BP's catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?
Hyneman: Yeah, we're getting a lot of that lately. There was a 25,000-strong Facebook petition asking us to come fix it. I'm not sure we could but we'd love to try.
One of the things I love most about being a reporter is that I get access to worlds I'd never access otherwise. And that seems very much true for you guys too. Can you talk about that dynamic a little bit?
Savage: Absolutely. The people, places, processes, facilities, materials, and general subject matter we encounter in this job are a polymath's dream come true. We both have the experience doing this show where we showed up with what we thought was a good roster of skills, and we'll be leaving this show (whenever it's done) with far more skills and experience than we ever thought possible. Also, when we meet experts in their fields who are familiar with the show they treat us so nicely, almost as peers, and we get a glimpse into their world that we'd never have otherwise. We're off to the wind tunnels at NASA Ames Research Center [in Mountain View, California] tomorrow, one of our favorite playgrounds.
I've really enjoyed my two visits to M5 Industries. What's it's like for you to go to work there each day? Does it feel like an adventure?
Savage: It's not quite that romantic. I mean, we're excited by much of the work, but as executive producers as well as talent (and builders) it's a lot of work. We're mostly concerned with what's in front of us. At the end of the day we're both dirty and cut up and exhausted. The day-to-day is pretty blue collar.
What do you think would most surprise a "MythBusters" fan, besides the fact that you two say that you're not friends all that much outside of the show?
Savage: I think Jamie's dark, dark sense of humor is surprising. As well as how friendly he is to visitors. But, yeah, we don't hang out at all--at all--outside of the show. And strangely I think that's one of the reasons the partnership between us is strong.
The thing that seems to surprise people most when they meet us is that we're pretty much what you see on the show. What you see is what you get.
We've talked about this in the past, but as more time has come and gone, talk about the dangers you face personally?
Savage: We've both gotten more cautious. After the better part of a decade of replicating dangerous circumstances, one feels after awhile that one's number is up. We are suitably spooked every time we head out.
"Waterslide Wipeout" (see video below) and "Duct Tape Bridge" were filmed within days of each other. That was a harrowing couple of weeks. We were very sore.
One last question, and one I ask all my 45 Minutes on IM guests. I like instant message because it's great for getting a great transcript and for being very thoughtful and articulate. But it's also great for multitasking. So tell me, what else have you been doing during this interview?
Savage: I'm not wearing any pants. Jamie is cooking a pig's head on the barbecue, and in fact we're on a boat.
None of the above is true.
Aw, now I have that Saturday Night Live song "I'm on a boat" in my head.
Well, i want to thank you so much for your time.
Savage: Thank you. We had fun. I mean *I* felt something.
Correction, 1:21 p.m. PDT: This story initially overstated the ranking of "MythBusters" on Discovery Channel. "MythBusters" is one of the highest-rated shows on the network.
Looking ahead: On June 24, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my preparations for the project on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip.