SAN FRANCISCO--It's an age-old question. Who's the better driver, navigator, or packer--men or women? These are some of the least settled unknowns in the battle of the sexes, but ones perfect for the MythBusters.
With an episode that will air next year but which was taped over the last few weeks on Treasure Island, halfway between San Francisco and Oakland, the mega-hit Discovery Channel show is braving the potential wrath of millions of members of the losing gender by trying to find out the answers.
Usually, the MythBusters conduct their experiments by themselves, either in warehouses in San Francisco or in a few locations nearby. But for this one, they enlisted the assistance of dozens of everyday men and women who were asked to come and lend a hand, but who didn't have any idea what they'd be doing. They just knew they might get the chance to help the MythBusters.
The story of the day was car-packing tests. One after another, a man and a woman were each given an empty car and 10 minutes to try to get 28 individual items in it. They'd be judged on their work with the cars in six categories: packing, neatness and efficiency, comfort, drivability, delicate item packing, and total time taken. Also, they needed to ensure there would room in the cars for a driver, a front-seat passenger, and a baby.
This was just one experiment out of six pitting men and women against each other that would be included in the episode. In addition to packing, driving, and map-reading, the MythBusters would also be testing men's and women's acumen at grilling, multitasking, and reading emotional cues. For each, 10 men and 10 women would be brought in. The results wouldn't be known for some time, long after this article publishes.
Was it scientific? Probably not, but it was probably a big enough sample size--one of the biggest the show had ever worked with--to draw some meaningful conclusions, MythBusters co-host Adam Savage told me. "We do stand by our results," Savage said. "We stand by our methodologies. Given a larger sample size, we would have some real numbers."
Today, Savage was basically running the show. The judges for each round were co-hosts Jamie Hyneman and Kari Byron. As each set of volunteers spent their frenetic ten minutes packing, Hyneman and Byron sat in a nearby tent, blind to the gender of the person packing each car. The idea was to weed out their biases, Savage explained.
When I arrived, Wayne Covington and Tristen Shannon were about to take their turns at packing. Their 10 minutes started, and the two ran toward their cars, Shannon working on the car decked out with red tape, Covington on the one with blue tape.
Covington and Shannon ran around, stuffing the gear into their cars, the minutes ticking down. Savage looked at the countdown clock and yelled out, "Two minutes!" Shannon ran around and said, "Too hard!"
And then it was over. "Three, two, one," Savage yelled. "Stop packing!"
It was clear right from the get-go that neither of the two had done a particularly good job. Shannon's car was stuffed, but the trunk wouldn't close since things were spilling out of it. Covington had gotten nearly everything in the car but had forgotten one very important item.
"You forgot the baby," Byron asked incredulously when she went to inspect Covington's car. "I would say that on the priority list, that's pretty high."
Other items that had to go in the car included a (toy) dog in a carrier, and a pie. Covington had gotten each in his car, but Byron wasn't too impressed. "I'm going to say the efficiency of the drippy pie is pretty low," she said of the now-crushed desert. With the baby missing, and a ruined confection, not to mention an overflowing trunk, Byron was still critical. "Not good, not good," she said. "I'm...going to say I'm not going to take a road trip with this person."
After the initial inspection, it was time to put the cars through their drivability test. They'd laid out a small track, and Savage got behind the wheel. Quickly, he peeled out, Byron and Hyneman also in the car, and the wheels screeched as he raced around the track.
But mid-ride, a skateboard, which had been sticking out of the trunk of Shannon's car, went flying. Upon returning to the starting point, Savage got out and said, "We have to invent a whole new penalty for not being able to close the trunk." Then he looked around and said, "Where's the skateboard?"
Over at Covington's car, Savage noticed that a box of eggs had fallen onto the floor and gotten crushed. Other things had flown around so violently during the driving test that Savage saw some actual benefit in Covington's having forgotten to pack the baby--it would have surely been killed by the items that went flying around inside the car as Savage drove.
A cameraman started shooting Hyneman's assessment: "We've got broken eggs on the floor, the cake's upside down, the dog's upside down," Hyneman said to the camera. "There's potential injury to the passenger because of objects flying out....Not so good."
Soon, it was time for another pair to try their hands at packing. Ten minutes of frenzied work, later, the judges walked over to the cars to see how the two volunteers had done.
I walked alongside Hyneman, who seemed pleased with the car he was looking at. But I pointed out that the packer hadn't left room for a passenger--and then realized I had unintentionally influenced the results. "Oh, yeah," Hyneman said. "I was about to [score them high], but there's supposed to be room for a passenger."
Still, Hyneman, wearing his iconic beret and white shirt, was impressed. "It's not bad," he said. "They've even got the clothing where it's not going to be crumpled." And then he noticed that the baby had been placed improperly. "I don't know how to score this," Hyneman said to the camera. "The baby's got to go. It's certainly not legal to carry the baby on your lap--so serious demerits for that."
But Hyneman was very impressed with the second car of this round. There, everything was neat and tidy, and it appeared that the packer had gotten everything inside. "This one's one of the best so far," Hyneman noted. "Except for the pie--the pie's smashed."
'I'm the packer around my house'
The volunteers who took part in the experiment had known nothing prior to their participation, but afterward, they had plenty to say about the experience of working with the MythBusters.
For Covington, a 44-year-old video production coordinator, getting a chance to do the packing test fit right into his everyday life. "I'm the packer around my house," he told me. "I'm always making the statement, 'I'll fit it all in.'"
But he'd forgotten the baby, something he now laughed at. "Of course," he said, "the single-minded, single-focused dad packed all the stuff and forgets the kid. I have [three kids] and they would be ashamed of me."
On the other hand, it wasn't the first time he'd forgotten to pack one of his passengers. Covington told me that several years back, he'd left all three of his kids at church. Still, getting a chance to be part of a MythBusters show was definitely going to help make up for his past mistakes. "It's pretty exciting," he said. "I've gained all sorts of cool points with my" kids.
As for Shannon, a 43-year-old home remodeler, she knew that she hadn't done so well with her packing job. "I think I did OK," she said, "though I think my husband would be disappointed in me."
I asked her about losing the skateboard, and Shannon laughed. "Well, I don't ride it," she said, and then teased her competition. "I don't care. I got the baby [in]."
Shannon echoed Covington about her experience working with the MythBusters. "Meeting Jamie [Hyneman] and Adam [Savage]--if I had a bucket list, this would be on it," Shannon said proudly. "I'm going to be the coolest mom ever."