'The Question Is More Complicated Than The Answer': Making 'Mythbusters' The hosts of Discovery's Mythbusters talk about building a balloon, taking side trips, and what makes it funny when water heaters explode.
NPR logo 'The Question Is More Complicated Than The Answer': Making 'Mythbusters'

'The Question Is More Complicated Than The Answer': Making 'Mythbusters'

Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, seen during a hovercraft experiment filmed for Discovery's Mythbusters. Clay McLachlan/Discovery hide caption

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Clay McLachlan/Discovery

I have made no secret of my great affection for Mythbusters, the science-exploration, weird-experiment, giant-explosion, dummy-demolishing hour, which has been airing on Discovery since 2003. Wednesday night, as part of its 25th anniversary network-wide hootenanny, Discovery airs a two-hour special that looks back on the 25 greatest moments in the show's history. (Which are really 25 kinds of moments, so you'll see lots and lots of stuff.)

I chatted with hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman about the show, some of their favorite moments (and some of mine), and lots more. This is the first part of our discussion; in tomorrow's conclusion, they talk about marching helmets, 3D movies, and the future of special effects. Fortunately for you, I have edited my questions somewhat to make them somewhat less Chris Farley Show in places. ("Remember when you blew up that house? ...That was awesome.") Their answers, however, remain intact.

I want to start by asking you about "Lead Balloon," which is one of the ones that came up in the special. What do you think made Lead Balloon [in which an actual lead balloon was constructed, filled with helium, and floated] so great for you guys?

Adam: For one, I love that there's no explosions in it. It's completely absurd. Nobody ever needs to know how to do such a thing, build a fourteen-foot-diameter balloon out of 28 pounds of lead. And as a problem to solve, it's fairly complex. Just finding someone who could make the lead that thin took almost two years. And Jamie and I are often saying that it's during the problem-solving process where our adrenaline is at the highest. That episode really demonstrates more clearly than most others how much we enjoy that process and how deeply creative it is.

It's also a very methodical episode for you because of the painstaking way that origami [really, origami-ish] model is put together.

Adam: We've gotten a pretty good sense over the years of where we're going to run into problems and where we can let things wait until the last minute. And we knew the parameters that building this balloon had to fall within. We knew we couldn’t move the material once we laid it into position. So all the seaming had to be done -- you couldn't move any part of the balloon once you taped it together.

And I'd thought first of getting someone from an origami society to teach us how to make solid forms out of origami, but then I realized that origami is more about folding, not about building shapes. It really was a process of Jamie and I talking back and forth about it over probably a few weeks, thinking about different things, because we knew this was going to be the most difficult part, before settling on this method.

So that one took a long time to come to a conclusion.

Jamie: It took a long time for us to get the research done, but the actual build, once we were set and ready to go, took less than a week. Two days to actually do it, and there was some setup time for us. The point with that one, and I would like to say it's the point of most things that we do, is that it's about the process. It's about celebrating and savoring that process.

And that one, as Adam said, because it was such an absurd thing -- something that you don't need to know how to do -- it really highlights that all we're really interested in is that process. And we went into that, we completely built that balloon in our heads, every last detail and practically every minute of those two days, had been done beforehand in our heads before we even started to build anything.

So why are some catastrophic outcomes funnier than others? It's not necessarily the biggest explosions that are funny, but sometimes midrange abrupt explosions are much funnier, to me. What makes it funny when stuff blows up?

Adam: That's a really good question. There's a way in which the things that make us see the world in a little clearer fashion are sometimes some of the funniest. I've always thought something that makes you laugh, it makes you laugh because there's a little bit of truth to it. We rarely actually get to watch in our daily lives things being destroyed in spectacular ways. I actually prefer the low-tech explosions that we've done on the show, [like] the hot water heaters failing. That's actually one of my all-time favorite things to watch blow up.

The elevator falling down the elevator shaft [done while testing the myth that you can jump up in the air right as a crashing elevator lands and keep yourself from dying], I found hilarious.

Adam: Oh, yeah. Well, one of the things I love about doing the show is that we do that stuff in full scale, probably for the first time ever. We did an episode called "Bullet Drop Versus Fire," based on this [idea] that if you drop a bullet and fire it from the same location, they'll both hit the ground at the exact same second. And we did it in full scale, on high speed, we caught a shot of a bullet hitting the ground and another bullet fired from 400 feet away skipping off the ground in the same location. I know for a fact no one's ever wasted their time to get that shot, and that actually, in a way, thrills me.

Can you talk a little about antisocial Mythbusting? I know you declined to do homemade silencers, but you did do beating the radar detector and the breathalyzer, and the disclaimer on the one about tailgating big rigs to get better mileage [where the conclusion was that it might moderately improve gas mileage, but it is still a horrible, horrible idea] always sounds like that one was sort of right on the line. I'm just curious about what the process is -- is that about your comfort level, or are you swamped by liability attorneys, or what?

Adam: It's a group decision. It's made between us and the production company and Discovery. There are ideas that have been vetoed in the past, specifically because we really don't want to be in the business of teaching people how to do dangerous things.

And honestly, when it comes to drafting, I have a very specific answer for that. You only need to try drafting behind a big rig to know that it's one of the most frightening things you could possibly do. So I don't have any worries about anyone going out and trying that regularly, because it's absolutely freaking terrifying.

On the flip side, I assumed that the cold and flu myths episode [last week], about not spreading your germs, came at least partly out of all the flu stuff that's gone on in the last year.

Jamie: Yes, and that's one reason we were interested in it. And also, we should note that we did a PSA for the White House about sneezing, and basically saying you should stay at home if you feel sick. So we do particularly enjoy it when something that we're doing is relevant. Because a lot of the stuff that we're doing isn't.

Sometimes, it seems like what you wind up investigating isn't the same thing you were originally testing. For instance, testing skunk-smell removal methods wound up being as much about trying to get skunks to spray you in the first place as it was about how to rid yourself of skunk smells. How much do you veer off onto different paths when they come up?

Adam: Well, you've honed in on what I think is the single most favorite part, for both me and Jamie, about doing the show. Which is that the narrative really is guided by what we're interested in determining. And that is also informed by our desire to answer the original question we set out to answer, but if there are other things along the road that help to illuminate something for us, we'll absolutely make sure that gets into the episode. And that's fantastic, because it's not like you're leaving a bunch of stuff along the wayside that you'd like to be tackling; we're tackling all of that.

Jamie: It does, however, cause a bit of a conflict here from time to time. In particular, I'm notorious among the staff here for being much more interested in the little side trips that we run across than the central story, and we have to be able to tell a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and is relevant. So production's not about to let us just get halfway through something and then do something else.

So it does highlight the fact that that is, really, often the most interesting part of what we're doing, is the little tangents on the side.

Adam: It's also the thing that we've learned doing the show, which is that the question is often much more complicated than the answer. And a great example of this is running versus walking in the rain. It sounds like a very straightforward question: Do you get wetter running or walking in the rain?

But as soon as you start to try to quantify that, all these other questions come up: How heavy is the rain? What direction is the wind blowing? Are you running very fast? Are you walking very fast? How far are you walking and running? I mean, everyone can agree that after a certain period of time, you're going to get just as wet doing both. So clearly you have to arbitrarily decide on a length or distance that you're running.

And that's a great example of exactly how seemingly simple questions that everyone can understand on the surface turn out to reveal all sorts of interesting subtleties once you unpack them.