August 23, 2005

Adam Savage Interview - Part 1

MythBusters is easily one of my favorite shows on TV. If you've never seen it, hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman use their years of special effects experience to scientifically put urban legends to the test-- and blow up a lot of stuff in the process.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Maker of Things and Buster of Myths: Adam Savage. We covered lots of ground including the birth of the show, feeling famous, gay fan mail and lots more...

The following is Part One of our talk...


Adam, why is it so entertaining to watch you get hurt?

(LAUGHING) Well, I think it's a function of exactly why the show is entertaining. Jamie and I are not scientists. We're not experts in any field. But we have a lot of curiosity, and an uncommon ability to really throw ourselves in just about any corner of science, and really seek out what's going on. And when I get hurt, I think people like to watch it because they identify with us. We're not white lab coats, we're not, you know, boring doctors, we're just like anybody else, maybe with a few more skills.

And everyone get hurts when they're building stuff. Even Jamie occasionally. Although, that never ends up on camera.

I think on some perverse level you kind of enjoy it.

Of course! I learned very early on, there's no dignity if you want to be funny on television. Your dignity and your sense of humor are mutually exclusive.

You have a pretty eclectic resume. You've worked in the toy industry and in special effects for TV and film for years. Is hosting MythBusters your full-time job now?

Absolutely. Without a doubt it's my full-time job. Jamie still keeps his shop running while we're shooting, but it's pretty all-absorbing. We're shooting currently about 51 weeks a year.

Actually, this summer break we're having is the first break we've had in a couple of years. So it's a pretty slam-bang schedule. And between doing the show, and being newly married and having a couple of kids at home, I don't have much time for anything else.

Do you miss working in special effects?

You know, it's funny. The last place I worked in special effects was Industrial, Light & Magic, George Lucas's studio. And getting up there in 1998 was like going to heaven. I mean, this was the best place I ever imagined working and I had so much fun. But after about 3 years there I started to get restless, and to think about what's next. It's a function of working free-lance for 15 years. Where you really never knew more than a couple of weeks in advance what the hell you'd be doing. It's just always "What's next?" What's next? What's next?"

Then MythBusters fell into my lap. And it is without a doubt the next level of intensity of making things and problem solving and also it's funny to have that commensurate with the performance aspect. Because I actually started out as a child actor. I started out doing commercials in my late teens. And voice over work, and radio stuff, so I wouldn't choose anything else right now.

It's the most fun, and the hardest work I've ever done. But nonetheless, there are days, and I think everybody has them, no matter how much you love your job, when I see some carpenter sitting outside his shop with a cigarette and his morning coffee, and I think-- "Wow, the idea of just going into work where someone hands you some plans to go build something, sounds like heaven on earth."

How did you and Jamie come to be the hosts of the show?

Well, Jamie and I have known each other since about 1993 or 1994. And Jamie actually gave me my first job in the film industry... my first real job doing model making.

I had spent about 3 years with him, cutting my teeth on commercials. We probably did about 120 commercials while I was working for him. And somewhere in the middle there I helped him build a robot that became a very legendary robot in the original Battlebots-- the precursor to Robot Wars- and this robot was called Blendo. An Australian film crew sent out a team to interview us about Robot Wars, and the producer of that segment was named Peter Rees.

Cut to: 2002, Peter Rees comes up with the idea for MythBusters in Australia. And they cast about for talent for about 6 months. And he remembers Jamie Hyneman from the interview he did 5 years before. He called up Jamie and said "Would you be interested in hosting this show? Busting myths with science?"

And Jamie said (ADAM DOING HIS JAMIE IMPRESSION) "Well, uh.... it sounds like fun, but I'm really not sure I'm interesting enough to host a show on my own..."

Are you actually using your fingers as Jamie's mustache right now?

Exactly - I have my hand over my mouth! (LAUGHING)

When you're imitating Jamie, I especially love that you make the finger mustache move as you talk.

(LAUGHING) Actually, that is a touch that I learned from Grant Imahara, long before we were on the show, that was Grant's imitation of Jamie at ILM. And I totally have to credit him for coming up with the move. He's the one that invented the finger twitching while talking.

How did you and Jamie meet?

I had been doing theater stuff for about 5 years before that, and I got the reputation for being able to build weird props no one else could figure out. So I started to get some really interesting fun jobs in theater, building remote control easy chairs, and random weird mechanical props, and several people that I would work with, would find themselves working with Jamie, and tell him "You gotta call this guy, Adam Savage."

And eventually he called me in to show my stuff, and I brought him in a whole bunch of toys that I built, and we just got along really well right off the bat.

But anyway, Jamie said he didn't think he was dynamic enough to host a show, but he thought he had this friend, Adam, and together they might make a good team. And he called me and asked if I'd be interested, and I was like "Um... YEAH! Of course!"

It's funny because I was freelancing at the time, and I was bouncing back and forth to New York a lot, trying to develop a kid's television show with a producer back there. A friend of mine who's a writer. And you know, the producer talked a really good story, so that seemed like a much more feasible project than MythBusters. And I also thought the name was really stupid.

So I didn't think anything of it for about 2 months, and then Jamie called me up and said they just contacted us and they want us to send them a demo reel.

And I said, "Well, I can come in next week and do it." And he said, "No, actually it's Tuesday and they want it by Friday."

So the next morning I went in with my DV camera and we borrowed another one, and shot for 2 hours. I came home, cut together a 14 minute demo reel on my laptop, and it was-- Basically all they said was, "We're thinking about certain kinds of myths, and we just want to get you guys on camera talking about a myth. And what I ended up cutting together is almost exactly what the show is.

Wow.

I mean, from the introductions where Jamie is the straight man, and I'm kinda goofy, to where I was like "You wanna blow something up?" And we got some fireworks and blew something up and we ran away while it burned something down.

And then we spent like 6 or 7 minutes talking about the Lawn Chair Larry Balloon myth. And the people in Australia saw it and they called up and said "We love this! We're putting it forward to Discovery Channel. We think you guys are the guys!"

And I'm still thinking, "Yeah, okay, whatever."

And we heard word from Discovery on Saturday, and that what they said was, "These are just the geeks we were looking for!" But apparently among themselves they wondered if they could do a show with a couple of homosexuals from San Francisco.

Well, I wouldn't be crass enough to ask if Jamie is gay... but luckily a number of Sneeze readers asked me to ask you. So... umm... what's Jamie's deal?

Jamie has been married to a wonderful woman for nearly 20 years now. They met when he owned a sailboat diving charter business in the Virgin Islands.

Does he mind that people are often curious about his orientation?

When the show first started airing, Jamie and I both got a lot of gay fan mail. He got a little upset at first, and his wife pointed out "Jamie, take the compliment! Someone thinks you're really hot! It's okay if it's a man." And he was cool with that, and relaxed about it.

At some point in there, he got an email that said "I want to suck that mustache right off your face!" (LAUGHING)

And I also got what I consider a great piece of writing in addition to the most over the top gay fan mail I got where someone said, "I love you on the show. Your personality is so nutty and sweet. (Like peanut brittle.) And hopefully just as hard." (LAUGHING)

Well, you've dropped hints about your kids and having dates with girls in the show. Jamie doesn't seem to talk much about his personal life like that.

Well, Jamie's personal life is very much his personal life. He's a very private guy. His relationship with his wife is something I know nothing about because they're very private. But she's a great lady. She's really awesome.

So anyway, after Discovery said they liked our tape, the crew showed up to shoot the pilot 3 weeks later. We shot 3 pilot shows in the summer of 2002, I think. And then they spent about 5 months cutting them into the actual pilot that aired in January of 2003. And 2 months later we started shooting the first season.

The guy I was developing the children's show with called me up, he was like "I gotta tell you, first of all, nothing ever happens in television. And second of all, nothing ever gets to pilot. And if it gets to pilot, nothing ever gets picked up. So this is totally amazing!"

Do your kids watch the show?

They have just started watching the show here and there.

What do they make of it?

You know, it's funny. They like the fact that I do these cool things. And often at the dinner table we'll talk about the stuff that I've done, you know... like "We fired off a rocket today," or things like that. But, it really remained pretty much under their radar up until now.

I think what's happening is some kids in school are starting to mention it, because I get recognized at their school. And, the effects are something I wonder about. Like, how is it going to affect them- that everybody knows who their dad is. So to that end, I try to bring them on set, and I've brought them on a press junket we did in San Diego a few weeks ago, just so they can see me working, and see how it goes. And see, that this is just "dad."

So, how famous do you feel now?

Um... that's an interesting question. I read and interview with some famous actor talking about fame, and he was talking about the fact that television people are actually more famous than movie people because they're in somebody's living room every single week. Even though we don't make up that much of "Us" magazine, and those kind of things.

When I go out into the world, I mean, like at this scooter rally I was at, there wasn't a person there who didn't watch the show. And when Jamie and I travel across the country to do speaking engagements, we often can't eat together because we won't actually get to bite any of our food since we spend so much time taking pictures and signing autographs.

So I feel somewhere in the middle. At first I used to joke-- you know Scott Thompson, the guy from Kids in the Hall? He had a very funny line where he said, "My level of fame is somewhere between Pauly Shore and the Maytag Repairman."

I borrowed that line for awhile, but I think we're a little farther up there. A good million and a half people every week are watching the show. And we get stopped a fair bit of the time.

The nice thing about it is, we're not playing characters on the show. So people aren't responding to us weirdly. What we are perceived as being on the show, is pretty much what we are.

Is it strange when people act like they think they know you?

(LAUGHING) There's a lot of that. I've also noticed that it can go through a very strange ladder. Like, most people will look at you with a strange look, like they can't figure out where they know you from.

Then it goes to the level of-- they'll walk up to you and... "Did you go to school with my son?" kind of thing.

Then you get this level where only certain people really know who you are and come up and say "I really like the show."

When it gets a little wider, you get to that area where people start to behave weirdly, like they give you their cell phone to talk to their brother? That's a really strange one. And I had never seen that before. I was at a Disney thing hanging out with Maureen McCormick from Brady Bunch, and she's really cool. We got along fabulously... we spent the whole evening laughing and having a hilarious time with her and her husband. And people kept on coming up and handing her cell phones. And it was such a weird invasive kind of thing.

And then after that actually, I've noticed there's this new one that's been going on where people say "Hey, you're the guy from that show." And we say "Yes." And then they have no idea what to say. And they don't say anything. And you're just standing there, and they're standing there, and what's the etiquette or the protocol here?

And it's actually made me a little bolder about approaching people who I admire, because I realize that I most prefer when someone walks right up and says "Hey, I really like the show." Instead of, you know, starting to talk and then slipping it in, or however people feel strange about approaching someone they see on television.

You know, I've realized that if you're someone in the public eye who gets approached all the time, it's just best if someone gets it out of the way, right away. And then, often I'll end up having a great conversation with them because most of the people who really like the show are garage builders, or makers of things, and they're thrilled by the idea of the show... they've learned a lot from watching it. And there's always a lot to go over.


Part 2 of this interview can be found right here.

You can visit the official MythBusters website here.



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