Adam Savage Talks the Last Episode of MythBusters and His Favorite Builds
In January 2003, President George W. Bush celebrated the first anniversary of No Child Left Behind, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was in theaters, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” was at the top of the Billboard charts—and a little show called MythBusters debuted on the Discovery Channel. The network promised that its “quirky new science and technology television series” would take “a light-hearted look at modern misconceptions and the bizarre claims of urban legends.” Discovery also added a version of the line that would soon become familiar to fans everywhere: “This series doesn’t just retell the stories … it puts them to the test!”
Now, after 14 seasons, 2950 experiments, 1050 myths, and 900 explosions, the show is coming to an end: The final episode of MythBusters airs this Saturday. That fact has finally sunk in for Adam Savage, who, along with Jamie Hyneman, has hosted the show since it began. “I’ve had a long time and a lot of stages to go through,” Savage told mental_floss over coffee earlier this week. “I love this thing. I’ve done this show longer than I’ve had any career, and I’ve grown up on it. I’m relieved to be putting it to bed on our terms—but that didn’t help in the destabilizing event of finishing something you’ve been doing for 14 years. I went through all the stages of death.”
BUILDING UP SCIENCE
Savage was working at the visual- and special-effects house Industrial Light & Magic when Hyneman, who had been approached about possibly hosting a show, asked if he’d co-host. The pair had worked together in Hyneman’s special effects shop, M5 Industries, for a few years, making commercials and building a machine for BattleBots. Though they had polar opposite personalities (and got on each other's nerves), they worked well together. So Savage said yes, the pair cut an audition tape, and they landed the gig.
What followed was more than a decade of incredible—and often ridiculous—builds. “For me, the builds that mattered are ones that also taught me something about what my job was,” Savage says. His favorite is one of his first for the show: A wind tunnel capable of two speeds that showed a penny had two terminal velocities, one on its edge and one on its face, and that it tumbles between them. He constructed the device to test whether a coin falling from the Empire State Building could kill a person below. (Spoiler alert: It can't.)
“We had math that described [the two terminal velocities], but it occurred to me—even that first season, when I was absolutely as green as green could be—that I didn’t like the idea of just explaining math on camera,” Savage says. Instead, he wanted to show it.
“The theory was that if I built [the wind tunnel] with the correct speeds in the entrance and the exit, and it was vertical, the penny would tumble up and down inside the wind tunnel, and it totally did,” he says. “To this day, it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever made. That was a harbinger that I could not just talk on camera cogently, or build things, but that I could contribute to the field of explaining and describing and showing things in ways that were compelling and that hadn’t been tried before. That was so thrilling.”
In order to complete their experiments, Savage and Hyneman were often required to build things that they either couldn't get, or simply didn't exist. In the second season, the duo was testing whether a SCUBA diver could be sucked out of a body of water by a pump attached to a fire-fighting helicopter and deposited in a tree. “For obvious reasons,” Savage says, laughing, “no one wanted to let us anywhere near one, especially with a fake SCUBA diver.”
So the pump needed to be built. There were a couple of problems, though: Savage had no idea how he was going to do it, and Hyneman was out with the flu, “which was weird,” Savage says. “That never happened any other time in the show.” Thankfully, they had been able to discuss a game plan before it was time to build. “I executed that plan and built a pump that exceeded the specs of the pump we wanted by 50 percent,” Savage says. “We needed a pump that pumped 2000 gallons a minute and mine pumped 3000 gallons a minute. It was beautiful.”
But it wasn’t all about big builds, or even challenging builds. Savage took equal delight in constructing machines for ridiculous purposes, like when he built a fart catcher for the show’s fourth season. “It’s so awesome,” he says. “We built it over a bathtub. The idea was that the rig was filled with water, and you’d fart, and your bubble would go to the top into a chamber that you’d be able to lock it off and capture a fart.” It took them all day to get the job done, though. “It turns out, when you get into a tepid bath, it’s really hard to fart,” he says. (That was not the last time he’d build something having to do with flatus: This season, he built a fart-generating machine.)
Over the years, the builds became bigger and more ambitious—and Savage used them to help tell the story. “In the early episodes, the builds are just builds, but in the later episodes, the builds have all sorts of colored tape and measurements and labels on them,” he says. “I wanted to tell the story more than just verbally, more than just visually—I wanted to tell it graphically. I want every frame from each camera angle to tell the story of the experiment. By the last season, just these builds were so lovely to me because they were telling all of these things.”
Did it bother Savage that they’d often blow the builds up, or otherwise destroy them? “No, because that’s the challenge,” he says. “If you’re making something just to make it, you make it under one set of rules. But if your job is to make it look good while it’s blowing up, that’s a whole other thing—it doesn’t achieve its fruition until you’ve blown it up.”
AN EXPLOSIVE FINALE
It’s fitting, then, that MythBusters goes out with a big boom, and, as Savage puts it, “a wanton path of destruction.”
The duo abandoned myth-busting for the last show, and for good reason: “We realized that unless we had the best myth ever, there’s no myth that could handle the weight of being in the final MythBusters episode ever,” Savage says.
Instead, Savage and Hyneman opted to do what they felt would make the fans happy—and they start by blowing something up. Then there’s a walk down memory lane, which Savage says is the second-most expensive sequence in MythBusters history (it was narrowly edged out by Rocket Car). “Memory lane was a mile long and filled with 14 years of constructions from the show's history,” he says. “The ‘walk’ down memory lane takes about 80 seconds—and it's the most extreme and beautiful driving I have ever had to do in my whole life. After the first 15 seconds, I could not see out the front of my vehicle and I still managed to stay safe, stay on course, and complete my task.” The final sequence is “the biggest explosion in MythBusters’ history.”
Savage had all kinds of creative—and weird—ideas for the final shot of MythBusters. “I wanted to wake up in bed next to Suzanne Pleshette like Bob Newhart and go, ‘I just had the weirdest dream,’” he says. “You know the joke about how a cat always lands feet down, and toast always lands butter-side down, so if you strap a piece of buttered toast to the back of a cat, and push it off a table, it will levitate? At one point, I had this vision that the final sequence would be 80 seconds of me and Jamie going, 'Alright, let’s do it,' and we push the cat off the table, and this buzz happens—and all of a sudden, Jamie and I are standing on the street in Tokyo, and we’re like, ‘What the f*** just happened?’ and cut to black.
“We didn’t do that,” he says. “In the end, it’s a little elegiac, and it’s sweet, and it’s also final. There’s not much else we could have done.”
REVISITING DUCT TAPE
Luckily for fans, the last episode of MythBusters on Discovery is not quite the end. There's a reunion special and then, on Sunday night, a bonus episode will air on the Science Channel. It was filmed, Savage says, “as sort of an inaugural baton-passing for MythBusters to move from Discovery to the Science Channel,” where the show will air in reruns. And it revisits a frequent, and beloved, subject of MythBusters myths: Duct tape.
“We really thought that we had exhausted all the possibilities of duct tape,” Savage says. The show did everything from build bridges to hold cars together with the material, but Savage came up with one last duct tape idea. He just had to convince Hyneman.
“I’ll tell you, no one got pissier about discussing duct tape than Jamie, because he’s like, ‘I don’t want to build an episode just on a challenge,’” Savage says. “Then, I was like, ‘But I came up with an idea,’ and he was, like, ‘Oh, what?’ I said, ‘Trebuchet,’ and he goes, ‘Oh, that would work.’” It is, Discovery promises, “the duct tape build to end all duct tape builds.” They use the device to destroy something, of course.
LUCK AND LEGACY
Perhaps the most important myth busted during 14 seasons of MythBusters is the one that says science is a stuffy subject. Hyneman and Savage showed that science can be fun and creative, and that curiosity is pretty cool. MythBusters inspired kids to become engineers, and changed how science is taught—which Savage says is “humbling.”
But Savage and Hyneman never really thought about creating a show that would leave any kind of legacy. “We really were just trying to make the show on a day-to-day basis,” Savage says. “I still think of anything approaching a legacy as this amazing gravy on the top of this incredible thing that we did.”
These days, both (soon-to-be former) MythBusters are keeping busy. Hyneman is working on a number of projects unrelated to show business, and Savage says he’s spending lots of time in his shop, where he recently installed a full-size Bridgeport mill. He's working on a project with the California Academy of Sciences, creating and building for Tested.com, and writing two stage shows.
The end is bittersweet, but Savage says his prevailing emotion is something else entirely. “I’m the luckiest person alive that these stories that I was interested in telling turned out to have such a resonance in exactly the way that they meant something to me,” he says. “I’m so grateful. That’s mostly what it is, because I’m just supremely, impossibly lucky that my skill set was a key that fit this lock so perfectly.”
The final episode of MythBusters airs Saturday, March 5 at 8 p.m. EST on the Discovery Channel. The special bonus episode airs Sunday, March 6, at 8 p.m. EST on the Science Channel.