By Jay Cridlin
Times Staff Writer
When he calls on a Saturday from his San Francisco workshop, Jamie Hyneman apologizes for being a few minutes late. "I was up to my elbows in nuts and bolts," he says.
Hyneman isn't your average weekend warrior, though. He's working on a project slightly more ambitious than tuning up a lawn mower or tinkering with a faucet.
"We're in the middle of building a hang gliderlike device that will flap and fly, kind of like da Vinci's," Hyneman says. At some point, either he or his partner in science, Adam Savage, will climb inside and test it out.
"I can't say anything technically (about) how we're doing it, but it's an exciting project for me, so I'm here working through the weekend on it," Hyneman says.
Only Hyneman and Savage could make immersing oneself in history, physics and engineering sound like the perfect autumn Saturday.
Since 2003, their Discovery Channel program MythBusters has made delightful entertainment out of testing myths from history, folklore and Hollywood, always through the prism of that grade-school science-fair staple known as the scientific method — question, research, hypothesize, test and assess. Their latest season kicked off Sunday with an episode featuring director James Cameron, who helped them test an Internet-inspired myth from the film Titanic: Could Jack and Rose have both survived by climbing aboard that floating plank of wood?
Over the years, the MythBusters have blown up a whole bunch of stuff in the name of pop science, usually in super-slow-motion. But the buildup to every big boom is loaded with lessons for curious fans of all ages — skepticism, creative problem solving, research methodology and much more. (The Titanic episode, for example, tackled buoyancy, cube roots and the construction of an artificial circulatory system.) For this, Hyneman and Savage have been lauded by educators and world leaders, including President Barack Obama, who appeared on MythBusters in 2010.
Now MythBusters is moving off the small screen and onto the big stage, with a live tour, "MythBusters: Behind the Myths," that hits the USF Sun Dome on Saturday. For Hyneman and Savage, "Behind the Myths" goes steps beyond their smaller tours and speaking engagements by including audience members in live experiments.
That, says Hyneman, is a key component to why this tour works.
"One of the main reasons for success on the show is that we're not a demonstration show. We're an experimentation show," he says. "That poses a problem when you're doing this kind of thing, because if you have an experiment, by definition, you don't really know what the results are going to be, or why do it?
"If we're doing a tour that is to be true to the spirit of the show, we have to take that same kind of approach, and that's what we've done. We've just set it up so that we know a reasonable range of outcomes, so we aren't put in a situation where we're facing 1,000 people or more and saying, 'Well, uh, sorry, that didn't work.' "
In recent years, various television shows have turned to live stages to bolster revenue or interest, with varying degrees of success. At Ruth Eckerd Hall, events featuring the casts of Deadliest Catch and Modern Family were between 70 and 85 percent sold out, while a recent live version of The Price Is Right was standing-room only. Meanwhile, live shows by cast members from Pawn Stars (David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts) and American Pickers (Mahaffey Theater) were canceled well in advance.
Hyneman admits he initially wasn't convinced MythBusters would work live. "A lot of what we do is spectacular — explosives, weapons, car crashes and all this stuff," he says. "And so people coming to see us on stage, expecting to see that kind of thing, would likely be disappointed — or at least, that was our concern. And yet there was a lot of demand to see us."
Within the MythBusters brain, Hyneman is portrayed as the stoic and logical left side, Savage the excitable right. (It is Savage, after all, who as a child actor portrayed Mr. Whipple's stockboy in those famous "Please don't squeeze the Charmin" ads.) Says Hyneman: "I am pretty much who I seem to be on the show, and I'm happiest by myself, tinkering in my shop."
Early in MythBusters' run, producers tried harder to play up the clashes in personality between Hyneman and Savage, trying to create on-camera drama, a la American Chopper. When the hosts figured out what was going on, "we put a stop to it — and by the way, that producer no longer works with the show," Hyneman said.
Since then, the show has reaped four consecutive Emmy nominations for Outstanding Reality Program, proof that there is a place for intelligent, good-hearted entertainment on television. "The show is one of the few shows that both parents and kids like," Hyneman says. "All of the shows have a lot of kids in them, and we make a point of bringing as many of them as we can up on stage."
You might think kids would fear the monotonous, walrus-whiskered Hyneman, but he says that's not the case. "Once in a while, there's a little bit of that reaction, but we go out in public all the time, and they warm to me the same way they do Adam."
That, he said, is the biggest reason he's glad he agreed to the tour. "Every time we've done this, we've been very well received," he says with a low chuckle. "It's hard for me to complain standing out in front of thousands of people with them cheering for me, I'll put it that way."