Being a MythBuster in the City of No Illusions sounds like a challenge.
How can “MythBusters” TV hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage hope to impress a crowd of hard-boiled, seen-it-all Western New Yorkers with their “Mythbusters: Behind the Myths” live stage show at 8 p.m. Saturday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center?
Savage, the smiling strawberry-blond jokester who ricochets off the wall of seriousness that is the beret-wearing, mustachioed Hyneman, chuckles when he hears about our region’s reputation.
“Audiences of critical thinkers are my favorite kinds of audiences,” said Savage in a phone interview from San Francisco. “There are jokes I tell in the show that don’t get laughs unless I am in front of an audience of critical thinkers. Put me in front of a crowd of science teachers or astronauts! The guileless aren’t our audience – it’s the critical thinkers we love.”
Hosts Savage and Hyneman, along with other cast members, have helped both prove and debunk plenty of legends, lore and assumptions in their nine seasons on the popular Discovery Channel show.
The two stars are renowned for their matter-of-fact experimental approach to testing movie plot lines, old sayings and urban legends. They have used science to determine how many shambling zombies Savage can strike down with a foam ax before they overwhelm him (13 on his first try) and to prove that even multiple bulls in a china shop will nimbly avoid shelves stacked with fragile glassware.
But the stage show adds a new dimension to this experimental and highly entertaining presentation, which played to sold-out houses on a 28-city tour last winter and spring. The MythBusters call audience members up on stage to help them test their theories.
“When we first started writing this show a couple of years ago, we weren’t really sure how we were going to translate ‘MythBusters’ to the stage, then we lighted on the idea of audience participation and really messing with the audience,” said Savage, his voice gleeful. “On the television show, we’re the audience’s avatar, and we’re the experiential avatar for ‘What would that feel like?’ We talk about it, and even if it’s not pleasant, we don’t shy away from that.
“Up on stage, we are the ringleaders, so it’s really great to bring up the audience. We bring up over a dozen for each show, every age from 7 to 70. We bring up athletes, we bring up little kids; it’s really fun.”
Beyond astronauts and science teachers, what kind of assistants do they look for when they scan the seats?
“I change my metrics all the time, and so does Jamie, about who we pick and why,” said Savage. “We’re always looking for someone who is going to have fun doing it, so we don’t pick somebody who is hiding themselves, unless their whole family is pointing at them.”
On tour, Savage said he and Hyneman offer a VIP meet and greet after every show. And he’s learned that the fans who buy those tickets often have similar technical and scientific interests.
“These people get to come backstage, and Jamie and I will talk to them for a while, and we’ll take some pictures, and we’ll autograph stuff.”
Although the myth-testing techniques used on the TV show usually starts with careful construction of testing apparatus and measuring devices, along with the occasional intentional explosion, Savage promises that all the props and measuring devices will be ready for the show. He does not, however, guarantee that they will work as planned.
“We take real pride in – and this isn’t something you see in a lot of other shows – that we fail,” Savage said. “We show that the process is messy and creative, even the scientific process is messy and creative, and that’s not the way most people think of it.
“Our stage show is not very different from that. On our stage show, we have rigs that don’t work every time, and sometimes things don’t go as we planned, and that’s fine, we can totally adjust to that. We’ve had things that fail on stage and we move on to the next one, or get a good laugh out of this and then move on; for us that’s all part and parcel of the process.”
Savage does promise that some of the more spectacular things done on the TV show will remain in the wide-open spaces, where they can be safely observed from a bunker.
“We don’t actually have, luckily, any pyrotechnics in the show,” he said. “I’ve seen pictures of the hall in Buffalo, and it looks magnificent.”
Although some recent shows have focused on such pop-culture favorites as zombies or the science behind the TV show “Breaking Bad,” Savage said they don’t focus on trends when they select myths to test.
“It’s not like we see a trend that’s out there; it’s more like we get into new areas as we stretch our arms and see what we can tackle,” he said. A producer for “MythBusters” does makeup effects for “The Walking Dead,” Savage said, “so it just seemed like a natural extension to go and do a zombie show. It wasn’t something we would have ever considered before, except that we have gotten really good at taking fictional narratives and still finding something within the laws of physics that is still testable. You can’t test the immortality of zombies, but you can test some of their group strength possibilities.”
Fun facts about Adam Savage:
• He graduated from Sleepy Hollow High School, outside Tarrytown in the Hudson Valley. The school’s mascot was the Headless Horseman – “the scariest mascot on the East Coast,” Savage said.
• His family traveled the state during summer vacations. “New York State is giant and has some of the most beautiful landscape on the Eastern seaboard. There is so much history in New York State, from the Erie Canal to the Catskills, the birth of American stand-up comedy.”
• His father was a painter, filmmaker and puppeteer who worked on “Sesame Street.” Savage was a child actor, appearing in some episodes of “Sesame Street,” a drowning boy and best friend of the main character in the Billy Joel video “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” and a 1980s Charmin toilet paper commercial with Mr. Whipple as Jimmy the stock boy.
• He has twin sons. “Growing up in New York, I was sort of shocked when I realized that my children are Californians. They are 14 years old, and I explain to them frequently that they will never realize the glory of a snow day. You wake up and the world says, ‘Oops, it’s too much fun to go to school, you’ve got to stay home and deal with the snow!’ They will never have that. It’s one of the best things ever!”
Three favorite “MythBusters” videos:
“MythBusters: Am I Missing an Eyebrow?”
Savage and Hyneman test whether a cellphone call can generate a spark that will ignite gasoline fumes while a car is being filled up. The answer is no, but a static electricity spark from clothing can light the fumes.
“MythBusters: Penny Drop MiniMyth”
Savage said he enjoyed testing the old saying that a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building would kill a person if it struck them on the head. But it’s not true.
“MythBusters: Adam Savage Drunk on a Treadmill”
Adam experiments to find out whether vigorous exercise can help a person sober up after drinking. The answer: no.