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Interview with Mighty MythBusters Tory Belleci, Kari Byron, Grant Imahara

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For eight seasons now, Discovery's marvelous, mysterious and methodical MythBusters show has been grabbing myths, urban legends, TV/movie scenes, and Internet allegations and subjecting them to rigorous experimentation and scientific analysis in an effort to pass judgment upon their veracity: confirmed, plausible, or busted.

Coincidentally, in addition to dogged methodology, many of these experiments involve highly entertaining — and often escalating — explosions, pyrotechnics, weaponry, speed, and the dismemberment of machinery of every flavor. Oh, and duct tape – these guys are loopy for duct tape.

Hosted by special effects wizards — the taciturn and rubicund Jamie Hyneman, and garrulous, amiable Adam Savage — the Bay Area-based show has taken on over 700 myths since its humble beginnings in 2003, spreading scientific knowledge willy-nilly along the way.

In testimony to the show's popularity, MythBusters airs quite regularly throughout the Discovery Channel schedule, with new episodes debuting on Wednesday's at 9pm. Tonight's episode, "Waterslide Wipeout," looks to be a whopper with Jamie and Adam tackling a viral Internet video sensation wherein a slider slips down a 200-foot long slide, flies 115 feet through the air, and lands unharmed in a kiddie pool.

Damn, that makes my feet itch just thinking about it.

But Jamie and Adam aren't the only busters of myth in town. Half of each episode puts the tremendous threesome of Tory Belleci, Kari Byron, and Grant Imahara on display, busting myths and taking names with furious skill, infectious conviviality, and esprit de corps. In tonight's ep, they examine the myth that making only right turns can improve gas mileage.

I had the pleasure recently of talking with Tory, Kari, and Grant by phone about the show and their involvement

We were just watching you guys on TV and now you're here! It’s like magic, mathemagic! Hey, we are huge fans of the show, and my 10-year-old daughter is the biggest MB fan of all. What’s so cool about it is that she has learned so much from watching without even realizing it because the show is so fun and you're all so appealing and likable.

If you don’t mind, please give us a little bit of background on each of you and how that led to the show.

Kari ByronKari: I joined the show because I was interning for Jamie and the first day of MythBusters was the first day of my internship, so I got really lucky.

Wow! Did you have a TV background at all?

Kari: No, I was doing all sorts of odd jobs, but I was trying to be a starving artist.

I’ve seen your sculptures, by the way, and I like them very much. I hadn’t realized how much of an art background, in a way, you all have.

Kari: I always like to tell my background first because when you get to their resumes, they’re amazing.

Tory and Grant: Whatever.

I know: lengthy with lots of letters, and some of them are big and some are small, and there’s numbers.

And you’re recently a mother, right?

Kari: Yes, a 10 month-old baby girl, and I’m so enjoying being a mom; and a working mom to boot.

Your first?

Kari: Yes.

Ah, congratulations! Very, very exciting. When you watch someone on TV, you kind of feel like you get to know them. It was really funny watching your various levels of pregnancy hopping around as they mixed some of the older shows with the newer shows: “She’s getting bigger, getting smaller. Whoa! She’s not pregnant there!”

Kari: I was nine-and-a-half months pregnant when I stopped working.

You were ripe! But you recovered very quickly – you weren’t off that long, were you?

Kari:
I took four months off.

You looked good as new.

Kari: Ah, thank you.
Tory Belleci
Tory: Ever since I was a kid I’ve been in training for this job. All the things I used to get in trouble for — or almost arrested for — I’m now getting paid to do. So this has been a tailored fit, dream job for me.

And you came on right away?

Tory:
I came on almost a year after Jamie and Adam had the show.

How did they conceive of the show in the first place?

Tory: Actually, the idea came from an Australian exec producer [Peter Rees] who had the concept. He found Jamie and Adam because he had interviewed them years before at a competition called Robot Wars.

Ah, I see. And did they participate in that, because I know Grant did?

Tory:
Yes, Jamie had a robot called Blendo. I was at one of the fights and it tore another robot apart. After its first battle they had to pull it out of the competition because it was too dangerous.

That was sort of an apt precursor for the show, this combination of technical elegance and naked aggression.
Grant ImaharaGrant: Yes, you might say that! His robot was one of the most fearsome competitors there. The idea of making something that dangerous is something that continues on with the show today. It’s not what the show is all about: the basis of the show is science and using your skills to solve problems and figure things out, but the explosive force with which his robot executed things is also reflected today.

Boy, it sure is, and you guys seem gleeful about blowing things up – the more extreme the better. I assume that enthusiasm is real because it sure comes off that way.

Kari: Oh yeah, it’s a good job. Who wouldn’t be excited to do this every day?

Tory: People ask, “Do you ever get tired of the explosions?” I don’t care how many explosions I see, even if it’s a small one, when there is something blowing up I’m as happy as can be.

Kari: Would you ask an astronaut, “Is it getting boring going to the moon?” I don’t think so!

No way – you’re right! You guys are at the very top of the pyramid of all the people in the world who love to blow things up because you get to do it for a living and people watch you!

What is the single most surprising/shocking result you’ve found?


Kari:
The bull in the china shop episode was pretty counter-intuitive. This started as a gag for us at the end of red-flag-to-a-bull myth. We were going to create a little china shop and let a bull loose and watch him knock everything down and break everything. But the bull danced around with such grace and agility that it didn’t knock over one thing.

So we proceeded to use two bulls. They chased each other around all of the shelves with elegance and they didn’t knock anything over. We got up to five bulls running around in this tiny little pen and they weren’t breaking anything – so we "busted" bull in a china shop.

That is classic, very surprising!

Tory: The one that surprised me was the elephants-are-afraid-of-mice myth. They actually went to Africa and set up an experiment where they made a fake rock, put a mouse under it, brought an elephant up to the rock, lifted the rock up, the mouse came out and the elephant freaked out. It was just like you see in cartoons.

You mean he climbed up a tree?

Tory: No, he jumped up onto a chair [chortle].

Amazing! Do you ever worry about running out of myths? Is that ever an issue at all?

Grant: We worry about running out of the easy ones. There are plenty of myths out there that are either really expensive to do or incredibly difficult or complicated to execute. The easy, cheap, fun ones are pretty scarce, but there are still plenty of things left out there for us to explore.

Kari: As long as the Internet exists, we will have myths to bust.

Tori: And as long as people believe ridiculous stories, we’ll have myths to bust.

Grant: There’s a Darwin Awards every year, so…

That reminds me of something else I admire about the show – the way you are so interactive with your audience. Has it always been that way or did it evolve? Like the recent shows where you are revisiting old myths using audience suggestions and all of that. I think that’s a fantastic way to make people feel like they’re part of things, they can actually influence the show – they’re not just viewers.

Grant: We’re one of the few shows that actually does go back and look at what we’ve done. If there is something we’ve done wrong, we’ll address it.

Kari: We’ve been interactive from the very beginning – it’s been part of our ethos.

Tory:
Yes, and this show probably would not do as well as it’s doing if it were not for the Internet. Because of the Internet, we have access to stories from all around the world, and we have access to resources from all over the place. The show is much stronger than it would have been 20 years ago due to the Internet.

Kari: We have people from Russia emailing in myths for us.

That makes sense: the show is information based, and what is the Internet but the accumulated information of the world?

How much time does it take to set up and do the myths as opposed to what is seen on the air? It seems like it would be even more lengthy and complicated than most shows.

Kari: From the beginning, we’ve always worked with a skeleton crew: all we have is cameraman, sound, and a producer/director besides us doing the experiments. Until very recently we didn’t even have anybody to help us clean the shops, so we really do build all our experiments ourselves, we don’t rush the science or the result, and sometimes science takes a lot of time! We film all of that and I think we have about a 100/1 ratio of what we have to what we use.

Tory:
Let’s just say, “Thank God for editing.”

Grant: We come from a building background – we’ve been working in special effects for a number of years, and I think that transition was fairly easy in terms of what we were doing before versus the types of things we build for MythBusters.

It’s a little strange to have a camera following you while you do it, but it’s what we did before and it was interesting then and it’s interesting now.

Kari: It strikes me that special effects guys – guys like Jamie, Adam, Grant, Tory – are a special breed of people: they are curious, they’re intelligent, they have so many different skills!

Tory:
I wouldn’t sell yourself short, Kari, you have some serious skills too.

I think that’s a big part of the appeal of the show: you’re all very appealing personalities, telegenic, at ease with the camera, but it’s all very grounded in these very real, very specific sets of skills that you all have. We see the process, at least part of it, and you guys explain what you have done and why, even when we’re not seeing it.

Why is the show based in the Bay area, by the way?

Grant:
That’s where Jamie’s shop, M5, was based. The producers were looking for a person who could build things. They thought of Jamie because of the Robot Wars interview they had previously done, and his shop was in San Francisco. They wanted the people on the show to be able to use their own tools. Jamie and Adam made a demo tape and that’s how the show got rolling. We’re all local here – Tory and I worked with Adam at Industrial Light and Magic, so we all knew each other before this.

Kari: I have to say the TV skills are learned…

Grant: …acquired

Kari: Yes, when we first started it was really hard for us to get in front of the camera.

Tory: That was the hardest part to adjust to. Imagine being at work with a cameraman following you around all day, and when you make a mistake, not only do they record it but they are excited about it and make a big deal of it on the show. Your worst possible nightmare comes to fruition and how do you deal with that?

I would say you all deal with it very well! I don’t remember ever seeing any of you angry, or even miffed.

Kari:
One of the reasons the show is successful is because we have a natural chemistry. Everybody knew each other to start with and were already friends and had a deep respect for each other. So it’s not like you’re casting people to be on the show: you’re filming people who would have been working together anyway.

I think showing the mistakes humanizes you. No one is perfect, and you guys are shown to be secure enough that you don’t let it bother you. And it reinforces the “don’t try this at home” message as well, which I imagine is insisted upon by your insurance company.

Kari: There are a lot of things we really don’t want you to try at home!

Tory: Yes, try it at your neighbor’s house.

Any particular changes or evolution ahead for the show?

Kari: We trying to bring MythBusters to the classroom, package it up for classroom consumption.

Tory: So often we get stopped by fans who are teachers who say they use the show in their curriculum to get students excited about science. You can’t ask for a better compliment than that.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.technorati.com Dawn

    Awesome interview with a group of really cool cats! It’s great to have a show which uses real science, stunts and creativity to entertain. Our kids have learned more about the nature of the world around them on this show, than a year’s worth of science class.

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    did you guys know what kari byron was their second choice? they wanted lindsey lohan but she was too broken up to work after reading some nasty article written about her on the internet. ;-)

    p.s. great interview. love this show. they make me jealous, havin’ way too much fun at work dammit!

  • http://blogcritics.org Eric Olsen

    thanks Dawn and Mark – it was a blast talking with them, super nice and interesting!

  • John Bantayan

    As what I have read on other comments it is clearly stated that a lot of people like this show and I believe I am one of them.

  • littlejohn

    I wish the subject of religion had come up. Jamie and Adam are prominent outspoken atheists. I wonder if the other three share that view. I also wish they the guts to test religious myths, such as the efficacy of prayer. It would be an easy experiment.

  • slydog66

    UGH! I’m so JEALOUS! Seriously, I’m a huge fan of the show… I wish them all continued success.
    To “littlejohn”… I agree, but being that it’s a family show, they’ll never be allowed to tackle religion. Too controversial.

  • http://blogcritics.org Eric Olsen

    thanks guys, I hadn’t thought about the religious angle – not sure how you would “scientifically test” elements of religion, as I would think it lies outside the realm of empirical cause and effect. It would be fun to see some smiting, though!

  • http://blogcritics.org Eric Olsen

    they were all really funny and friendly – one of my favorite interviews ever!

  • ballson

    Rigorous experimentation? Scientific analysis? Come on Eric.. MythBusters is great, but let’s be honest: it certainly doesn’t fall under either of those two categories.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    Why not? Building (for example) various designs for a leather cannon and loading them with explosive charges and cannonballs to see if they work qualifies as rigorous. And devising (for example) multiple experiments to test whether an empty beer bottle is more lethal than a full one is analytical, and certainly in the spirit of scientific inquiry.

    Mythbusters is tongue in cheek, yes, and you can’t really present the scientific method in full in a one-hour show. But it has more scientific integrity than 99% of everything else on TV.

  • http://blogcritics.org Eric Olsen

    I agree DD, they clearly take the scientific aspects very seriously and it’s important to them that this be recognized

  • Erhan Ozkan

    I like the show very much. I think it is a great show but I wonder how they will or will they get into the religious matters.

    • Aurora3

      My guess would be never. They said very early on they didn’t like ‘spooky’ or myths regarding faith, so I don’t think it’ll ever happen.

  • http://blogcritics.org Eric Olsen

    hey, don’t forget MythBusters marathon this Sunday from 9am to 3am, with the “MacGyver Myths” ep airing at 10pm – I love that one!

  • http://pwinn.tumblr.com/ Phillip Winn

    THough the three mythketeers may be able to keep their anger and frustration off the show via editing, Adam and Jamie sure got into it on the episode in which they attempt to salvage a boat using ping-pong balls. Lots of bleeping!

  • http://blogcritics.org Eric Olsen

    they show a wider range of emotion, shall we say

  • Jamie Teachey

    In the first few seasons, the producers encouraged more antagonistic behaviour, and we saw more anger and frustration on the show. This kind of contrived drama and tension is very popular in reality TV. But clearly the cast wasn’t comfortable with it, and thankfully that aspect of the show went away.