[14 June 2013]
PopMatters Comics Editor
“There you go,” Adam says with an exclamatory zeal, “I didn’t even know that Jamie takes showers.” We’re just a handful of moments into the interview with Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman and already Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters fall into that old familiar repartee. “Old, familiar,” because we’ve all see the interaction, perhaps thousands of times. It’s a part of the magic of the show, how Jamie and Adam will push each other’s idea, evolve the other’s thinking through verbal interaction, and how they’ll do it, almost at the speed of thought.
We’re talking about Jamie and Adam’s contribution to the Gillette’s “How Does He Shave?” co-promotional campaign for the Man of Steel (which sees nationwide theatrical release today). And when we began this interview, almost literally a minute ago, we began with the obvious question—how do the Mythbusters themselves shave? Adam and Jamie’s responses reveal everything about them that we already know from the show. Jamie talks about the process of shaving in the shower and how that helps meets the objectives he sets for shaving. Adam talks about the outcomes he hopes for, why he hopes for those and how he achieves those. Jamie thinks “forward” from process to outcome, Adam reverse-engineers from effect to method.
But in revealing that, the Mythbusters also reveal something else, something deeper. That what we see on the show aren’t personas, that there isn’t a secret lair of writers plugged into a focus groups while they busily scribe out pitch-perfect lines for Adam and Jamie to rehearse. What we see on the show is Adam and Jamie raw, honest, human. And more than anything, that thought makes me shudder. Because if they are as we see them on the show, how am I going to be able to maintain a critical distance. Don’t meet your heroes they say Dear Reader, and that might just prove true for this interview. And why wouldn’t Adam and Jamie be my heroes? In a world awash in TMZ and E! Entertainment, the Mythbusters have managed to turn critical thinking and the scientific method into popculture. And that’s just about as inspirational as reading about a man who can fly.
“The theory Jamie finally went with if I remember correctly,” Adam begins by referencing the YouTube video of their contribution to “How Does He Shave?”, but it’s a point of friendly contention. Later in the conversation Jamie will disclaim credit for it being his theory and suggest Adam as the author. It’s that level of perpetual reframing of the process, of ceding personal authorship into a greater creative mix that makes of the show such a psychologically vivid launchpad for science. Case in point here with the idea of who came up with the idea of Superman using the Large Hadron Collider to shave—we could any of us simply go back to the YouTube video found that the bottom of this page and view the footage and finally conclude, with certainty, who developed the theory. But we don’t. Just as I’m captivated by the interaction between Jamie and Adam, as much by the sheer audaciousness of the idea of using the LHC, Jamie and Adam are themselves captivated by the process of repartee that results in the development and refining of this theory.
“The theory Jamie finally went with if I remember correctly,” Adam begins, “was that Superman visits the Large Hadron Collider at night and creates tiny wormholes to get rid of the hair on his face by zapping them to some other part of the universe.” To jocularity of how the Mythbusters end the video still rings out in my memory; “It’s the least we can do for the protector of the planet.”
“The point with that is that the Large Hadron Collider is the most complex and advanced device that we have currently,” Jamie picks up the thread almost within the same heartbeat, “so it makes sense that the most challenging and difficult process like removing Superman’s indestructible beard, well such a device would be required.”
And back to Adam, “You know the thing though is that when we were thinking this through and talking this through, it absolutely went very similar to the way we plot or plan a story or set of experiments in our normal daily lives. In that, it’s just a sort of playing off of each other. I think that the first thing we thought of is the first thing everyone thought of, which is that Superman uses his laser vision to beam the hair off one at a time in the mirror. But that actually turns out to be used in a Superman comicbook years ago. But then we flew from there as quickly as possible.”
It’s almost too much when Adam uses the phrase “laser vision”, a moment of existential liberation of a kind. Every good nerd knows Superman has heat vision, not laser vision. But with the use of “laser vision”, Adam, who is a lifelong fan of scifi, gestures at a sublime freedom. In the first regard, “laser vision” is a signature for a rational affect. There must be some interior process for Adam that makes him question how it is that Superman is able to shoot beams of light that superheat materials and the air around those. Well, they must be lasers, Adam must have guessed. It’s the scientific equivalent of the power of synonyms—don’t try to discover how what was done, was done. Instead use your own words and try to duplicate the effect with methods you understand. So heat vision must be produced by lasers. Therefore, laser vision.
But in the second regard, there is a sociocultural affect. Doesn’t every good nerd know it’s heat vision? Well no, maybe if you’re a boring lifeless drone who mistakes the repetition of data for fandom. What Adam achieves, with a single turn of phrase, is the elevation of a cultural niche above slavish and pedantic regurgitation. Call it fandom by engaged vivacity. The inclination to develop a map of how the data interact, rather than just rattle it off like reading numbers from a scorecard.
Or call it simply the Mythbusters Effect. A kind of simultaneous playfulness and mindfulness. The Mythbusters Effect hinges on what psychologists term divergent intelligence—the ability to find adaptive, off-label use for things and concepts and processes. Convergent intelligence, the opposite kind of intelligence, (the kind lauded by IQ tests), focuses on converging the one correct answer. Divergent intelligence throws the net ever wider. It’s the difference between asking, what’s two plus two, and asking, of what use is a shoe when you’re not wearing it.
The widespread nature of convergent intelligence culture is itself a limitation for society. We’re each of us educated that there’s only one solution to hone in on. It’s why we loved cop shows like NYPD Blue or medical dramas like House—solve the case, get to the answer. Convergent thinking is useful when you’re operating within a system where there are correct answers, and there are social institutions (the Presidency, Congress, High School) that can ratify your having reached that correct answer. But what about adventure? What about what’s next? What about where can we go now? If you’re hoping to live in a world of possibility rather than limitation then bet on divergent thinking every time. It’s what will save your life in a wilderness (a shoe can be a cup for drinking water, a pouch for carrying food, a tool for reaching fruit in the treetops, a way to mark a trail). And it’s the most exciting part of every Superman you’ve ever seen or read.
Whether it’s the current crop of Superman comicbook writers like Tony Diggle and Scott Lobdell, or Superman filmmakers like Zack Snyder and Chris Nolan, the character almost perforce returns us to the same scenario—that the immense physical powers like super-strength or flight or ice breath are all but exhausted by the current threat, and mental prowess must not be relied on. Grant Morrison, the writer of Superman in the pages of Action from 2011 until 2013, once wrote for a character, “With powers like ours, we’ve got to learn to fight the way a science fiction writer writes.” And more than anything, it’s this mental agility that connects Superman with Mythbusters.
It’s that connection point between the two sociocultural phenomena that begins the next turn in conversation. How do the Mythbusters see themselves in the process of their mental agility and the Man of Steel’s. Adam begins, “So one thing is that, how do we see ourselves in that process? It’s always in retrospect. And by that I mean we don’t set out to be scientificators or to inspire kids. We set out to tell a story, an honest story about our own discovery about something and that story is infused with the changes and the strange things that actually happen. So it is always an honest narrative. And when you see us surprised by something that’s happened on the show, it is because we are genuinely surprised. But more to the point, about taking something that’s fantastical and breaking it down and finding the actual physics involved. For us one of the most exciting things about our job in general and this request from Gillette to think about Superman shaves, is the process of looking at something that we have no practical experience with, i.e. a physics problem we haven’t researched or trying to figure out how the Son of Krypton shaves—taking a look at something you’re unfamiliar with in its totality, starting to tease at it with small questions, ‘How would this work?’, ‘I don’t understand this’, until you start to get a hold of a metric with which you can start to understand. And the moment we get a handle on something, then we’re like dogs on a bone. That handle, that first purchase you get on an unfamiliar problem, is I think over the years one of our favorite, favorite parts about doing what we do.
“Once you get that handle, all of a sudden all sorts of stuff starts to open up. So at the very beginning, when we were thinking about how Superman shaves we kinda had a couple of quotidian ideas. But the moment we started batting them around with each other, a whole bunch of other stuff starts to show up. And it’s the same with what we’ve been with the show for the last ten years. And that’s what’s so rewarding.”
Jamie enters the question with a more meditative tone, “Well I think Adam’s mentioning of a dog going after a bone, we look at our process as sort of play. Just like a dog, or a puppy rather, would randomly run around and take your sock or gnaw on a table leg. That kind of play you can see, especially if you look at it in the case of the things that we do on Mythbusters which are often ridiculous or just plain out silly. And yet by playing with them you can often get to discoveries that were not what we were looking for in the first place. And that’s a type of process that scientists will often find themselves in. Some of the most important discoveries that scientists have made were not what they were seeking at the time. So our kind of playing with these ridiculous things that we’re often doing, including something like the shaving. Y’know you ask questions and you make theories about things you would not ask in any other way. Where do you come up with something like using something like the LHC to create micro-wormholes, to do some work? The only way you come up with that kind of thing is with this playful attitude towards the world around us. So that’s what we enjoy doing, and what we developed an aptitude for over the years.”
But there’s also a deeper sense in which the two phenomena of Mythbusters and Superman are connected. One that has to do with mass appeal and the ability to popularize the subjects they engage with. Over the course of his 75 years, Superman has achieved the bona fide status of sociocultural phenomenon. Over the course of more or less a decade, the Mythbusters have achieved the same, but in a very different, far more fractionated media landscape. We begin to talk about exactly that, the mass appeal that Mythbusters has achieved and the kind of popularization of science and elevation of nerd culture that the show has effected. It’s not long before Jamie says possibly the most poignant thing a Mythbuster has said to date. It is a magnificent response, but it takes a time to build towards.
I begin with a quote from Greil Marcus, from the 2010 collection of Marcus’ essay, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus. It’s something that appears in the introduction to the collection, “Where I Came In.” Marcus writes, “To do what he’d done, Dylan wrote years later, you had to be someone ‘who could see into things, the truth of things—not metaphorically, either—but really see, lie seeing into metal and making it melt, see it for what it was and reveal it for what it was with hard words and vicious insight.’ In the early 1950s, kids like Bob Dylan watched someone seeing into metal and making it melt every week on The Adventures of Superman; in the next decade, as Paul Nelson puts it later in these pages, Dylan ‘evoked such an intense degree of personal participation from both his admirers and detractors that he could not be permitted so much as a random action. Hungry for a sign, the world used to follow him around, just waiting for him to drop a cigarette butt. When he did, they’d sift through the remains looking for significance. The scary part is they’d find it, and it really would be significant.’ This is where I came in, as a writer—six years after the show in New Jersey, at the and of Dylan’s adventure as an oracle on the run…”
There’s a murmur of a “wow!” from Adam who answers first. Is it too much to suggest that both Adam and Jamie alike still have a hard time dealing with the celebrity factor that Mythbusters even now continues to generate? That the celebrity is something of a necessary evil, and that at moments like this, the Mythbusters themselves opt into a kind of secular penitence in the same way that the show’s divergent thinking creates a kind of secular piety?
Adam goes on to reference Rilke. “Rilke says that ‘it is always best to remain ignorant of your best qualities lest you attempt to overdo them.’ You know, we both had a long experience in film and television before we started doing Mythbusters and the one constant axiom is that the bottom can drop out tomorrow. So we applied ourselves to this show and to everything that we’ve done over the past 30 years always with one eye towards the future and with the other trying to make sure that we’re having fun doing what we’re doing. On a daily basis, our job isn’t very glamorous. It’s just Jamie, me camera sound and our director, churning out this who about figuring stuff out on the fly. And occasionally we get to go talk in front of audiences and feel a little like rockstars. But besides that, where we’re placed within the cultural lexicon we notice from the outside but never try and drive or steer because that’s totally impossible.”
And Jamie, “I have to say that we’re not actors, at least on Mythbusters or any of the other television projects that we’ve done. We’re actual builders and have an aptitude and a love for building things with our hands. And there are thousands of, millions of people out there, the depth of their creativity and so on, that they are able to command…” Jamie’s voice trails off for a moment, he’s paused, lost in a thought. “And in our case, we just happen to be on TV and have found a vehicle to allow us to exercise ourselves. I don’t see that we’re any different than many, many people that are out there. And it’s hard to kind of accept something like we’re larger than life, super-people or something like that. I think we’d like to look at it that we’re just hands-on and love what we do. And we’re delighted that it seems appealing. And what happens beyond that is all marketing, or happening to be in the right place at the right time.”
We got lucky, getting to do what we love to do, and be who we are on such a large scale. The idea that in the mix with divergent thinking and the playful elements of their creative process, there’s also a large dose of humility would not only rank as “Confirmed” on their own show, but scans as a signature that Adam and Jamie have far more in common with the Man of Steel.