Yes, Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage does boycott some businesses and institutions for political reasons — he identifies as a "good old bleeding heart liberal" — but even during those days of rage following the passage of RFRA, he wasn't planning to bail on the local stop of the Mythbusters live show (April 19 at Old National Centre). That topic out of the way, we could dig into a fascinating conversation about the differences between the TV series and the live show, the state of science education, the origins of maker culture and Emerson's "Self-Reliance," among other topics. This is the final tour for his partner in science, co-host Jamie Hyneman, who is retiring from live performance but not the TV show.
NUVO: What can audiences expect from the Mythbusters live show this time around?
Adam Savage: We weren't sure that our love of science could make for a great stage show, but after having toured it on two continents, in three countries and over 200 cities, we're starting to believe that we have achieved just that. We've built this kind of two-hour science variety show. One of the main things that we do is bring the audience up on stage and mess with them. We love the audience participation; it's one of the best parts about doing the show. It keeps the show fresh every single night. If you come see us, you should be ready to come up on stage.
NUVO: You have a background in theater — you worked as an actor as a kid and then did behind-the-scenes work. Did any of that experience inform how you shaped the show? Did you feel like you were getting back to your roots?
Savage: A hundred percent. Absolutely. I spent a good portion of my teens trying to achieve some success as an actor, a commercial actor. I did and I didn't, and then I ended up making things for 15 years, in theater and graphic design, and then in the toy industry and special effects. And then Mythbusters came along and it was like the joining of these two halves.
But making a TV show is vastly different than making a stage show. And I love the difference! I love both of these processes of storytelling. I love getting up on stage in front of people. I love really working every day to craft a show that is tight, where the transitions are tight and informative, where the stories have resonance. Once you've performed in front of an audience enough, the process starts to slow down and you can start to almost have a conversation with the audience.
NUVO: Audience participation gives you a chance to play off the crowd instead of playing off the camera.
Savage: Indeed. On the television show, Jamie and I are the audience's avatars. We're their stand-ins. We go through steps so we can tell them about it. That's part of that contract. But when you're the host on stage, you're just the ringleader. No one's going to grant you the power of being their avatar. So you've got to bring up the audience so that one of them is up there having fun with you, getting humiliated in a playful way or getting pitted against some giant in a feat of strength.
NUVO: I have a question for you as someone active in maker culture. How is this latest generations of tinkers and inventors — made up of people who call themselves "makers" — different from previous generation that might've, say, read Popular Mechanics?
Savage: I think that, culturally, we go through oscillations of feeling that we can and can't manipulate the world around us. I think that the populace of a totalitarian government feels no sense of agency in the world around them. I think that one of the things that America has actually been based upon — and any democratic nation — is the idea that the populace does have some agency. And when it comes to technology, that agency is really important.
I like to think of the maker movement that's currently happening as having its original clause in the post-war automobile modification movement. Post-World War II, we had an economy on the recovery and a population of people who'd formerly thought of cars as black boxes. Then all of the sudden, people realized that you could modify the automobile you bought and make it better and stronger and faster.
When I was growing up, electronics were certainly a black box that only a select few people with deep skills could effect. But now we've got 10-year-old girls who are expert Arduino programmers making GPS information-gathering collars for their dogs. All of the sudden, technology is no longer a black box; everybody can have some agency.
And I think that that always bends towards real critical thinking. I'm no longer interested in terms like skepticism. I think it just comes down to being a really good critical thinker and analyzing and feeling some agency with the world around you.
NUVO: And Mythbusters demonstrates, in a sense, the scientific method and critical thinking at work.
Savage: Indeed. The narratives that we tell on Mythbusters are honest ones. They're generated and promulgated by the curiosity that Jamie and I have for the subject material. If you're telling a true story, it's going to be inherently more interested than telling a false story. We realized early on that the best episodes were driven by our enthusiasm. That was an amazing and powerful thing to understand.
NUVO: It's a truism that people will hold fast to beliefs and ideas even when all the evidence in the world proves them wrong. Have you learned anything while doing the show about how to best challenge those delusions?
Savage: I think it's repeatedly shown that humans are among the tiny group of sentient things on this planet that actually understands a narrative, that understands a story. I think a story, in positive or negative terms, is completely intrinsic to what it means to be sentient. We are addicted to stories — and that's good! Science is nothing but a rigorous way of telling a good story.
We also construct ourselves with stories about what happened to us, and we can become too attached to our stories. That's when we stop paying attention to the evidence around us and start associating our personality with opinions that we believe.
An urban legend spreads because a great story is a fantastic way to propagate bad information. On Mythbusters and on stage, our goal is to tell a better story that's actually true.