Seven Questions

Jamie Hyneman

The Mythbusters co-star on bringing his TV show to the Vegas stage, constantly battling danger and the experiment results that surprised him the most
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Photo by Robert Fujioka

If there were an award given for Most Eclectic Résumé, Jamie Hyneman not only would win it, he’d leave the second- and third-place finishers in his dust. The man owns a degree in literature, and another in Russian. He once operated a successful sailing/diving charter business in the Caribbean (he’s a certified dive master). He’s a wilderness-survival expert. He’s built dozens of robots and toy prototypes. He’s the hands-on owner of a special-effects shop in San Francisco. And he holds patents for multiple inventions.

But ask Hyneman about the one item on his résumé that most blows his mind, and he’ll tell you, “TV star.” Along with science-experiment partner Adam Savage, Hyneman for the last decade has hosted Mythbusters, the wildly popular show on Discovery Channel that tests the validity of various urban legends. This month, the 55-year-old, beret-donning Hyneman gets to add yet another surprising line to that résumé: Las Vegas stage performer. He and Savage are bringing Mythbusters: Behind the Myths to the Palazzo for two engagements (Aug. 17-19 and Aug. 31-Sept. 2). The six shows will feature live experiments, behind-the-scenes stories and a heavy dose of audience participation.

Did you ever think in your wildest dreams that you’d be “playing” Vegas?

No. I didn’t think I was going to be on TV, either. This whole thing is very strange, but I’m going with it.

How will this live show be different than what fans see on TV?

Well, we are known for doing explosive and spectacular large-scale things, which by definition we can’t do on a stage. So we’ve tried to come up with something that’s more representative of what we’re like when we’re doing the [TV] show. We’re generally playful, a little bit mischievous and we mess with things. We’re bringing a number of people up onstage, and we’re messing with them. We’re having fun, often at their expense—but in a nice way. It’s extremely interactive. It’s also a little different than a lot of stage-type things, because Mythbusters is an experimentation show, not a demonstration show.

On the show, you’re more of the quiet science guy, while Adam is more outgoing. Is that the case offscreen, and are your different personalities one of the reasons Mythbusters works?

Although I wasn’t shy or anything, I had no ambition to be onstage. As a person, I pretty much am who I seem to be on television; I’m a little bit deadpan. So when an Australian production company approached me about being [involved with] a show about urban legends that was more than people just talking about it—it actually involved people who replicated things and built and tested the circumstances—I called Adam, who was one of the freelance artisans that I would employee here in San Francisco. Knowing he’s a bit of a ham, I asked if he wanted to be involved. He was game, and we did a little video demo, sent it off to the production company, and our lives changed about three weeks after that.

How surprised were you that the show turned into a big hit?

Totally surprised. You know, I was just taking it on because, as a small businessman, you need to diversify. As crazy as it seemed, I was like, “Well, let’s give it a shot. You never know.” And sure enough, it took off. We all laughed after we did the first three episodes, [because] those were all the urban legends I actually knew! I thought that was the end of it.

Is there one particular experiment whose results stunned you?

Well, we’re surprised all the time. But my favorite one was, “Are elephants afraid of mice?” We had been shooting in South Africa for “Shark Week,” but the weather kicked up so we couldn’t go out on the ocean. So we went inland and decided to see if elephants were afraid of mice. We stopped at a pet store and got a mouse, then found a game reserve that we knew elephants would go through. So I carved a hole out of a ball of dung and hid the mouse under it, tied some monofilament around it and hid behind a bush. They opened the gate and the elephants came out, and when one got right in front of the ball of dung, we yanked the dung over, the mouse crawled out and darned if that elephant didn’t stop in its tracks and tiptoe around the thing before moving on.

We thought maybe it was the ball of dung that scared the elephant, so we tried it without the mouse, and the elephant ignored it. Then we tried it with the mouse again and with a different elephant, and the same thing happened. We were watching this thing with our jaws hanging open, because any of us would’ve bet any amount of money that the elephant would not even see it. But it did.

What’s the most dangerous experiment you guys have done?

We run the risk of injury all the time—so often that you have to figure that your number is up. At the same time, we pay careful attention whenever we have a close call. And the more of those we have, the more careful and safer we get. … As far as the most dangerous thing we’ve done, I tend to think that we probably didn’t know at the time [that it was dangerous] or we wouldn’t be here. Especially when you’re playing around with and working right next to 1,000 pounds of high explosives that was about to go off by accident and just narrowly didn’t.

Is there a fear factor involved?

We’ve had situations where we’re frightened, but it happens on such a regular basis that it’s pretty hard to get our adrenaline going. In particular, I’m just not comfortable with heights—haven’t been for my entire life—but at this point, I just kind of stare at it, know that I’m uncomfortable and go ahead and do it anyway.

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