Does gravity work the same on a bullet you drop from your hand as one shot from a gun? Could you literally knock someone's socks off? How much abuse can a crash test dummy take? Those questions and much more can be found on Discovery Channel's hit science show "Mythbusters," which returns with new episodes tonight. Jamie, Adam, Tory, Kari and Grant are all back for another round of dispelling classic myths in ways that are not only fascinating but hugely entertaining. To get the scoop on what is to come in the new crop of episodes, our Jim Halterman chatted with executive producer Dan Tapster on breaking the myth about scientists, the surprising things that people send in to the show and the unexpected wonders of duct tape.
Jim Halterman: When you came on board as executive producer in 2006, did you feel the need to tweak the show or was it a machine that didn't need fixing?
Dan Tapster: I worked on the show as a writer since episode 13 so I had quite a lot of experience and prior to starting to work on the show I was a fan, which I think always helps. When I took over as EP, which was the beginning of season 4, there were a few things I tweaked but I'm a very big believer in the philosophy of "if it ain't broke don't fix it." The one thing I did want to do was up the production value of the show. The video quality and the audio quality was something I was quite passionate about. My background prior to "Mythbusters" was I spent a number of years working in natural history filmmaking where image is everything so I just wanted to kind of keep the gorilla style of filmmaking like the wobbly camera where nobody knows what's going to happen and I don't mind if the crew is featured in the background... but I just wanted the quality of the image to be as good as it could be. The other thing I did was expand our horizons a little bit more and the season premiere is a very good example of that. Adam and Jamie are testing a physics bullet experiment and Kari, Tory and Grant are testing a proverb.
JH: One of the myths the show has easily busted is that people that spend time with science are bland and boring. Everyone on the show is just bursting with personality and a sense of fun. Was that an intentional part that you strive to keep going in the show?
DT: Yeah, I think so. I think that Adam, Jamie, Kari and Grant are inherently interested in the subject matter with none of them proclaiming to be experts... although Grant would want me to point out that he has a degree in electrical engineering. The enthusiasm comes across very well and they're just as enthusiastic when things go wrong than when things go right and they have a natural chemistry between them. When I went to school, my background is science and I have a degree in biology and I could really use that because I had such a good biology teacher who made science fun and part of that was through adding humor to his lessons. I think providing humor through learning is a very important part of "Mythbusters."
JH: At the end of the day, it must just be a lot of fun for your guys to smash things up but I was a bit concerned about Buster (the show's resident crash test dummy), who took quite a beating from the pendulum in the season premiere.
DT: I worry a lot about Buster, actually. He has a hard life. Oddly enough, we are about to use him for probably the first time as a crash test dummy. Of all the ridiculous things that we've done with Buster, we've never actually used him for what he was invented for. I think he's quite excited about that, actually.
JH: The "knock your socks off" test had viewers send in socks for testing but it made me wonder if you get fans send in odd things often?
DT: Yeah, they do. We get a huge amount of mail and sometimes so much that we can't answer it but we do get a lot of very strange requests and very strange artwork of the hosts. If you go into the bathrooms at both the shops, they're filled with a huge gallery of the artwork that people have sent in. As for requests, the socks request was an interesting one. We had a large number of people send in their socks and different types of socks. Quite a few people chose to send in very smelly, unwashed socks, which is peculiar. It was also interesting how a huge number of people sent their socks and said 'We want to know where the socks go in the washing machine but what we really want to know is whether you can use our socks to test anything' which is what I love about "Mythbusters." It's kind of interactive TV at its most extreme form. Someone asked us to test the washing machine gremlin idea so we asked people to send in their socks and then the people who send in their socks ask us to test something different and we do! So much of what we do is dictated by the viewers.
JH: Is there anything that is beyond the limits of what you'd test?
DT: I'm not going to say something that we'll never do because we could end up doing it but things that we try to steer clear from are mostly myths about paranormal so anything that is impossible for us to answer we're going to stay away from. You know, crop circles, alien abductions, haunted houses, anything like that. We stay away from that but anything else we're pretty much up for.
JH: When you're showing the testing that is done on camera, how much is researched before it earns a segment on the show?
DT: It's very, very rare that we do a test prior to actually trying something on the show. There is only one or two occasions where we've done that and that tends to be because we've been advised to do it for safety reasons because on the show we do a lot of stuff that nobody has ever done before. Sometimes we go to our safety guys and say "What do you think will happen?" and they say "We can't approve this until we have a better idea of what is going to happen." I'm very lucky that by being a fan of the show and working on the show for so long that I have a very reliable gut feeling about whether a story is going to work or not. If they pass the safety test, then we're going to do them. There was a couple of times when a story didn't go quite according to plan but there are many more examples of stories that worked a lot better than I thought they were going to. I think if the subject is interesting enough it can work on this show.
JH: What other myths are coming up in the seventh season that viewers can look forward to?
DT: We have a whole episode devoted to duct tape and involving mythical things about duct tape, which is quite remarkable and showcases the team's engineering skill to the level that you wouldn't believe. In fact, once the show was finished, all hosts immediately got on the phone with me and said "Can we do another show about duct tape? Let's do a whole season of duct tape!" I said, "No, but there is mileage on more duct tape episodes." We've also got some cool myths, no pun intended, on liquid nitrogen and we try to recreate various instant freezing things. One of the more fascinating stories is a fuel efficiency story, which I suppose is very relevant given the credit crunch and trying to save people money. A myth was sent in by a fan that said he gets better mileage in his car when he doesn't clean it. "I save money by driving a dirty car." I'm not going to tell you what happens in the story but it has an incredible twist in the tale that I think will make car manufacturers across the world sit up and take notice. Very, very interesting.
"Mythbusters" airs Wednesdays at 9:00/8:00c on the Discovery Channel.