Apr 24, 2014
09:10 AMArts & Entertainment
'MythBusters Host Adam Savage Discusses Nerds, Science at CT Forum
As co-host of the popular TV show “MythBusters,” Adam Savage has debunked myths and urban legends through scientific testing and experimentation, in the process becoming an advocate for science education and ultimately, a nerd icon. This month he participates in The Connecticut Forum’s “Nerd Fest: Why Nerds Rule the World” with actress (and avid gamer) Aisha Tyler and culture critic Chuck Klosterman.
What can we expect from this nerd fest?
For me, what I love about a gathering like this is that it has a self-selected core fan base for an audience, which means that you can go deeper into a lot of the subject matter because everyone is coming to the table with a certain amount of knowledge. That, and they tend to get my geekier jokes, so I appreciate that.
What’s your definition of a nerd?
Years ago, I was taking sculpture very seriously—well, I still take it seriously, I just don’t do it as much—I had a girlfriend who worked at a successful gallery on Madison Avenue. She managed a bunch of artists who made their living painting. And that is a very, very hard business. I said, “Is there something unique about them?” And she said, “There’s one thing that links the entire community of artists, and there’s only one thing: They’re all completely different kinds of people—different personality types, socioeconomic types, etc.—but they are all obsessed with their field, and everything that’s going on in it. They know who’s got a show in town, who’s got one coming up, etc. They really pay close attention.”
My friend John Hodgman and I were talking at “Nerds vs. Jocks” and the fact is if you interview any high-level jock and you will find them a nerd for their sport. They love the stats, they love the physics, they love the deep exploration and science of what they do, and that’s all part and parcel of it.
What level of nerd would you classify yourself as?
Uh, that’s a really good question! I’m a personal believer in that just like you can’t give yourself a nickname, you can’t identify yourself as a nerd. The other day we were talking and my wife casually identified me as a classic Type-A personality, which I felt was ludicrous . . . I remembered when we first talking about Type-A personalities in the ’70s and I was an adolescent and I was thinking, “Well, that’s something I’m definitely not ever going to be.” And yet, my wife pointed out that a certain amount of getting stuff done—“You get stuff done every single day, and you’re not comfortable unless you’re actively completing things!”—and I guess I can see how that could fall under personality group Type A.
As far as a nerd, I have my areas of geek expertise that are completely pointless, like any good nerd. I have my enthusiasms that I like to indulge, but part of the success that I’ve been able to lucky enough to enjoy in life is not because I’m a nerd, but because some of the things I’ve gone through and talk about are universal. So I don’t like to think of it as a restricted community, but I like to think of it as finding the things within the personalities of a restricted community that apply to everyone.
How would you classify the importance of nerds?
All human progress has been made by people pushing the boundaries of art and science, and nerds, as a self-identified group, are skeptical thinkers and they’re problem solvers. A love of solving problems is one of the things that makes humans the most successful species on Earth. So, I place nerd culture right there at the forefront of that. That might be a bit overdoing it, but if you meet any NASA scientist, you realize that you’re not meeting a Revenge of the Nerds nerd, you’re looking at a really balanced human who’s found how to do the thing they love, and how to do it at the top of their field. The nerd moniker is a secondary one, not a primary one. It’s not like, “I’m a nerd, therefore I’m saving the world.” It’s more like “I’ve realized a way to save the world . . . eh, you’re probably a nerd.”
Why do you think we instantly ascribe that label to anyone who appreciates science, and the negative connotation that comes with it?
Restricting it to a community is not useful necessarily, even if it’s an important self-identified community. About every year, Gawker or Digg or some website will have an article about people who self-identify as nerds and geeks who aren’t—you know, handsome model-types or really successful businessmen who call themselves nerds. The fact is that to be good at anything, you cross into the Venn diagram of nerd-dom. To pursue excellence at absolutely anything. I think because the term is becoming spongier, as evidenced by the cultural response and articles saying that the term is dead or the wrong people are calling themselves this, the term is losing its utility, and I think it’ll end up being an archaic term in 15 to 20 years.
How do you embrace being a nerd icon and an ambassador of science?
I take it very seriously. A million years ago, Reebok had an ad campaign called “Reebok lets you be you.” It was a classic ridiculous sneaker campaign, except they were using quotes in the ad that were rocking my world. I tried to find the quotes, pre-Internet days, and I couldn’t find them, and then I met the guys who made the ad and they said, “Oh, we just got them out of quotation books.” Later on, ten years later, I found out that all the quotes in the ad campaign came from a single essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson called “Self-Reliance.” And they’re all really, really important, and they have remained quite important to me, and they’re things like, “There comes a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that the envy is ignorance.” “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” “To believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.” That is something that absolutely rocked my world. I identified with it because that’s what we see in great art, whether it’s acting or film writing or graphic design or anything, it that there’s a touch of the universal at the front of our conscience.
So when I understand, or attempt to take credit for my place in our culture and how people identify me, as you said, as a nerd icon or ambassador of science, I really go back to thinking about it the way my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson does, which is that I’m a communicator. I have a wide set of skills, but the most primary use to them is to communicate things, and it’s one that I take really seriously about being honest and personal about my experiences.
What’s the biggest myth about “MythBusters”?
People think that Jamie [Hyneman] and I don’t build the stuff we use on the show. It’s funny, for years people showed up on set and were like “Wow! Is this all that you got in terms of personnel?” And we’re like, “Yeah!” People picture a whole team of people building stuff behind-the-scenes and there’s really not. At this point, we have the largest build team we’ve ever had. We have three guys—Joe, Tory and Miles—who are awesome. Still, the fact is that if you see us build it on camera, we built it!
Do you have a least favorite myth?
Yeah, pyramid power. Years ago, we brought in an outside producer, who was a wonderful guy but with, I’d say, uncommon tastes. And he said, “We should do pyramid power!” The idea if you sharpen a blade under a pyramid, it’d stay sharp. And we should’ve never gone anywhere near that oogey-boogey bullshit. I’m still sad that we ever traipsed into that territory.
You’ve covered a lot of ground with “Mythbusters” at this point—what do you still hope to accomplish with the show?
The same thing we have always wanted to do—it’s a daily process, not a lifetime goal. I still want to make the best show that we can. We show up every morning and make it up, every single morning. That’s one of the best parts of about making the show and the best parts of the job. Frankly, as long as they’ll let us keep making the show, that’s how I want to do it. I don’t have a greater plan.
Finally, why do nerds rule the world?
[laughs] I’m not convinced nerds rule the world. I think of nerds as critical thinkers and problem solvers, and when I look around, I don’t think that’s what’s happening. [laughs] I wish that were the case! I think there’s a lot of problems to solve, and I’m glad that the nerd community continues to get together and discuss ways to solve them. I’m really glad about what nerds have brought into the world, and I think that they’ve made it a better place.
"Nerd Fest" is at The Connecticut Forum on May 3 at 8 p.m. at The Bushnell in Hartford.
'MythBusters Host Adam Savage Discusses Nerds, Science at CT Forum