The Man Behind the Myth

By Elisabeth Andrews

Jamie Hyneman

Jamie Hyneman (BA ’81)—special effects expert, inventor, popular co-host of MythBusters, and the College’s most recent Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. Photo: Zach Hetrick

The moment Jamie Hyneman steps onstage at Indianapolis’s Murat Theatre, the crowd is on its feet. The noise is deafening; it’s a packed house, and the audience is not merely applauding but actually screaming with excitement. Several fans have prepared for this moment by donning Hyneman’s signature ensemble: black beret, white button-down, and a moustache so famous it has its own Twitter handle (@hynemanstache).

Despite appearances, this is no rock and roll tour. Hyneman is an international star, but not because of pop music, Hollywood, or sports. The frenzy—reinforced every few minutes by one fan’s guttural growls of “Yeah!”—is actually over science-based documentary programming.

Hyneman is the co-host and executive producer of MythBusters, a hit Discovery Channel show now in its tenth season. Praised by science educators and profiled in The New York Times, MythBusters features Hyneman and his co-host Adam Savage systematically investigating urban legends, popular myths, and the real-world plausibility of feats depicted in the media. From pond-skipping sports cars to cell-phone germ counts to various substances’ explosive capabilities, the team conducts carefully controlled experiments that conclude when myths are declared “Confirmed,” “Plausible,” or “Busted.”

The show quickly became Discovery Channel’s marquee brand. Nine seasons and nearly 200 episodes later, MythBusters has explored everything from magnetism to mind control as well as the many uses of duct tape.

At its heart, MythBusters has more in common with chemistry class than with primetime television programming, yet it remains an unequivocal hit, broadcast in 160 countries and “liked” by more than 6 million people on Facebook. Hyneman has appeared on Good Morning America and The Late Show with David Letterman and has hosted President Barack Obama as a MythBusters special guest.

“The basis of what I learned as a student at IU was that if you’re methodical about obtaining information, you can pretty much go after whatever you want.” – Jamie Hyneman

In the ultimate pop-culture salute, Liz Lemon of NBC’s 30 Rock boasts of writing MythBusters fan fiction that is unmistakably “sexy.”

Hyneman never anticipated this type of response when he put together the show ten years ago. “MythBusters was simply a lark,” he says. “Science-based documentary was the last thing I figured would actually take off.”

Hyneman has made, in his own words, “a living having fun.” A taste for adventure led him down varied career paths, including wilderness survival expert, linguist, animal wrangler, machinist, and cook.

Worldwide celebrity seemed especially unlikely during his undergraduate years at IU, when he studied Russian linguistics in the Individualized Major Program (IMP). Hyneman was raised on a farm in Columbus, Indiana, and often accompanied his mother to Bloomington, where she worked in IU’s School of Library and Information Science (SLIS). He also listened religiously to WFIU, the public radio station that broadcasts from the university. “When I decided to go to college, IU was a natural fit,” he says.

Initially, Hyneman intended to study fine arts, building on his interest in figurative sculpture. He enrolled in a Russian language course to fulfill a general education requirement, but soon found himself enthralled with all things Slavic.

“The language was so powerful and so melodic at the same time,” he says. “This was also one of the world’s areas of largest influence when I was in college. The United States and the Soviet Union were the two superpowers.”

In addition to learning about the culture that had produced the WFIU music he loved (he names Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin as favorite composers), Hyneman also discovered that he preferred the certitude of language study to the ambiguity of fine art.

“I liked how language was so intricate, but, unlike studio art, the answers  were absolutely not subjective,” he says. “I found that certainty refreshing, so I went off in that direction.”

Jamie Hyneman

IU alumni catch up at the Modernism West art gallery shortly before the ceremony. Photos: Michelle Walker

Hoping to maximize his language acquisition, Hyneman spent many hours holed up at the Indiana Memorial Union reading Russian novels, stopping frequently to look up new vocabulary words. He also enrolled in the Summer Workshop in the Slavic, East European, and Central Asian Languages (SWSEEL) program, which he praises as “a fantastic way to immerse in the language and advance quickly.”

In order to truly understand how to best become fluent, however, Hyneman determined that he would need to grasp the process of language acquisition itself. He decided to capitalize on the newly offered IMP to create his own course of study: Language Learning and Linguistics.“I very much appreciate the flexibility of the university in allowing me to pursue my interests,” he says. “IMP allows you to take control over your education. You become more involved in it, and it gets you active in the process of learning.”

At the time, Hyneman imagined following in his late mother’s footsteps, applying his skills as an area studies librarian. He began a master’s program after graduating from the College. Halfway through the graduate degree, however, he felt it was time to “take a break,” and moved to the Caribbean.

“I’d always wanted to learn how to sail,” he says. “Growing up in Indiana, I’d only had access to lakes. I decided to spend some time on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, which was a locus for sailing.”

Within six months of arriving on the island, Hyneman had earned a captain’s license and dive master’s license. “That was when I realized that information translates into opportunity. Once I found out I could make a living having fun, it was, ‘Bye-bye, Slavic collections.’”

The Jamie Hyneman the world knows was forged during that period, at least with respect to his visage. He had begun to lose his hair by that time, and the famous beret, a subject of much speculation, was actually purchased as a practical sunshield to be worn when sailing. The moustache also began as a simple attempt to counterbalance his hair loss. “If I didn’t have the hat on, I just looked like a stump, so I wanted some hair on my face,” he says, adding, “I did not create this look for television.”

After leading more than 3,000 dives, Hyneman was ready for a job with more variety. Once again applying his IU-honed research skills, he discovered that he could combine his sculptural talents and a penchant for tinkering into a career in special effects.

“Special effects are, by their nature, extremely varied. That meant there was very little routine and the projects were often fun,” he says. “Once I knew I wanted to get started, it was just a matter of methodically researching how to get my foot in the door.”

Along with his wife, Eileen Walsh, whom he met in St. Thomas, Hyneman moved to California. He began producing special effects for commercials, then for feature films including Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, Disney’s Flubber, Naked Lunch, Robocop, and more.

Hyneman also built things for real life. Among his many creations: a patented wheeled Nike shoe, blast-resistant armor, the aerial video camera Wavecam, and an ultra-realistic medical dummy used to prepare combat medics to respond to injuries on the battlefield.

His most famous invention was Blendo, an enemy-shredding robot that competed in the show Robot Wars. It was this television exposure that, in 2002, with Hyneman already well into his forties, offered him his big break in show business.

Hyneman was invited to tape a MythBusters pilot. He recruited a former collaborator, Adam Savage, as his co-host. Unlike Savage, though, Hyneman had no previous theater experience. “To Adam, being on stage comes naturally,” he says. “For me, not so much. The camera is an unpleasant necessity. I am much more interested in the problems at hand.”

And the problems at hand were awesome. In that first show, through systematic experimentation, the co-hosts explored whether a 1967 Chevy could become airborne through the use of a solid-fuel rocket, and whether Pop Rocks candy could, when combined with soda, rupture a person’s stomach. Although the car did speed up and the candy-plus-cola combination resulted in copious carbon dioxide, Hyneman and Savage could not produce the reactions necessary for either hypothesized effect. Both myths were declared, “Busted.”

Jamie Hyneman

Hyneman mingles with alumni at a special reception held in his honor last November. College Dean Larry Singell presented the Distinguished Alumni Award to Hyneman in San Francisco, where he lives and produces MythBusters in his visual effects workshop, M5 Industries.
Photos: Michelle Walker

While Savage’s energetic demeanor helped propel the narrative, Hyneman’s unrehearsed, deadpan delivery won at least as many hearts. (His zealous fans have created not only dozens of online communities, but also an emoticon to represent his characteristically unsmiling presentation, complete with beret and moustache—/:€).

The success of the show, Hyneman maintains, is due to the research process that underlies it. “The workhorse of MythBusters is our team of researchers,” he says. “If we have an idea, or a fan sends one in and we express interest, we sic our researchers on it like dogs on a scent.”

A large segment of that audience is students. “We’ve been credited with encouraging math, science, and engineering interests in young people around the world,” Hyneman says. For his innovative influence on science education, Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, honored him with lifetime membership, as has the California Science Teachers Association. He has also earned honorary degrees from the University of Maine, Villanova University, and the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

“We didn’t set out to be educators. We were just trying to satisfy our own curiosity,” Hyneman says of the MythBusters crew. “But since it’s happening, we are all for educating people and providing a compelling example. In showing this passion for building things and being creative, we are influencing a whole generation of young people to do the same.”

Last year the show went on the road for the first “Behind the Myths Tour.” Though it took some work to adjust the content to a live presentation—the tour was a great success, attracting abundant, enthusiastic audiences.

“We would come out of the auditorium, and there would be a wall of people fifty deep asking for autographs,” he says.

And 2012 was also the debut year of a new Discovery show hosted, conceived, and executive produced by Hyneman and Savage: Unchained Reaction, a reality competition in which teams construct Rube Goldberg-style machines related to a particular theme or concept. In addition to the spectacle of the finished contraptions—which Hyneman praises as “lovely, poetic manifestations of the contestants’ personalities”—it’s touching to see how eager the participants are to please the hosts, whom they clearly revere.

Given Hyneman’s achievements, their admiration is understandable. Not everyone is able to take a degree in Russian linguistics and turn it into a blockbuster career hosting science-based television programs and engineering game-changing inventions. For Hyneman, though, there’s no mystery to his capabilities.

“The basis of what I learned as a student at IU was that if you’re methodical about obtaining information, you can pretty much go after whatever you want,” he says. “On the show, and in my life, I delight in throwing myself into new environments and being able to orient myself and solve problems. I received a very broad foundation from my education, and I feel capable of tackling just about anything because of that foundation.”