We wind up our series of interviews with Superman shaving theorists with a talk with Mythbusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. Asked by Gillette to answer “How does Superman shave?”, Adam and Jamie have the biggest of responses. But today, they were more than happy to expand on their theory (see video, above) and chat about all manner of Mythbuster things.
Special thanks to Gillette for setting up these interviews and for the fresh look at an age-old comic book question.
GeekDad: Your theory has to do with the Large Hadron Collider creating wormholes that whisk the whiskers off Superman’s face. Can we say, beyond any doubt, that this would be the most expensive shave ever?
Adam Savage: Absolutely it would be the most expensive shave ever but the cost of that would be offset by perhaps, the idea that Superman, in exchange for using the Large Hadron Collider would provide the scientists at the LHC with some of the secrets of Kryptonian physics so that Earth could advance its knowledge of the universe.
GD: Nice partnership there.
AS: Yes, it’s a total give and take, but he only gets to use [the LHC] after hours.
GD: This is a pretty big theory. Did you have any others you considered before choosing this one?
AS: We came up with all the ideas that all the other people [Kevin Smith, Bill Nye, and Mayim Bialik] came up with first and we threw those out. We had an idea like Bill Nye’s where Superman grinds his beard off, but instead of using a grinder, Jamie was thinking that he would use the road.
Jamie Hyneman: He just flies along at supersonic speeds along a highway that happens to need to be resurfaced. That way he does the public a favor and the abrasion of that is enough to remove his beard. I also thought some other things like he might be able to fly so fast that he goes back in time and his beard grows backwards. What else did we come up with that was off-the-wall?
AS: Well, we had the idea of using various power tools and grinding wheels. We thought originally about the Large Hadron Collider that he needs to use some new branch of physics that the LHC is the most advanced device. I was thinking that he was firing some specific anti-Kryptonian cellular strucutred particle at his beard and then Jamie came up with the wormhole idea. Then there’s also the idea that he uses his super fingernails to pluck his hairs out one by one, which sounds laborious until you realize he has super speed and then you figure he can do that as fast or faster than an Indy Car pit team could change a tire.
JH: I also thought it would be really funny to have him shaved by a heavyset crew of jackhammer operators who would chisel away as he lay on the ground.
GD: Mythbusters is in its eleventh season now, coming up on something like 250 episodes. You’re about to surpass some classic American series like Happy Days, Cheers, and M*A*S*H. If you think back to when you started, did you ever imagine you would still be going?
AS: Of course not. We’ve both had long careers in the film and television industry before we started doing what we do and the one rule of the industry is that the bottom could drop out at any moment and we’ve always kept a freelancer’s eye on the future. We’re still having fun doing what we’re doing. The idea that what we do for a job would actually put us in contact with things like thinking about how Superman shaves — it’s both weird and very fun.
GD: You did an episode a while back on Superheroes, but didn’t include the question of Superman shaving. Because comic books are so rooted in fantasy and what appears to be impossible, ever consider revisiting the genre for another superhero show?
JH: It’s difficult because when we test things, there has to be something we can get some sort of purchase on. A guy who jumps into the air and takes off flying, the only way we could approach that is to make some kind of machine that would make that happen — like a jetpack or something, which we have approached — but it’s still not the same thing. I think the basic concept of it and most of the things that have to do with Superman they are flat out, simply impossible. And we can’t test something that’s impossible — it’s impossible!
GD: You have a lot of appeal not just to curious and thinking adults, but kids also love your show. For lots of good reasons, you say ‘don’t try this at home’. At the same time, you must want to inspire the next generation of critical thinkers. Do you have any advice for projects or experiments that kids can try at home?
AS: First, we’ll say to any Kryptonian children out there, please don’t use the Large Hadron Collider if you need to shave — you need to get the advice of an adult first. But regarding Earth-bound children, the primary thing we do on the show, the most exciting part of our job, is the asking of questions.
Even with something as fanciful as “How does Superman shave?” it ends up being a similar kind of problem to solve as the ones we are regularly confronted with because you’re confronted with something you don’t understand and have no practical experience with and that happens to us every other week on the show and with this challenge from Gillette. You start asking questions and start picking at parts of it. Eventually, if you start asking enough questions, and you look at enough pieces of it, you find yourself a metric you can use like a handle to kind of shake the idea.
One of the things that’s very fruitful about this partnership is that as we shake that tree. Like with Superman’s shaving, I think we were doing this in a car in Utah, each of us starts to come up with ideas based on the other’s and it’s like riffing. It ends up being like a jazz improvisation. Asking questions about things you don’t understand, the most amazing thing about it is, it doesn’t take that many before you start to understand the piece of what you’re looking at. And that is a thrilling moment — the moment at which the thing that was fully unconceivable to you becomes somewhat more manageable to your brain.
JH: We’d also like to point out that for young people, in particular, playing with things is more than just gratuitous — or it can be. That’s why we do a lot of the ridiculous stuff that we do on the show. Sometimes you learn things in that process, even if what you’re doing in and of itself is just for fun or ridiculous. That’s something that not a lot of people embrace, I don’t think. Learning is something that’s often thought of as a strict discipline that one does in a classroom or a lab. Learning can actually be part of a much more organic process of being playful and exploring just because you’re curious to see what will happen.
GD: What were each of you like as kids, did you have this sense of curiosity back then?
JH: Definitely, I don’t think that we realized the importance of it or the potential there. But definitely, as young people, I think we were both rather adventurous and intrepid as far as exploring and trying all sorts of different things.
GD: Did you drive your parents crazy at all?
JH: I found in my case endless creative and somewhat diabolical ways of getting out of chores on the farm. If I was mowing the yard I found out I could get out of mowing the lawn by taking the lawnmower and ramming it repeatedly into a tree until it broke and then my father would have to fix it and I was off the hook.
GD: You are both self-taught when it comes to the science and a lot of the processes you cover on the show. There’s a lot to said for being naturally curious and inventive, but how do you think the show be different if you’d received formal training?
AS: I don’t think it would be as good, frankly. For us, the idea always starts with “what would two guys alone on a Sunday do in their garage?” or what would we do if we didn’t have anything else to do that day. That workaday approach, we feel like it’s one of the reasons for the success of the show. We’re not a science demonstration show, we genuinely don’t know what the results of the things we set up are going to be.
We often have a good idea about the results might be, but we’re often wrong about those results. That’s an honest narrative and I think it’s one that resonates because it’s easy when you know about something to not realize what the heart of that thing is, for someone that doesn’t understand that process. Because we generally don’t have a real familiarity with the processes we’re investigating, we’re coming at it just like anybody else is. I think that’s a really important lesson. You can tackle anything, even how Superman shaves, if you ask enough questions.
JH: We feel like we’re successful at doing something because we simply didn’t know it was impossible. So we go ahead and try it and then … who knew?
GD: Mythbusters features fun and science, robotics, firearms, controlled danger, and lots of big explosions. While this qualifies as possibly the greatest job ever, I ask you with complete seriousness, if you didn’t have to work within the constraints of a one hour cable television program, is there anything you would do differently?
AS: If time and money and budget were no problem, we would go to the moon. We would bring back a piece of Apollo hardware to prove once and for all that we’ve already been to the moon. If physics were no obstacle, I think both of us would love to explore other worlds in the universe and see more about what’s out there. The distance from even the closest star or even remotely habitable planet is a real unfortunate restriction to being a human right now. We’ve definitely both thought about that.
JH: One of the things that puts that into perspective is, on average, whatever we do on the show is taking less than two weeks. We have five days to build it and five days to shoot it. We’re generally doing almost all of the work ourselves.
We have one or two guys who sometimes help us put things together a little more quickly but it’s not like there’s a big crew that chips in on these projects that we do. Even if there were, with a five day turnaround on a build, there’s only so much you can do. We have tons and tons of things we would love to do if we could spend many weeks or months or longer on a project.
GD: Bringing this home, now that you’ve solved how Superman shaves, are there any other shaving or beard-related myths you can think of that Gillette might need help with?
AS: That’s a good question. We are honest investigators and we’re genuinely curious about the stuff we do. We’ve been approached by tons of big corporations who ask us to “bust myths” for their product and it’s something we have steadfastly stayed away from because we value our integrity. [The only way] We would do that is with the caveat to the client that we might come up with a result they didn’t like.
For us, we were really pleased when Gillette came to us with a thought experiment, rather than some actual myth busting. As far as shaving myths go, I’m sure that some are out there, but I don’t know I’ve come across one on our lists that we could really tackle yet. But never say never!
JH: It might be interesting to see if we can come up with a razor that never needed to be replaced, but I’m not sure that would go over very well [with Gillette].