How Adam Savage went from kid geek to mythbuster to nerd whisperer

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Oct 11, 2017, 7:04 PM EDT (Updated)

Every fan has an origin story. It may be getting a hand-me-down comic book, playing with a Transformer before even watching the cartoon, meeting Spider-Man at a local fair -- or even seeing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, crammed with your parents, four siblings, and Doberman in the ol’ Mister Mustard station wagon at the local drive-in.

OK, so those are all very specific to me. The point is, each of us has a radioactive spider-bite of a moment that changed our lives, and set us on the path to being a fan today. Discussing that path, and exploring how fandom has shaped us, is the mission of myth buster-turned-nerd whisperer Adam Savage in his 15-part SYFY25: Origin Stories Podcast.

Speaking with icons, creators, and notable nerds -- such as Frank Oz, D.C. Fontana, Rick Baker, Neil Gaiman, Kevin Smith, Ron Moore, Sana Amanat, and more – Savage takes listeners on a tour through sci-fi, horror, and fantasy. The conversations are equal parts insider recollections of their own work, as well as revelations of how genre impacted each guest.

But just because Savage knows many of these famous fans personally, and has worked his way through the industry as special effects designer and TV personality, doesn’t mean Origin Stories has been an easy gig. In fact, in the conversation that follows, he discusses how difficult it is to interview friends, and colleagues. Additionally, Savage talks about his own origin story, and what currently excites him about fandom.

To begin with, what is the state of fandom, in your opinion?

I don’t think it’s ever been a better time to be a fan of anything. Because of the internet. If I am a teenager with a weird hobby, it doesn’t take me more than 10 minutes and Google to find my people, and start discussing it. This works all the way down. When you have people cosplaying as the most esoteric characters from the background of movies, and books, they’re finding other people doing the same characters. That is thrilling to me.

I like the fan-driven movements, like Ice Cream Guy from Empire Strikes Back

I love Ice Cream Dude! And I did Admiral Ackbar based on a fan painting of Ackbar wearing a Napoleonic military garb. And I’ve definitely participated in that mash-up. The whole idea of mash-ups is thrilling recapitulation of culture. It is saying, “I love this thing, and I want to contribute to it, and join it with something else.” All creation is based on that exact drive, and execution.

When did you realize you were a fan?

It was since forever. It started with LEGO. I was 16, and still had entire cities of LEGO laid out on large swaths of floors. It was Star Wars; when it came out, I was 10 years old, and immediately buying the toys. I built LEGO Death Star levels for my figures to run around on. I have never not been a deep fan of the stuff I really enjoy.

I remember as a kid those first friends with whom I could have deep dive conversations about comic books or sci-fi. Who was that first person who “got” you as a fan, and who you went deep with?

That’s a lovely question, and I really appreciate it. It wasn’t until I was 18, 19-years old. My buddy David is still one of my closest friends in the whole world. He is the person who took me to see Blade Runner. We concluded on our own that Deckard must be a replicant in 1986 based on the visual iconography of the film, and the way Ridley Scott laid out the sequence. Realizing that, and proving it to our satisfaction, and to each other, and discussing endlessly how much we love that movie is still one of my fondest memories of early fandom. That wasn’t until I left high school.

With Origin Stories, you’re talking to many people who are friends, and for the millionth time. You have to tap into that friendship, but still get something new out of them.

There is nothing easier about interviewing a close friend than a total stranger. Ostensibly you still want a conversation that feels like a conversation, but as the interviewer, you have a responsibility to be awake at the conversation as it’s happening. That is a different mindset than within a friendship, where you are just shooting the shit. Having dinner with Frank Oz or Neil Gaiman, is very different than interviewing them.

And when you’re friends with Frank Oz, you don’t ask him about making The Dark Crystal at dinner. He doesn’t necessarily want to talk about that all the time. So, it is kind of great to roll up your sleeves, and talk about this stuff. Frank is one of my heroes, and now he’s one of my friends. In the interview I get to ask the questions I don’t ask socially.

But you do have insider knowledge, yet need to include the audience.

As an interviewer, I also want to be the listener. I don’t just want a bunch of in-jokes, and I’ve heard interviews with people who are friends with their interviewees. I felt excluded. I felt like the interviewer was trying to tell me why they were interesting. This is about shining the light on the interviewee, and what their viewpoint is.

And, every single time I had a story from somebody I knew who I was interviewing, if I gave them, “Oh hey, what about that story?” they would tell half the story. Or not tell it in the context I was thinking of it fitting into the interview. That told me my preconceived notions of how the interview would go had no place. The trick was to prepare for every interview as if it was a stranger.

I think about interviews I’ll never get to have, like with Forry Ackerman, or Ray Harryhausen. Now that you’re wearing this interviewer’s hat, who are the people you wish you could have had these conversations with?

The list is endless. Right now I’m obsessed with Stuart Freeborn, who built the masks for Moonwatcher in 2001, and made Chewbacca, and Yoda. He was just an incredible mechanical mind, and aesthetic genius. Whenever I get together with people like Rick Baker, or Guillermo del Toro, or John Landis, I ask them to tell me stories about their friendships with Dick Smith, and Harryhausen, and Forry Ackerman. All three of them knew those guys really well. I love hearing those stories, and about how generous those guys were. I would have loved to sit down with Gene Roddenberry about creating a culture.

A culture that extends beyond the show, but is also a culture of creation …

Creating a culture with the way he directed the writer’s room, the way he built the team of producers, and actors to create the original series, the animated series, The Next Generation. That may be might favorite thing I’ve come to realize with this podcast series: How important that culture is. The culture Gene Roddenberry built in his writer’s room among his producers, and actors, went on to inform Ron Moore, who started in that writer’s room, then did Battlestar Galactica, and now Outlander. And Naren Shankar when we to do The Expanse. And having spent time with Battlestar Galactica cast members and producers, and with the entire cast and crew of The Expanse, I can tell you they all feel just like the same kind of family the Star Trek: The Next Generation folks feel like. From that comes really good product. When everyone is involved, and invested, it is going to be better. Those franchises demonstrate that.

Did you discover anything about your own fandom through this process?

More than anything else, I realize that if you scratch the surface of a creator, you’re going to find a fan. It doesn’t matter whether they talk about it or not, are extroverted about it or not, but behind every creator is someone who found an obsession that fed them on a level that was past emotion, and intellect, and existed in this other place. That is why we all create, and why we set out in the morning to make something from nothing. When we realize there is no separation between us, and the people we admire, and that we’re all driven by similar things, it inspires us to do more. To try more. To be braver about the thing we’re interested in.

We’re so often looking back, and celebrating past genre. But how do we do that without becoming so nostalgic that we fail to look ahead?

One of the key ways we did that in the interview series was in the choice of guests. We had wonderful old-school people, like [Wired Magazine founding editor] Kevin Kelly 
or [Star Trek scriptwriter] D.C. Fontana who were a pair of Forrest Gumps at the origin of so many things you love. Then we’re talking to [Marvel’s Director of Content and Character Development] Sana Amanat, and author Nnedi Okorafor who are absolutely at the vanguard of the future of this genre, and media. I feel like we did a really great spectrum of both the old, and the new. It is not just a nostalgic podcast, but a celebration of where inspiration comes from, and where it’s going.