Popular series MythBusters made a star of Kari Byron. The presenter was a stalwart of the series, forming part of the ‘Build Team’ triumvirate that assisted main presenters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage so well. And then, just like that, Byron – along with her on-screen teammates Grant Imahara and Tory Belleci – channeled their inner Keyser Söze and were gone.
MythBusters debuted on the Discovery Channel back in 2003 with Byron joining the crew on screen at the start of the second series. Along with Belleci and later, Imahara, she became part of the recognizable trio that was responsible for assisting Savage and Hyneman in performing all manner of weird and wonderful experiments. All designed, of course, to prove if a myth was actually true, or just an old wives’ tale.
The show became huge, attracting a loyal following of devoted fans. And as the only regular female member of the crew, Byron became an inspiration for many. The show’s sheer longevity – eventually lasting a full 14 seasons before it finally ran its course in 2016 – was testament to its popularity. Unfortunately, Byron, along with Imahara and Belleci, didn’t quite make it through to the end.
What happened? Well, that’s the million-dollar question. All fans know is that in the Season 12 finale, there was Byron, Imahara and Belleci displaying their usual on-screen chemistry. Hyneman made a short statement confirming their departure. And then, just a matter of months later, at the start of Season 13, they were gone. Savage and Hyneman were still in situ, but the Build Team – affectionately dubbed the ‘B Team’ – was nowhere to be seen. Some fans were outraged. Others were just sad. But very few knew the truth.
Certainly many wouldn’t have known the story of how Byron came to be such an important member of the MythBusters team. Unlike many stars who make it onto the small or big screen, she never intended or particularly wanted to be on camera. Growing up in California, the young Byron had her heart set on being an artist. And that’s what she became, graduating from San Francisco State University after studying film and sculpture.
After finishing college, Byron began hunting high and low for a job in the special effects business. Although she had an interest in movies and TV, she was very much focused on a job behind the scenes. But as it so often proves for young artists and creatives, paid work was a little hard to find. “I have this image just that all of my resumes fell into some bin that said ‘Reject,’” Byron later told website The Verge.
There’s often a degree of chance involved in any career, and that indeed proved to be the case with Byron. One day a friend of the artist recommended that she pay a visit to the studio of one Jamie Hyneman – he had a San Francisco workshop dealing in special effects. So along went Byron, more in hope than in any real expectation.
Hyneman wasn’t immediately taken with Byron. She recalled how she took along her portfolio “which he promptly looked through, very unimpressed,” she recalled to The Verge. But there was something that caught his eye: Byron had made a sculpture of an elderly man and had included a photograph. “He [Hyneman] was like, ‘Okay, yeah, that’s something I can work with,’” Byron said.
And that’s how it all began. Byron joined M5 Industries – Hyneman’s workshop and what was to become the studio in which most of the MythBusters tests were conducted. But she was initially an intern and had to make ends meet by working a night job at the same time. “I just kept showing up until one day, they asked if I wanted to help out with MythBusters,” Byron told The Verge.
Her tactic had worked. Now Byron was a small part of the MythBusters series that was filmed at Hyneman’s studio. With Hyneman and Savage presenting, behind the scenes a team was forever beavering away helping to set up the wide array of stunts, experiments and recreations that were the premise of the show.
Working alongside Byron on the MythBusters set was one Salvatore – or Tory – Belleci. The special effects worker had been involved in the business for almost ten years at that stage, getting most of his experience at Industrial Light and Magic. And like Byron, who was an artist, Belleci didn’t have a scientific background.
Not being a scientist certainly wasn’t a disadvantage for Belleci or Byron. “I just found that science and art are very similar,” Byron told The Verge. “It’s all curiosity, it’s all experimentation, it’s all trying to answer questions,” the cable TV star added. And for fans of curiosity, experiments and the mission to find answers, MythBusters really was the perfect TV blend.
Where Byron was once an intern, she was now officially a paid employee. And it wasn’t long before she made the jump from behind to in front of the camera. Along with Belleci and another colleague behind the scenes – Scottie Chapman – Byron was soon an accidental TV star. Or, to be precise, she was now an accidental TV host.
Byron’s leap into the spotlight came about because producers of MythBusters realized they couldn’t make episodes quickly enough. Additional help was needed. “And they’re like, ‘Okay, you’re hosts now! Go!’” Byron recalled. The third member of the famed Build Team trio – Grant Imahara – came in to replace Chapman during the show’s third season.
With the show’s lineup complete, fond TV memories were made. And it’s fair to say that there have been some standout moments on MythBusters involving the popular Build Team. There were plenty of pranks, of course. And that time Tory got his leg waxed by Kari. And then there was that episode in which Kari utterly demolished a car.
Some of the experiments and tests that the MythBusters team conducted were bizarre to say the least. In one memorable episode the team constructed a mock-up of a human neck using the spinal column of a pig. And there were loads and loads of explosions. The viewing public absolutely lapped it up.
The ratings and viewing numbers told the story. The show performed consistently well, and Byron was an integral part of that. The former intern had become an established star in her own right. Her on-screen banter with Imahara and Belleci in particular proved ever-popular with fans. The show – and its team – were on a roll.
But then everything changed. Fans of the long-running cable series were left stunned when three of the show’s most popular cast members – Imahara, Byron and Belleci – were suddenly gone. The 2015 series began without the three integral members of the Build Team as the show was suddenly reformatted. Why? What had gone on behind the scenes leading up to this shock departure?
In a revealing interview with Entertainment Weekly magazine, the show’s long-time producer Dan Tapster spoke about the many changes the show experienced at the end of the 2014 series. It was the 11th year of the Discovery Channel show, and it seemed that some things just could not continue as they were. There were some heavy prices to pay, and that’s what happened in the case of Imahara’s, Byron’s and Belleci’s jobs.
“We were very keen for [Imahara, Byron and Belleci] to be a part of the show, we are massive fans of theirs, and what they did over ten years was phenomenal,” Tapster told Entertainment Weekly. So, what happened? Why did those popular cast members fail to return when the new series aired in January 2015?
As you may well have predicted, it all came down to money. It invariably does. As MythBusters had grown and grown to become such a popular series, inevitably cast members’ salaries began to rise too; that’s normal for any long-running and popular TV show. Think Friends. Or Seinfeld. Or Frasier. But unlike those shows, Mythbusters had a bit of a problem.
The format of MythBusters meant that its production costs – both in terms of cast size and the sheer expense of staging the stunts involved – were considerably bigger than for, say, a sitcom. And so as the show’s popularity grew – mirrored by the fame of its instantly recognizable cast members – salaries became an issue. Sadly, it seems, the reality was that producers felt they just couldn’t match the new financial demands of their stars. Or that’s how the story goes, anyway.
Now, the stars of Friends were reportedly paid $1 million per episode back in the early 2000s. There’s no suggestion that Imahara, Byron and Belleci were looking for those kinds of numbers. But whatever they did ask for, their producers just couldn’t match it. And when they couldn’t, the trio of stars decided to walk. That was their prerogative, of course. And, once again, this was just one side of the story.
The executive producer of MythBusters – Tapster – gave it to Entertainment Weekly – straight. “There were negotiations, and based on those negotiations, they [Imahara, Byron and Belleci] opted out. It’s a shame for them. It’s a shame for us. But it gave us the opportunity to reinvent the show, which it kind of needed,” he stated.
And so that is exactly what happened. The new series, which was aired in January 2015, looked considerably different to the format to which fans had become so accustomed. But Tapster was excited. “It’s got a new look, a new vibe, and it’s become more educational again,” he said. He even added that the new season was the one of which he was “probably…most proud of”.
MythBusters co-host Adam Savage also spoke to Entertainment Weekly about the high-profile cast departures. Savage – who went on to host a further two series of the popular show until it was finally pulled in 2016 – was happy to talk about it and was certainly honest and sincere in his interpretation of events.
“Kari, Grant, and Tory are good friends of ours and we love those guys,” Savage said. “We didn’t want to see them go. The actual reasons for them going – while we have certain understandings of what went on, that’s a contract discussion between Discovery and those guys. We don’t know much about how that actually went. But as the show evolves over the years, you do have to make changes, and you do want to keep it fresh,” he added.
As well as discussing how the departure of the popular trio would impact the format, Savage spoke about the reaction of some of the show’s fans. It’s fair to say that quite a few people were unhappy that the likeable triumvirate were departing. Some even saw it as a kind of treachery. Savage was again magnanimous.
“When we were looking down the barrel, as it were, of Kari, Grant, and Tory leaving, Jamie [Hyneman] and I totally expected a vigorous response,” Savage told Entertainment Weekly. “It’s sad. I don’t like to disappoint the fans. I don’t like to make them angry. But I really feel like when they see what we’ve been producing this year, they’ll see a program that we still love to make,” the show’s co-presenter added.
Interestingly enough, Byron herself remembers it all a little differently. Speaking to The Verge, the TV star gave her side of the story. She suggested that it was the network that wanted to go in a different direction and it was budget cuts that caused her departure. “I feel like I grew up on that show, like I found myself on that show. I feel like I found such a beautiful niche,” Byron stated, clearly upset that it was all over.
Whatever the truth, did Imahara, Byron and Belleci leave under a cloud, cast as the greedy villains of the existing format’s demise? Not at all. In fact, at the time Dan Tapster spoke to Entertainment Weekly, the trio were in discussions with the producer’s company and the Discovery Channel about potential new projects. “I’m equally excited about what the future holds for them and for MythBusters”, Tapster added.
And Tapster had good reason to be excited. Prior to leaving MythBusters Byron had been getting experience hosting the TV series Head Rush. And then came Pumpkin Chunkin on the Science Channel in which she once again shared presenting duties with Belleci. The pair soon reunited for a Travel Channel show called Thrill Factor – their first gig after leaving MythBusters.
And then in 2016 came Netflix’s White Rabbit Project. And in an interview with The Verge, Byron gave fans a real reason to get excited about the ten-part series. “MythBusters brought me up on rockets and explosions, and now I get to apply it to White Rabbit Project. It’s a natural evolution,” she said.
And it certainly was explosive. The premise was that the old Build Team from MythBusters would once again perform all manner of crazy experiments. And this time, all the tests would be connected by a common theme for every episode. In one such episode, the team explored and reenacted some of history’s best-known prison escapes. It made for great viewing.
Byron was happy with the results. And so was one of her co-hosts. “It was nice to get the group back together and do more weird stuff with technology and science,” Belleci told The Verge when discussing White Rabbit Project. But it certainly wasn’t dreamed up to be a MythBusters offshoot.
“Science is just a tool we used, like a hammer,” Byron told The Verge. “And in White Rabbit Project, the investigation is just the tool we use to tell the story. When it comes down to it, what we do is entertainment… So I don’t really put it through the rigors that a real scientist would,” the co-host added.
After White Rabbit Project came news that all MythBusters fans had been waiting for: a reunion episode. The whole team were together again for the special production and Byron has subsequently appeared in a handful of additional episodes. For some, it must have been like The Beatles getting back together.
That’s not all Byron has been up to either. The mum-of-one has appeared in a number of other TV shows including Strange Trips, Fameless and Creature Features. She has also starred as the host of Crash Test World. Somehow, she even found time to write a book – Crash Test Girl – and regularly appears as a speaker at events. She continues to inspire.
But there is no doubt that walking away from MythBusters hurt Byron. “We gave blood, sweat, and tears (and so many more bodily fluids) to a television show that for us was like making the best home movie ever, but for a generation of fans was an invitation to question and experiment with their world,” the star subsequently wrote.
But whatever the real reason she left MythBusters, it was far from the end of Byron. Fans of the bubbly presenter have been able to get their regular fill of her on-screen antics across all manner of networks and on all sorts of shows. The future seems bright for the artist-turned-accidental-TV-star.