This Wednesday, May 31st, a new season of the Discovery Channel's Extreme Engineering will debut at 10pm. This season will introduce an on-screen host to replace the previous voice-over narrator. The new host, Danny Forster, also happens to be an architect who is currently working on his MArch at Harvard's GSD. Archinect's founder/director Paul Petrunia recently had an opportunity to talk to Danny about the show, his studies, and his previous gig as a stand up comic.
[Paul Petrunia] So you're an architecture student and a stand-up comic. How does that work?
[Danny Forster] Well, to be perfectly accurate I was a stand-up comedian, and, to be frank, that's not exactly true either (insofar as one must at least be paid to do that thing to actually be called that thing).
In reality, my brief career in comedy lasted for about a year. After graduating from Wesleyan University I moved to New York City to try to make it in stand-up. I performed four or fives times a week in local spots like New York Comedy Club, Gotham Comedy Club, and Stand-Up New York (and even once at Caroline's).
The embarrassing thing about my less-than-ground breaking career in comedy is that to this day most of my friends can recite my routine... word for word. This awkward truth is a result of the fact that the majority of my shows were referred to as ”˜bringer shows'. Loosely defined, this means that at least three people had to show up and tell the club's promoter that they were there to see me, or I couldn't perform that night. (Incidentally, they also had to pay a $15 cover and a two-drink minimum.) With a track record like that I feel hard pressed to refer to myself as a comedian.
Well, becoming the host of Extreme Engineering seems like a pretty good part-time job transition. How did you land this gig??
I got the gig by answering an ad I saw on Craig's List. It turns out you can find apartments, used TV's, erotic services and T.V careers on the site! Last year I was writing my thesis research paper, desperately procrastinating, hitting ”˜refresh' on my email inbox a million times begging for anything to deliver me from the boredom of the paper, when I got a forward from my girlfriend. It was a listing with the bi-line: "Do you like design and construction? Are you outgoing? Send a three minute tape explaining why you should be the host of this architecture/engineering show." A long shot, sure, but a happy distraction from school. I figured “I've done a bit of stand-up in Manhattan, and even some improv work here in Boston.” I loved the idea, however remote, of combining my hobby and my education. So, the next weekend my girlfriend picked up our little point-n-shoot digital camera, set it to video, and filmed me in my living room explaining why I should get this job. After the second take, I burned the CD and dropped it in the mail. I assumed I'd never hear back from the folks at Discovery, but it was already a pretty good story, and a great respite from real life.
So cut to three weeks and four auditions later - I got the gig! Actual actors, construction experts, and models were up for the part, and yet somehow I was picked. Way before any of the shock and euphoria had worn off I was on a plane headed to Arizona for my first shoot. Over the next 9 months I flew to Malaysia, South Korea, New Orleans, Russia, Spain and landed on an aircraft carrier in an undisclosed CA location completing my 6-episode series.
How important has your architectural education been in hosting Extreme Engineering? Do you feel hosting the show has complemented your architectural education?
I'll put it this way: the finalists against whom I was competing included a 6 foot 5 inch 250 lbs former iron worker named Bruno and a model (with a huge afro) from Africa””so a masters in architecture from an Ivy league school seemed not to be a prerequisite.
That said knowing what I know has been helpful, simply because I love the stuff. What I mean is even if I weren't hosting this show I'd probably still be talking about how things get put together. So the fact that I am an architect makes it easy for me to be fired up about how a faÃ§ade system works or how a beam connection is made.
However there is the issue of brevity; for anyone who has ever suffered through an architectural final review, one of the biggest problems with architects is our inability to say things simply and clearly without obliquely adhering to jargonistic phraseology that is both didactic, pedantic and ideologically vacant... But in T.V things need to be clear, simple and said in 3 sentences or less. If I had a dime for every time the producers said to me, “ that was great, now do it again.. just half as long.”
I struggled to get my head around the fact that every time I was in front of the cameras I need not explain every facet of the project in one take””in turns out they have developed a technology in which they can take the shot footage and recombine it in whatever order they so choose, something called editing. Once that was explained to me my performance improved dramatically.
In terms of whether it complemented my education I can say that taking a semester off before my thesis semester to do something like that was the perfect precursor. School can be very insular and all consuming; the chance to actually leave, hang out with the people who spend their time building the stuff that we design gave me a great appreciation for the practical. As a result my thesis was significantly more grounded than it would have been otherwise, and I think that was a good thing.
Has it been difficult hosting the show while studying architecture?
I have barely been able to keep up my bathing schedule let alone host a T.V show during school. In order to shoot the 1st season I took off the fall semester and we shot from August straight through February. I occasionally had to duck out from school to record some voiceovers or shoot a green screen or two, but for the most part I was able to knock out the principle photography during my semester off, and then come back focused (more or less) on my thesis.
Without giving away too much information about upcoming episodes, can you tell us about an especially memorable project you reported on or location you visited?
They were all amazing in different ways. Meeting Peter Eisenman, the Architect of the Arizona Cardinals' new football stadium was incredible because I had written my college thesis on him. The Arizona show was also my first shoot, and on the 2nd day of shooting-- I kinda almost died, which was pretty memorable. We mistakenly overloaded the boom of this cherry picker in which we were filming an interview with this incredible iron worker named Neil Crocker. Neil was retiring that day after 37 years in the business and this was going to be his last day on the job. The boom jammed-up 200 feet in the air. It was terrifying but lucky for the Discovery Channel the camera was rolling the entire time. The good news is I managed not to cry ON camera.....
Landing on a working aircraft carrier was an experience I'll never forget. You go from 200 mph to 0 mph in two seconds flat, when a hook in the back of the jet catches on this ”arresting wire” - basically imagine an airplane getting stopped by a clothes line. Even more terrifying, and seemingly counter-intuitive, is that the plane increases in speed as it approaches the flight deck for landing. This is because if they miss the arresting wire they need enough speed to take off again - they call this a bolter. As you feel the plane angle back as it approaches the deck you hear the engine roar while the pilot basically floors it. It was nuts, and, needless to say, there is no in-flight magazine on a Navy combat plane, no one tells you about this in advance.
Also, essentially living underground for 2 weeks in Malaysia on a 40 foot tall Tunnel Boring Machine was crazy. In New Orleans I had the chance to meet and spend time with the men and women who are working tirelessly to put their city back together. That was an incredible experience. As a long-time New Yorker who was in the city during 9/11 I was reminded of the firemen and rescue workers who simply would not quit working.
What are your plans after you graduate?
Well, the show premiers this Wednesday the 31st and new episodes will air every week for the next few months, so as far as I understand it I will know soon if a second season is in the cards. If the ratings are good, I get back on a plane, if they suck, I'll make buildings instead--which is a fairly sweet back-up plan.
From the advanced copies of the show that I've seen, you seem to be doing a great job delivering fascinating stories of engineering with your own style of humor and wit. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us and good luck with the show!
I'm glad you enjoyed the show; it's definitely been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Getting paid to travel around the world to talk about the stuff I love most has been my dream job (second only to making SNL digital shorts with Andy Samburg and Chris Parnell).
The season premiere for the new Danny Forster-hosted Extreme Engineering debuts on Wednesday May 31st at 10pm and continues each following Wednesday at the same time, following the popular Myth Busters.
Interview by Paul Petrunia (2006).
Photographs: Adam Luibroth
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
/Creative Commons License
Paul Petrunia is the director of Archinect, a (mostly) online publication/resource founded in 1997 to establish a more connected community of architects, students, designers and fans of the designed environment. Outside of managing his growing team of writers, editors, designers and technology ...