Rarely do I write a three-parter… in fact, this is a first for Balls of Steel… but Mike Wolfe’s journey from the American Pickers show idea to The History Channel and beyond can’t be summed up in one article.
After meeting Mike, it’s obvious he’s not the kind of guy to sit still for long. With American Pickers success, he caught the attention of representation – let this be a lesson to all, you don’t need to be repped to get a show on air, but once you build it, they will come! But despite finally getting representation, he quickly learned the hustle never ends.
“Being self-employed, I am always thinking beyond the show. I’m pitching three shows right now.”
Surely as Mike picked through dusty, crowded barns, he never imagined one day he’d be approached to take part in a scripted show for CBS.
“I’m working with the Tannenbaums (‘Two and a Half Men’) bringing a sitcom to CBS. Now I’m going from unscripted to scripted – it’s a modern day ‘Sanford and Son’. It wasn’t even my idea. I got a call from CAA saying these people want to talk with me about a show. They asked if I understood who they were talking about… this is the Tannenbaums! These guys are serious. They wanted me to fly to L.A. to discuss it. I get out there, and they ask me to tell them about my life. I talk to them about an hour and a half, and they said they’d love to do this, even more now than they did before. They asked me to meet with the writers. ‘You’re going to be in a room with about 10 to 14 people just tell us which ones you connected with, which ones you liked.’ I’m like, by myself, I'm going to do that!? They’re like, Yeah! So I met with all these writers and then a few directors.”
Wow. As writers, I’m sure you and I are sitting here thinking the same thing – Mike’s this guy who didn’t even come up with this show idea but now he has all this power! Granted, I highly doubt this is the standard practice, but when you click with people, they trust you. The Tannenbaums clearly felt comfortable with Mike’s ability to point them in the right direction.
“Yeah, four years ago, I was a guy sleeping in my van, and now I have all these big writers coming up to me on the lot of CBS pitching themselves! I didn't even know what to ask them. I was asking where they were from, tell me what you’ve done before, where do you see this going, and what do you like about the idea?”
The lesson here is, as writers, we are not only selling our story ideas, but we’re also selling ourselves.
“I settled on this guy named Tom Brady (‘Tool Time’). He and I got along really well. He was this self-made dude, kind of a troublemaker in high school, like I was. The guy ended up graduating from Harvard. He’s been writing sitcoms for 20 years. He’s just amazingly brilliant. And when I said his name to the Tannenbaums, they said that’s who they liked too. But they let me say who I liked. They didn’t just decide who was going to write and direct it; they let me go through the process. Which was cool. The guy we chose to direct, I love him, is Fred Savage from the ‘Wonder Years’.”
With the show idea, head writer and director in place, it was time to put his pimp hat back on and pitch CBS.
“So we go into this room, and there are eleven of us on one side and three on the other, and they’re like, hey when you go in there, these people aren’t going to talk to you, they aren’t going to say a word to you, they’re not going to smile, they’re not going to show any emotion. They are just going to sit there and listen to you talk. I thought to myself, shit, I’m not going to talking very much anyway, so I wasn’t worried. Then the Tannenbaums opened up the meetings and said they’re turning it over to me. I talked the whole freaking meeting! (laughs) Then Tom Brady talked about the outline and character descriptions, threw it back to me. At the very end of it, they said, ‘let’s do it!’ Everyone stood up, so I thought that means, let’s go. And in the hallway they were all excited CBS jumped on it right away, saying they never say yes in the room, it’s always a ‘we’ll get back to you.’ I’m like, so are they doing it? What does this mean? They’re like yeah, didn’t you hear what they said? (laughs) It means Tom is going to start writing the script. So he wrote the outline, CBS has Okayed that, and now he’s writing the full script, every inch of it. So that was obviously really cool.”
As we learned in Part 1, American Pickers didn’t have that kind of luck.
Looking back on any journey, sometimes we find there’s a beauty to being green and having a sense of ignorance. If Mike knew everything he knew now, he might have run screaming out of his shop instead of diligently pursuing his dreams.
“I just looked at things the way a child would. That’s why kids have always inspired me. I’m doing a new project called ‘Kid Pickers’. We’re pitching that how now, and the book comes out in April, published through Macmillan.
However, The History Channel won’t be picking up Kid Pickers because it’s a children’s show, so if any network is reading this, give Mike a shout. But History is in complete support of Mike’s younger audience.
"History has a department on educating children. They now have put ‘American Pickers’ show into a curriculum format, so kids are learning all about history through it. History teamed up with ‘Kid Pickers’ for national contests, one called ‘Pick & Tell’ where children would find something and write an essay about it. I gave the prizes to the three children who won at the Smithsonian in DC this year. They’ve never had a show that connects with kids the way ours does, and they’ve never had so many children respond to a contest before.”
When he was approached to write an American Pickers book, he originally declined, wanting to do a book himself. But he ended up striking a deal – if he helped them with the book, American Pickers Guide to Picking, he was going to choose the writer. He chose a friend, Libby Calloway, who’s not only a great writer, but also a woman who comes from two generations of pickers. Even though she had never written a book prior, Mike knew she was the one.
The experience of writing the American PickersGuide to Picking also helped him with his Kid Picker book.
“‘Kid Pickers’ book is going to change everything. There’s nothing like it out there. It teaches children when they find things, they can learn about their family’s history and history in general. It’s teaching them to repurpose and recycle. These kids are even decorating their rooms in vintage.”
Here’s the big question, after hearing everything Mike had learned from pitching American Pickers and working on this new CBS show, what is his strategy for selling Kid Pickers show?
“First, we have the book that comes out on April 15th. I wrote an outline with my friend who’s a 3rd grade teacher, and CAA sold it immediately. Then we created a website, kidpickers.com, where we can get a lot of buzz and kids on the site. It’s like Facebook for kids who pick.”
The audience is growing, and he’s proving there is demand for his show.
“Everywhere we go, we’re getting wheelbarrows full of mail from kids. The kids come to the store all the time. This is a huge market for children. The site is rocking and rolling. There are thousands of kids on there, talking about what they collect. They have profiles loaded and download pictures of things they find. They do all of the research together.”
This changes the game of how he can pitch the project. Unlike his first attempt with American Pickers, Mike now has a format, a solid foundation for his show, and the experience as an Executive Producer. It will be a competition show having two young adults hosting. The kids won’t be knocking on strangers’ doors like he and Frank Fritz do. But he can use the success of American Pickers and the audience of children who are fans of it, the success of Kid Pickers’ website, the book, the book’s tour, and the contest ‘Pick & Tell’ with the History Channel to sell the show.
“That’s my way of paying it back… and my legacy. ‘Kid Pickers’ has more potential than ‘American Pickers’ in a lot of ways. It’s insanely popular around the world because people love the treasure hunt.”
Who better to treasure hunt than children? But antiques aren’t the only treasure in Mike’s sights.
“I’m pitching another show right now called ���Meat’ – a reality show of a place I used to work, a butcher shop in Chicago. They are the meat dynasty of the city.”
Any loyal watcher of Pickers knows Mike is also a huge motorcycle junkie – which leads to Mike’s other passion project. They once had Mil Blair on the show. Blair and Joe Teresi started Easyriders magazine with Lou Kimzey in 1971 (after the film of the same title was released in 1969), showcasing the lifestyle of a rider. Mike now owns the rights to the coming-of-age period piece of a couple of kids who met at a boy’s reformatory and changed the world on how people view motorcycles and choppers. He’s currently pitching it as a feature film.
From picker, to TV host, to Executive Producer, to co-author… and soon movie mogul. Ain’t no slim pickings in that list of accomplishments.
I may add he did it all living outside of L.A. Oh yeah, balls of steel, all the way.
- Balls of Steel: Getting Honest Feedback
- Balls of Steel: How Far Will You Go
- Good in a Room: The Pitch Meeting Structure Used by Hollywood Pros
Tools to Help:
FREE Download on
Get your free TV Pilot Kit compliments of Script Magazine!