Balls of Steel: ‘American Pickers’ Road to TV with Show Creator Mike Wolfe, Part 3

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.

If you’d like to catch up on the first two parts, Part 1 covers how Mike got the show on air, and Part 2 shares the joys and challenges of actually seeing your show come to life.

mike showAfter 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.

mike goggles“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 Pickers Guide 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,, 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.

mike bike“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.

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4 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: ‘American Pickers’ Road to TV with Show Creator Mike Wolfe, Part 3

  1. Chuck S.


    Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading this. One of the things that I love about this program isn’t just that it’s become appointment television for families, as you mention, but that the experience of watching with people is interactive; it’s a very social program, even as a viewer. I loved Mike’s story and knowing it makes enjoying the show even easier. Cheers.


  2. Randy Senna

    Hi Jeanne,

    Thank for the reply and your comments !

    I completely agree with what you say about “It was simply a request made so the events that happened on camera would not be leaked prior to the episode airing in order to keep the show’s content a surprise and a suspense”…..

    I offered to the producers, to agree not to speak about it, UNTIL THE SHOW AIRS, which would have protected the keeping of the show’s content a surprise and suspense as you just stated; HOWEVER, that was NOT good enough for American Pickers, who wanted to prevent me from EVER talking about it.

    That is the difference, and why it becomes a surrendering of liberties.

    I did appear on the TV show HOARDERS, and their contract also had such a clause as well, but the HOARDERS production company added the words, until the first airing of the episode, because as we discussed this, it was their intention to only protect the element of surprise of the episode.

    And clearly, I agreed to that, because I did do their show, and it was a great experience !

    There is a fundamental difference in protecting the element of surprise, and preventing someone from ever being allowed to speak about their lives experiences.

    The question then emerges; what do they want to hide, that they will not allow you to speak about it??

    I must disagree with you calling Leave it to Beaver fiction and American Pickers History.

    American Pickers is a TV show, and as such is edited entertainment.

    It is easy to confuse what is real and what is not real, when they are mixed together.

    Seeing items and hearing stories about those items is educational, and perhaps can be considered teaching history, however, when mixed with the drama of trying to get people to sell at a lower price, and those manipulative efforts made to achieve that goal, are certainly not history education.

    Yes, it might teach dealing in business, however, here you will find my outlook to be idealistic, as I believe that people should always be fair in their dealing, and they should not be looking to make gains from other people’s losses.

    It comes down to fairness.

    In the Beaver episodes, values and fairness were always the underlining foundation; I cannot say that for American Pickers.

    Each of us have to decide how we want to raise of children. Do we want to teach them the history of items and the value of the items based upon what they represent as testimony to who we were as people at the time they were created, or do we want to teach the value of items based upon how much we can turn around and sell them for to someone else?

    For me, this is the issue.

    I have spent a life time collecting and preserving, but for the purpose of preserving a way of life that one knew and loved….

    Not to turn around and sell these things as a means to get rich.

    Clearly, it is not the same for each different person and their outlook on life; but these are my comments and my outlooks, and they are offered only to give people a point of view for them to consider.

    Something to think about.

    I believe that people would not do many things if they only stopped to think about it, and looked at the big picture.

    I do not try to imply that I am perfect; I only try to be the best person that I know how to be.

    Search my name on the web and you will find much to that effect.

    Randy Senna

  3. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Randy, my mom signed that agreement, so I’m familiar with it. It was not a violation of her freedom of speech. It was simply a request made so the events that happened on camera would not be leaked prior to the episode airing in order to keep the show’s content a surprise and a suspense.

    As for the Kid Pickers concept, it is not about getting the kids to learn how to rip each other off. It’s about teaching them to repurpose things, to appreciate history, and to encourage them to restore valuable items in our nation’s past. Comparing it to ‘Leave it to Beaver’ is like comparing apples to oranges. That was fiction. This is history.

    I understand your concerns about the negotiating aspect. I honestly don’t know if the show’s format has any negotiating in it like ‘American Pickers’ does, but for me, the daughter of the queen of negotiating, watching my mom ‘haggle’ with other antique dealers as a child was invaluable to me in learning negotiating skills for business. Learning how to make a deal is a great skill for life and work. I look forward to the show, as do my children.

  4. Randy Senna

    Doing a show like American Pickers with kids could be a bad idea.

    Are we teaching the kids the value of things, and the history involved with things, or are we teaching the kids how to get someone to sell them something for less money then it is worth, so the kid can turn around and sell it making a profit?

    What ever happened to shows like Leave it to Beaver, where Beaver’s father would teach the kids VALUES, not the value of the “pick”?

    I recall many episodes where Beaver was taught to be FAIR with trading something with a friend, and NOT to take advantage in a deal.

    Imagine the Leave it to Beaver episode ending with Wally and the Beaver slapping their hands together in a celebration “high-five” because they learned that some item they purchased for $300 is actually worth $2,500 or more !

    Is this what we want to teach our children today??

    Is it any wonder the world is like it is?

    And on a personal note, since I have the “honor” of being the only one selected to be on American Pickers in 5 seasons, who refused to sign the Appearance Agreement Contract because they refused to take out a clause that demands that someone appearing on the show cannot even talk about having been on the show, as everything must remain a secret, I must also wonder if this will also be taught to our children, as they might have to surrender their right of free speech just because they were on the show?

    I think a show like Antiques Road Show for Kids would teach the history of things and values without the downside of the art of the “deal”.

    Let kids be kids as long as they can; I see no need to teach them how to get some great deal on something that results in someone else getting the short end of the stick.

    Let’s teach “an honest day’s work”, for “an honest day’s pay”.

    Teach the kids the right values, and generations to come, they might carry those values into their adult life.

    Oh what a world it COULD be.

    Randy Senna