Anthony Sullivan Makes a Pitch for 'Pitchmen'

Today's cuppa: Iced black/raspberry/peppermint tea

17964_0095_m Lots of folks out there are loving Discovery Channel's Wednesday hit "Pitchmen," so I've dug back into an interview with star Anthony Sullivan that I did for a print piece and unearthed some gems.

As a reminder, "Pitchmen" takes viewers behind the scenes in the world of TV infomercials that hawk everything from cleaning products to kitchen aids to electronics, as seen through the experiences of on-screen pitchman and producer Sullivan, and his best buddy and business partner, on-air star Billy Mays.

Tomorrow morning, I'm talking to Mays, but in the meantime, here's Sully!

On how to get Mays' Oxy-Clean to work better:

The secret is hot water. It's like a catalyst. Even boiling water works well, too. Just don't burn yourself.

On Mays' latest demonstration for his Mighty Putty:

"He was actually towing a pirate ship, the original ship that was in 'The Bounty.' They actually put him on the front of the ship. They put two oars together, they towed him. I wasn't actually there. I went down there to see what's happening.

But they were offshore, and he came back to my office, and he's still alive. That's not a bad thing."

On his beginnings as a pitchman on the streets of London:

"Every time we'd go to the street market, we'd always garner these big crowds. And the booths we'd get given were always in strategic place -- Portobello Road or Leather Lane or Petticoat Lane.

"The pitch guys were always a draw. We'd get people in; you'd sit there with your hot dog or your ice cream or your cotton candy and watch the pitch guys, because they'd make you laugh.

"And if they did get you, you'd only be spending 10 pounds, or $20. There was never a fortune. The products were a lot of fun and worked, solved a common problem at home.

"You'd go home, and you'd say, 'I went to the market today. I just went with my friends to kill a few hours and ended out buying this product from this guy yelling.'"


In the meantime, Mays was dong the same job on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., and eventually he and Sully both moved off the streets and into the studio:

"When television infomercials started in '88, Billy and I saw the opportunity, because working the streets was really tough. As much fun as it was, there were days when you didn't make that much money. It was freezing cold; it was raining.

"So both of us got a chance to go to Home Shopping Network. To make a long story short, we just started practicing whatever it was we did, the pitches, on Home Shopping, and it just exploded. Our banter, if you will, was really well-received at Home Shopping down there in Tampa, because they used to sell just Capodimonte and cubic zirconias. This was the mid-'90s. It wasn't as sophisticated as it is now.

"We brought in a little bit of color. We were regular sorts of people that people could relate to."

The two later transitioned from HSN to standalone infomercials and TV spots, but what you see isn't always what you get:

"There were so many times that Billy and I would sit behind the scenes and just say, 'If only 17964_0060_m there was a camera here right now. People have no idea what goes on behind the scenes.' As Billy's beard got blacker, and his shirt got bluer, and his volume got noisier and noisier...

"He's a very different person in real life than on television. He's very quiet and mild-mannered, and the minute you put the camera on him, he just dials up to 11. I just sit there and laugh, saying, 'Where does this energy come from?'"


So what does happen behind the scenes?


"People don't know how hard we work to get these commercials to where they are. We don't work with big budgets. We're working with pretty small budgets. Billy and I will sometimes just sit around, we'll be chugging a glass of wine, and we'll say, 'Let's write a script. Let's come up with some demos.'

"And we come up with these ridiculous scripts, whatever it is, and we have to turn it into reality."


On the American Dream of making a better mousetrap:


"There are some people who, we are really realizing their dreams. Some people, we're not. We don't see everything through rose-colored lenses, but the American Dream is still definitely alive. The unorthodox business we're in is doing really well right now, and Billy and I are unusual characters, to say the least."


Neither he nor Mays sell it, but Sullivan has a suggestion on how to make the ShamWow towel work better:

"You've got to use it wet. Use it damp. Water attracts water. If it's damp, it attracts more water."

18067_0302_m And don't expect to do a demo like the "Pitchmen" overnight:

"You make it look so easy sometimes, that people will buy it because, 'Oh, my God, look how easy.' Sometimes you almost want to sit down with people and make sure the instructions are really clear and say, 'This is how you use it.'

'Because people automatically think the minute they try this, they're going to be as genius as Billy and I at using something. But you have to remember, some of these products, we've been doing this for 20 years.

"No one can maneuver a Swivel Sweeper better than me -- the rotation and the quad-brush technology, the forwards, backwards, side-to-side, in and around and under.

"See, if you mix the action into my banter, all of a sudden, you don't know which way to turn."