"The single biggest, happiest day of my life was the last time I saw Billy." That's what Anthony "Sully" Sullivan told our Jim Halterman earlier this week when asked about the death of his friend and business partner Billy Mays, who co-starred alongside Sully on the Discovery Channel reality show "Pitchmen." While the first season of the series followed Sully and Billy as they met with inventors and checked products that could become the next Turbo Snake or Oxy Clean (two hugely successful products the guys pitched on popular infomercials), there was a question as to whether the show could and/or should go on to a second season once Mays unexpectedly died last summer. In the chat with Sully, the UK-born pitchman talked about why the show is moving forward, what makes a product successful on the market and, after literally going up in a ball of flames on tonight's premiere, is there anything he won't do to test a product.
Jim Halterman: You talk about the death of your pal Billy Mays in the season premiere pretty openly. Was there a time when you thought 'I can't do this show without Billy?'
Anthony "Sully" Sullivan: Yep, absolutely. The minute Billy died one of the first thoughts I had was that not only have I lost my closest friend, my business partner, my wingman in the show - I don't even know if I want to do it [and] I don't know if we can do it or if anyone else is going to want to watch it. It was a very real question but I had to mourn the loss of a friend like anyone does. Any decisions like that don't even come into play. The last thing we ever did together was 'The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien.'
The single biggest, happiest day of my life was the last time I saw Billy. We had just finished The Tonight Show with Lisa Kudrow and Elvis Costello, I'm there with Conan, sitting next to Billy and I thought 'We made it! We did it! Two pitch guys from the street with a show on Discovery Channel' He was going to get his [hip] surgery done and I was going to take a break and we had just finished season one and it all seemed to be so perfect and then all of a sudden a freight train comes through it and clears everything like a category 5 hurricane. Total devastation. And now here I am over a year later and we did the show this season and I don't know how we did it.
JH: You guys definitely became more than just informercial guys. When did you realize that you and Billy had really connected with the audience?
Sully: It wasn't really until we started working on season one of 'Pitchmen.' When we first started working with Discovery, Billy and I were under this illusion that we were going to get paid to fool around and make a show about the life and times of Andrew Sullivan and Billy Mays - well, Billy Mays first because he would never have my name before his! All of a sudden Discovery raised the bar and said 'You guys are funny, you guys are entertaining but the compelling part is what happens to these inventors.' They forced us to look a little deeper into our business. Then we were holed up in studios and working and all of a sudden we're out with the Discovery Channel filming 'Pitchmen,' going through airports together and we would be walking through an airport and I realized that with the show people seemed to really gravitate towards what it was we were doing.
In the middle of the doom and gloom of the credit crisis and the mortgage stuff, me and Billy were just the good news guys on TV bringing good products at a good value and, at the same time, making some dreams come true for these inventors. Not all of them but we would at least die trying and I think Billy, in a way, died trying. He wanted to do so well with everything else and I realized 'Pitchmen' was about the people behind the product. I was running one day and just thinking and this little kid come sup on his bicycle and he's pedaling as fast as he can.
He says 'Hey man! You're the Pitchman!' I took off my Ipod and he says "Hey, I'm really sorry about the loss of your friend,' and he just shot off. For a 10-year old kid to even realize that I had lost someone - I just have felt so much support from everyone that it just seemed like the right thing to do. Billy would want me to do it. The inventors would want me to do it. I thought, I have two choices here - I can quit or I can go on. The Discovery Channel was pretty bold in saying 'Let's give this a try.' I don't think I've ever worked so hard in my life. There were days when I wanted to quit and throw in the towel and it was too hard without Billy and I missed having him around. I missed him digging me in the ribs and there's nothing about the guy I don't miss but I am really glad I did it. I feel that we did the right thing. Life does go on.
JH: You've been in the infomercial business for the past 15 years. How has it changed over that time?
Sully: It's become more mainstream and it's become higher profile. The window of the amount of time that we spend on TV has dramatically decreased because one of the most explosive categories at Bed, Bath & Beyond, Walgreens and 7-11 is the 'As Seen On TV' area. We sold 8 million Turbo Snakes in less than a year. Oxy Clean is a household name. I think we used to be the pirates of TV, Billy especially. We were like the Captain Jack Sparrows doing it all and I think we've become more accepted. I think people have warmed up to us and they realize we do try hard to pick the right products. We don't slap our name on any old product and not care about it. It's also become more fun. I want 'Pitchmen' to be fun, authentic, inspiring, I want to honor my friend and I want people to learn something from it.
JH: In your opinion, Sully, what makes for a good product?
Sully: I think the criteria is still the same. The number one thing I think is if you say to yourself 'Why didn't I think of that?' When I saw the Turbo Snake - it's no more than a very well-engineered wire hanger with a piece of Velcro attached to it. You don't have to be Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein to figure out a coat hanger with a piece of Velcro on the end and we call it the Turbo Snake and it works like a champ and it unblocks drains. It also has to demonstrate well, be easy to manufacture, you have to that WOW demo, it has to have great value and it has to work. Billy and me would get hung out to dry if we sold things that didn't work. If we don't believe in the product, it doesn't work.
JH: Have you ever come across a product that you didn't get in the beginning but then you were won over later?
Sully: The Turbo Snake, honestly, when I got it I looked at it and I was like "I don't know"... We had it clear some pipes and started experimenting with it and it was gross. We're pulling out mountains of hair from all over your body - people were gagging while were shooting this thing but it struck a chord with people. I knew it would sell but I didn't know it would sell 8 million and it's still selling now. You just never know how it's going to be. I don't think Billy and I could have ever predicted how big Oxy Clean would become. It was the first time I'd ever worked with him and working towards the same goal.
We cut the commercial in one day and we both said 'It's okay. It's pretty good.' The company was sold for $325 million! Hopefully these stories are a little bit of inspiration for kids and Moms and Dads and people who hate their jobs and people with crappy bosses. This may sound like I'm reaching but I think the Pitchmen stimulus plan is better than the Administration's stimulus plan. Entrepreneurism is what's going to get us out of this current economic climate and if I can inspire one person then I'm happy.
JH: You talk about men and women in terms of marketing products. How are they different?
Sully: Women are the ones with the checkbook and the credit cards. The women have all the power when it comes to spending money. The guy may be bringing it home but it's the Moms that make those kinds of decisions. They're the ones buying the Oxy Clean to get the stains out. We're always trying to be very intuitive with what women want but, you know, when I figure out what women want I'll let you know because that's a whole other show! [laughs]
JH: And Billy's son, Billy III, is going to be a part of the show this season, right?
Sully: Billy's son is in the show and he works with me. He's still young - he's 23 or 24 - it's been a super tough year for him but he's a survivor and he's super strong. I want his office next to mine one day but I've never forced him in any direction. He's into his music career and his new album is coming out but you'll see him in the show. He's definitely a shadow of his Dad and I'm so glad he agreed to be a part of the show. I don't think he's quite sure if he wants to pitch yet but it won't surprise me if in the near future you don't hear about Billy Mays again. We'll see...
JH: You do some crazy stuff on the show like being set on fire to prove the Cold Fire product that we see in the season premiere. Is there a line you won't cross in terms of trying some of these riskier products?
Sully: That's a tough one! You know what? I think at the end of the day if the product makes a claim you have to be able to stand besides it and if that means going up in flames then I'm up for it.
The second season of "Pitchmen" kicks off tonight on Discovery at 9:00/8:00c.