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Born to be Wild

The success of "American Chopper" rests not only on the beauty of the bikes the stars create but on their combative relationship as well.
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

On a crisp fall morning, the stars of "American Chopper" are kicking back in their new offices at Orange

County Choppers' 33,000-square-foot Montgomery, New York, facility. Paul Teutul Sr., 56, known around the shop as "Senior" or "Pop," and his son, Paul Teutul Jr., 30, "Paulie" or "Junior," and two OCC employees sit amid copies of old chopper magazines and cheap plastic motorcycle models. They have recently concluded a meeting with officials from the Air Force, who want a chopper to take around to trade shows for recruiting purposes. Now, three people from a knife manufacturer are visiting, handing out the new Orange County Choppers pocketknife to Paulie and Senior.

The whole scene turns into an episode of the hit reality series. But without the requisite bleeping. The OCC team talks about building a bike for a client, and one of the employees says nobody is around to mock one up. Senior sweeps the room with his arm and stutters, "Get Vinnie to do it—it—it—it takes maybe an hour." He tilts his head back and shakes it. "This one here"—waving his left arm at Paulie, who's reclining on a couch, his arms cradling his head—"This one can do it in an hour." He sprinkles in a few swear words for emphasis.

"Get this," Paulie says. "Usually it takes me a week to do a mock-up. Now I'm great." Senior pauses, then laughs, and everyone joins in. Then Paulie opens the knife and pretends to throw it at Senior. Everyone continues laughing, but the smiles of the three knife company representatives turn nervous. You're not supposed to goof around like that with knives.

So far as television's reality programming goes, the Discovery Channel's "American Chopper" is unique. No one is kicked off an island, competes for a nose job or to marry a multimillionaire, chows down on squirmy worms, dresses like a woman although he's a heterosexual man, or gets fooled into believing he's a contestant on, what else, a reality program. Each episode of "American Chopper" consists of a handful of quiet, super-patient, working-class guys from Orange County Choppers inside a garage custom-building a motorcycle for a client. But no series since "American Chopper's" premiere in 2002 has had such an effect on cable reality television.

"[The Discovery Channel] has figured out how to make a show like this entertaining for someone who doesn't even know how to change their own oil," says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "It's immediately compelling. It's done more for motorcycles than Easy Rider." And it has made Monday night must-watch TV. "Two major things happened during the [2004] Super Bowl: the Janet Jackson 'wardrobe malfunction,' and [Orange County Choppers'] AOL Super Bowl commercials," Thompson continues. "A lot of people hadn't discovered them yet. People talked about who they were, and that was probably their real emergence."

Did I say quiet, patient guys? Senior and Paulie seem anything but. The bikes that they build are works of art and are one reason why people watch the show. But let's face it. PBS has bored vicarious motor heads silly with how-to programs in which a couple of monotoned guys rebuild a junk car on television. So the creators of "American Chopper" decided to do something different: they had the Teutuls go after each other like rabid dogs. Well, Senior goes after Paulie like a rabid dog. Paulie kind of eggs him on.

"He's just an instigator," says the barrel-chested, tattooed Senior. "It's a front to make me look like the bad guy. He knows where the buttons are." And that's what's changed the face of reality television. No more scheming behind the other contestants' backs. The screaming, the emotion—it's all out in the open and it's all entertaining. The next time you see two people snarling at each other on reality TV, thank "American Chopper."

Paulie is Senior's eldest son, the one who's in charge of design and fabrication at Orange County Choppers. The second oldest, Dan, 29, runs Senior's first business, Orange County Iron Works, in Rock Tavern, New York. The third son, Mikey, 26, wanders around the shop with no apparent function except growing his hair and popping bubble wrap and maybe sometimes emptying the garbage. Senior's youngest, daughter Kristin, 22, is a nursing student in Rochester, New York. They've all been on the show.

Los Angeles—based Pilgrim Films shoots the show and uses a crew of six: three on the cameras, one sound person, a production assistant and an associate producer. The OCC crew builds one bike over two hourlong episodes, and Pilgrim shoots about 100 hours of footage that get edited down to the two episodes. The shooting season lasts 56 weeks, and from it 28 episodes come together.

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